Time for a compulsory civic service scheme

The riots have shown that we cannot afford not to teach our young people lessons of civic duty.

The government is under pressure on police cuts and rightly so. But a civilised society requires more than this. Our neighbourhoods must be policed not just by uniformed officers, but also notions of pride and shame and responsibility to others. How we achieve that is the most difficult and the most important question in the wake of the riots.

Rightly, a debate is opening up on the family. To have children is a moral choice. To be there for them is a civic duty. None of us are perfect, but too many parents in Britain are either absent or not doing their job properly. Successive governments have backed off the issue of parenting, fearing cries of the "nanny state", but we can no longer rely on Mumsnet and Supernanny to do the job for us. Half of all parents, across of social backgrounds, express an interest in attending parenting classes. They should have access to them. Likewise, if we expect people to work long hours for low pay, can we really be surprised when they are not around to supervise their children? Society has responsibilities to parents as well as visa versa.

Families cannot do it alone, however. We must also come to terms with some important social changes. We are less likely to know our neighbours, or to live and work in the same area. There are fewer community figures around, from the bus conductor, to the park warden who might intervene when children cross the line. As strangers, the rest of us hesitate to get involved; seven in ten of us say we would now walk on by if we saw a group of children vandalising a bus stop - more than anywhere else in Europe. There are no longer the surrogate parents in neighbourhoods to reinforce messages that come from within the home.

Instead of these forces for civility, modern Britain has a popular culture which can pull children in another direction. Children spend twice as much time in front of a TV or computer screen as they do in the classroom. This facilitates an online peer-to-peer culture, where adults are almost entirely absent. It contributes to a Grand Theft Auto culture, in which films, video games and popular music glamorise violence. And it helps reproduce a shallow consumer culture, with its obsession with the brands behind those smashed windows in JD Sports and Carphone Warehouse.

In the face of these changes our civic institutions matter more than ever. Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts, described its mission as to foster a "spirit of self-negation, self-discipline, sense of humour, responsibility, helpfulness to others, loyalty and patriotism" in young people. Modern Britain needs more of this, not less - civic institutions on scale of the Scouts, the Girl Guides or the Boys' Brigade, which ground young in people the habits of citizenship.

For me this makes the case for a national civic service unanswerable. Those involved should be enrolled in schemes that involve visiting the elderly, helping out in schools, mentoring younger children and renovating public spaces. The idea has a heritage in the Labour Party, dating back to the social justice commission, established by John Smith as leader. In government when I raised this idea it was always knocked back. "Too controversial". "Too complicated". "Too expensive". There should not be such equivocation now. The same reservations now risk undermining the coalition's plans in this area.

The government has committed itself to a civic service in principle, but its plans look more like a glorified gap year scheme for the wealthy than a sustained programme that will reach everyone. The programme is voluntary. It will last just seven weeks. Those taking part in it will have to fund themselves, including a charge to take part. Ministers should ask themselves how many of the rioters, looters and those who were tempted to join them are really likely to sign up.

Now is not the time for half measures. A British civic service should be compulsory. It should last at least six months, allowing for a truly transformative experience. Each participant should be paid the minimum wage to help them get by. It should give those taking part a taste of people and places very different from what they are used to. It should draw in the private and the voluntary sector to help provide structured and supervised projects for our young people to take part in.

There is nervousness in Whitehall around compulsion, but we already support compulsory education until eighteen. Why is six months more so troubling?

A YouGov poll in 2009 found that two thirds of adults support the idea of a compulsory civic service. The Treasury may baulk at the cost, but last week revealed the costs of inaction. With youth unemployment at record highs we already pay many to sit at home. Corporate sponsorship should be encouraged from those who want to play their part.

I have seen the value of these programmes myself. I have visited the City Year scheme in New York, which brings together young people of all backgrounds for a year of full time service. It is a far cry from the parallel lives in this country by those who rioted and those who took part in the clean up. People of different ages, backgrounds and races mix together, doing something positive for the communities they work in. Those from wealthier backgrounds help out in tough schools and begin to understand more about life on the other side of the tracks. The kids from those schools are encouraged to believe they could be mentoring others one day.

