Charity Trustees (Time Off for Duties)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:44 pm on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Labour, Clwyd South 2:44 pm, 6th March 2019

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Employment Rights Act 1996 to give charity trustees the right to time off work for the purposes of carrying out the duties of that office;
and for connected purposes.

Charity trustees are the people across the length and breadth of our country who volunteer their time and expertise to provide governance for our nation’s charities, large and small. They deserve our thanks—I do not think anyone would disagree with that—but warm words on their own are not enough, which is why I am introducing this ten-minute rule Bill.

The Charity Trustees (Time Off for Duties) Bill has two clear purposes. The first is to value our existing charity trustees by giving them an improved status in law. The second is to provide the sort of support that might encourage a greater number of people from a wider diversity of backgrounds to take on this important but unpaid civic duty.

I am delighted that the Bill has been commended widely, and I would like to put on record my particular thanks to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, the Small Charities Coalition and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action for their support. I would also like to thank the Members from different political parties who are the Bill’s co-sponsors.

As the law stands, an employee can take a reasonable amount of time off work if they are a magistrate, school governor, local councillor or one of eight other categories of duty. Those categories do not include the role of charity trustee. This Bill seeks to change that. Let me be clear: this is the most moderate of Bills. I am not asking for a higher status in law for charity trustees than for those who undertake any of the other public duties already covered by statute. Under the existing legislation, one has the right to “reasonable” time off to carry out certain public duties. There is, of course, no requirement that it be paid time off.

“Reasonableness” decrees that the amount of time off must be agreed with the employer before taking it and that the employer can refuse a request if it is considered to be unreasonable. What is considered to be reasonable will depend on what duties need to be carried out, the time it will take, the impact on the employer’s business and how much time has already been taken. Moreover, staff cannot ask for time off work for public duties if they are agency workers, members of the police or armed forces, employed on a fishing vessel or a gas or oil rig at sea, merchant seamen, or civil servants if their public duties are connected to political activities restricted under the terms of their employment. The existing terms for “reasonable time off for public duties” would be totally unchanged by the Bill. The only change that the Bill seeks is to extend those terms to charity trustees, and that is not before time.

We cannot overestimate the importance of charity trustees in our society. Section 177 of the Charities Act 2011 defines trustees as

“the persons having the general control and management of the administration of a charity.”

Trustees are ultimately responsible for everything a charity does and can be held legally accountable for the decisions they make. Trustees freely give their own time, energy and expertise to help charities achieve their aims, and the contribution they make to civil society and our country is vital. While it is difficult—indeed, probably impossible—to put an exact monetary value on the contribution that trustees make to society, statistics from “Taken on Trust”, the 2017 report published by the Charity Commission, show that the estimated time value of trustee input per year is £3.5 billion.

Research from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has found that 91% of charities rely solely on the work of volunteers. Many of these charities are community-based, and a significant proportion do amazing work to help tackle poverty and deprivation. Trustees often play both a governance and executive role. Without their trustees, these vitally needed charities simply could not exist. If these charities were not there, either the state would have to undertake the work, or no one would do so, with all the human and economic costs that that would entail.

The Small Charities Coalition asked its members if they would be supportive of this ten-minute rule Bill. The respondents were supportive and believe that the change would not only be beneficial to current trustees, but help small charities to attract new ones. This is something I believe we must aspire to.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Charities report “Stronger charities for a stronger society” expressed its concerns about the lack of diversity among charity trustees, which it saw as limiting the experience and knowledge of charity boards. The Charity Commission’s report “Taken on Trust” made a similar point when it stated that the average trustee is a 62-year-old white British male. Research by the Charities Aid Foundation—“Charity Street II”—found that young people and women are the most likely to use charity services, but there are double the number of male trustees as there are female ones, with charity trustees tending to have an above average income and level of education. A report from the agency Inclusive Boards found that the boards of charities in England and Wales are less diverse than those of FTSE 100 companies.

Today, I want to celebrate both our existing and our prospective trustees. If a 62-year-old white British male trustee is reading this in Hansard or watching BBC Parliament, I want to assure them that this House values their service. However, I would like that service to be enhanced by that of a wider range of people. Without this, I believe that charities will miss out on the huge range of skills, experience and perspectives that a wider pool of trustees could offer.

I also believe that we should take seriously the fact that whole swathes of the population are currently under-represented as charity trustees, and are losing out on the wealth of development opportunities that being a trustee provides. That is simply not good enough. Charities could greatly benefit from having young people on their boards, particularly in the ever more digital world we now live in, while being a charity trustee enables young people to develop key employability skills, interact with people outside their usual social groups and broaden their networks.

Trusteeships offer a rare opportunity for people to gain board level experience early in their careers or even before their career has fully begun. The best companies are already leading the way by supporting their employees as they take on trustee roles. They welcome the part that charity trusteeships can play in offering their staff vital board level experience. I believe it is essential that such experience is offered widely. John Gallanders, chief officer of the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham, makes the point that this experience should not just be for those who are on middle-management levels or above, commenting

“what is the difference between a parent who is a School Governor getting time off and someone who may be lower down in the staff structure perhaps wanting time for a playgroup meeting?”

I agree totally.

There was a time when the words “big society” were used quite a lot in this place, but I do not want us to get bogged down with the terminology of the day or the semantics of how we on different sides of the House sometimes use different words. Whatever words we use, I have no doubt that a society that values and supports its charity trustees is a bigger and a better one, so I commend this Bill to the House. I hope, too, that this House will support it, and that the Government will act.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Susan Elan Jones, Julie Elliott, Lilian Greenwood, Jo Stevens, Jeremy Lefroy, Tonia Antoniazzi, Mary Glindon, Victoria Prentis, Stephen Timms, Daniel Zeichner, Gareth Thomas and Wera Hobhouse present the Bill.

Susan Elan Jones accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 351).