Duncan Hames writes… Time to value

Almost every working person knows their salary or their hourly rate. Some can even express it as a fraction of the cost of hiring a plumber. Yet our time outside work lacks similar recognition in the choices we make: we should value our time for more than just the contribution it can make to our household budgets and material needs.

There is strong quantitative evidence that beyond a level of around £15,000 per year, extra income has little improving effect on a person’s well-being: put bluntly, the extra money doesn’t pay you back for your time. Despite this, British employees are accustomed to working amongst the longest hours in Western Europe. The cost of this culture can be felt in the strain on our health and, more broadly, our social fabric: long hours are linked not only to increased risk of mental illness and heart disease, but to reliance on alcohol and chronic loneliness.

In contrast to the lack of fulfilment derived from additional paid work, a great deal of research indicates that well-being, mental health and self-esteem are all improved by voluntary work: volunteering is good for you. I’m sure Lib Dem activists can all think of people in our team for whom volunteering with the party has boosted confidence, introduced them to a wider range of people, deepened their understanding of their local community, and empowered them to make the most of abilities not nurtured by their working lives. As well as these outcomes for individuals, research shows that voluntary organizations themselves benefit from having access to skilled people of working age. The question for us, then, is how to recognise this in policy, to value in concrete terms the time people spend away from their jobs, contributing to their communities.

The Coalition Government’s commitment to make the right to request flexible working universal is a good start, and one which I warmly welcome. However, if flexible working is accepted as a good idea in principle, surely we can go further.

I would like the government to recognise, perhaps through the tax system, people’s contribution of their time to socially beneficial schemes outside work. I’m not suggesting paying working-age people to volunteer; rather, I’m looking for government to signal that volunteering is mainstream, worthwhile and appreciated. Employers who make arrangements for their staff to engage in social action in paid time could have their applicable employers’ National Insurance contributions paid by the government. Employees who reduce their hours to make a regular commitment to volunteer could be offered an income tax rebate. Today, with jobs scarce, a more even distribution of working hours would be good for those seeking employment too. In the longer term, I think practical steps like this will help foster a cultural change: to value not just the time we exchange for our salaries, meeting our material needs – but to value more the time we commit to our families, our neighbours, and to our communities.

Duncan Hames is the new Member of Parliament for the Chippenham constituency that includes Bradford on Avon, Chippenham, Corsham, Melksham and surrounding villages.

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12 Comments

  • ‘There is strong quantitative evidence that beyond a level of around £15,000 per year, extra income has little improving effect on a person’s well-being’
    really, what evidence?
    sounds like nonsense

  • Today, with jobs scarce, a more even distribution of working hours would be good for those seeking employment too.

    Like strictly enforcing the 48 hour working week? Something the Tories are opposed to.

    But more generally, why the convoluted tax break system to encourage voluntary work? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a system in place whereby the third sector could benefit from grants funded in part by taxpayer contributions? That system worked perfectly well, up until the CSR of course.

  • “a great deal of research indicates that well-being, mental health and self-esteem are all improved by voluntary work: volunteering is good for you.”

    Remember the time that being a councillor was voluntary? that was the ‘Big Society!!’ It is now a job that councillors grimly hold on to. No wonder as the allowance is more than many take home after arduous low paid work.

  • I’m not sure whether you’re saying volunteering for a political party counts as a “socially beneficial scheme outside work”. If you are, some might think it makes your argument self-serving.

    The wider question is whether it should be possible to opt out of tax, which is what this amounts to. This already happens with the National Lottery, where many opt out of paying this tax and those who can least afford it, keep coughing up. Under your suggestion, those who need to work hardest to support themselves and their families on low wages, would not have time to volunteer and cut their tax bills.

  • @Duncan Hames MP

    “There is strong quantitative evidence that beyond a level of around £15,000 per year, extra income has little improving effect on a person’s well-being”

    Do you have a link to these reports, please?

  • Tom Papworth 30th Oct '10 - 5:36pm

    “There is strong quantitative evidence that beyond a level of around £15,000 per year, extra income has little improving effect on a person’s well-being…”

    Well, there’s evidence, but it’s certainly not strong.

    “British employees are accustomed to working amongst the longest hours in Western Europe. The cost of this culture can be felt in the strain on our health and, more broadly, our social fabric…”

    I take it you are referring to Britain’s ever rising life expectancy and our falling crime rate.

    Of course, almost all the most valuable work done in our society is done by people earning over £15,000. Surgeons? Teachers? Bio-chemists? Thank God they didn’t say “You know what, I’m not going to be any happier than I would be earning £15,000 a year so I’m not going to study for long hours and work like a dog for that well-paid job.”

    “I would like the government to recognise, perhaps through the tax system, people’s contribution of their time to socially beneficial schemes outside work…”

    Firstly, this requires the Government to determine whether something is “socially beneficial”, which means that Government then becomes a judge on individual behaviour: those that are in fashion will receive tax breaks at the expense of those who are not. Secondly, this completely undermines the meaning of volunteering, as it effectively pays people for the work. That undermines the every meaning of volunteering.