City Year commands cross party support in the States. Pictures of JFK adorn the walls of the organisation's Manhattan headquarters, while the organisation counts Mayor Bloomberg as one of its biggest advocates. In Britain proposals to emulate it on a national scale are always met with the same answer: "not now". After the looting, rioting and chaos last week we should reverse the question: if not now, when?

David Lammy is the MP for Tottenham

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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Donald Tusk is merely calling out Tory hypocrisy on Brexit

And the President of the European Council has the upper hand. 

The pair of numbers that have driven the discussion about our future relationship with the EU since the referendum have been 48 to 52. 

"The majority have spoken", cry the Leavers. "It’s time to tell the EU what we want and get out." However, even as they push for triggering the process early next year, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s reply to a letter from Tory MPs, where he blamed British voters for the uncertain futures of expats, is a long overdue reminder that another pair of numbers will, from now on, dominate proceedings.

27 to 1.

For all the media speculation around Brexit in the past few months, over what kind of deal the government will decide to be seek from any future relationship, it is incredible just how little time and thought has been given to the fact that once Article 50 is triggered, we will effectively be negotiating with 27 other partners, not just one.

Of course some countries hold more sway than others, due to their relative economic strength and population, but one of the great equalising achievements of the EU is that all of its member states have a voice. We need look no further than the last minute objections from just one federal entity within Belgium last month over CETA, the huge EU-Canada trade deal, to be reminded how difficult and important it is to build consensus.

Yet the Tories are failing spectacularly to understand this.

During his short trip to Strasbourg last week, David Davis at best ignored, and at worse angered, many of the people he will have to get on-side to secure a deal. Although he did meet Michel Barnier, the senior negotiator for the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative at the future talks, he did not meet any representatives from the key Socialist Group in the European Parliament, nor the Parliament’s President, nor the Chair of its Constitutional Committee which will advise the Parliament on whether to ratify any future Brexit deal.

In parallel, Boris Johnson, to nobody’s surprise any more, continues to blunder from one debacle to the next, the most recent of which was to insult the Italians with glib remarks about prosecco sales.

On his side, Liam Fox caused astonishment by claiming that the EU would have to pay compensation to third countries across the world with which it has trade deals, to compensate them for Britain no longer being part of the EU with which they had signed their agreements!

And now, Theresa May has been embarrassingly rebuffed in her clumsy attempt to strike an early deal directly with Angela Merkel over the future residential status of EU citizens living and working in Britain and UK citizens in Europe. 

When May was campaigning to be Conservative party leader and thus PM, to appeal to the anti-european Tories, she argued that the future status of EU citizens would have to be part of the ongoing negotiations with the EU. Why then, four months later, are Tory MPs so quick to complain and call foul when Merkel and Tusk take the same position as May held in July? 

Because Theresa May has reversed her position. Our EU partners’ position remains the same - no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered and Britain sets out its stall. Merkel has said she can’t and won’t strike a pre-emptive deal.  In any case, she cannot make agreements on behalf of France,Netherlands and Austria, all of who have their own imminent elections to consider, let alone any other EU member. 

The hypocrisy of Tory MPs calling on the European Commission and national governments to end "the anxiety and uncertainty for UK and EU citizens living in one another's territories", while at the same time having caused and fuelled that same anxiety and uncertainty, has been called out by Tusk. 

With such an astounding level of Tory hypocrisy, incompetence and inconsistency, is it any wonder that our future negotiating partners are rapidly losing any residual goodwill towards the UK?

It is beholden on Theresa May’s government to start showing some awareness of the scale of the enormous task ahead, if the UK is to have any hope of striking a Brexit deal that is anything less than disastrous for Britain. The way they are handling this relatively simple issue does not augur well for the far more complex issues, involving difficult choices for Britain, that are looming on the horizon.

Richard Corbett is the Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber.