National Citizen Service Bill [Lords]

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 5:50 pm on 16th January 2017.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 5:50 pm, 16th January 2017

I am proud not only to be part of the debate and to see this Bill come of age—and the NCS comes of age with the Bill, just as the NCS is a coming-of-age project—but of the small part I played in its genesis. I was there back in 2005 when it was a germ of an idea from the then Prime Minister. He spoke to a number of youth leaders and tasked Paul Oginsky, who later became David Cameron’s youth adviser and who runs the youth training organisation, Personal Development Point, with developing a programme. I was asked to be part of that and we published, in, I think, 2008, “It’s time to inspire Britain’s teenagers”, which was effectively a White Paper that raised and consulted on the whole subject of what became the NCS.

The scheme was designed on the principles laid out in that unofficial White Paper with the help of people such as Steve Hilton, whom some may remember and who had an even more ambitious idea for the scheme, which was that it should take at least six weeks throughout the summer, be called national service, be much closer to the original scheme of which it has some echoes, and be compulsory. After a great deal of research—I remember spending many weekends with groups of fantastically gobby young people from Leeds, Liverpool and London who had some amazing ideas about how such a scheme should develop—we put together what then became the NCS.

The NCS was intended to be a rites of passage scheme. In this country, we transition into adulthood really badly. In other cultures and other countries, there is a point in a teenager’s life at which they can be said to transition into adulthood and gain the society’s respect as an adult. Here, we do not really do that. Too often, growing up is characterised by negatives. Did a young person become an adult when they had their first fag behind the bike shed, when they became a teenage pregnancy statistic or some other negative? Too often, that is how we judge and gauge the progress of young people. The NCS scheme is all about positives. If young people go through a scheme that is designed to be rigorous and challenging, and make those sacrifices as part of it, they deserve the right to be respected and valued as an adult with a voice in society. That was one of the guiding principles behind the scheme.

The scheme was absolutely about social mixing. For many years, we have had many other good schemes, but none is as successful at social mixing as the NCS has become. Too often, kids from the same school or the same neighbourhood may go out on an outward bound project or be part of some local youth organisation. But not often enough are they mixed up with people they would never come across ordinarily or pass the time of day with in the street—people from the other side of town, the other side of the tracks or the other side of the country. Social mixing was at the heart of all this. It was also about challenging young people and taking them out of their comfort zone. I have been on many NCS challenges over many years and it is not a holiday camp. My hon. Friend Wendy Morton said that she took up the challenge of painting. I have been forced to go on Jacob’s ladders and climbing walls, which is no mean feat, particularly for the young people who have to haul me up part of the Jacob’s ladder. The challenge was just as much for me as for them.

I have met kids who had never been out of a city, been out on a moor, or waded through a stream in the Brecon Beacons or the Lake District. These were new, challenging and often frightening experiences, but that was part of the NCS—it took them out of their comfort zone and showed them that there is more to life and that, with the help of their team, they are able to conquer these challenges. I have seen a kid fresh out of a youth justice establishment holding one end of the rope while on the other end, precariously dangling on a climbing wall, is an Etonian, and vice versa. Two people who might never have come together ordinarily are thrown together and absolutely rely on each other in order to get through the challenge. That was one of the guiding principles of the scheme, and that is why it is so successful. It is about sustainably engendering a sense of social responsibility and community cohesion.

It is also, as Vernon Coaker said, about self-esteem and confidence, as we hear in so much of the feedback from young people who have been through the scheme. When they go to the graduation ceremony and have to perform, speaking up in front of an audience of hundreds, they all say, “I would never been able to do this if it hadn’t been for this scheme.” Then there are the other challenges that it inspires them and instils them with confidence to do. There is a great saying from the late, great Anita Roddick: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try going to bed with a mosquito.” The whole point of the NCS was to unleash a swarm of mosquitos—young people who on their own might not have much of an effect, but emboldened by being valued in such a scheme, and working together with other like-minded people, had the confidence to go out and make a difference.

The “Positive for Youth” policy that we developed in the Department for Education was another part of the scheme. The NCS should not be seen in isolation. It exists not for its own sake but as part of a bigger jigsaw of how we empower, engage, inspire and instil confidence in young people. It is also about society gaining respect for young people. One of the biggest challenges we still have in our society, as other hon. Members have said, is an intergenerational divide. Too often, older people regard younger people as being a bit reckless and a bunch of hoodlums. Too often, younger people think that older people are too set in their ways, a bit detached, or retrograde—I could go on. The NCS is about young people doing, and being seen to do, something worth while, making sacrifices, and gaining the respect of the rest of society, not least older people. It is about trying to bring the generations together.

My great vision in helping to develop the NCS was that around the country sustainable social action projects would be set up, whether on nature conservation or sexual health—a huge variety. We heard some very good examples from the Secretary of State. There will be a big sign saying, “This project is part of the National Citizen Service, set up by and run by young people”. What a fantastic billboard and advert that is for the constructive stuff that its young people do, while too often being denigrated by the rest of society, particularly the media. Proportionately, young people are much more likely than any other generation to spend their time volunteering, yet they are not given the credit for it. The NCS is one way of making that much more high profile.

When the first pilot started in 2009, 160 young people went through it. I feared at the time was that it would perhaps be used as a cheap summer holiday camp by some of the middle classes. How wrong I was. On that first pilot, 60% of the young people were black girls from inner cities, who did fantastically well. We had to encourage the middle classes and others, saying “Look, you can get involved in this too”, and eventually that happened.

