I am proud to be here to support the NCS Bill. The NCS is one of the best things done by the last Government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, and I am delighted that it is being put on a statutory footing, safeguarding its future as a national institution. The NCS will give hundreds of thousands of young people the momentum they need for a lifetime commitment to volunteering.
I chaired the debating society at school, and indeed at university, and one motion that we used to debate was whether national service should be reinstituted. It was difficult to argue for the motion, both because of the cost and because we did not need a large force prepared for military action, but there is a lot of evidence for the other benefits of national service, which I can see in the National Citizen Service. When I was researching the motion on national service I needed to go no further than my late father, who did national service in the 1950s with the Royal Marines and the Durham Light Infantry. He would always tell me what a great social leveller national service was, because in basic training someone could be in a dorm with people from Eton, stockbrokers and electricians—people from all walks of life and every conceivable background. Any pre-existing airs and graces someone had would quickly be squashed by a diet of exercise, hard work and learning new skills, and having to live, eat, sleep and work—do everything together—as a team. People who had been through national service were better able to adapt to the challenges life threw at them, and to work together and interact better with people from all different walks of life.
Let us wind forward 50 years to the NCS. Although it has none of the military training of national service, it does have those positive features we saw with that: the levelling effects, with individuals from all different walks of life coming together, where people are pushed out of their comfort zone and engaged in challenging activities on an equal footing; and the social atmosphere of people living, eating and cooking together with others from every walk of life. In addition, the NCS has provided 8 million hours of voluntary work in communities in the UK. Graduates of the NCS are likely to contribute six hours more per month of voluntary work than people who have not been through the scheme. Eight out of 10 graduates of the NCS also said that they are more likely to get on with people from different backgrounds whom they would not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet.
In Kingston upon Thames, in my constituency, I have been to see the NCS in action in both the years I have been an MP. In 2015, I went to see volunteers doing their voluntary week, when they were helping with the Weir Archer Academy’s disability sports taster day. Last year, I was one of the dragons at the NCS “Dragons’ Den”, where groups bid for extra funding for their social action campaigning projects. On both those occasions, I took time to speak to the young people involved, and two things came up time and again: that the NCS programme had brought them out of their shell, giving them a confidence they had lacked before; and that they had the opportunity to mix with people from the same borough whom they had never met before. These were people who had been to different schools, different types of schools, and were from different backgrounds. In the same way as President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s AmeriCorps did, the NCS brings together young people to go out and do good things in their communities and in the world, and to come back with a mindset to help their local communities.
The NCS also does a huge amount for social integration, which is why organisations such as The Challenge, which supports many of the NCS projects in urban areas such as London, are calling for social integration to be added to community cohesion as one of the stated aims of the NCS in the draft royal charter. The Prime Minister has spoken of the importance of social integration. In my view, the best way to get social integration right is to start when people are young and to give them opportunities to integrate that do not exist readily in every community. In her report on social integration, Dame Louise Casey noted the role of the NCS in
“improving understanding and relationships between young people from different backgrounds.”
Some 30% of NCS participants are from ethnic minorities, with the figure in Kingston being 65%, and 17% are on free school meals, The low admission fee, which can be waived if parent circumstances require it, is undoubtedly very important in achieving that, which is why the huge financial investment in NCS for the lifetime of this Parliament is crucial. The NCS can and should become one of the key tools of social integration, so I am delighted it is being expanded and put on a statutory footing today.
Before I conclude, I want to make it clear to other organisations that encourage voluntary service and teach young people life skills that the focus on the NCS in no way denigrates the fantastic work that they do. I include among those organisations Girlguiding; the Scouts; the International Citizen Service in my constituency, which is run by voluntary services overseas; and many other charities, such as Restless Development, formerly Students Partnership Worldwide, with which I spent several months as part of a charity project in Tamil Nadu in south India. All are part of the rich tapestry of volunteering and voluntary services for the youth of today, but, with funding behind it and the statutory footing it is going to receive today, the NCS will lead the way.
The NCS should make sure that, when it puts young people into voluntary placements, it works with local small charities. That is important first, because such charities often have much less by way of human and financial resources than the large national charities, so they could really do with additional man-hours from young, enthusiastic NCS volunteers; and secondly, because if the NCS participant is going to develop a long-term relationship with a charity or voluntary organisation, it is much better that it is a local one in the community where they are based, so that they can continue to serve.
The NCS is the fastest growing youth movement of its kind for a century. I hope that it becomes a rite of passage and a national institution, like the Peace Corps and the AmeriCorps are in the US. I hope that it gives young people from all backgrounds the chance to mix and to learn how to give something back to their community. I hope that it leads to a better society, with more active and responsible citizens, better engaged in their communities.