I share the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend Martin Vickers as he described some of the NCS social action projects in his constituency. In fact, I have agreed with almost everything that has been said today by Members on both sides of the House. I agreed with my hon. Friend Tim Loughton when he spoke in his comprehensive speech about the jigsaw of empowerment for young people to which the NCS contributes. I agreed with Vernon Coaker about the importance of coming together and learning tolerance. I also agreed with the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) about the power of the NCS to inspire volunteering, although she was holding her papers so far from her face that I wondered whether, in the spirit of the NCS and volunteering, I should have dashed across the Floor and offered to lend her my specs.
Today, we celebrate the transformation of the NCS from an idea to something that has shaped the lives of more than 300,000 young people and now heads towards gaining royal charter status—an extraordinary journey. The three key aspects of the NCS—social cohesion, social mobility and social engagement—can be seen through various statistics. I was surprised by the fact that 30% of all participants are from ethnic minorities. All those three things can be brought alive by any of us who have hosted sessions with NCS groups or given out certificates at an NCS graduation.
I will never forget meeting a father whose daughter did her NCS with Gloucestershire College in 2012. He told me that his daughter had changed completely after going on that course, that she had seen much more of life than she had before and that she was now much more confident. According to him, it was all “down to the NCS”. It should come as no surprise that an independent evaluation of the NCS found that nine out of 10 young people feel that they have learned important skills for the future. It is no surprise either that three out of four feel more confident about getting a job later on.
The figures show some room for improvement, but I say that in the spirit of a sports coach telling the winner of an Olympic gold medal, “You can do better than that.” That was roughly the thrust of and ambition behind the contribution from Mr Reed—there is always room for improvement.
Today is a good moment to look back to the start of the NCS when none of the success was predictable or even expected. It is right to congratulate former Prime Minister David Cameron on his vision, and all those involved in the difficult business of a start-up. I thank those in the Cabinet Office at the time—my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin and my hon. Friend Mr Hurd—and it was good to hear Jon Cruddas saying the same thing from the Opposition Benches. I thank all the civil servants involved in putting the programme together.
In the five years of the NCS’s existence, the number of participants from Gloucestershire and Gloucester has expanded rapidly. So far, there have been 1,192 participants, which I believe puts us, as a county, at 30th out of 127, so just inside the top quartile. Of those, 216 this year alone came from my Gloucester constituency. I have been absolutely delighted by that, and I am delighted to support, contribute and encourage participation in the NCS. If I could wave just one magic wand, it would be quite simply to involve every teenager in our city of Gloucester and throughout the country in joining the NCS programme.
Two groups this year went on the Pelican tall ship—up the mast, manning the crow’s nest and working night shifts—and that shows how comfort zones have been stretched. Such experiences will stay in the minds of the participants forever. My hon. Friend Sir Julian Brazier, who also represents a cathedral city, made a plea for retaining adventure training, and I am sure he would heartily approve of such experiences.
Work for the community is also incredibly important, such as the redecoration of the Gloucester city farm community café or the work for Teens in Crisis on making a video to promote its online counselling service. In fact, participants from the Gloucestershire College courses alone have raised some £60,000 of cash and £24,000 of goods for good causes in our city and county. That really has made a difference. Putting the NCS on a permanent footing, following the Ipsos MORI evaluation and the report by the National Audit Office, will mean building on success, and increasing scale and transparency.
Let me comment briefly on the room for improvement that constitutes the second aspect of the debate. I agree that if the average cost to the taxpayer is £1,800 for each participant, it must be possible to reduce that, making the programme available to as many people as possible but not, I hope, at the price of squeezing out some of the more expensive adventures. I also hope that the letter from HMRC—presumably the same letter that gives national insurance numbers, which means no extra cost—will inspire more participation and get the message out more widely.
I am not entirely sure about widening the eligible age group to include people up to 25. The social benefits that are gained when teenagers from all and any backgrounds spend a month together are huge and proven, but I fear that mixing 25-year-olds and 16-year-olds would introduce more difficult dynamics. The Minister shakes his head, which I will take as an indication that that will not happen.
There is certainly room for improvement in one respect. If the figure is correct, participation by Members of Parliament stands at only 25%. I think that all who have spoken today would agree that this is a rite of passage that we should all directly support.
I have some sympathy with the comments of my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst about measurement, but I believe that there is something important that can be captured, if not precisely measured: what happens to people who have been on a NCS course in terms of the volunteering habit acquired, the confidence gained and, ultimately, the jobs won. It is the young themselves who will put a value on the NCS through their recommendations to those younger than them and their analysis of what has led to their future growth.
There is no doubt that the NCS has been a success. Its founders and everyone else involved should be proud, but we should not forget to congratulate those who make it happen on the ground: the colleges, charities and other organisations that have run courses, the volunteer mentors, and the participants themselves, who have created and run such spectacular social action projects.
Today’s debate is more than an NCS lovefest; it is about the next stage. It is about reaching more young people, and more difficult-to-reach young people. It means everyone taking part in new and challenging adventures, outdoors and indoors, so that more and more families throughout the land see the NCS as not yet another acronym—they are not quite sure what it stands for—but the symbol of a life-changing month in their lives that will do as much to build stronger communities all around us as anything else I know, and, on its way, will change perceptions of what our young people are capable of.