It is a great pleasure to follow Dan Jarvis. I speak both as a local Member of Parliament and as chairman of the all-party groups on heritage rail—the link will become clear in a moment—and on democratic participation.
This debate is being watched in the House and outside by those with an active involvement in the NCS, and they might think, “Why isn’t there a packed House to celebrate such an important scheme?” However, they should draw some comfort from the fact that that means it is not a contentious scheme, but one that has cross-party support. All right hon. and hon. Members want it to succeed. It is, in a way, a good sign that while there is not that much interest, there is not too much controversy about this Bill.
I welcome the fact that the Bill will place the NCS on a statutory footing and bring it close to being a national institution and a rite of passage for 15 to 17-year-olds. I want to join others in paying tribute to the former Prime Minister and Member for Witney, David Cameron, who was a great champion of NCS, and to my hon. Friend Mr Hurd, who is now a Minister in another Department but who did so much to get NCS up and running in the last Parliament. I pay tribute to those working on NCS at a national level and to those who, as we have heard, participate as volunteers and mentors in all the schemes. Without their great dedication, the schemes would not have been so successful. Finally, I pay tribute to the current Minister and Secretary of State for championing NCS. It would be fair to say that my family and that of the Secretary of State already know the benefits of outdoor activity, because we often take them on route marches in the summer recesses.
I wish to deal with three issues today: the building of skills that our young people need for life in 21st century Britain; the community cohesion and integration aspects of NCS; and the specific amendment tabled in the other place, which I also intend to put down, on volunteering for what is considered to be an industrial undertaking.
The NCS is often the first step for young people on their youth social action journey, and it places emphasis on creating more integrated and engaged citizens. The Prime Minister’s recent speech unveiling the shared society has already been mentioned. She rightly said that it is time to tackle the culture of individualism that seems to have grown up. The NCS is about ensuring that young people are equipped with the necessary skills to get ahead in life.
I was pleased to hear Jon Cruddas talking about character, because I championed character education when I was running the Department for Education, and I set up the character awards and grants. I have had conversations with both local and national providers, and I believe that NCS will play a hugely important part in building the individual and national character of young people.
The NCS is a vital extracurricular activity, but is also about civic engagement. Recent research shows that participants in the NCS are more likely to vote. Bite the Ballot, partners with the NCS via the Challenge Network from 2014, has provided the tools used to run sessions on political engagement. As a result, 95% of all participants have gone on to register to vote. At a time when we often lament the fact that young people are not much engaged in the political process, that just shows one of the benefits of NCS.
Through NCS programmes, young people are able to work with local businesses and social leaders to develop their resilience, grit—one of my favourite words—teamwork and leadership skills, and to discover more about their area through delivering local volunteering projects that matter to them. I recently met Education Business Partnership, the regional delivery partner of the NCS, in my own constituency, which has worked with more than 5,000 16 and 17-year-olds in the east midlands since 2011. It has been supported to carry out over 100,000 hours of social action.
In Loughborough, I have worked with a number of organisations that benefit from NCS social action, including Rainbows children’s hospice and the Falcon centre, which provides homeless people with accommodation. I suspect that all hon. Members in their places today, in common with my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst, will have met local NCS cohorts. I have met at least three of mine during their residential week in Leicester, at the end of their social action project to renovate the community room at Hind Leys College and the project at Fearon Hall in my constituency. The last one involved the great sacrifice of eating cupcakes on a Saturday morning. It was very difficult, and I was delighted that they had chosen to raise funds in that way.
There is an intensive nature to and seriousness behind the NCS programme. Hon. Members have already spoken about the levelling effects of the activities, and the setting of shared goals that contributes to the development of a common identity between the participants who often come from diverse backgrounds. People have been right to speak about the national importance of NCS. The result of last year’s referendum has meant that discussions about national identity are ever more to the fore, and I believe that the mixing of people from different backgrounds is a vital part of what NCS offers. I also welcome the fact that the Bill will encourage more young people to take advantage of the programme.
Schools are clearly an important way of reaching young people and informing them of the benefits of participating in the programme. When I was Secretary of State for Education, I had some conversations with the Minister. I was very much of the view that schools should facilitate the giving of information to young people about the benefits of the scheme. It is sometimes tempting to ask our schools to do an awful lot, but I used to say that if we asked schools to do everything that other people asked of them, they would never get round to teaching until about midnight every night. We must have a balance, but there must be a way for schools to facilitate the giving of information about the programme both to future participants and to parents and families, and to allow those who have participated in the scheme to come back and talk to future cohorts about why they should sign up.
I hope to pick up an amendment that was tabled in the other place, and I hope that we may be able at least to debate it. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the Bill does not unintentionally prevent young people from working as volunteers on a heritage railway or tramway as part of a programme provided or arranged by the NCS. A similar amendment was tabled by Lord Faulkner, and has already been debated in the other place. As I have said, I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on heritage rail, and I recognise the considerable contribution that that sector makes to local economies through tourism and employment. Indeed, the Great Central Railway, which is in my constituency, attracts 138,000 visitors per year. In 2015, the value of tourism to Leicestershire grew for the sixth consecutive year, reaching a record high of £1.57 billion and providing employment for more than 20,700 people.
Young people will be vital to the success of the industry, as they provide voluntary maintenance and operational support. In turn, heritage railways and tramways help to engage young people, and provide a platform for them to learn the important new skills that the NCS is instilling. However, it appears that the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920 excludes “children”, defined in section 558 of the Education Act 1996 as
“an individual who has not yet reached 16”,
from working in what is described as an industrial undertaking. It seems, therefore, that it is illegal for young people to volunteer on heritage railways, although the current push towards volunteering did not exist when the 1920 Act came into force. A new clause has been proposed to clarify the Bill and to make it clear that that Act should not prevent young people from volunteering on heritage railways and tramways.
Health and safety have been discussed this afternoon; I should emphasise that the standard health and safety, safeguarding and supervisory requirements would, of course, still apply. We need more young volunteers on our heritage railways, and the all-party parliamentary group will be considering the role of apprenticeships and the development of employability skills that are vital in the 21st century.
Let me end by expressing my wholehearted support for the NCS and the Bill, and my wish to see maximum participation in the NCS in the future. It is a good thing—in fact, a great thing—for the individual young people who participate, but it is also a great thing for this country. I hope to have an opportunity to ask Ministers to think about updating the law in respect of heritage railways and industrial undertakings.