Welsh alternative to ‘Big Society’ smoke and mirrors

Andy Bevan says his proposal for a citizen service would give Wales an edge over England

The first of the IWA’s Senedd Papers A Real Citizen Service for Wales – a series of discussion papers co-produced with the Welsh Assembly Commission – is based on my experience from 1997-2013 of the European Commission’s Voluntary Service programme, and my previous experience as a full-time worker with VSO.

The proposal is for a programme open to 18-25 year olds in Wales, of 9-12 months’ duration. It is intended to attract co-funding through the European Social Fund, and would provide proper in-service training, supervision and full pay.

The proposal 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.

In all those senses, the proposal is quite distinct from the UK Government’s ‘National Citizen Service’ which has been the most visible part of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda. The UK government’s scheme is limited to 16-17 year olds, consists of a few week’s team-building training and activities, usually during the school summer holidays, and is followed by a self-designed package of community action (typically between 16 and 30 hours).

Not surprisingly, Ed Miliband has said that Cameron’s talk of a ‘Big Society’ is a cover for public sector cuts, “cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda, by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society”.  Meanwhile, the press office of Unite the Union suggested that “The ‘Big Society’ is smoke and mirrors for an avalanche of privatisation under the Tories”.

Of course, youth service provision is a devolved issue. Consequently Cameron’s scheme started in England only. By agreement, the Northern Ireland Government decided in 2011 to accept a small pilot of the scheme there as well. However, Wales and Scotland decided to stand aside.

In April 2013, Huw Lewis, then Wales’ Minister for Communities, wrote to the UK Cabinet Office politely declining to allow them to run a pilot for their ‘National Citizen Service’ in Wales, citing existing Welsh Government initiatives, including support for its own ‘Gwirvol’ programme. Limited consultation with the youth and third sectors in Wales had also found strong opposition to the English scheme’s insistence on a participation fee.

It has come as a surprise then to learn that, via its Third Sector Unit, the Welsh Department for Communities and Tackling Poverty (now reporting to its new Minister, Jeff Cuthbert) is engaged in discussions with the Cabinet Office on the possibility that a small pilot for the ‘National Citizen Service’ might be run in Wales during 2014.

In view of the stand taken in IWA’s Senedd Paper, a supplementary note specifically about the proposed pilot in Wales has been sent to the Minister, for his urgent consideration. Jeff Cuthbert has already welcomed this as a valid contribution to the current debate. The key points are:

  • The proposed £300,000 budget for an NCS pilot in Wales is small. The Cabinet Office would be the paymaster and any consequent evaluation would take place on terms of reference determined by them – in an area of activity, youth work, that was fully devolved to Wales in 1999.
  • By comparison with our own proposals, the English ‘National Citizen Service’ is a much shorter-term, unpaid scheme for 16-17 year olds, and is more in the nature of a Training for Citizenship scheme, rather than a truly citizen service programme. If a programme on these lines is adopted in Wales on a pilot basis at some stage, the Welsh Government should honestly promote it as a youth training initiative. Any other approach tends to undermine the wider concept, as understood in a European context, of citizen service.

Rather than allowing the Cabinet Office to run its programme in Wales, surely it would be better for the Welsh Government to undertake a short programme of fact-finding and evaluation of citizen service projects which are already running, by agreement with the relevant authorities in England and Northern Ireland, before it takes a firm view of its own? I would also commend the idea of similar fact-finding visits to Germany and France, to study the German Federal Volunteer Service and the French Service Civique. At a senior level, both organisations have offered to welcome deputations from Wales.

The fact that the Third Sector Unit is currently discussing these matters with the Cabinet Office is probably not widely enough known in Wales for there to be effective consultation with youth and third sector organisations. Some of those who have been consulted have been put in the difficult position of deciding whether to bid (including against English potential competitors) to run the pilot in Wales – creating a strong potential conflict of interest in any comment they might make.

No decision has yet been made by the Minister.

Andy Bevan spent nine years with VSO between 1988-1997 supporting development projects in Africa. From 1997 to 2013 he worked on the EU’s Voluntary Service programme and in 2000 co-founded ICP Partneriaeth to promote its activity in Wales.

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