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5 March 2001

Give us more bank holidays

NS/Fabian Society Second-Term Agenda - Give us more bank holidays

By Michael Jacobs

Feel like you need a holiday? It would hardly be surprising. If you’re in work, and discounting any annual leave, the last day off you had was two months ago, on New Year’s Day. And the next one is still another six weeks away, on Good Friday, 13 April.

But then, as with the proverbial bus, you wait 15 weeks for a bank holiday and four come along at once. The two at Easter are followed within six weeks by the May Day and spring bank holidays. After this feast, however, comes the even longer famine – with just one statutory day off work, the August bank holiday, in the seven months between 28 May and Christmas.

The spacing of Britain’s bank holidays is absurd. But the real problem is their paucity of number. With eight days off, Britain comes second from bottom of the European public holiday league, with only the Netherlands having fewer (seven). Italians enjoy twice as many days off as us, closely followed by Icelanders (15), with the citizens of Spain and Portugal, and some regions of Germany, on 14. Austria has 13, Norway 12, Sweden and France 11, in the latter case supplemented by various local holidays. Even Northern Ireland, on ten, has more than the rest of the UK (the extras are St Patrick’s Day and the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne).

The general argument for more bank holidays is the same as that for other kinds of reduction in working time. Employees in the UK work the longest hours in Europe, leading to high levels of stress and depression, and other forms of ill health. Most working people find it increasingly hard to achieve a satisfactory balance between work and other activities, particularly the enjoyment of quality time with children and the fulfilment of other caring responsibilities. Long hours have reduced the voluntary work done by those in employment.

It may be said that people who want to reduce their hours can do so voluntarily, or through collective bargaining with employers. But this is where the specific argument for more bank holidays comes in. So long as everyone else is working long hours – and earning the incomes that go with them – reducing one’s own hours and income voluntarily is difficult. Long working hours have become ingrained in the culture of many firms and organisations; they are often impossible to resist if you have your eye on promotion. Consumption patterns are socially determined, drawn from comparisons we make with others in society. A voluntary reduction in income from fewer earning hours is hard because it makes us different from our friends and neighbours.

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Meanwhile, many firms, particularly small- and medium-sized ones, feel unable to offer more holidays or shorter hours unless their competitors are doing so, too.

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In these circumstances, it is the collective and universal nature of the proposal for more bank holidays that is crucial. By ensuring that everyone gains the benefit, the risk of individual loss – whether through social comparison or economic competition – is avoided.

Employers will complain that more holidays will reduce the overall productivity of the economy. But the evidence for this is weak – as the number of bank holidays enjoyed by our European competitors suggests. A cut of one working day a year represents just 0.4 per cent of the 230 we work in total, easily outweighed by the 1-2 per cent plus by which productivity rises on average each year. In many workplaces, as already happens around existing bank holidays, hours will in practice be stretched and productivity improved in order to accommodate the extra day off.

In fact, by giving employees more rest and time for recuperation, an extra bank holiday is likely to make them more productive. It will also generate new demand in the leisure industry, as people spend money on their day off. (It is true that some employees will be required to work on any extra bank holiday. But they will get a day off in lieu.)

A reasonable target, putting us in the European mainstream, would be 12 bank holidays – an average of one every four weeks. One extra bank holiday introduced every three years would achieve this in little more than a decade.

When in the year should they fall? For many parents, the most convenient times would be the Mondays of the two half-term weeks in February and October, when organising childcare is often awkward. These would also neatly divide the long periods that currently contain no days off. Now that the association of the May bank holiday with Labour Day has more or less disappeared, it might be worth swapping this for the day in February. Thereafter, the aim should be to have relatively even spacing of bank holidays. This would suggest extra ones in June, September and November, leaving July and August free for summer holidays.

Bank holidays have the additional advantage of providing the opportunity for collective national commemoration and reflection. A competition could be held to decide what the new days should mark – the anniversaries of historical figures or significant events, for example. Alternatively, we could have days with symbolic meaning – days for world peace, endangered species or the elimination of global poverty, perhaps.

There is one further reason why Labour’s forthcoming manifesto should contain this proposal. “Labour promises more holidays”: what could be guaranteed to win more votes?

Michael Jacobs is the general secretary of the Fabian Society. This is the latest in a series of articles on proposals for a second Labour term