It is a pleasure to follow James Berry. I very much agree with the remarks he made about the contribution made by the Scouts and Girlguiding, and by the other organisations. I also agree with his really good point about how the Peace Corps and the AmeriCorps in America contribute to many of the aims we seek to pursue here in Parliament today. I say to the Minister that all Opposition Members, along with our Front-Bench team, very much welcome the Bill, which we think is an important step forward in achieving the goals we all share.
At a time when Brexit quite rightly dominates the national debate and many of our debates in Parliament, we should say to the media and the public at large that alongside that some hugely significant and important debates take place. The Government make important statements and introduce important Bills, and we respond. Today is one such occasion. The NCS is a hugely important initiative, and the Government are seeking, through the Bill, to develop and build on the progress that has already been made. Other Members have recounted their experiences of going to see the work done in their areas, and I have seen for myself in Nottingham that there is no shortage of brilliance in some of the work that takes place. I have seen the influence of the programme on young people from different backgrounds.
There is a word that I do not think has been used yet, but that is of particular importance. When I went to the graduation ceremony in Nottingham, I saw the self-esteem that it brought to people. If there is one thing that holds back many of our young people—alongside opportunity, background and so on—it is a lack of self-confidence, of self-esteem, and of belief that they have something positive to offer. In many circumstances, the NCS has generated that self-esteem, and the belief that they have worth and something to offer. If that will help them through their lives, it is an enormous step forward.
The other reason why this debate is important is that there are clearly different views—in this House, in the country and, indeed, around the world—on Brexit and its implications and consequences, but there is no division between us about the need to continue to promote people coming together and the universal values of tolerance, self-respect, and respecting others, whatever their ethnic background or religion. The NCS has at its heart the promotion of those universal values. At a time when there is some concern about tolerance and about divisions in our community, surely it is right for us as a Parliament to say, “Look at this as a model for the way that we want our country and our communities to go.” The scheme is just hugely important.
I offer this challenge not just to the Government, but to all of us and to this Parliament. According to the National Audit Office report, 96,000 people are participating in the scheme at the present time. It is the Government’s intention, and an intention that we all support, for that to rise to some 360,000 by 2020-21. That requires, as the NAO points out, 40% annual growth. As this Bill goes through Committee, it will be a challenge to look at how we will achieve that and how we will increase those participation rates. We also need to look at the barriers to participation. The NAO report points out a couple of things: the importance of brand awareness and the need to try to ensure that more people are aware of the opportunities available through the NCS; and, importantly and significantly, access to schools and how we promote that. I am sure that much good work is done in schools, but, alongside that, we need to do more. All of us need to understand that we need to promote more effectively the NCS, what it is and what opportunities it offers.