The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century Follow-Up Report Debate

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Department: Department for Education

The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century Follow-Up Report

Baroness Barker Excerpts
Monday 17th April 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, not least for his tenacity in bringing these reports again and again to the attention of Ministers. I say that because it is particularly galling to see the evident indifference of successive Ministers to these reports, which have been the subject of a great deal of work, thought and consideration. It is really important. Citizenship is becoming increasingly fragile. We have a Government at the moment who, remarkably, in the wake of Windrush, seem to spend more energy and time devising innovative means to deny or deprive individuals of citizenship. I truly believe that citizenship, the ties that bind us, is a crucially important part of a healthy society which lives at peace with itself in all its diversity.

I just want to take my time to pick up on a couple of things. The first is the National Citizen Service. Since its inception, I have been sceptical about the organisation. I have never disagreed with its basic premise: that young people can and should be encouraged to develop their personal skills by taking part in projects or short programmes which benefit communities. Every Government for the last 30 years have had programmes which have tried to mitigate the effects of unemployment and bring about community benefit through volunteering. My objection has always been that the NCS, despite having no intrinsic unique value, just high-profile political endorsement, was awarded royal charter body status, which it neither needed nor deserved, and that in an area where resources are really scarce, it continues to devour the lion’s share of what is available. That is despite a lack of evidence that it either delivers better tangible results than other organisations or is the most cost-effective option.

In both of our reports, we talked to the representatives of the NCS and also to Ministers to try and understand what it was doing and where it fitted in with everything else. We were so alarmed about the lack of resources for training and for schools. We particularly talked to both about the role of the NCS. We got a reply from the Ministers that said that the

“National Citizen Service Trust’s primary function is to provide and arrange for the provision of programmes for 16 and 17 year olds in England. National Citizen Service Trust works closely with hundreds of schools through the Skills Booster initiative to deliver, or help deliver, curriculum resources to support young people’s personal development, volunteering and social action”.

I spend a lot of time looking at the NCS’s reports; I recommend that people do that. If you look at the latest available report, the NCS says that it facilitated the return to education of 60,000 young people in 400 institutions. As far as I can see, that was about support to young people trying to return to it after all the difficulties of lockdown. It cites itself as working on issues such as communication, teamwork, goal setting and planning. Well, that is fine, but quite why the NCS should do this, as opposed to any other educational support services, is really not clear to me. I really have to question the work of the NCS.

A point that I have made before is that the NCS commissions its own evaluation, and the evaluations which it has had are not comparative in any way, so it marks its own homework. You get lots and lots of statistics which, in and of themselves, are very interesting, but they really do not prove that this body is the best way to deliver outcomes. So I yet again ask the Minister when there will be a review of the NCS which is undertaken independently and which places it within the context of the two reports that we have produced. Its reports talk about it being part of a sort of ecosystem of youth support, local government and all of that, but it really does come across when you go to see it as much more of a lone ranger pursuing its own objectives.

The second thing that I, too, want to talk about is the Life in the UK test. I commend the work of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of my formidable colleague, my noble friend Lady Hamwee. On 28 June last year, it wrote Kevin Foster MP a letter which I would say was polite but firm. In it, it was very clear; it said that the stakes for anybody taking a Life in the UK test are “very high”; if you fail that test, you may find yourself being deported, losing your income, and failing to get your indefinite leave to remain, so it is a really important and profound thing. It also said that it was really important that

“social cohesion, education, active participation, and the celebration of prospective citizens and permanent residents”

should all be at the heart of demonstrating sufficient knowledge about life in the UK. But it has said, and members of the committee have endorsed this, is that frankly, to people sitting that test, it is baffling. They are asked questions which they simply do not understand, and they do not understand why they are being asked these questions and what they will do to help them be any more fully engaged in society.

The committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, suggested that yet again we were having a promise of a review. It has been years since this review has been promised but what we really need and I am glad the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has had an email, I do not think I have—

Baroness Eaton Portrait Baroness Eaton (Con)
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I am sorry, I think I may have imagined or misread an email from earlier in the day, so I am sorry if I have sent hares running. I apologise.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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Okay, I am not going to go chasing hares. We need a timetable for the start of this review and for its completion because it has been dragging on for so long, it is an embarrassment.

I was particularly taken by the description that said that the history section of the Life in the UK test is insensitive and embarrassing. It truly is. It is so full of subjective views of our history. As the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern said, all sorts of practical information that every individual might need to live life in this country is not there.

One other thing that nobody has yet talked about is the lack of availability of centres to take the test and the not inconsiderable cost of sitting the test. By the time you have bought the book and booked everything up it can be in excess of £300 to do this test on which your future rests.

All roads round, I think it is quite clear that the Government have for far too long just dragged their heels on this. I think it is an initiative that was started by a Labour Government. It was always going to be contentious but everybody accepts it could be an enormously valuable contribution to citizenship for communities. I do not know whether Members have gone along to a local citizenship ceremony but it is a lovely thing to watch communities celebrating and welcoming people to come and live.

I simply say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, that she is on a very unfortunate wicket this afternoon but I hope that she will not be, like a long line of her predecessors, somebody who bats us off with very little detail and no commitments because we do ourselves an injustice if we let this go any further.