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Benefits case study: First Group

The flexible benefits scheme on offer at First Group companies First TransPennine Express and First ScotRail aims to help ease pressure on employees' household budgets.


With money generally tight, it is timely that train drivers, conductors, station staff and head office staff at First TransPennine Express (TPE) and First ScotRail (FSR) are being offered ways to save hard cash. It comes from a newly introduced flexible benefits scheme called Your Choice. It is designed to appeal across the train operators' wide spectrum of employees by comprising childcare vouchers for those with young children, a Cycle to Work salary-sacrifice scheme for those looking to get fit and reduce their carbon footprint, and Lifestyle Benefits discount vouchers allowing savings on holidays, leisure breaks, gym membership, home computers, insurance and Virgin Experience Days.


All of TPE's 1,000 employees located across north west England and the 4,000 people who work for FSR in Scotland can take advantage of any of the Your Choice benefits. Because so many staff members work on trains and in stations, access to email and the internet is not possible for everyone, so communication and administration of the scheme is largely managed via letters in pigeon-holes, attractive brochures showing the Lifestyle Benefits discounts on offer and freephone numbers to make set-up and ordering quick and easy. There is also a web portal from the TPE and FSR intranet sites, if office-based employees prefer to order online, or staff want to investigate and order vouchers while at home.


Easing pressure on employees' household budgets is at the heart of these benefits so, for example, if employees want to invest in a £500 laptop for their family, the P&MM voucher scheme would enable a saving of around £50 through PC World. Across TPE 27 staff members have saved money on childcare vouchers since 2007, and 47 FSE employees have done likewise. Over 2007 and 2008 the Cycle to Work scheme has been of financial benefit to 26 TPE employees and 73 FSR staff members. This gives National Insurance contribution and tax savings when paying for a bike over the year's 13 pay periods, Such schemes aid recruitment and retention, showing both companies as supportive, accommodating employers.


Shirley Bluff, HR manager for First TransPennine Express, says staff at TPE and FSR come "from all walks of life" so universal appeal was key to the success of Your Choice. "Working closely with our colleagues at First ScotRail, we developed a benefits package that would not just satisfy people with children, but would fit the needs and interests of a much wider demographic," says Bluff. "We also sought benefits that would really assist our staff financially, by making the money they earn go further. This has been well received by the trade unions our staff are affiliated to." She says much emphasis has been placed on making the scheme user-friendly to both front-line and office-based staff members, and ensuring that phone requests are quickly processed. "As two companies operating within one large group it made economic sense to team up and optimise our scale and bargaining power," says Bluff. "With a combined staff of 5,000 we also save time and money managing the scheme on that larger scale."


David Barker is a 48-year-old train conductor based at York station, whose full-time role at TPE includes ticket collecting on trains and being responsible for passenger safety. He's been with TPE for five years and has recently benefited from the Cycle to Work scheme, something he says has enhanced his lifestyle and given him renewed respect for his employer. "I had a decrepit old bike that wasn't getting me anywhere, although I did want to cycle the two miles to work for health reasons," says Barker. When he heard about the cycle scheme, he "jumped at it" and was advised to find the bike he wanted and then arrange for splitting the payment across the year. "The pay department set it up very quickly and now a small amount comes out of my wages every four weeks. I hardly miss it, and because it's a tax-efficient way of paying, I'm saving a decent amount." Barker says the total cost was £470 for bike and accessories from Halfords. Next year he's planning to take his wife on a short break, availing himself of the discounts on Lifestyle Benefits.