It is a pleasure to follow Vernon Coaker.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. We should recognise all the work that has gone into the NCS programme from those who work on and have developed the scheme. I add my thanks for all the work that David Cameron has done and continues to do with the NCS. Before I came to this place, I was involved in a number of social action projects, as my hon. Friends will probably be aware, both in the UK and overseas. One thing that I was took away from that was that although we had some young people and some older people, a social action project can bring together people from all walks of life. They find themselves in a challenging situation, experiencing things that they have never experienced before; there is a lot that we can all learn from social action projects.
In the summer of 2015, just over a year ago, I was invited to join young people who were taking part in an NCS project in my Aldridge-Brownhills constituency at a place called the Hothouse, on the Redhouse estate in Aldridge. I think it is fair to say that I turned up with all my usual enthusiasm for all things social action and, much to the surprise of some of my constituents and to some of the young people, too, was prepared to get stuck in with more than a little bit of painting. What I took away was that these young people, who were from different schools and had been brought together by the NCS programme, were working together as a group. Members of the community came into the Hothouse during the time that they were undertaking the project. The Hothouse is a very special place in the constituency. It is at the heart of the Redhouse estate and the heart of the community, and does a lot of support work. It was a good example of the NCS at the heart of the local community, with people of different ages and from different backgrounds working together, and—this is the important thing—doing so for the mutual benefit of the community. It is a great example of how social interaction and integration really can work. That is what is so special and unique about the NCS. We must hold on to that ability to reach out to a broad base of young people as we move forward.
We know that the NCS already reaches out, but we must do all we can to build on that further. The programme is reaching out to hard-to-reach groups, such as those on free school meals and black and minority ethnic communities—the figures are really good—but I just wonder whether we need to find ways to reach out to other groups, such as the families sometimes described as “just about managing” or the young people who might not see the NCS as something for them, perhaps because they lack the confidence to put their name forward. We must do all we can to ensure that those people have that opportunity if the NCS is to be a truly national service—I think that is what it is edging towards, and what it has every potential to become.
The Bill is an important step towards making the NCS a national institution. As we have heard this afternoon, the NCS is often the first step in young people’s participation in social action. As I have seen for myself, it can make a huge contribution to volunteering capacity, social integration and social cohesion within communities. According to the research I have done, a typical programme is 30 hours long. Thirty times 300,000 young people adds up to an awful lot of time spent in the community working on social action and building social capacity—my maths is not good enough to work out quite how many hours that is, but it is safe to say that it is makes a massive contribution to our country.
In 2016, 78 young people from Aldridge-Brownhills took part, and across Birmingham and the Black country the total was 5,786. That is terrific, but I want us to see more. I want us to ensure that it will reach out to young people from all walks of life and achieve more. When I was doing my research, I was interested to find out how many schools in my constituency were involved in the project. I was really pleased to learn that all of them had been involved. That is a good example of how the NCS is starting to reach out across all schools and groups of young people in my patch.
We have heard this afternoon about the Casey review into opportunity and integration in the UK. I want to reiterate one of the points it made. It stated that the NCS programme is
“having a positive impact in improving understanding and relationships between young people from different backgrounds.”
That is really important.
However, it is not just about the social action and the doing in the community; it is about so many other things, such as intergenerational integration, social integration and community cohesion. The hon. Member for Gedling spoke at length about the impact of Brexit and the need to bring our country together, and the Prime Minister has spoken about the need to bring communities and the country together. I think that the NCS has an important role to play in that.
As has been said this afternoon, and as I have seen myself, it is also about developing those life skills that are not always taught in school or even at home. They can be taught and developed through the NCS programme. I believe in an environment where people feel safe to develop those skills and learn from one another.
The NCS programme is an excellent opportunity for young people to experience social action in a way that, bit by bit, across communities and across the country, is really making a difference and contributing to social cohesion and integration. As I said earlier, I hope the Bill can build on that. The programme is not just about the young people of today or the young people of tomorrow. It is about the future that we all want: a country that works together and is cohesive. We must not forget that at the heart of the NCS is, and should be, the fact that young people come together from all walks of life. It does not matter whether they are black or white, working class or middle class; whatever background they come from, they all have the opportunity to take part in the NCS programme.