I totally agree. If a stated objective of the Bill is to learn how to live together and all be virtuous citizens, it should not be beyond our collective wit to organise a few debates in Parliament every year so that we can test how successful we are, so I support my hon. Friend’s comments.
My four points begin with the question of links with public bodies. The original draft of the Bill included an obligation on public bodies, but that has gone. I can understand that public bodies might see this as a bit of an imposition, particularly as quite a bit is being thrown at local authorities at the moment, so there is no need to enshrine an obligation in the legislation. However, if we are to succeed, surely we must ensure that the programme is a core activity for our public institutions. I raised the matter with my local council and a number of schools, and found that it was not the concern that I thought it might be, not least when I found out that 95% of London schools are already involved in the programme, although I do wonder about the effect on the independent sector. When will the guidance for schools and local authorities on how to better engage with the NCS be published? More generally, I understand that nearly £20 million a year will be earmarked for advertising over the next four years to increase participation from 100,000 to some 300,000. That is a hugely ambitious task that raises the question of what role schools and colleges will have in the programme’s promotion.
Secondly, on questions of integration, I echo the points made by my hon. Friend Mr Reed earlier. One point made to me from within the sector is whether the language used in the royal charter and the Bill, when laying out the functions and purpose of the trust, is sufficiently focused on the integration aspects of the NCS. Social integration— the act of mixing and forging bonds with those from different backgrounds—is a process and it should not be confused with social cohesion, which is the outcome that we seek to achieve.
At its best, the NCS helps integration through the intensive nature of the programme whereby participants spend almost three weeks together, through the social atmosphere as they cook, live and eat together, and through the levelling effects of the activities in which they are pushed out of their comfort zones as they engage in challenging activities on an equal footing and rotate leadership roles. The setting of shared goals—confronting participants with a shared challenge more easily overcome through teamwork, rather than an individual effort—is a key element of inspiring previously unlikely friendships. So, could we ensure that the integration function is enshrined in legislation? The integration elements are arguably the most important part of the NCS’s work. Is there enough about integration, not just cohesion, in the Bill and the royal charter?
Thirdly and briefly is the question of integration and inclusion. For a programme to have integration at its heart, it must include the hardest-to-reach young people. Doing so requires dedicated outreach teams and support workers on the programme. Should not some of the funding that delivery organisations receive be ring-fenced for this purpose to ensure that, in all areas of England and Northern Ireland, the NCS is genuinely a programme for all?
Finally, on the ambitions of the Bill, more than £1 billion over five years is a lot of money for a relatively young programme, especially given the austere times we live in. So is the Bill ambitious enough? For example, how does it link with wider questions of citizenship? Citizenship might well fall off the school curriculum, and that would appear at odds with the driving philosophy of the Bill and the programme. We regularly hear talk of a proposed year of service, advocated, for example, by the excellent City Year UK, although there is no mention of that in the Bill. In contrast, the NCS provides short programmes for 16 and 17-year-olds. It is a clearly defined programme but, if we were to be bolder, we might want to discuss certain issues. For example, City Year UK recruits young people to serve for a year in some of the most challenging communities, but the status of the volunteers is not clear. In other countries, such as the USA and France, full-time volunteering has a clearer legal status, and Governments are active in incentivising participation. Should we not consider a more systematic Government approach to the idea of a year of service including help with university fees and the like? As I understand it, full-time volunteers are currently characterised as NEETs—technically not in full-time education, employment or training. In other countries, full-time volunteering has a proper legal status. Why should we not move in this direction? Where have the Government got to on the issue?
In conclusion, I admit that I am one of the few people left who does subscribe to the idea of the big society. The NCS is what the previous Prime Minister called
“the Big Society in action”,
of which I am very supportive. I think it a good thing that the recently departed Prime Minister has agreed to chair the NCS patrons.
The Bill, although small and technical, has a big ambition behind it to build virtuous citizens and help us to live together peacefully. It is a little Bill, but one that is hugely significant for the future character of the country we wish to build. Nothing could be more important. If the Bill helps the NCS to achieve and endure, it will have achieved plenty.