Then in 2010 we came into government, and the responsibility for the scheme was shared between the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education. On a very small budget to start with, and certainly with no budget for promoting and publicising it, the scheme really took off. At a difficult time of austerity, a lot of money was put into it. At a time when youth services were being unduly and unfairly hit through local authority cuts in funding, the scheme got off the ground. Six years on, more than 300,000 teenagers have taken part in it, some 93,000 of them in the past calendar year.

The hon. Member for Gedling is right: the cohort is about 720,000, and the scheme should absolutely be available to all of them. To be realistic, we need to make sure that we do not diminish or dilute the quality of what is offered. The only thing holding the programme back is the availability of good-quality, well-trained leaders. I do not want to try to reach an artificial target, when to do so might dilute the value and the quality of the programme. There is a big question mark over the capability of NCS to continue to train up leaders within the organisation—and, as we have heard, to ensure that NCS graduates come back as youth leaders—rather than poaching them from other youth groups, which would not be helpful.

To return to the figures for the social and ethnic mix, 30% of the young people doing the scheme at the moment are from BME communities, and 17%—more than double the percentage in the population—qualify for free school meals. Many of us have been to the graduation ceremonies, where young people get up on stage to be given their certificate and, in many cases, to strut their stuff. I went to a ceremony at Wembley stadium for 1,000 young people who had graduated from the various football schemes. Every one of them got up in front of the 1,000 people in the audience and did their bit. It was a hugely uplifting and emotional sight.

Numerous parents come up to me after such ceremonies and say, “This is the best scheme that my son or daughter has ever been on. Why do you keep it such a secret?” That is part of the problem. The scheme is hugely undersold given the outcomes, the achievements and the good that it does. As was envisaged, I want some really good examples of the social action projects that have come about through the NCS to feature in television programmes and in national newspapers and magazines. I want a competition every year, as there was, between the best social action projects in certain categories. We need an equivalent of the Oscars for the National Citizen Service to show people what is being achieved by the most inspiring and dedicated young people, and by all those behind them.

I am a big supporter of the NCS and of the Bill, but I have a couple of technical comments about the Bill. Clause 1(2) states that:

“For the purposes of this section…‘young people’
means 16 and 17 year olds, but may also include other persons who are 15 years old or have attained the age of 18 but are under the age of 25”.

I do not know many 16 or 17-year-olds, or 15 or 18-year-olds, who are not under the age of 25, so I am not quite sure what that clause is doing there. The other point I want to make about subsection (2) is that it talks only about England. We know that the scheme at the moment is confined to England. We have tried to extend it to other parts of the kingdom, but of course it is a devolved matter. Northern Ireland, in particular, showed a lot of interest in the scheme. I hope that the National Citizen Service can become a United Kingdom-wide programme with the buy-in of the Assemblies and Parliaments in the other parts of the United Kingdom, and I hope that we will not need new legislation to make that possible. The Bill, in its terminology, limits the scheme to England.

The clauses about preparing accounts, business plans and annual reports are all standard. To be constructively critical, however—I raised this point with the Secretary of State earlier—this is not just about numbers, the quality of this specific programme or the amount of money we are spending on it; it needs to be seen in the context of the wider youth offer. As was raised in the other place, there needs to be a mechanism that allows us to judge the quality of what the NCS is achieving against other youth programmes, and to compare the value for money we are getting from it against investments in other youth organisations.

The NCS cannot be seen as a stand-alone intervention for young people: it is not there just for its own sake. It starts only at the age of 16 or thereabouts, but the problems it tries to address start earlier and need early intervention. Some 42% of young people, being more fully committed to social action, began getting involved before the age of 10. The Scouts point out that the NCS three-week programme costs about £1,500 per person—the National Audit Office has come up with a new report that raises the cost to £1,862—and claim that they can establish a place for a young person in an area of deprivation for between £400 and £550, but there are 45,000 people on their waiting lists to join because they do not have sufficient people to be scout leaders. That is fine: there are places for both organisations, particularly if the NCS is providing leaders, as was intended, not just for the NCS but to help all the other youth and community organisations. If it works properly, the NCS is a recruiting sergeant for a whole host of other youth organisations, whose expansion may often be curtailed by the lack of youth leaders and properly trained youth experts.

My plea is that we need more detail to make the NCS more sustainable and more complementary to, rather than conflictual with, other youth organisations that are doing some really good stuff in other parts of the kingdom. We need to make sure that we can justify its expense and its quality in the greater context of what else is going on. There is a lot of ambition in the NCS, much of which has already come about, but we need to do much more to make it more widely available to a great many more young people who can benefit from it, just as 300,000 have so far, as the evidence shows. We need guarantees about value for money and quality across the whole sector and about the sustainability of ongoing volunteering among NCS graduates. Such volunteering is not just for the duration of the scheme itself, and social action projects are not just for a matter of weeks, but for perpetuity, with other local organisations —with the local authority, local businesses and local volunteers—helping to run those projects for the NCS cohorts in between other summer experiences.

I wish the Bill well. Questions will come up in Committee that will add yet further to the quality of the programme and, more importantly, to the enthusiasm of other people involved in helping young people in our society. Lots of good things came out of the Brexit debate, which has been mentioned even on this subject, but which I have avoided so far, but if we can all agree on one good thing that did so it was that the turnout of young people in the Brexit referendum—it was not called that, but that is what it became—was some 63%, against a turnout of young people in a normal general election of some 43%. The NCS can be part of the solution to persuading and encouraging young people to be part of decision making in our society. It is a great example of involving young people in its design, and it should be a great example of young people continuing to be involved in the fabric of the future of our country as a whole.