It is a pleasure to follow Jon Cruddas, whose remarks I received warmly. Having believed that this was a Bill to which it was not possible to make any objection, I thought that Mr Reed had to cast around fairly widely in order to disguise his enthusiasm for it. Four years ago, I had my first encounter with the NCS, and I decided then that it was a good thing. This Bill seems to be designed to make it more of a good thing, and that is why I welcome it so warmly.
I think back over years to when one of the siren calls that one heard from young people was, “There’s nothing to do here”, whether “here” was a town or a village, and so on. In reality, of course, there were things to do, but there was no obvious way of making a positive contribution to the community beyond, perhaps, the Scouts and the Girl Guides. Then from an older generation one would hear the call, “Youngsters these days need discipline: bring back national service”—something that our professional armed forces rather disdained as an idea. People would say, “Well, it did me good, and I’m sure it’s what everybody needs today.” That view began to fade, quite rightly, but talk there was of a civilian equivalent. Yet somehow it never got going. It is to the credit of the former Prime Minister, the then Member for Witney, that he took this up and made a real achievement of it. Many of us always felt that there was scope for it, perhaps because we were enthused by what the late President Kennedy did with the Peace Corps in involving and harnessing the views and enthusiasm of young people. At last, with the National Citizen Service, we have a scheme that has taken root and is flourishing.
My connection with the NCS has simply been that I have tried dutifully to visit a group in my constituency in each of the past four years. I have seen a whole host of things that young people have been engaged in at various stages of the four-week process that they follow. I can certainly attest to the growing confidence I have seen among those young people, the interaction between them, coming as they do from many different backgrounds and never having met each other before, and the enthusiasm that they have. I welcome that. I never heard a voice raised to say that it was a waste of time or a bad thing; it was all about wanting to go back and tell other people that it was something they should think about when their chance came. I therefore accept the trust’s own findings of greater positivity among people whom it has managed to persuade to come into the scheme. The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham referred to the Ipsos MORI poll evaluation, which is good evidence that young people themselves feel positive about it.
So what are the concerns? I suppose there is the possibility that the NCS has an effect on recruitment to other organisations, whether it be Voluntary Service Overseas, Médecins Sans Frontières, UN Volunteers, Save the Children, Oxfam, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme or the Prince’s Trust, but that is not the right way of looking at it. It is more likely that the NCS will be a stepping stone to looking around for other things that people may do in life having had the knowledge and experience of what being part of it was all about. In short, I do not see anything that the NCS can spoil. It is about inculcating a habit and an approach among young people, and that can only be for the good of our society.
Of course it is right that we should be concerned about governance. One or two colleagues have mentioned how we control the scheme, make sure it is offering value for money, and so on. It seems to me that an annual report presented to Parliament offers us all a way of checking that. I support the idea of a debate about it, because we should talk about such things more often. The achievements of young people as they are manifested in the NCS each year should be highlighted in Parliament. Too many people are ready to believe the worst of young people simply on the basis of a story that they read in a newspaper that puts young people in a bad light, while completely ignoring the fact that the vast majority of young people mean well and, indeed, do well in their contribution to society, the local community and so on.
Having had the pleasure and privilege of some involvement with voluntary organisations over the years, I believe that one thing we must be careful about is supposing that we can attach a precise value to the benefits of being involved with the NCS. How can we measure somebody’s contribution—the enthusiasm with which they go out to collect money for a cause that they have become familiar with, and the way in which that becomes an ongoing part of how they want to run their lives? How can we measure that? We cannot. We cannot measure how a person’s outlook on society has improved, to make them a more positive citizen than they might otherwise have been. Although we must be responsible about the amount of money that is spent, we do not want to pretend that we can implement a view that amounts to knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.