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

Getty
Show Hide image

There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.