It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Richard Graham. I wish that he had that magic wand, because I know that he is a real champion of young people. I have seen him do a huge amount of work in his constituency to create opportunities that young people often seize and from which they benefit directly. It is a wonder that he has not yet been made a Minister.
I am delighted to speak in the debate. The NCS has come a long way since the 2009 pilots. Nearly 300,000 young people have benefited from the opportunity, and 93,000 did so in 2016 alone. I am staggered that only 25% of Members of Parliament have had an opportunity to see at first hand the fantastic work that is going on in our communities. I have had the pleasure of experiencing every stage of the transformation: I have been on assault courses, I have been a dragon, I have been a mentor, I have taken part in dodgeball—I have still not forgiven the five-year-old who took me out in about 20 seconds—I have attended the graduation ceremonies, and I have bought a lot of cakes in the charity sales.
I speak not just as a Member of Parliament and a local resident, but as a former employer who employed a great many young people. I was particularly impressed by the genuine, total transformation of the young people who had taken advantage of this fantastic opportunity. A number of Members have already highlighted many of the skills involved: team skills, confidence, the public speaking ability referred to by Anna Turley—many of us could learn from some of those skills—and the ability to understand and appreciate their local communities. We have seen that that has led to 8 million additional hours of voluntary work within our local communities, which is fantastic. There is also the issue of maturity, of building young people’s life skills that are important in transitioning from school into the real world and securing first jobs. The NCS logo is “NCS Yes”, which genuinely refers to the opportunities for those who apply.
I noticed from the graduation ceremonies just how proud parents are in the transformation of their children. They talk about how nervous their children were about signing up, and how even at the last minute they questioned whether it was the right thing to do. I must give credit to the NCS website; most things vaguely connected to the Government do not do particularly well when it comes to the internet and website presence, but the NCS website is fantastic. It has lots of FAQs and success stories, and it is bright, confident and enthusiastic. We can see why those nervous youngsters take the brave step of signing up.
What surprises people about the NCS is that the young people do not all sign up together. It is often assumed that the young people all know each other—perhaps they are all in the same class at a local college that has collectively decided to go. In fact, it is actually a random collection of people stepping outside their comfort zones and giving up their valuable summer holidays to do something constructive. Yes, it is enjoyable, but often they do not realise how enjoyable it is until the end.
I want the NCS to succeed even more, and to match the ambition shown by our Secretary of State and our Minister. They are so passionate about the opportunities created. I want to see their passion fulfilled, and I have a few small requests.
First, a number of speakers have highlighted how we would like every young person to have this opportunity but many are not aware of the scheme. There has been a problem in promoting the scheme. I welcome the fact that in the planned royal charter every young child will be written to with all the information set out; I used to love getting post when I was younger, so this brings back happy memories. That will give every child the opportunity to sign up. I also urge that that information should be extended to schools, to remind them of the bursaries that are available. I have spoken to a number of headteachers in my constituency to say what an opportunity this would be for children from more challenged backgrounds, and many of those heads were not aware that there was a bursary scheme and wrongly presumed this was something their children would not be able to afford.
All the speakers have highlighted some of the brilliant social action projects that have taken place. I have seen some fantastic ones, but I do think the NCS nationally needs to do a bit more to build a database, because sometimes groups have struggled to come up with meaningful projects. The best cases are where there is a tangible link between the members of the group. For example, a confident young girl was presenting to me to say why the group had chosen the Swindon women’s refuge. I had not appreciated the fact that she was so passionate about that because when she was younger her family had had to use that refuge. She had personally benefited from that service, and had convinced her friends and colleagues that they should put all their energies into this refuge. They therefore had an extra incentive to go and make a difference.
I also think there should be more information on how best to deliver social action projects. I have seen some fantastic ones that have engaged with the business community and called in favours. One of the great things about young people is that they are very cheeky, and when deploying that with their endless enthusiasm and energy they have had some very successful social action projects. But I have also seen some lost, and a little confused about what to do, which has meant that they have missed an opportunity to really make a difference. I would also encourage the bringing in of mentors wherever possible to road test the ideas before starting to deliver the social action project. There are countless local businesspeople who would be more than happy to give up their time to support these fantastic aims.
Finally, I want to talk about quality. I have been visiting such schemes since 2012 so have seen every part of the process repeatedly, and I have seen some fantastic projects and some less good ones. I am concerned that in recent years, with some of the changes to some of the contractors, a number of the staff delivering the schemes are a little too young. Initially, in Swindon, it was delivered by New College and Swindon College. They are two well-established colleges, and the staff involved were lecturers doing additional work over the summer. They instantly had the respect of the young adults, which is a particular challenge at the beginning, as those young people have not quite developed all the skills that they will have acquired by the end. Some of the younger staff struggle to hold the line; they are a little too integrated with the students. It is important that we get that right. The advantage of having those colleges involved is that they already have the buy-in of the students. It is no surprise that the numbers have fallen away since the colleges ceased to lead on this. That has also led to a lack of local knowledge. This is a vital matter. I know that it is a complicated matter to ensure that we do not have a postcode lottery, but there needs to be some really deep thinking in the procurement exercise.
Many speakers have talked about the £1,800 cost, and one of the challenges is finding facilities for the scheme to use. I do not really understand why the NCS providers should have to pay to hire facilities when we have fantastic college and school facilities that are often empty during the school holidays when the NCS courses take place. They could use those existing facilities without being charged for them, freeing up that money to be deployed to provide additional support elsewhere in the programme.