What part of ‘voluntary’ is so hard to grasp?

Gordon Brown has come out with yet another statement on compulsory community service for young people.  Ok, to be fair, he didn’t use the ‘V’ word, but of course subsequent reporting is full of it.  If Labour win the next election young people must clock up 50 hours of community service by the age of 19.

The focus on youth volunteering is hard to understand.  After all, young people regularly volunteer more than any other age group (according to the Helping Out national survey).  I really don’t understand what is to be gained by forcing young people into community service, other than some approving Daily Mail headlines.

The plan basically relies upon giving voluntary organisations and volunteer managers in particular a policing role.  Why should groups have to deal with young people who do not want to be there?  It will place volunteer managers (because it’s VMs who will be expected to manage these schemes) in an antagonistic role – montoring attendance and the quality of their charges’ work.

One wonders what will actually separate those carrying out ‘community service’ from people carrying out ‘community payback’ sentences.  Perhaps the ‘vests of shame’ will be in a different colour.  That way we’ll know to boo and hiss the right ones.

What are these young people going to do?  These kind of schemes rely on the idea that there is an infinite amount of work waiting to be carried out.  This is simply not the case, as the volunteer management capacity survey suggested..  Or at least isn’t if paid jobs aren’t going to be displaced.  What about people from other age groups who want to volunteer?  Are they going to find it difficult to get involved because most roles are going to pressganged youth?

Presumably what is to be considered community service will be within strict boundaries.  However,  the young people at the G20 climate camp were fulfilling an active citizenship role.  Why shouldn’t those hours be taken into account?

I can’t believe that this scheme will not meet resistance, both on an organised basis and informally.  There is no way I’d have willingly submitted to such a scheme  when I was young – I’m just old enough to have not paid my Poll Tax, and I would have resented this form of state compulsion just as much.  If popular opposition develops, which side will the volunteering infrastructure find itself on?

Brown cites Martin Luther King , who “once said that everyone could be great because everyone can serve”.   However in spuriously bringing in MLK he is missing the obvious point that serving others only carries moral weight when it is a free choice.  If you are going to quote King, there are quotations that are a little meatier and more apt to the current climate:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you beging to ask that question, you are riasing questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

“We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that [radical] questions must be raised…..’Who owns the oil’…’Who owns the iron ore?’…’Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’


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