It has been fantastic to sit through the debate and hear so much passion for this amazing organisation, the National Citizen Service. It is a huge pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham), as well as the many other Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to the debate. They have all been huge advocates during their time in Parliament for engaging with young people in their constituencies. It has sometimes been a little bit awkward for me, aged 30, to speak to an NCS group about what young people are thinking, because I was about 10 years older than them when I first went to an NCS event. However, we in this place have to do an awful lot more to engage with young people, and I believe that the NCS plays a huge part in the work that Members of Parliament do in that regard. I echo the comments that Members on both sides of the House have made about the fact that we should do more to engage with and attend NCS events. That is for sure.
I rise today to speak in support of this fantastic Bill. I should really declare an interest, in that I am very, very jealous of what the National Citizen Service does. I have seen at first hand some of the amazing things that happen at an NCS week away or day away. Like my hon. Friend Tim Loughton I would probably end up having to be pushed up the rock-climbing face. Something that has perhaps not been mentioned today, and that underpins what the NCS does, is the element of fun. The main reason that young people want to get involved in the NCS is that it is fun. They enjoy getting involved. This is not about the Government telling young people that they have to join the NCS; this happens through word of mouth. The rampant rise about which we have heard across the House today comes as a result of young people who have been through the programme telling other young people that they enjoyed it, that they had a great time and that others should join up. That is why we have seen such a huge increase in the number of people joining the NCS programmes.
For the past two years, I have had the honour of presenting NCS graduation certificates for Joining Forces Training, which runs the NCS programme in my constituency. These ex-servicemen are really starting to promote their work, which has been so successful that it is being expanded into other areas, such as the east of England. Joining Forces Training has designed a range of programmes for young people and adults to help them succeed and progress in life. One example from the graduation ceremony that I attended early last year really sticks in my mind and shows how great the NCS is: a young man stood up to make a speech and said that if it was not for Joining Forces and the NCS programme, he would not be able to speak in front of the 200-strong audience of parents and his peers—a difficult thing for any young person to do. He had previously struggled in conversations with two or three people and could not imagine speaking to such a large audience. The NCS programme gave him the confidence to push boundaries that he had never expected to exceed. I am pleased that this Bill will give even more young people the chance to develop skills that will help them later in life. Where else do 15 to 17-year-olds, whatever their background, get the opportunity to develop key life skills in a safe environment away from their parents?
In Bath, the NCS provider is dedicated to inspiring the next generation. NCS is a fantastic programme for challenging and developing young people individually in addition to building greater social cohesion, as many hon. Members have said, by mixing teams and getting young people to think about their local community. I asked Ed Hodges, the director of Joining Forces Training, why he thinks NCS makes such a positive contribution and he told me:
“One of the most rewarding aspects of the programme is the response you get from parents, teachers and most importantly the young people who take part. You see them grow in confidence, whether overcoming their fear of heights or standing in front of their peers and pitching an idea, and to see them grow as a team to plan and deliver some outstanding projects is great to be a part of.”
Young people also receive a session on democracy and how they can participate in bringing about positive change even before they reach voting age. They have contributed to some fantastic local and national campaigns and can look further afield into how they can make a positive difference to the world through global campaigns, which the International Citizen Service can enable them to do. In fact, one thing that sticks out for me given the current debates about international development is that on asking those young people what they would like to see prioritised in Government spending, they say that they would like to see not 0.7% but 10% spent on international aid. That might give good hope to the Secretary of State for International Development in the next Budget discussions.
I hope that the royal charter and the clear statement that the NCS is open to all will mean that more children from a wide variety of backgrounds, including those who are less fortunate, will take up the chance to join the scheme. I also support the use of HMRC to get out information to all young people alongside their national insurance number when they turn 16. That is an excellent way of publicising the opportunities available to all young people, enabling even more to benefit from this excellent scheme.
As many hon. Members have said, this is probably the least divisive debate that we have had in this place. The NCS is an excellent initiative that is going from strength to strength, and the Bill will give more young people the chance to take part. Joining Forces Training in Bath has made a fantastic contribution to the city and has delivered so much change into people’s lives. I look forward to supporting it over the years as the programme develops.