Thursday, 1 September 2011

Reflections on David Blunkett's proposed National Volunteer Programme

On 31st August, David Blunkett MP launched a report calling for the creation of a new National Volunteer Programme (NVP) as a response to the recent urban riots in the UK.  You can access his proposals here.

Such a programme of national community service for young people isn't new.  Mr Blunkett has made such suggestions in the past, thanks in no small measure to his long-standing association with Community Service Volunteers who run such volunteering placements and have done so successfully for many years.

Yet this particular proposal leaves me rather cold.  Here's why:

Opportunism and questionable evidence
Mr Blunkett's proposals smack of blatant opportunism following hot on the heels of the recent riots.

Rather than giving any evidence of why he feels the NVP approach would solve the complex problems at the root of the recent unrest, Mr Blunkett chooses to focus on the results of a YouGov poll taken shortly after the riots that said that 77% of people support compulsory service for young people (even though he states the NVP would be voluntary - mixed messages?).  Not a surprising survey result really given the flames had hardly been extinguished in British cities.

Mr Blunkett further states the case for a NVP on the basis that community service was a success in Germany and in China.  So his justification lies in a now scrapped German alternative to mandatory military service and a programme from a Communist dictatorship not know for its glowing human rights record?

Finally, in justfying his projected costs for the programme, Mr Blunkett argues they are drop in the ocean compared to the cost to the nation of youth crime and re-offending.  Yet Mr Blunkett fails to draw any link between such an NVP and evidence that it would reduce such costs to society.  If any organisation submitted such a proposal to a funder on so dodgy an evidence base it would be immediately rejected.

So much for evidence based policy making when one can just ride the crest of opportunistic public opinion.

Yet more money for young people's volunteering
The last government spent £117million on v.  This government is spending a small fortune on National Citizen's Service.  Now we are being encouraged to spend £950million (just short of £1billion) on Mr Blunkett's NVP (total direct and indirect costs based on 100,000 volunteers as per the figures in the paper) with no evidence that it will solve the problems that cause the riots.

Don't get me wrong, young people's volunteering is an important issue.  v have done some great work as did Millennium Volunteers before them.  And, with a fraction of the budget, Orange RockCorps do fabulous work engaging young people in volunteering.  Yet young people are a shrinking proportion of this country's ageing population and a group that the UK will reply upon to pay the taxes needed to meet the pension deficit, the health and social care deficit, the national debt repayments etc..  When exactly will they have time to volunteer?

Mr Blunkett acknowledges that young people are most likely to volunteer and states that 32% of young people aged 16-25 volunteer but in "limited" ways.  Their committment is limited because they live busy and complex lives like the rest of us.  Perhaps the money might be better spent engaging the over 25's, who volunteer much less, to engage in their communities, alongside young people.

Ah, but Mr Blunkett thinks the NVP important because young people were the majority of the rioters.  It is clearly aimed at getting our feckless youth off the streets for nine months whilst they serve society, thus becoming better citizens.  In that case, I ask again - where is the evidence that nearly a £billion of money spent on the proposed NVP would solve the problems that led to the riots?

Involvement of people knowledgeable about volunteering
As with many such proposals warm words are used about working with existing "major volunteer organisations" to make Mr Blunkett's ideas a reality.

Yet his proposed operation board seems to exclude agencies with expertise in volunteering in favour of health, crime prevention etc..

There is no explanation of the basis for the proposed £2,500 per participant indirect costs, other than it is calculated from a three year old CSV leaflet.  Would this make involvement in the scheme financially viable? Certainly £2,500 seems rather low if an organisation is to meet the management costs of a full time volunteer for nine months (although I accept that is a gut instinct judgement rather than one based on any evidence).

And where is the emphasis on helping and supporting organisations to provide nine-month, full time volunteering placements for young people?  Is that what organisations want and need in terms of volunteer engagement?  It doesn't seem to be the case for the British Red Cross.

I suspect that even if this idea had an evidence base that supported it as a sensible use of money - and I contend that it doesn't - the implementation issues have yet to be fully considered.

Legislative and ethical barriers
Finally, there are the concerns that will be raised by many in the volunteering movement because whilst this appears to be a voluntary scheme participants would be paid a £3,000 stipend, £1,000 for travel expenses, receive £500 of citizenship training and have their efforts rewarded/incentivised through receipt of a passport that would offer financial and other benefits.

Does this make the scheme volunteering or low paid work?  What might be the implications under employment legislation and national minimum wage if a NVP participant felt aggrieved at their treatment and took their volunteer involving organisation to a tribunal?  Would volunteering organisations want to involve people from a scheme that so stretched the understanding of volunteering?

These are some of my initial thoughts on Mr Blunkett's proposals.  Whilst I am sure they are well intentioned they are, in my view, opportunistic, ill considered and not fully thought through.

What do you think?  Is Mr Blunkett onto something or barking up the wrong tree?  Please do share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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