This Government appears to makes inconsistent decisions about the way they spend our money. In November 2012 I was a candidate for the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner election, a new role that received a great deal of publicity as it was introduced and then from a £3M promotional campaign by the Government. Despite this the Government refused to pay for each home to receive a leaflet from local candidates explaining their priorities and proposed policies, unlike in a General Election. This omission was judged by most candidates including myself as a mistake and many sitting PCCs joined the Electoral Reform Society in calling on the Government to change their approach in advance of the second set of elections, in May this year. However this call fell on deaf ears and the Government spent a mere £2,700 on publicity. Many critics including myself viewed this as cynical way of giving advantage to the better resourced candidates, primarily those from the Conservative Party.
At a time of austerity it would be easy to believe that the decision was due to a shortage of public funds. However in the last few days the Government has announced that it has authorised the spending of £75M over the next 4 years to publicise the National Citizen Service programme, a project that was announced in 2010 to engage 16 and 17 year olds in civil society. I was Chair of a charity that launched one of the NCS pilot schemes in Sussex in 2011. The principle is that young people would be drawn from a wide range of backgrounds which indeed was the case with our scheme and by mixing with one another over a 2-4 week period carrying out voluntary activities they would change their outlook on society at large. Unfortunately many other pilots simply adopted existing groups of young people and so a core part of the initiative was lost. Now in its fifth year, the Government wanted by now to have involved 200,000 – 300,000 young people each year. Last year 57,600 young people participated. The Government has now reset its target and is now hoping with this £75M publicity campaign to involve 300,000 young people annually by 2020. The cost of running the scheme is anticipated to be £1.2Bn over that period. A sum that could fund a huge amount of other voluntary youth provision and possibly achieve better outcomes for some.
The National Citizen Service Programme is a potentially important scheme and I am proud to have been involved in one of its pilots, but it is not 25,000 times as important as the fair election of Police and Crime Commissioners. We urgently need a review of how this sort of public money is spent, not just on youth initiatives, but on our democratic processes.