Conservative London Mayor candidate Shaun Bailey has clashed with Rory Stewart over the Independent contender’s latest campaign offering, a London Youth Corps citizenship programme for “every teenager in London”.
Stewart’s pledge is a renewal of an idea he proposed when running for the Tory leadership last summer, when he promised a similar nationwide programme under the slogan “Purpose. Character. Coming together across the United Kingdom”.
His London scheme would build on the existing National Citizen Service (NCS) for 15 to 17-year-olds launched by David Cameron in 2011, which provides a fortnight away from home and two weeks’ work on local projects. If elected Mayor, Stewart would offer two weeks at a residential camp, combining outdoor activities with learning “life-skills” such as public speaking, leadership and teamwork, along with a year’s-worth of voluntary work including a requirement for each participant to plant 12 trees.
Controversially, Stewart would also lobby for both the NCS and his own youth corps to be made compulsory – an idea which brought condemnation from Bailey, a former youth worker, when suggested at the time of the launch of the NCS, when he was an adviser to Cameron on youth and crime.
“For any programme to work, you need to have the young people on board – they have to want to be there, and they must respect the people running the scheme,” said Bailey of Stewart’s proposed approach. “Over 20 years of youth work means I know that any compulsory element will remind some of school and of being punished, and this may turn them away from the programme. It has no identified funding and I know the compulsory element will deter some of the kids it is supposed to help. Schemes such as youth zones – which I am proposing – would be run by the community, for the community.”
Other City Hall contenders weighed in as well. “Young Londoners don’t need a fortnight away, they need real power to make real changes to their city,” said Green candidate Sian Berry, accusing Stewart of attempting to revive “David Cameron’s £1 billion scandal-hit failure”.
The central government-funded NCS, supported with a £181.1 million grant in 2018/19, has faced significant criticism since its inception. In 2017 the National Audit Office warned the scheme was over budget and failing to meet participation targets, while community cohesion expert Dame Louise Casey told a House of Lords inquiry that “referrals from Tower Hamlets…remain incredibly low, whereas referrals from Surrey remain incredibly high.”
A Local Government Association report in 2018 found just 12 per cent of eligible youngsters taking part in 2016, while in some areas take-up was as low as four per cent despite £634 million of government funding between 2014/15 and 2017/18, while councils had seen more than 600 youth clubs closed between 2012 and 2016.
The programme should be “part of a wider youth service, with funding devolved to councils,” said then chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, Hackney councillor Anntoinette Bramble. “A time limited programme of work cannot provide the trusted, longer-term relationships that are a valued element of youth work.”
Those criticisms were echoed by Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita. “Trying to force young people to participate is counterproductive, and this type of centralised scheme will be hugely expensive, what with associated bureaucracy, marketing and the accommodation offer at its core,” she said. “A short-term placement is a poor substitute for widespread, community-embedded youth services.”
Benita has proposed a new “London Youth Service”, focused on the after-school hours between 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm – the “most dangerous hours” in young people’s day – using the mayoralty’s “significant convening power” to boost provision, overseen by a “young Mayor for London” paid for from the mayor’s own salary. “My London Youth Service is all about coordinating, multiplying and empowering the brilliant work and offers of community, faith, sport and business groups, rather than trying to impose a centralised top-down approach that comes at the expense of community-led initiatives,” she said.
Berry pledged to give “real power” to London’s youth assembly to scrutinise and make recommendations on mayoral spending, as well as pressing for the voting age to be reduced to 16, while for Sadiq Khan, Stewart’s plans showed “astonishing hypocrisy” after the former Conservative MP and minister had “consistently” voted in favour of cuts to youth services. Yesterday Khan confirmed an extra £25 million for his Young Londoners Fund.
Defending his policy, Stewart said that Khan “could have done far more to back and develop youth clubs and services across the city. Our young people need worthwhile and engaging activities outside school, and they need to be shown broader opportunities. We must provide these opportunities for young people urgently.”
Despite well-publicised concerns, the NCS has nevertheless garnered positive evaluations, and has also begun to answer its critics with a “NCS 2.0” reboot – more delivery partners, tighter financial control, improved links with existing providers, an “NCS graduate action squad” helping participants continue community involvement, and a new board headed by Teach First founder Brett Wigdortz.
NCS London programmes are now managed directly by the trust, with football club community trusts including Brentford, Leyton Orient, Chelsea, Queens Park Rangers and Spurs as well as environmental charity Groundwork signed up to deliver the scheme.
The possibility of compulsion could still be a barrier to the sort of scheme envisaged by Stewart. Academic Sarah Mills, who has researched the NCS, told the House of Lords inquiry: “A compulsory scheme would dramatically change the rationale and ‘place’ of NCS in society, as well as create further obstacles for NCS Trust to integrate with the existing youth sector landscape.”
Nevertheless, Stewart may be tapping into the public mood. Investment in youth clubs and extra-curricular activities scored highest when YouGov last month surveyed the best ways to discourage young people from crime, and a survey coinciding with the launch of the NCS 10 years ago found 64 per cent of respondents in favour of making the scheme compulsory.
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