‘Reckless’ citizen service plan is condemned

Cameron by Andrew Parsons

Cameron in Lewisham by Andrew Parsons

Plans for a, “non-military national service” for teenagers, have been announced by Prime Minister David Cameron. The initiative has been criticised by some charity groups along the East London Line over its potential to draw attention and resources away from existing youth volunteering organisations.

The new ‘National Citizen Service Scheme’ will provide a structured programme, of  six or seven weeks duration, for 16 years olds, including 10 days and nights away from home. Activities are expected to include an outdoor challenge, a set of structured tasks involving visiting and helping the local community and, in consultation with local communities, designing a social action task.

Cameron says the NCS is intended to bring together teenagers from differing social backgrounds and encourage them to help others. He stated on Friday: “It’s going to mix young people from different backgrounds in a way that doesn’t happen right now.”

The Prime Minister said he hoped the new scheme would remedy a ‘tragic waste of potential’ in contemporary Britain.

He said: “It’s going to teach [participants] what it means to be socially responsible. Above all it’s going to inspire a generation of young people to appreciate what they can achieve and how they can be part of the Big Society,” he said.

The plans would cost the tax payer an estimated £1400 per young volunteer, a sum which Bisi Ojuri, Managing Director at the Volunteer Centre in Hackney, criticised as “reckless” spending: “We don’t have enough money to allow the Conservatives to make these big statements. They keep saying there is no money, but now there are plans for an expensive new scheme. Why not put more money into schemes which are working?” She said.

Tessa Jowell, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said that the scheme was a “modest and “unambitious” version of a Labour-created scheme called “V” that was introduced only four years ago in response to a Commission, set up by the Labour government, to look into the whole question of youth volunteering. ‘V’ is currently working with 500 voluntary organisations and 150 private sector partners.

Ojuri has high praise for the work of ‘V’ and is concerned that this new scheme could siphon off much needed funding for its work.  She added: “We have cuts in our organisation and a lot of volunteering organisations are closing due to lack of funding, small organisations are having to fold. Where will the young people be placed? It doesn’t make sense to put more young people into the volunteer sector if there are no spaces.

“When working with young people the element of support is very important. Managing and insuring a16 year-old volunteer is expensive, but if it’s done well it’s a great thing, and a real asset for the young person. The result is worthwhile. But are the resources there?”

And there are other concerns too. There is increasing pressure on school leavers to find a job as soon as their last exam finishes, and the need for young people to find work can be higher in low-income families. Stephen Bubb, head of association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (AVECO), told the Times: “I think there is a risk that the project will  be filled by middle-class or upper-class kids who would have volunteered anyway.

“I’m not sure this is the right approach and is a good use of resources when voluntary grants are already being cut back.”

Ojuri agrees that the new centralised,  scheme, might not be suitable for all. She said: “Many of the young people from this borough, by the time they finish school, they want to start saving for uni, they don’t have the luxury of being able to leave their paid work to work for free at a summer camp.

“At present, we have some brilliant young people helping out where they can here. They love the idea of adding to the community.

“One of the young people we work with has been volunteering since he was 11 years old, he is now 14 years old, has done so much for such a young person. He contributes regular articles for Hackney Today newspaper, he wants young people to have a voice and volunteering has allowed him to do this.

“I hope that the new scheme will attract people like him. It should be about young people giving freely to their community, and not about getting credit. We don’t want people doing it just for personal gain, volunteers must have the right attitude.

“You get confidence and joy from adding to your community. Volunteering should be done for selfless reasons.”

However, some volunteering groups have reacted positively to the news. Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said: “The National Citizen Service will be a very positive catalyst for engaging young people in their communities and inspiring them to carry on volunteering throughout their lives.”

Kay Kelleher, Chief Executive at the Volunteer Centre Lewisham, believes the NCS could attract more young people to volunteer in Lewisham.

“More can be done to create meaningful and rewarding roles for young people within the volunteering sector. Quite a lot of volunteering roles available at present are for over 18’s. And of those roles that 16 year-olds can apply for, many are for a wide age bracket, the ‘young person’ bracket often means 16-25 year-olds. Hopefully the new scheme will create opportunities aimed specifically at 16 year-olds.

“Volunteering can offer young people a broad experience whilst enabling them to take part in the community. We [the Volunteer Centre Lewisham] work to engage those who aren’t already involved. We have had a great response from the young people of the sixth forms in Lewisham.

“I feel positive about the idea, I just hope the government manages the scheme through the existing infrastructure organisations, such as volunteer centres, rather than wasting money creating new systems.”

The notion of a ‘Big Society’ was a major component of Cameron’s election campaign, in which the scope of governmental influence would be reduced in favour of grassroots volunteering.

The taxpayer-funded project has already been put into action with a pilot scheme for 500 young people in London and Birmingham. Next summer it will be rolled out across the country.

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