I join colleagues in taking a consensual and comradely approach to the Bill. I am extremely supportive of the National Citizen Service and the brilliant work that it does with young people in my constituency. Redcar’s youth unemployment rate is two and a half times the national average. Some 30 or 40 years ago, young people leaving school knew that they would have a guaranteed job at the steelworks, at ICI or on the docks, but those jobs and industries have gone, and young people now face a much more insecure and challenging environment for jobs and opportunities. My greatest fear is that those who are growing up in Redcar do not see that they have a future in the region, and believe that if they are to get on, they must move away. One of the most important functions of the NCS is giving young people a stake in their local communities and restoring civic pride. That is fundamental to communities such as mine when we are building for the future.
I have seen our NCS regenerate football clubs, paint meeting rooms for young carers and turn concrete roadsides into gardens, and I have seen it raise a huge amount for fantastic local charities, organisations that deal with domestic violence, young carers, and a number of other worthwhile causes. The programme’s emphasis on the development of life and work skills, particularly self-esteem and confidence-building, and its encouragement of the next generation to take a stake in their communities are extremely valuable. I was privileged to attend some of the award ceremonies and to see young men and women stand up and address a room containing 200 or 300 people, which they openly admitted that they would never have done a few weeks before they started the programme. The programme gives them fantastic skills such as budgeting, project management and fundraising. Those skills are fundamental to young people’s success but, as we have heard, in an increasingly squeezed school curriculum, we do not have time to teach them. I therefore value the NCS highly and welcome the role that the Bill will play in establishing it as a national institution that more young people can access.
I also share the view that many hon. Members have expressed that one of the greatest strengths of the NCS is the way in which it brings together young people from all walks of life, helping to bridge social divides and overcome prejudice. It ensures that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to access the same opportunities as those from wealthier and better-connected families. Social inclusion and social mobility are intrinsic to the principles of the NCS and I strongly believe that these principles must be maintained when it is placed on a statutory footing. It must not be the preserve of young people who are already confident enough to put up their hands or those whose parents have the sharpest elbows.
I know that the NCS is committed to making every effort to reach the most socially excluded young people. The National Audit Office report on the NCS that was published last week noted a higher percentage of participants from minority groups, such as those on free school meals, than in the wider population, which is a positive achievement, but we must make sure that this motive remains a key purpose after the transition of the NCS to becoming a royal charter body—it cannot ever be relegated to something of lower importance. I therefore support the calls made by our Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend Mr Reed, and by The Challenge for the wording of the royal charter specifically to reference social integration as one of the primary functions of the NCS programme. Furthermore, I support the case for funding to be specifically ring-fenced for targeting hard-to-reach groups. Those aims are fundamental to the NCS and it is important that they are formally written into the governance fabric of the new body.
I was also initially concerned that some of the Government’s proposals could place unnecessary burdens on schools and local authorities, which are already overstretched. It is a welcome change that no formal duties on either will be included in the Bill.
Ensuring that the programme grows sustainably will be a particular challenge, especially because the NAO has highlighted rising costs and lower than expected participation rates. One of the most important aspects of the Bill is to learn the lessons of the Kids Company debacle and to ensure that proper reporting and accounting structures are in place for this organisation, which receives a large amount of Government funding.
We should remember that although the NCS is important, it is not the only youth service in town. Other services play a vital role in diverting young people away from crime, supporting young carers and overcoming exclusion. They must not be deprived of the funding that they need to operate.
The Local Government Association survey to which Sir Alan Haselhurst referred found that 90% of English councils had cut services for teenagers. That is a result of huge reductions in central Government funding. Research by UNISON estimates that between April 2010 and April 2016, £387 million was cut from youth service spending across the UK. Youth services of varying kinds play a vital role in our communities, providing real and ongoing benefits for the young people who need them. Crucially, in many cases, they result in savings for the taxpayer because they reduce demand for other public services further down the line. The importance of wider youth services must not be overlooked by the Government.
I am proud to say that I support the principles of the Bill. I am pleased that there is such wide cross-party support of the value of the NCS programme. With a bit of clearer language in the royal charter, its value would be greatly enhanced. Young people on Teesside have great energy, great ideas and an enormous amount to contribute to their local community and their country. I hope that the Bill will help more of them to fulfil their potential.