At the recent Charity Times conference, I asked Paula Sussex, chief executive of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, about her view on extending the right to reasonable time off from work for charity trustees. I received a ‘will think about it’ type of response, which is fine, but I thought it might be helpful to set out some background here.
I’m the chief executive of a medium-sized charity – Living Streets. And I was previously the CEO of Navca, the umbrella body for local councils of voluntary service. But I am also a trustee – of both Acevo and a local charity, Voluntary Action Islington. One issue which looms large for me is the importance of the 800,000 trustees who volunteer their time to contribute to the good governance of our 160,000 charities.
These are people who freely give their own time, energy and expertise to contribute to the success of charitable causes they care deeply about – across the range from poverty relief, health, disability, young people, community cohesion, supporting people subject to abuse and discrimination, homelessness, animal welfare, our environment and much more. They make an absolutely vital contribution to the vibrancy of our civil society and therefore the strength of our society as a whole.
And yet we expect them to bear an ever greater burden on their shoulders. Being a trustee was never an easy option, but the additional glare and regulatory duties which followed for example the Kid’s Company case must make potential trustees think twice.
The recent House of Lords Select Committee report on charities considered the important role played by trustees, the growing financial demands and legal responsibilities they face, and the problem of the narrow diversity of trustees. They produced a series of recommendations on recruitment and training for trustees.
The NCVO had proposed to them that the right to reasonable time off for public duties be extended to charity trustees. The committee’s report included the following recommendation: that the Government holds a public consultation on the possibility of introducing a statutory duty to allow employees of organisations over a certain size to take a limited amount of time off work to perform trustee roles.
Not everyone is aware that the right to reasonable time off for public duties is a long standing legal right and extends to a wide range of public voluntary roles. Qualifying employees are allowed reasonable time off to go to meetings, or carry out duties.
Under existing legislation, an employee is entitled to a reasonable amount of time off if they are a:
- magistrate (or justice of the peace)
- local councillor
- school governor
- member of any statutory tribunal (for example employment tribunal)
- member of the managing or governing body of an educational establishment
- member of a health authority
- member of a school council or board in Scotland
- member of the General Teaching Councils for England and Wales
- member of the Environment Agency or the Scottish Environment Protection agency
- member of the prison independent monitoring boards (England or Wales) or a member of the prison visiting committees (Scotland)
- member of Scottish Water or a Water Customer Consultation Panel
- trade union member (for trade union duties)
In addition, under separate provisions employees must be given time off for jury service and territorial army reservists.
There are safeguards for employers. The amount of time off must be agreed with employers before taking any time off. Employers are allowed to refuse time off if it is unreasonable. Employers can choose to pay for time off, but they don’t have to. So this is not an excessive burden on employers, but it can encourage people of working age to contribute to public life.
The interpretation of reasonable time off may vary with the size or ability to be flexible or provide cover of an enterprise, but there does not seem to be a problem with smaller employers allowing reasonable time for existing duties, like being a school governor, so I see little case for this duty to apply only to large employers, as the report suggests.
Given that such importance is placed upon trustees for the good governance and success of charities it surely makes sense to allow reasonable time off for trustees as for school governors, local councillors, magistrates, health and safety representatives or the members of water customer consultation panels.
Existing trustees are not the main target. Most are getting by – though there may be some who feel unable to contribute fully, take on senior roles like chair or treasurer, or may be on the verge of dropping out.
Many charity boards meet in the evening, but more and more employed people are working beyond the old 9-5 template. Think of supermarket staff, the NHS, the arts and hospitality sector.
But the real target is people of working age who are discouraged from being a trustee or may not even think it could be a role for them. We are missing the energy and experience of many younger people, wider ethnic groups and people of working age in general. That is not to dismiss the vital service to charity boards of the many retired people and those whose employers are most sympathetic to volunteering. But civil society would surely be enriched by more people from the private sector, blue and grey collar jobs and wider ethnic backgrounds helping run our charities.
There is also a strong case to be made that people who serve as trustees will be enhancing their skills, attitude and experience in way which may benefit their regular employer.
Surely having as broad a pool as possible from which to draw trustees is in the interests of good governance.
So I would welcome the Charity Commission (formally or informally), our infrastructure bodies, charities, trustees and individuals taking up the call from Sir Stuart Etherington and urging the government of whatever colour after the general election to launch a public consultation on this issue of reasonable time off for trustees as the House of Lords report recommended.
Matthew Taylor from the RSA told the House of Lords committee: “We would make governance a bit easier if we made it more possible for people of working age to be able to serve in a trustee capacity without having to ask an enormous favour of their employer.”
It wouldn’t be a cure-all. But wouldn’t it be great if we could send a welcome signal to people of working age, people in everyday jobs and from a range of cultural backgrounds that being a trustee is something for you too?