The first of IWA’s Senedd Papers, A Real Citizen Service for Wales, draws directly on experience gained from the European Commission’s “European Voluntary Service” programme, which I worked on for 17 years. I saw the experience of citizen service turn young people’s lives around, giving them self-esteem, skills and the confidence to use their democratic rights – to speak out, to campaign for change and to engage in active citizenship.
The Senedd paper – the first in a series being run by the IWA to generate practical ideas for policymakers to consider – was very well received. We are meeting Ken Skates, the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, to discuss it further next week. And we brought a wide range of youth and third sector organisations to discuss next steps recently. Plaid Cymru have already indicated that they want to develop the idea for inclusion in their manifesto, and we hope other parties will consider how they can adapt it for their programmes. We recently discussed this idea in the latest IWA Podcast featuring the Chair of Youth Cymru, Helen Mary Jones, and Lee Patterson, Community Education Officer for Cardiff Council, which you can listen to below:
The proposal focuses on two big contemporary problems facing European societies: an ageing population with growing care needs and, alongside that, a massive level of unemployment among young people. At the outset, it asks, “Surely, it isn’t beyond our wit and wisdom to find a way of putting these two problems together to make a long-term solution?”
The market alone seems incapable of dealing with these issues, which are seen as two distinct social problems. From a more communitarian perspective, however, they can be seen as linked components in a planned adaptation to our ageing society. Given our main political traditions, and a certain degree of consensus in Wales, we have a special opportunity. Devolution allows us to envisage a way forward which is informed by a European and internationalist approach.
The Welsh Government is already committed to a number of major initiatives to improve the chances of young people in Wales. The Jobs Growth Wales scheme, co-funded by the European Social Fund, is providing 4,000 young people with a job opportunity for a six month period paid at the national minimum wage. But, in five years’ time, what will be the legacy of these measures? Valid and helpful initiatives like this, and the apprenticeship programme, mean an injection of public funding into the Welsh private sector economy. But what long-term institutional gains will there be for this public investment?
The proposal for a comprehensive citizen service programme is not for just another job creation programme targeting socially disadvantaged young people – there are already a number of such schemes – though citizen service could fit effectively alongside them. On the contrary, citizen service could be a new and long-term addition to our social landscape in Wales. It has a wider rationale, a wider appeal and a wider constituency. It should be an opportunity for a comprehensive, wide range of young people from all parts of Wales to work together: young unemployed people, school-leavers over the age of 18 and recent graduates, who all want to contribute to Welsh communities, picking up valuable life skills, training and accreditation in the process. (We should note, in passing, that every young graduate, for example, who takes up a 12 month placement on citizen service is simultaneously leaving a potential vacancy free somewhere else for another applicant.)
The experience of European Voluntary Service (EVS) in many countries, including Wales, since 1996, has shown that young people, motivated by the will to contribute, can make a huge difference to the quality of life of senior citizens especially. EVS has been careful to avoid “job substitution”; essential care has been defined as a role for trained employees. The special contribution of EVS volunteers has been in bringing the “added value” which comes from being able to give time to things like conversation, engagement, recreation and companionship. The young people who have given their time to these things have learnt a lesson for life, preparing them for inevitable issues of ageing within their own circle of family and friends later in life, and have had the opportunity to think about the change in status and respect which the whole of society needs to develop in its attitude towards the needs of our growing number and proportion of senior citizens.
This work can include assistance to senior citizens in accessing online information (including about medical conditions), communication (sometimes with far-flung families) and entertainment.
An initial emphasis on placements of this kind, though, should not rule out a broader deployment in all the sectors where EVS has been successful, including conservation, heritage, youth information and youth work, mental health and disability support and so on.
A further word on the European context may be in order here. Famously, the EU is known for its “single market” – but labour market conditions for young people and the quality and payment arrangements for elderly care vary enormously, depending heavily on the political and social traditions and institutions of each country.
Probably the most developed system of citizen service is to be found in Germany, where 47,000 people – most of them under 25 – took part in the Federal Volunteer Service (BFD) last year. This normally involves 12 months full-time service, supported by the state. Established in 2011, it sought to fill the significant gap left in German social care services as the civilian option to military service was wound up when conscription was abolished in Germany. Incidentally, BFD was set up by a CDU/CSU government with wide consensus support.
Under the pressure of very high youth unemployment and disengagement, a similar scheme, Service Civique, attracted 20,000 recruits in France last year, under the Socialist Party government of François Hollande.
In comparison with these large continental initiatives, David Cameron’s talk of a “Big Society” seems very small-scale indeed. The “Big Society” flagship is his “National Citizen Service” (NCS) programme. NCS is limited to 16-17 year olds; it consists of a few week’s team-building training and activities, usually during the school summer holidays, followed by a self-designed package of community action (between 16 and 30 hours typically).
In late March, I wrote to Jeff Cuthbert, Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, because he has been considering whether to allow the Cabinet Office to run a small pilot of its NCS programme in Wales during the latter half of 2014. I have argued against this, urging instead that the Minister should arrange to evaluate NCS experience in England and Northern Ireland and compare that with the more developed citizen service models in France and Germany before deciding what kind oftraining for citizenship programme Wales should offer its 16-17 olds.
This also highlights the fact that citizen service potentially impacts on the areas of responsibility of a number of Welsh ministers – those responsible for communities, skills and social care, for example.
In any case, citizen service is more than a youth initiative; it presumes a government-led, society-wide response to long term problems of youth disengagement and ageing population. It can also make an innovative response to public sector renewal, based on values including co-production and promoting the democratic benefits of trade union representation which, as the paper argues, is a key part of our common social legacy in Wales.