As reported in the Huff Post earlier this week, Norman Tebbit is the latest in a long line of public figures to speak out in favour of bringing back national service. Everyone from Prince Harry to TV adventurer Ben Fogle and Dan Jarvis MP have all expressed their desire for the UK to have a form of national service option for today's young people. With Norman Tebbit the latest to throw his hat into the ring, it is clear this call isn't the exclusive property of the right or left of politics
But let's get one thing straight, national service does not, and should not, have to be a throwback to the 1950s when combats, compulsion and military discipline were the order of the day. Compulsion isn't the only way to get young people to serve their country. And what's more, you certainly don't need to go abroad, and it definitely doesn't have to be reserved for some archaic image of young people who are 'falling into lives dominated by fecklessness, drugs, crime and violence'.
I'm CEO of the charity City Year UK that allows 18-25 year-olds to serve full-time for an academic year in UK schools, helping children from disadvantaged background with their attendance, attainment and behaviour. This year we have 146 full-time volunteers who have taken up the call, adding to the 750 over the last seven years who have now given over one-million hours of service with our charity. No tricks, no illusions, no sleight of hand, just the opportunity to improve their communities and the support to help them afford to undertake this challenge for a year.
And City Year UK aren't alone. Volunteer Matters (formerly CSV), vInspired, Depaul and the Scout Association all offer full-time volunteering opportunities for young people across the country helping in social care, the environment and homelessness. All-in-all it is estimated that around 1,000 young people are engaged in this type of volunteering every year.
Yet despite pouring in hours of their time for the betterment of their communities, anyone who volunteers full-time in the UK is classified as NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training). This means they miss out on National Insurance credits which students and job seekers are entitled to. This is where the government comes in. We are calling for a government-supported structure for full-time volunteering with a proper legal status for those who take up the challenge.
Just take a look at Germany, France and the USA for inspiration. They are among a number of developed countries to have all established full-time voluntary national community service programmes, allowing hundreds of thousands of young people to give millions of volunteer hours every year to serve their country. AmeriCorps in the USA allows 80,000 young people to take part each year and France's 'Service Civique' is projected to facilitate 150,000 young participants to serve in their nine-month programme by the end of the year.
Norman Tebbit called for young people from the UK to be sent abroad to help with disaster relief. Well the USA have already established their own domestic volunteer force to help alleviate the damage cause by the disasters at home. They call it FEMA Corps and it has over 1,000 trained full-time volunteers ready, willing and able to be deployed at a moment's notice - as they have been following the hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Katrina before that.
And what continues to be incredibly frustrating is that most of those calling for 'national service' in the UK are yet to join the dots and realise there is a massive opportunity happening right under their nose. The Government has set up the independent Review of Full Time Social Action by Young People, chaired by former National Grid CEO Steve Holliday, which is investigating the legal and regulatory barriers to full-time social action in the UK. It is due to present its recommendations in December. This can be the catalyst to creating our very own full-time service programme in the UK, fit for the 21st century.
So my plea to everyone who sees the value in a 'national service option' for UK is to stop wishing for some vague concept of former glory and get involved in shaping the recommendations of this review by responding to its call for evidence and pushing the Government to act following the release of its recommendations.