    “I’m not suggesting paying working-age people to volunteer; rather… Employers who make arrangements for their staff to engage in social action in paid time could have their applicable employers’ National Insurance contributions paid by the government. ”

    So instead of paying the volunteer directly, they pay his/her boss for giving them the (presumably paid) time off.

    “Employees who reduce their hours to make a regular commitment to volunteer could be offered an income tax rebate”

    Oh, you actually are suggesting “paying working-age people to volunteer”. Do make your mind up!

    Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, we have a budget defecit of £150 billion. How is this going to be paid for?

    “with jobs scarce, a more even distribution of working hours would be good for those seeking employment too”

    Finishing with a nice bit of Lump-of-Labour theory really adds to the credability of this article. There isn’t a limited amount of work to go round; people working fewer hours doesn’t mean more people working; it means a poorer society.

    The value that people should derive from non-remunerated effort should be the sense of self-worth that it generates. It shoudl be the outcome they are achieving: their mother’s comfort; the hospice they have supported; the clothes sorted for the disaster relief programme. The reward should be the respect of their neighbours and peers. It should not be rewarded by a cut in their tax bill. That simply monetises something that should be more social, and in the process creates a whole new tax-and-spend bureaucracy devoted to judging what types of voluneering are “socially valuable” and how much taxpayers money they should be handing out.

  • I find this article peculiar. The author (a Lib Dem MP) tries to marry together a liberal belief (that people should spend less of their time working, if they wish) with a deeply reactionary one (that aspiring to affluence is bad for the community), and then he seeks to tie them both in to Cameron’s “Big Society”.

    Those in the upper age bracket will recall teachers and parents telling them that they should feel guilty about having possessions. Wanting to make money and own things is is greedy and selfish, they were told, and disrespectful to our betters: only royalty and the aristocracy are entitled to wealth. I recall meeting a lady in her 90s while canvassing in the Brecon & Radnor byelection (1985) who told me how terrible it was that people these days had washing-machines, fridges, televisions, etc, and that people were much happier when they were poor, as they were in her day. I had imagined those attitudes had died out with the generation born in the 1890s. But apparently not. They are alive and kicking in present-day Chippenham, it seems.

    How can anyone live on an income of £15,000 a year? Can they own a house or flat? Can they own a car? Can they live without fear of bailiffs knocking at the door? I don’t think they can, and I don’t see a queue volunteering.

    Nicholas Van Hoogstraten has said that no amount of money is ever enough, though he has also said that money doesn’t buy happiness. What it does do, he explained, is give him the ability to separate himself from the “riff-raff”. So it makes him a little bit happier than he would be if he was living in a dosshouse, I guess. Similarly, Auberon Waugh managed use his considerable inherited wealth to seclude himself in a manor house on top of a hill with a huge garden and panoramic views of the Quantocks, well away from the hated “lower classes”. He still smoked himself to death at the age of 60, however.

    A couple of days ago the National Trust launched a campaign to get people to visit the countryside in order to increase their health and wellbeing. Great idea. But you won’t reach many National Trust properties without a car, and you don’t have one of those on £15,000 a year (at least not one that gets beyond the end of the road).

    So, we have a mixture of shorter working hours and Sunday School hair-shirtery, leading us to the conclusion that people should do what the government presently does for nothing.

    I don’t have a problem with public bodies working in partnership with the Voluntary Sector. Neither has the Labour Party, because the Brown government was encouraging this long before Cameron picked it up. Untrained volunteers might have a big role to play in providing adult social care, but I think it would be dangerous to allow them to take the place of trained social workers. The result would be a lot more Baby Ps.

    Cameron’s view of the “Big Society” is that the lower orders do the dirty jobs for nothing out of their love for their rulers, who will continue to lord it over the rest of us as they have always done.

  • Are you honestly saying that distributing working hours more ‘evenly’ will create more jobs? Has that theory worked in France or anywhere else it’s been tried? Also, how would the State ensure that employees who are reducing their hours in order to tax advantage of an income tax rebate actually make good on their promise to spend their new free time volunteering? What type of volunteering would qualify? Who would decide? It all seems rather impractical.

    However, even if the economics are a bit shaky, the author’s idea of valuing volunteers more highly is laudable. The bad news is that it is not as easy to legislate to promote volunteering as the he suggests. The good news is that those of us who want to volunteer go out and get on with it anyway!

    The personal rewards of volunteering are, as I’m sure the author would concede, far greater than a tax rebate. The key to encouraging volunteering is not to offer insignificant financial incentives but to encourage the culture of volunteering at an early age. Encouraging universities to offer course credits for student volunteering, or using the money it would cost to fund a tax rebate to help fund volunteer programmes for secondary school children might do more to instil the volunteer spirit in our youngsters.

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