Bank holidays - the case for an extra day off

Every now and again someone launches a campaign for a new public holiday - but is it worth it? Employees would obviously benefit, but what about employers? And, perhaps the biggest question of all, what should it commemorate? Tara Craig reports.

On this page:
'Community day'
Flexible options
The legal implications of adding an extra bank holiday.

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 Irish celebrate their patron saint 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 Charles and Diana's 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 in terms of time off work, with an average of 28 days a year, bank holidays aside.

And a poll by Teletext Holidays earlier this year found that almost one-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 a growing number of larger companies are offering unpaid leave as an alternative to making staff redundant. Surely the last thing we need is another day off?

St Andrew's Day - 30 November - is a 'voluntary' public holiday in Scotland, meaning that employers are not obliged to give staff the day off. Introduced in 2007, it has not been especially popular. This year's official celebrations cost Scotland £434,000 - and the cost of giving the Scottish Executive's civil servants the day off cost taxpayers an estimated £640,000. Few private sector workers joined them, as recession-hit businesses struggled to keep their heads above water.

'Community Day'

One of the main campaigners for an extra day off work is the 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, Community Service Volunteers and the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, 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 adds: "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.

Flexible options

The 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 needs. Staff 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, points out that creating new bank holidays within an increasingly global business environment would be "a retrograde step".

She says: "Having flexibility in when to take holidays can be better for 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, Trafalgar Day is just one suggestion. But don't underestimate the sensitivities involved. Earlier this year, government 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.

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," points out Susie Munro, employment law editor at XpertHR.

"There is no statutory right for employees to have time off on bank holidays. Whether or not employees 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 (WTR) provide that staff 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 WTR to 29 days, or to leave it to employers to decide whether or not to grant an additional day's leave."