National Citizen Service Bill [Lords]

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 4:02 pm on 16th January 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society) 4:02 pm, 16th January 2017

I thank the Secretary of State for that. I look forward to reading it. I am sure she will tell me if any of my points have already been miraculously addressed in the new draft.

Before getting into the detail of the Bill, I will talk briefly about its context. The Secretary of State said that the Prime Minister mentioned the NCS in her speech on the shared society, and we need to make sure that that vision does not end up hollowed out like the previous Prime Minister’s big society. The big society shrank down to little more than an attempt to replace paid professionals with unpaid volunteers, which is a shame because there is an urgent need to reshape politics in this country around people, family, community and shared institutions in a way that strengthens society and gives people more direct power. For all their talk, so far the Government have tended to do the opposite, rather than matching the power of the words they speak in this Chamber.

If we want people to feel they really have a share in society, they need two things: a voice to articulate what they are looking for; and the power to make it heard, be it at work, in their community or about the public services they use. In all that, there is a real big vision about national renewal based on sharing power, reshaping politics and opening up opportunity to everybody. We already see the potential of that in communities that have taken more control through projects such as tenant-led housing organisations, user-directed social care, community land trusts and community energy generation, to name just a few. The NCS can play a significant role in building young people’s capacity to participate; but the Government’s approach, including what we have heard of the “shared society” so far—I accept that that is not much yet—is still too narrow and too centralised to tear down the barriers that frustrate wider and deeper engagement by citizens. I hope that will change. The NCS will achieve great things, but it could achieve even more if the Government really understood the power and potential of communities freely co-operating for the common good, and allowed that principle to influence and shape the direction of Government policy right across the board.

Let me move on to some of the detail in the Bill, most of which, as I said earlier, is not contentious, unless the changes I have not seen have suddenly inserted a raft of things we are not expecting—I doubt that is the case. One of the most powerful aspects of the NCS is how it brings together young people from a range of different backgrounds. The divisions so starkly exposed by the EU referendum, and, I am sorry to say, widened by the Government’s unfair approach to funding cuts since 2010, show just how important it is that we promote better integration right across society.

I had the privilege of meeting some young people in Croydon who were taking part in the NCS, and their passion to make change real was tangible and moving. They had clearly learnt a lot from living, working, eating and facing challenges with other young people from backgrounds that were very different from their own. Let me give an example of why it is so important that we break down barriers. In some parts of urban Britain we see a growing problem with violent gang crime. Mercifully, the problem is still small at national level, but if you live in one of the neighbourhoods most affected, it is disfiguring and destructive in a way that is hard to imagine without having experienced it. In London, I have worked with people living on housing estates where violent, gang-related youth crime is endemic, but right next door there were streets full of better-off people leading completely different lives, with completely different expectations. The two communities live parallel lives that never touch. Young people on one estate that I visited spoke as if the borders of their world ended at the borders of the estate they lived in and the world of opportunity beyond was closed to them.

We have to break these barriers down, and I hope the NCS has a real role to play in that. I would like to hear the views of the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Reading East on strengthening the focus on integration in the Bill. It talks about “cohesion”, but not about the process of integration necessary to achieve it. A change along those lines in clause 1 has the support of a number of delivery organisations. We will revisit this in Committee, but I hope that any change can be achieved through cross-party consensus.

It is fundamentally important that the NCS continues to offer opportunities to young people from different backgrounds, so it is a concern that the proportion of participants from poorer backgrounds, as measured by eligibility for free school meals, has fallen since the NCS was created in 2011. Indeed, the National Audit Office states that

“in many…areas a disproportionate number of young people from certain backgrounds participate”.

It is of course very important that the NCS is an organisation for every young person in the country, whatever their background.