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 Twycross Excerpts
Monday 17th April 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare an interest, as my husband, who is Norwegian, is currently studying towards the Life in the UK test which is mentioned in the committee’s report and to which I will refer during this debate.

I add my words commending both committees for their important work and their unceasing commitment to holding the Government to account over many years. As the report and several noble Lords have said during the debate this afternoon, there is a long way to go when it comes to supporting members of the public to have a thorough and rich engagement in civic society. I also commend the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, and say that in his opening reflections on the work of the committee he was probably a little too harsh in his school report card on the impact of the work of the committee but spot on on the continued importance and need for young people to understand how to be good citizens and make their voices heard. There clearly is a need for the Government and Ofsted to take citizenship more seriously.

What struck me and has been evident in this debate is that is clear that there have been missed opportunities in the citizenship test, the National Citizenship Service and teaching citizenship in schools. It is evident that there are multiple serious deficiencies in the Government’s approach and I seek assurances on some of these today.

My noble friend Lady Morris and others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, were clear that where the Government value things, they have the option of assigning a Minister. I agree that this is normally the case. Will the Minister tell us in her remarks if this is going to be addressed?

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, like many of those speaking, described citizenship teaching in very strong terms, I think calling it “appalling”. I was particularly struck by the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on the teaching of citizenship in schools and the downgrading of subjects, leading to an ever decreasing number of teachers.

The Liaison Committee’s follow-up report finds that, despite warm words, citizenship education is not yet a priority for the Government’s schools strategy. Damningly, as highlighted by many noble Lords during this debate, the report finds that Ofsted does not take citizenship education seriously. I agree with noble Lords that PSHE is not the same as citizenship, and the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is right in differentiating between the “I/me” of PSHE and the “we/us” of citizenship. They should be treated as separate and distinct subjects.

I was particularly struck—I think someone else also noted this—by the quote in the report from James Weinberg, who said that

“those in the top quintile for household income are five times more likely to participate in political activities”.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, said, the removal of barriers to democratic activity is vital. She is right that this is an issue for the levelling-up agenda and for government. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, also noted that this is lacking from the levelling-up Bill, while the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, noted the opportunity this Bill might present to government as it goes through the parliamentary process. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, on any other subject, the inadequacies pointed out in the quote from James Weinberg would have been addressed. If active citizenship means anything, it must include active participation in civic life, including political activities of all types, whether party-political—as most noble Lords have chosen—or issue-based activism. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, noted, active citizenship can also extend to volunteering and the voluntary sector, the growth and health of which we would all want to encourage.

I was concerned that the Government’s response to the report said that many of the recommendations on Ofsted were “a matter for the Chief Inspector”, although I note that their response to recommendation 12 acknowledged engagement between the department and the inspectorate. How will the Minister ensure that, going forward, Ofsted is equipped with the right training to assess the quality of citizenship education effectively? Labour is committed to reforming statutory citizenship provision within the national curriculum, placing a particular focus on practical life skills and employment skills, for example.

I turn to the Life in the UK test, which, as has been noted, is a gateway to becoming a UK citizen or having a permanent right of residence, and which is rightly being criticised. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, queried some subjective choices of questions. As someone who studied literature, I would say that all choices of questions are subjective; but there is an active choice to be made and at the moment, the questions as outlined are probably not most the appropriate.

As recently as last week, Durham University published a study that found that prospective candidates are being asked to memorise ridiculous trivia such as the height of the London Eye, and that the test is riddled with errors such as an incorrect date for the death of the late Baroness Thatcher. As I mentioned, my husband is Norwegian and is studying for the test. When I test him on the questions, he sometimes corrects me. He was clearly right when adamant that the answer to a model test question on the Vikings was incorrect. As the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, noted, one “wrong” answer can make a difference to the applicant. I would struggle to persuade my husband to give the wrong answer to a question about the Vikings.

While the pub quiz is a very real and valuable aspect of British culture, I cannot believe that the Minister would agree that it is the best model for testing whether people seeking to become British citizens understand what this means. Can the Minister tell us either the height of the London Eye—or why this type of information is relevant? Can she tell us when the handbook might be updated, rather than simply repeating what the report says: that the Government are committed to setting out their plans to update it? I would be grateful if she could explain why the Government cannot just get on with updating the handbook, and if she could press her government colleagues—accepting that it is a different department—to avoid kicking this into the long grass.

Finally, the last we heard from the Government was that the Inter-Ministerial Group on Safe and Integrated Communities has not met since 2019. Notwithstanding the fact that we have had a pandemic—we are no longer at its height—will the Minister say whether the group is still not meeting and, if so, whether it has been wound down or replaced with anything else? It is too crucial an agenda to be allowed to drift.

It is clear from the debate and everything noble Lords have said that citizenship matters, not simply because of legal status but because of values—values of loyalty fostered through feeling as though you belong. In this context, I found an article on the Migration Observatory website, Citizenship: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?, particularly thought provoking, covering both the legal status of citizenship and ideas of belonging. Surely, we want people of all ages, and our new citizens, not just to know that they are legally British but to be proud of our country and of the contribution they can make to its future, and to be proud because they feel that they belong. We want them to feel this pride irrespective of what language they speak at home or where they were born.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for mentioning the NCS, because we did not cover it very widely in the debate. As she noted, it could do more to foster citizenship. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on her proposal of a review.

In today’s challenging world of online conspiracy theories, culture wars and, notably, the prohibitive voter ID laws from the Government, a firm commitment to building a strong and resilient society that builds up trust in politics and politicians must be at the heart of public policy-making. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, said that politicians are part of the problem, but he was absolutely right to say that they are also part of the solution. I hope the Minister can assure us that the Government are committed to being part of the solution, taking the recommendations of both committees seriously and acting on them sooner than the formal response suggests that they might.