I thank all the hon. Members who contributed to this important debate. Youth social action plays a huge part in our society and, at both local and national level, we see its positive impact not only on individuals but on entire communities. Many Members cited the figures that more than 130,000 young people have already taken part in the NCS and that 300,000 are expected to have participated by 2020. My hon. Friend Vernon Coaker expressed that and challenged us to increase the numbers even further, if possible.
I congratulate all those who have graduated from the NCS, as well as all those who help to deliver the programme each year. I also encourage all 16 and 17-year-olds to apply and take part. As my hon. Friend Anna Turley said, everyone should be encouraged.
As good as the statistics are, and as fantastic as the experience gained by all these young people will be, the Opposition are still concerned about social action, civil society and youth opportunities on a wider scale. My hon. Friend Dan Jarvis made an important point about not just staying within our bubbles. We have already heard the slogan of a new shared society many times from Government Members. Civil society and the work of the NCS fit into that, but the reality we are facing is one of slashed funding for youth services, failure to develop citizenship education and an Office for Civil Society that is being moved around Departments when it should be working across Whitehall.
To that end, although the Opposition will not be dividing the House on Second Reading, we have concerns about the future course that Government policy might take. The issue of youth action is much wider than this Bill alone. In each of our constituencies we see local youth organisations working tirelessly to provide opportunities to our young people. I am sure that either we in this Chamber or our children have benefited from such opportunities—we have heard great examples today—but, with funding being slashed across the country, local youth services are closing, particularly in areas of high deprivation. The new shared society has a lot of work to do if it is to deliver for our young people.
My hon. Friend Jon Cruddas spoke with passion about the importance of creating a cohesive society, and I am pleased to see that our National Citizen Service goes some way towards doing that. However, I will outline some of our concerns on the Bill. First, as many hon. Members have said today, the NCS finds its unique selling point in its ability to successfully mix people from all backgrounds and to allow young people to interact with others with whom they might otherwise never have had the opportunity to build relationships. My hon. Friend Mr Reed talked about that with passion and eloquence. I was able to do it from a young age through sport, and it is such a pleasure to stand here speaking about the NCS in the knowledge that young people from across the country are also benefiting from that interaction, which is nothing but a positive not only for the individuals themselves but for society as a whole.
Having said that, I do not believe that the Bill goes far enough in emphasising the importance of that interaction. I and others, both Members of this House and those who deliver the programmes on the ground, would have hoped to see the Bill’s wording include “social integration.” Will the Minister commit to that? Otherwise, the unique nature of the NCS risks being watered down, which would benefit nobody.
Secondly, I do not wish to be accused of stating the obvious, but the hardest-to-reach young people are called that for a reason: they are the hardest to reach. I say that not to add a bit of humour to the debate but to reiterate what others have said today about inclusion within the NCS. My hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones made a wonderful analogy stressing the importance of inclusion, with which I wholeheartedly agree. With another approximately 170,000 young people set to participate in the NCS over the next three years, the Bill has a duty to ensure that barriers to participation are broken down, not raised. Ben Howlett cited the wonderful example of young people pushing boundaries.
The National Audit Office report on the scheme is concerning. It states that, in order to meet spending review targets, spending per participant must fall by 29%, which is a significant cut that, if not managed well, could have a detrimental effect on those who participate in the scheme. Recruitment of the hardest to reach inevitably costs more, because more outreach must be conducted and more time must be taken. Without that, the NCS runs the risk of becoming yet another opportunity for the few, which I am sure would disappoint us all.
To run the risk of stating the obvious again, barriers are what keep people away. Barriers are what stop people applying, or even knowing about the NCS. However, perhaps the Government need to hear the obvious. Dedicated work to include the hardest-to-reach groups is a necessity, as we are already seeing a falling percentage of NCS graduates coming from the lowest-income families. Will the Minister commit to ring-fencing a proportion of funding to engage with the hardest-to-reach groups?
Thirdly, I must pay tribute to the outstanding work of so many volunteer centres and civil society organisations, which provide so many opportunities to young people and whose staff work tirelessly to ensure the best programmes are available. Without those organisations many young people would be left with little to do in their communities. With the commitment of a funding injection of £1 billion, there is concern that this will squeeze out other youth service operators, as well as other operators who support the work of the NCS, and that they will not receive adequate resources to be able to do that to best effect. I was, however, pleased to learn that the Minister for Civil Society has written to the chair of the NCS Trust to outline his expectation that the trust will report on relationships with the voluntary sector. It would be comforting to hear this commitment again today from the Government, so as to ensure the continued good working relationship with voluntary organisations.
Finally, integration and inclusion should come at not only at participant level, but all levels of the NCS. All too often, young people are looked over for governance roles, but there would be nowhere better suited for a young person to play an active role in the development of a programme and organisation than in this instance.