David Blackburn

In the service of others

In the service of others
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David Cameron’s Big Society re-launch continues after his American interlude. Today, he will introduce the national citizens’ service for 16 year olds, which was famously backed by Michael Caine during the election campaign. There is no military element to this national service; the aim is to unite different communities, ages and classes. As a leader in the Times puts it:

The bold aim is to turn a summer of potential drift and disaffection into one of purpose for youths from different backgrounds, working together to help people worse off than themselves, under the wing of various charities and social enterprises; and thereby, perhaps, to lay the ground for a less dislocated society in the future.’  

Cameron envisages a cross between a summer camp and community service. Teenagers will spend two weeks in a residential summer camp and six weeks volunteering locally – caring for the infirm, gardening, helping to organise activities for children, cleaning public buildings and so forth.  It sounds remarkably similar to the sort of mundane social experiment programmes favoured by Channel Four; but it’s no less for that – the Big Society is supposed to simplify life.

There are, however, a number of potential pitfalls. National service has appalling connotations and the fear is that participation will be limited. Second, who will pay for this? Cameron hopes that charities will take responsibility and run these schemes on the cheap. But, the charitable sector’s current financial struggles may render that impossible. In which case, government, be it central or local, will have to create yet more self-defeating bureaucracy to deliver an arguably superfluous service. Still, I think it’s a worth a try: how expensive can a paint brush, a few plasters and a diet of baked beans be? More than a million 16-18 year olds are out of work, training and full-time education; that will bequeth far higher costs.