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Let This Election Mark A Turning Point For Youth Turnout

02/05/2017 11:47
Ian Forsyth via Getty Images

As a member of the House of Lords I am one of the few people in our country constitutionally barred from voting in the upcoming General Election. This doesn't mean I don't have a view, quite the opposite, but it does make me well placed to make a plea to remember what binds us together, not just what drives us apart.

The age we are living in, and the electoral season we are entering, accentuates division. If you have to communicate in 140 characters, it is no wonder that nuanced debate about complex issues is increasingly taking a back seat to shrill and angry point scoring. The phenomenon of fake news doesn't help, but even if the news is not fake, our devices allow us to 'screen out' things we don't want to read. And some of our university campuses are literally blocking people from speaking who have views that depart from the orthodoxy.

When the dust settles on this campaign, we are all citizens and we should all be part of a shared endeavour. Building our sense of national belonging as citizens, with responsibilities to each other, has been one of the themes of my time in public service. It is why I am a keen supporter, and a Board member of National Citizen Service (NCS).

NCS allows sixteen year olds from different schools and different backgrounds to come together in common purpose. Rich, poor, black, white, Muslim, Christian: it doesn't matter your background, on NCS you are welcome as a fellow citizen. As young people seek to learn life skills, including learning about themselves, where power lies and how society operates through citizenship education, they also gain enormously from direct contact in what is described as active citizenship. In other words, engagement and involvement in the real world with the challenges which should be at the heart of this general election.

This is a lesson I learnt at sixteen. I used to visit an old lady called Mrs Plum every week for two years. Just before I left the area, I went to see her to say that I hoped I had been of some help. Before I did, she said she hoped she'd been of some help to me. Citizenship is a two way street.

NCS was not my idea, and although I had 20 years ago initiated Millennium Volunteers and the funding of Outward Bound initiatives, this particular programme did not spring from an initiative of my political party. But it represents a fundamental investment in the future of our country, building strong foundations and knitting together the bonds that tie us together as citizens. That's why I am so proud that my party backed the National Citizen Service Bill as it went through Parliament, a Bill that received Royal Assent last week.

NCS will also shortly receive a Royal Charter and will take up its place as a new national institution dedicated to the next generation, beyond party politics. This is important because the evidence is wracking up that this long term investment in our country's future has a long term impact.

In March, the Office for National Statistics released new data that showed that 16-24 year olds had moved from being the age group that volunteered least in 2000, to the age group volunteering most in 2015. This is a remarkable testament to the impact of the more than 300,000 teenagers who are building stronger communities through NCS.

This week, new long term analysis using UCAS data is released that shows that NCS is making a significant positive difference to the national scandal of stalling social mobility. NCS participants get the chance to experience coming together away from home in a residential setting such as a university hall of residence and this boost in confidence means those who have been through the programme are significantly more likely to get a place in the University or progress to a higher level apprenticeship program. The impact is big - NCS boosts participation by almost 50% among those in the poorest areas, and halves the participation gap between these young people and the rest.

NCS has also been shown to boost electoral participation among those who take part, and I hope that this election marks a turning point for the worryingly low levels of turnout among young people. Whatever the outcome on 9 June, it is certain that it will be the giving of time and commitment, the rebuilding of community and the counterweight of civil society to the predominance of any political party, which will provide the glue to hold our society together. I hope NCS will be able to play a significant part in that process.

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