National civic service: voluntary or compulsory?

Labour MP Frank Field has long argued for the introduction such a scheme, but how would it work and should participants be rewarded? Kaye Wiggins reports on a heated debate

Frank Field MP
Frank Field MP

National civic service is back on the agenda, a confident Dame Kelly Holmes declared to a room of third sector figures at a breakfast debate organised by the Private Equity Foundation last week.

But what form will it take? Labour MP Frank Field, a long-time campaigner for the introduction of civic service, and Tim Loughton, the shadow minister for children, proceeded to lock horns over their opposing models.

Loughton's plan, which he said would be a flagship policy in the Tory manifesto for the next general election, is for a consortium of volunteering organisations to be rebranded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families as a 'national civic service'.

These organisations would run schemes in which young people could volunteer for three weeks during their summer holidays. The system would be "so good that it won't need to be compulsory", said Loughton.

Field's more radical scheme would see universal compulsory civic service, which would be full time for a year, and which he believes would foster national identity and social solidarity.

During the debate, Field's plan attracted a lot of support. Holmes took his side: the double Olympic gold medallist said the nine years she spent in the army gave her discipline, respect and a sense of achievement - attributes she thinks could best be fostered in teenagers through a compulsory scheme.

Shaks Ghosh, chief executive of the Private Equity Foundation, also seemed keen on Field's idea. She said three weeks in the summer would not be a transformative experience, and a full year of service would be a more effective model - one which the foundation would consider setting up.

"At some point, the Private Equity Foundation will put its money where its mouth is, and we'll ask the Government to do the same," Ghosh told Third Sector after the debate.

However, the advice from across the Atlantic was that compulsory service doesn't work - but big incentives do. Shirley Sagawa, who developed US civic service organisation AmeriCorps, said young people volunteered for the year-long programmes because they were given a $5,000 grant and the chance of a job interview at the end of it.

Loughton nodded at the suggestion, and said linking civic service to the Jobseeker's Allowance or tuition fees might be a good idea.

And it's Loughton the sector should look out for: even Frank Field said the Tory plan would win. "The Government has given up governing, so we might as well start looking to the Tories," he said.

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