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National Community Service

Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2003

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12.30 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a national scheme of community service for 16 and 17 year olds.
My Bill would introduce a mandatory one-year national community service scheme for all in that age group.

First, let me make a few related remarks. I realise that there are those who regard the ten-minute rule as a device for parliamentary followers of St. Jude, who, as everyone knows, is the patron saint of lost causes. Personally, I find it an excellent way of exploring the more radical and exotic areas of political policy.

During my 20 years in the House, I have proposed a range of ten-minute rule Bills designed, inter alia, to ban fox hunting, fur farming and animal experimentation; to end quarantine for pets; to ban war toys; to promote vegetarianism; to protect badger setts; and to end employment discrimination based on size. On the constitution, I have proposed a Bill to establish a directly elected mayor for London, another to make voting compulsory and yet another to establish fixed-term Parliaments.

The more perceptive Members present may recognise that a number of those proposed measures are now legislative reality, and I like to flatter myself into believing that I played a small part in helping them on their way.

My proposal for a system of national community service is a response to what many regard as a gradual decline in community values in our country. Such a decline is by no means universal, but in many urban and rural areas the emergence of what is known as a yob culture has given rise to considerable concern. The Government's current Anti-Social Behaviour Bill acknowledges the situation, but like most reactive legislation it seeks to deal with symptoms. I support that Bill enthusiastically—I spoke on Second Reading—but I think that to deal with causes, we must go beyond penalties and punishment.

It is obviously not possible to trace all the causes of the yob culture in a short speech, for they are many and varied; but I believe that they include the way in which our society seems obsessed with material goods and the primacy of what is fashionable rather than what is of abiding value. I have no desire to sound like an apoplectic reader of The Daily Telegraph—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"] No, I decline the invitation. There has, however, been a marked decline in respect in our society—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Thank you. Support from the Opposition for things said on the Labour Benches is quite commonplace nowadays.

That lack of respect has, I believe, arisen from a lack of consensus on an accepted system of values. In other words, we are finding it difficult to establish common ground. Obviously diversity can enrich a society, but beyond a certain point it weakens rather than reinforces.

The debilitating absence of a commonly adopted values system is evident in all social and economic groups, cutting across class and ethnic backgrounds. From the greed and venality in the boardrooms to the crime in the streets, there is a depressing continuum that we should try to break. In the House, we talk a great deal about building civic pride and a sense of community, but our measures to do so are largely piecemeal and disconnected. We need something imaginative and large-scale that will link us all in a common purpose. A national community service scheme might just give us the means to unite our young people at a significant time in their lives, and by doing so might foster a sense of community purpose and involvement.

The idea is straightforward. All 16-year-olds—some 750,000 reach that age each year—would be required to undertake a 12-month period of community service. The widest possible range of projects would be established through the Government, local authorities, non-governmental organisation, private sector organisations, voluntary bodies, the armed forces, the police, the national health service and so on. All projects would involve residency away from home and could be based abroad. Subsistence would be paid, together with accommodation and provision for holiday breaks during the year.

Some 72 per cent. of 16-year-olds are currently in post-compulsory education, and those who resume education at the end of their community service would be eligible for educational credits. During community service, participants would be required to attend classes in civic responsibility and social skills. The scheme would be compulsory, but a high degree of personal selection within the project range would be available, together with advice on the best available schemes for each individual.

Hopefully, the scheme would offer a worthwhile transition between full-time education and further education or employment. The overall objective would be to help to establish a core sense of sound values, based on practical experience in socially useful projects. Although a compulsory national scheme might seem somewhat alien, the concept already exists in the form of compulsory education to age 16. In addition, the notion of a gap year is much applauded, but in reality it is largely the prerogative of the already enlightened or privileged in our society. My proposal is merely the logical extension of the gap year—taken somewhat earlier—with its advantages and benefits made available to all young people, rather than to the few.

Having advocated such a scheme in this House for some years now, I was delighted to see the announcement in the Chancellor's pre-Budget report of the creation of a gap year volunteer corps, supporting low-income school leavers. The trouble with a volunteer corps, however, is that it tends to attract those who are already well on the way to becoming good citizens. It is because we recognise the value of such schemes in the development of both the individual and the wider social good that we should, I believe, extend the principle to all young people through a compulsory national scheme, which is what my Bill would seek to achieve.

There are not very many takers for this, Mr. Speaker; it appears to be just me.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tony Banks.