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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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war