Bank holidays: do we really need another?

30 November is St Andrew’s Day, and while those of us south of the border are languishing at our desks, the Scots will be whooping it up in the name of their patron saint. But national pride notwithstanding, the fact remains – Scotland has one holiday more than England or Wales.

And every now and again, perhaps when employers, politicians and the national media have time on their hands, someone launches a campaign for a new public holiday. But is it worth it? Employees would obviously benefit, but what about their employers? And, perhaps the greatest potential minefield of all, what should it commemorate?

The UK bank holiday count stands at 10 in Northern Ireland, nine in Scotland, and eight in England and Wales, with the discrepancies due to local national holidays. Only the Scots and the Irish celebrate their patron saints’ days with a day off work. There are laws that allow the dates of bank holidays to be changed, or other holidays to be declared, to celebrate special occasions. The most recent examples were Prince Charles’ wedding in 1981, the Millennium holiday in 1999 and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.

But do we need another holiday? The UK is already one of the most generous countries in the world for paid leave, with an average of 28 days’ holiday a year, bank holidays aside. And a poll by Teletext Holidays earlier this year found that almost a third of workers are worried that taking time off will lead to them losing their jobs – 16% expect to end 2009 with at least three days of leave untaken. The recession has also meant that a growing number of larger companies are offering unpaid leave as an alternative to making staff redundant. So surely the last thing we need is another day off?

St Andrew’s Day is a “voluntary” public holiday, meaning that employers are not obliged to give staff the day off. Introduced in 2007, it has not been especially popular. This year’s ‘Homecoming’ celebrations to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns will cost Scotland £434,000 – but the cost of giving the Scottish Executive’s civil servants the day off will cost taxpayers an estimated £640,000. According to the Telegraph, “few, if any private sector workers are expected to join them, as recession-hit businesses struggle to keep their heads above water.”

One of the main campaigners for an extra day off work is the Trade Unions Congress (TUC), which is calling for the launch of a new bank holiday in 2012, to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. Along with the National Council for Volunteering (NCVO), Community Service Volunteers (CSV) and the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA), the TUC is proposing a new ‘Community Day’ bank holiday, to fall in mid-October. It would celebrate volunteering and, the coalition hopes, encourage people to take part in community events.

The TUC calls the UK’s bank holiday entitlement “the second stingiest in Europe”, pointing out that only Romania has fewer. It also says: “We believe businesses would ultimately benefit from staff having a better work-life balance because of a new bank holiday”, and estimates that more than a million businesses, particularly in retail and hospitality, would benefit from the increased sales and trade brought by a new bank holiday.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) disagrees. Neil Carberry, head of employment policy, says: “Additional bank holidays cost the economy up to £6bn, and don’t really react to employee need. Employees prefer more flexible holiday options. Statutory holiday allowance increased by eight days only recently to address this, a change employers are still struggling to meet the cost of.”

And HR directors, regardless of sector, seem to agree with the CBI. Sacha Romanovitch, head of people and culture at accountancy firm Grant Thornton, says that creating new bank holidays within an increasingly global business environment would be a retograde step.

She says: “Having flexibility in when to take holidays can be better for both companies and individuals. Businesses can ensure that in busy periods they have the capacity to deliver to clients and individuals are able to take their holiday when it best suits them.”

Public sector HR director Graham White, of Westminster City Council, says that while an additional bank holiday might well help with work-life balance, it is not a solution to workplace stress or poor staff engagement. He says: “We don’t want another unproductive day. We want better legislation and a stronger commitment from senior management to create new relationships with the workforce, so that our staff can see work as positive and invigorating.”

As for what a new bank holiday should celebrate, Community Day has been suggested, as has Trafalgar Day (that’s the battle, not the London square). But never underestimate the sensitivities involved. Earlier this year, the cabinet office minister Liam Byrne offended the Scots, by suggesting that the August bank holiday become “British Day” – in Scotland, that holiday falls on a different weekend.

This one looks set to run and run.

Things you didn’t know about St Andrew’s Day

  • At midnight on November 29th, it was traditional for girls to pray to St Andrew for a husband. A girl wishing to marry would throw a shoe at the door. If it landed with the toe facing out of the house, she was destined to marry and leave her parents’ home within a year. If she wanted to discover the identity of her husband-to-be, the girl would peel an apple, without breaking the peel, which she would then throw over her shoulder. If all went according to plan, the peel would land in the shape of the future groom’s first initial.
  • St Andrew is also prayed to for help with sore throats, stiff necks, gout and being an old maid.


The legal implications of adding an extra bank holiday

Bank holidays already cause a lot of confusion for employers, particularly relating to the pro rata entitlement to time off for part-time employees, who may not be scheduled to work on the day of the bank holiday. There is no statutory right for employees to have time off on bank holidays.

Whether they are entitled to the day off, or to extra pay for working, will depend on the terms of their contracts. The Working Time Regulations 1998 provide that employees have the right to at least 28 days’ holiday a year, and this can include the current eight bank holidays. If an additional bank holiday was created, the government would have to decide whether to increase the minimum annual leave under the Working Time Regulations to 29 days to account for an extra bank holiday, or to leave it to employers to decide whether or not to grant an additional day’s leave”.

Susie Munro, Employment law editor, XpertHR


Further information – some of the questions answered in XpertHR’s FAQs section:

XpertHR Health
Can employees be required to take annual leave on bank holidays? Are part-time workers entitled to bank holidays? Should non-Christian employees be given time off in lieu of bank holidays associated with Christian festivals?

Further reading:

Comments are closed.