The factors that fuelled the riots have not gone away
Annika Olsen is a researcher at IPPR
As the anniversary of last year’s riots draws to a close, even Britain’s jubilant Olympic successes can’t fully mask widespread unease about whether enough has been done to prevent a repeat of last summer’s violence.
Tottenham MP David Lammy has warned that the factors that fuelled the riots have not gone away, citing problems with joblessness and gang culture across the UK.
A wall of police watched over this year’s Brixton Splash, the local event that last year saw young people break into, rob, and destroy shops and buildings in their own community.
In the wake of the riots, politicians on both the left and right floated the idea of a national civic service, highlighting long-standing arguments about how such schemes can impart young people with skills, create civic awareness, and promote social mixing across racial, class and intergenerational divides.
Motivated by similar goals, the government had already launched its National Citizen Service in the summer of 2011, with the stated purpose of promoting a more cohesive, responsible and active society.
Following last year’s riots, David Cameron announced his intention to expand the scheme – and last week the government announced its plan to offer it to 90,000 young people before 2014, up from 30,000 participants this year.
But to what extent is the government’s version of National Citizen Service capable of engaging young citizens and building stronger communities less prone to the sorts of underlying social problems that found a dramatic and violent expression in last year’s riots? To be sure, national service has the potential to meet these goals.
As philosopher Michael Sandel has suggested, obligatory universal national service – whether military or civic – tends to promote a type of citizenship characterised by ‘a sense of obligation for one’s fellow citizens, a willingness to sacrifice individual interests for the sake of the common good, and the ability to deliberate well about common purposes and ends.’
The revelation that Serco is likely to win a bid to take charge of delivering the programme, however, could have implications for the extent to which the programme can hope to achieve these civic goals.
IPPR has previously argued that we need to be much clearer about where outsourcing public services to private companies is and is not in the national interest.
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Particularly where services aim to promote public goods such as the values of citizenship, public spiritedness, and reciprocity, we must evaluate carefully whether private companies are compatible with the nature and purpose of the service. While a range of private and voluntary sector providers may be contracted to deliver local opportunities, a public authority should run the national programme. This wouldn’t rule out Serco from a role, but it would locate overall national authority and responsibility in the public sector.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the transformative potential of National Service is the scale of the scheme. As it stands, the programme is neither obligatory nor universal. Instead, it is a voluntary programme in which 16 to 17 year old participants engage in three weeks of full-time activities, followed by a set amount of local community work.
The preliminary results of an independent review suggest that the programme has been successful in improving participants’ communication, teamwork and leadership skills, but the results have been more mixed when it comes to generating social cohesion and community engagement.
Most worryingly, the reviewers found that because the programme’s participants are self-selected, it has mainly engaged those already evincing pro-social and voluntary behaviours. The realities of our current fiscal situation make a compulsory scheme, as some have called for, improbable in the near future.
But a programme with limited resources that reaches relatively low numbers of self-selecting young people will struggle to ensure participation by those young people most in need of civic education and social rootedness.
The existing scheme is a good start. But as it stands, it is unlikely to be the answer to the deep economic, social and political divisions underlying last year’s riots.