National Citizen Service Bill [Lords]

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 4:14 pm on 16th January 2017.

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Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury 4:14 pm, 16th January 2017

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The House must be getting very bored with that reminder, although I was extremely grateful for the much undeserved honour.

I welcome this Bill, as I am a strong supporter of the NCS. I had the opportunity to meet some of the 130 constituents who did their National Citizen Service last year, and I was very impressed. Clearly, they had enjoyed the earlier adventure training phase and were producing some really interesting ideas for working with local charities. That combination of challenging activity and a sense of service will be a very important part of our former Prime Minister’s legacy, and I was really delighted to see that he has agreed to be chairman of the patrons.

I will focus my remarks on the first bit of the programme—the adventure training. Although I strongly support what is being delivered and the very strong team headed by Michael Lynas and chairman, Stephen Greene, whom I had the opportunity to meet just before this debate, I am concerned that there are some wider trends that lie outside the strict confines of this Bill. However, knowing how tolerant you are, Mr Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to touch on those trends as they are highly relevant to the supply chain for the NCS.

Adventure training, which every NCS student does for at least one week, and sometimes two, usually at the beginning of the programme, develops team work and confidence. It involves pushing the boundaries and learning how to manage risk in a positive and constructive manner. It is very, very important and also increasingly rare. As far back as 12 years ago, the then Education Committee pointed out that this country, which produced the team that cracked Everest, had actually slipped down the league and was, arguably, below average around the world in our capacity for adventure training.

Five years ago, the English Outdoor Council produced a list of residential centres that deliver good quality adventure training. Of those 180 centres, 30 have since closed. Equally disturbing, a number of others have been taken over by providers, which are giving a good commercial offer in the sense that their insurance premiums are low because their risks are extremely low, but which, according to one expert in the field, typically deliver every meal indoors for the children. In other words, these so-called adventure opportunities involve nothing that lasts for more than two or three hours at a time.

The NCS is firmly aimed at the right end of the market. All the NCS students I have met have had extremely good experiences drawn from good parts of the sector, but we must be clear that that element is shrinking. The reasons for that are twofold: our litigious culture; and the worry about prosecution. Two surveys that have been done—one in 2003 by the Sport and Recreation Alliance and the other in 2006 by the Scouts— revealed that the blame culture was the No. 1 concern among adult volunteers. We are also in the era of the corporate manslaughter charge, which is a very serious concern for the local authorities that run these providers.

I suggest that we have made some progress in rolling back the litigious culture. After an all-party effort behind a private Member’s Bill, which I was privileged to promote, the Labour Government introduced a small measure, called the Compensation Act 2006, with only one substantial clause that reminded the courts that if they make an award against an organisation, they need to take account of the damage to the wider interest in that activity. It had support on both sides of the House, but, interestingly, was opposed by a number of highly articulate lawyers on both sides of the House and in both Chambers.

The threat of prosecution remains serious. There has been a certain amount of banter in the media about stories alleging phony regulations and the Health and Safety Executive—I strongly welcome its new chairman, Martin Temple—has debunked lots of myths. The problem whenever I discuss this with people providing adventure training is never with regulation; no one has ever raised regulation with me as a problem in a serious adventure training context. The problem is the risk of prosecution if something goes wrong.

Perhaps the worst case of this was at a place called Bewerley Park. In 2005, a boy of 14 was drowned in a caving incident at Yorkshire’s top adventure training provider. The HSE decided to prosecute the local authority and the case took more than five years to come to court. Finally, in 2010, the local authority was acquitted, but that happened because a critical body called the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, which considers standards in such organisations, had given the body a clean bill of health and testified in court that the standard of instruction and leadership was extremely high, that the freak and completely unprotected weather conditions that had led to rapidly rising water could not have been anticipated and that in fact it was a remarkable achievement of the instructors that they got all but one of the children out alive. Had that prosecution gone the other way, we would have lost not only that centre but many others up and down the country would have decided that they were no longer willing to take the risks of continuing.