Continuing debate on citizen service in Wales

Andy Bevan gives an update on his bid to create ‘A real citizen service for Wales’.

On 3 June, Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society at the Cabinet Office in London, announced that agreement had been reached with the Welsh Government to run a small pilot of the NCS (“National Citizen Service”) programme in Wales for 2-300 16-17 year olds, during the October half-term 2014.

At the very beginning of 2014, the IWA identified citizen service for young people as an area of policy worth examining further; my report, ‘A Real Citizen Service for Wales‘ was published as the IWA’s first Senedd Paper on 22 January. It set out the case for a scheme, open to 18-25 year olds who are willing to give 9-12 months’ service on a full-time, paid basis, focusing initially on “intergenerational support”. We have started to build support for this idea in the third sector, among trade unions and more widely as I discussed in an earlier piece for ClickonWales.

Around the same time in January, the Welsh Government decidedy to re-open a dialogue with the Cabinet Office in London about the possibility of allowing a small-scale pilot of No. 10’s NCS in Wales. This was something of a turnaround, as the Welsh Government had previously declined the opportunity to run this scheme in Wales. NCS is an unpaid citizenship awareness programme for 16-17 year olds (originally part of Cameron’s “Big Society” message) organizing activities and training during the school holidays.

Given the much more ambitious reach of the Senedd Paper, on 19 March I wrote to the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Jeff Cuthbert, urging that the Welsh Government should not allow an NCS pilot in Wales, which I touched upon in another piece on this site in March.

Evidently, after nearly five months of negotiations between the Third Sector Unit (part of the Welsh Government’s Department for Communities) and the Cabinet Office, a deal has been struck. In fairness, the Third Sector Unit has worked closely throughout with Gwirvol/WCVA and has consulted with other representative organizations including CWVYS (the Council for Welsh Voluntary Youth Service).

The full agreement is available online via the WCVA and the Cabinet Office websites. Some of the main concerns which were raised by me and others have been addressed. Most importantly, the Welsh Government has made it clear in the agreement that bidders to deliver NCS in Wales will need to show “a sound knowledge of the socio-economic characteristics of Wales, the youth sector, educational and volunteering landscape in Wales…” It also makes clear that the Welsh Government makes no commitment to continue with NCS after the pilot and will make its own decisions in the light of the evaluation evidence. Participants should be drawn from the Welsh “Community First” areas and there will be no charge for Welsh youngsters joining the scheme.

Bids are invited by 3 July and grant agreements are due to be signed within 7-10 days. It seems clear that WCVA will head a consortium bid and there may be others from Wales. Equally, organisations which have delivered NCS already in England will, of course, be able to apply.

In this case, I believe it is fair to say that the IWA has played its role as a “critical friend” to Welsh Government. Our headline advice was not accepted but, along with other voices, we have been able to play a part in avoiding some of the worst pitfalls and in strengthening the defence of devolved strategies in Wales.

Meanwhile, the longer term argument for a real citizen service programme of our own in Wales continues.

On that very note, Lee Waters and I met Ken Skates, Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, on 14 May. Ken Skates has since described the meeting as constructive and helpful but we haven’t managed, so far, to persuade him or his team to look beyond the commendable immediate steps which they are taking to offer subsidized jobs (mainly in the private sector) to young people as a way into longer-term employment. Our proposal, on the other hand, has a broader and longer-term remit. It aims to be “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.”

I don’t think I’m the first person to say that it seems that we have two broadly social-democratic parties in Wales, in terms of outlook and programme. The smaller of them has been more nimble, innovative and interested in policy development. But, while I’m glad to have had the consistent support of Simon Thomas AM, Plaid’s Education spokesperson, we haven’t given up on Welsh Labour and, with trade union support, we hope to make some progress with them yet – perhaps in time for the 2016 Assembly election manifestos.

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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