The creation of a country in which every one of its citizens feels secure, engaged and fulfilled must be a primary objective of a successful modern democratic nation. This would be a country in which everyone feels that they belong, and to which everyone feels they can contribute.
Individuals do not learn about governmental and judicial institutions of the United Kingdom through osmosis. The values which underpin our society, which have been tested in recent years by a variety of economic and societal developments, are not self-evident. They need to be learned and understood. Another important step is to understand that the demand for individual rights cannot be divorced from the need for individual responsibility. Finally, whether older or younger, disabled or non-disabled, long established or recently arrived, marginalised or secure, every one of us who together make up the tangled skein of British society has a story to tell and a contribution to make.
To try and untangle this complex and sensitive web we have looked at the issue of citizenship and civic engagement through the prism of the civic journey each one of us who lives in Britain will undertake. We have found much that is encouraging, showing British society engaged harmoniously together despite the waves of change that are inexorably rolling over us. But inevitably there are areas where we are less successful. We have tried to identify the barriers which are preventing people from feeling part of our society or contributing to it, together with the steps which must be taken to remove those barriers. So we argue for focusing resources, for reinforcing success rather than reinventing the wheel, and for adopting and seeing through long term strategies. This then is our story.
Our first conclusion is that, while a variety of faiths, beliefs and customs can enrich our society, and respect for the values of others is a high priority, respect for the law must come first. There is no place for rules or customs whose effect is to demean or marginalise people or groups—equality before the law is a cornerstone of our society. This is why the rule of law, together with a commitment to democracy, individual liberty and respect for the inherent worth and autonomy of all people, are the shared values of British citizenship from which everything else proceeds. These are “red lines” which have to be defended. As cornerstones these values need to be promoted in their own right rather than simply as an adjunct of counter-extremism policy.
We argue that the process we have called the “civic journey” should be a smooth transition in which central and local government provide individuals with a framework for benefiting from and contributing to society, and assist them in overcoming the barriers to engagement. Instead we have found that citizenship education, which should be the first great opportunity for instilling and developing our values, encouraging social cohesion, and creating active citizens has been neglected. Often it is subsumed into individual development which, whilst undoubtedly important, is not the same as learning about the political and social structure of the country, how it is governed, how laws are made and how they are enforced by an independent judiciary. Nor does it offer an opportunity of practising civic engagement in schools, local communities and beyond. The decline in citizenship education has a number of causes: the revision of the national curriculum in 2013, the fact that academies are in any case not required to follow it, the low esteem in which the subject appears to be held, the decrease in the numbers of trained teachers and the corresponding fall in the numbers taking Citizenship GCSE. The Government must re-prioritise the subject, creating a statutory entitlement to citizenship education from primary to the end of secondary education, and set a target which will allow every secondary school to have at least one trained teacher.
Chronologically, the next stage of the journey must be to allow children in their late teens further to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, to mix with people from different backgrounds and to get more involved in their communities. It was with this in mind that the Government announced the National Citizen Service (NCS) in 2010. Its ambition is laudable and its achievements considerable, but it sometimes fails to reach excluded communities in deprived areas. It would be more effective if it reached out to alumni so that it could continue to support them over time; this is the strength of the many long-established youth organisations. We make recommendations for how this might be achieved, how the NCS should promote active citizenship and how the NCS might do more to work in partnership with schools and colleges.
Volunteering is a strength of the UK, but would be helped by more facilities being made available for civic activity. The unemployed should be encouraged to volunteer by having their social security status clarified. More must be done to recognise and reward outstanding contributions made by volunteering.
The other distinct limb of civic engagement is democratic involvement and participation. While there has been a dramatic increase in the level of volunteering among the young, democratic engagement remains stagnant. The turnout in general elections, though improving, is still much too low, especially among the socially disadvantaged and the young. We make recommendations for improving the voter registration process, in particular by adopting the scheme which allows voter registration to take place at the same time as registration at universities, further education colleges and, ultimately, perhaps schools.
Communication between citizens and government at all levels is often poor, and was a subject frequently raised not just in formal evidence but by those we spoke to on our visits. When seeking people’s views, communication tends to be with the ‘gatekeepers’—those who hold themselves out, not always accurately, as representing their communities. People, especially in deprived areas, must be made to feel that government is speaking directly to them, working with them and for them, and paying attention to their needs and wishes. Contact between the Government and women’s groups is especially important. Communities must also be prepared to open up and bring more voices into the conversation.
Forming a single society from different generations, sexes, social and ethnic groups, and those of different faiths requires integration—a word which itself can carry threatening overtones of a requirement to surrender aspects of their way of life. The first requirement must be the ability to speak, read and write in fluent English: an alarming proportion of residents cannot speak English at all, and so cannot communicate outside their communities. This problem is not limited to new arrivals; too many people whose first and only language is English are still functionally illiterate. For them the civic journey barely starts. This huge barrier affects not just them but society as a whole. Extra funds devoted to teaching English would rapidly bring rewards, but we also suggest ways in which the access to such teaching might be made easier.
For those already living here who wish to become British citizens by naturalisation, the barriers are particularly steep. They include a “good character” requirement which is undefined, a knowledge test based on materials which are absurd, and a cost which is steeper than it should or need be. We suggest improvements to the whole process.
Near the end of our inquiry the Government launched its long-awaited response to the review carried out by Dame Louise Casey. As its title Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper suggests, this only is a further consultation exercise. Our inquiry into citizenship and civic engagement goes much wider than this; conversely the Green Paper covers areas outside our remit. Nevertheless there is significant overlap. We explain this in our introductory chapter, and in the course of the report we give our views on the relevant parts of the Green Paper. We hope that the evidence we have received, our analysis of that evidence, the conclusions we have drawn and the recommendations we make, some of which are quite hard-edged, will be of value in this consultation exercise. This report should therefore be treated as the response of this Committee to the questions in the Green Paper.
But consultation cannot be a substitute for action, either on integration alone or on citizenship as a whole. Moreover for such action to be effective, particularly where it has cross-departmental elements, will require consistent long-term application with defined lines of authority and responsibility. Our evidence suggested that historically there has been no clear co-ordination across Government, no real evaluation to find what works, and no long-term commitment to initiatives—many of which appear not to outlive the minister who initiated them. It is not immediately apparent from the Green Paper that these lessons have been learned in respect of this new Strategy. Austerity is not an excuse for doing nothing. As Dame Louise Casey told us: “You can always do things, and not everything costs money.”
We believe that our recommendations, once implemented, will mark a significant step towards a more coherent, confident and inclusive society whose members are encouraged and enabled to participate as active citizens.