The government’s approach to volunteering, and specifically the National Citizen Service programme, needs to be better integrated into a wider civic engagement policy, according to a new report by a group of peers.
In the report, The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, published today, peers say that NCS is still too disconnected from the rest of the sector and urge the government to do more to encourage other types of volunteering.
It also calls for the government to make changes to the Lobbying Act and commissioning processes to make it easier for charities themselves to be involved in the democratic process.
Peers also recommended the creation of a citizenship minister.
The report said: “We believe that coordination of policy would be helped if a single minister in a single department, presumably the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, was given responsibility for coordinating all matters related to citizenship and civic engagement.”
NCVO and the Charities Aid Foundation, which both gave evidence to the committee and said that they welcomed the points on widening opportunities to volunteer.
‘NCS must be considered a citizenship scheme’
The report criticised the government for insisting that NCS should not be considered a citizenship scheme and called for it to continue to work more closely with other youth organisations.
It said: “Inexplicably the government in its oral and written evidence insists that the NCS is not a citizenship scheme,” but that “if properly nurtured play an important role in creating active citizens”.
Peers echoed the concerns of the National Audit Office last year that the cost per participant was too high and said it was concerned about “hidden costs” such as travel for participants.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, Conservative chair of the committee, said: “The NCS must become the start of a life time of social action rather than being a one off experience. Barriers that prevent people from volunteering must be removed.”
The report also suggested that NCS “continue to work with other youth organisations to establish benchmarks for effectiveness to support evaluation across the sector”.
Widen opportunities to volunteer
There were a number of recommendations around making it easier for people to volunteer at other stages of life.
The report said that job seekers should be encouraged to volunteer and that Job Centre Plus staff should be better briefed to support this.
It recommended the creation of an Access to Volunteering scheme, similar to the Access to Work scheme, to support people with disabilities to volunteer and said the government should include information about volunteering with pension packs.
Peers also called on the Office for Civil Society to publicise its guidance on nominating volunteers for honours and for umbrella bodies to offer guidance to local authorities and social care organisations about giving formal recognition for volunteers.
Government approach to voluntary sector
Peers said they were concerned about the impact of the Lobbying Act on charities.
“One concern in civil society is that government action is reducing charities’ involvement in the democratic process,” the report said, and highlighted the Lobbying Act.
It called on the government to implement earlier recommendations made by Lord Hodgson, “as soon as Parliamentary time permits”.
Peers also said that the increase in charities taking on large public contracts has “complicated” the relationship between charities and civic engagement.
It called for the government to conduct a review of best practice and to use the Social Value Act to “to include public engagement in the contracts of public service providers”.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO said: “This report is an important contribution to the question of how we can bring communities together, and it rightly identifies the significant role already played by charities in supporting integration, and where there are opportunities to build on that work.
“Volunteering has rightly been recognised by the report as a key route into wider civic participation, and we welcome the committee’s support for a number of our recommendations. Ensuring job centre staff are able to give accurate advice about volunteering will help jobseekers access the benefits of participation.
“NCS is the government’s flagship social action scheme, but opportunities to encourage further participation are being missed because of a lack of integration with the wider sector. This report provides a positive vision for how NCS can play a more effective role in the civic journey, while addressing continued concerns over its value for money.”
Ashleigh Milson, campaigns and public affairs manager at the Charities Aid Foundation, said: “The Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement is absolutely right to say the government should help people find opportunities to volunteer when they retire. Including details about volunteering as part of pensions information is a simple, low-cost first step towards getting more people involved.
“Millions of people retire each year and represent a vast pool of talent and expertise with the time and the skills to help others, and benefit from the satisfaction and challenge of giving something back.
“We know that older people fear boredom, loneliness and a lack of purpose, and volunteering can help combat this. Our research also shows that more than 40 per cent of people would like to learn more about opportunities to volunteer.”