I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, and I thank my colleagues who have stayed for the debate. I also thank City Year UK and the National Youth Agency for their important work, and for their help with research.
I am pleased to have secured the debate, because social action and volunteering form a significant part of our national identity. We have all seen the value of volunteers in our own constituencies. In Mansfield, Mansfield Woodhouse and Warsop, our community benefits from dedicated volunteers who give their time to help a wide range of local charities and important causes.
I have met so many wonderful volunteers since was elected that there are far too many for me to list individually, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I miss out some people, as I inevitably will. Let me, however, pay tribute to all those involved in supporting Framework, MIND, Mansfield Wildlife Rescue, The Beacon Project, Hetty’s, NIDAS—Nottinghamshire Independent Domestic Abuse Services—John Eastwood Hospice, the Shed youth club in Warsop, and Mansfield Woodhouse Community Development Group. There are many more third sector and voluntary organisations in which people are giving their time and money to support amazing work.
Volunteering is often life-changing for those who participate in it. It can be incredibly fulfilling, and can bring about real change in communities. As a younger man, I was involved in scouting for more than 10 years. Through schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme, I became involved in all sorts of voluntary work in communities, which helped my own personal development. Social action and volunteering can be a great way for young people to learn new skills, build up valuable experience for their careers, and boost their confidence and communication skills. As MPs, we all know that volunteering in politics is just about the only way to get involved and to end up where we are today, in this place.
The debate centres on full-time volunteering, or social action. Working on a full-time social action project has a huge impact, and allows volunteers to immerse themselves in a new challenge. I want to focus specifically on the benefits for younger people, aged between 18 and 25, who volunteer to tackle our country’s biggest challenges. It is hugely worthwhile, and has two benefits: the projects themselves make a difference, and the participants gain useful skills and experiences.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I have seen social action projects in my constituency at first hand, at Baguley Hall Primary School. Alongside the staff team, City Year UK does vital work in helping to increase attendance, improve behaviour and outcomes, and support pupils. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, and with the Holliday report, that the Government should be doing more to support social action, and to recognise and encourage full-time volunteers?
The groups the hon. Gentleman has mentioned are to be commended. I have come across young people who help those with dementia—there is an interesting project in Coventry—and people who are blind. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that we can do more to reinstate youth clubs, which played a vital role in the past. Does he agree that the Government should have another look at that, because that might offer a way forward in addressing knife crime for example?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those examples and agree that youth work is important; I am very involved in that through the National Youth Agency, which I will touch on later.
Full-time volunteers help in a wide range of projects for charities such as City Year UK, Volunteering Matters, The Scout Association and the Wildlife Trusts. These include schemes to support disadvantaged children to get better grades at school, projects helping homeless people and all sorts of environmental projects as well as those we have heard about from colleagues. There is a huge range of options to suit different interests and each project ensures that the volunteer learns and develops skills.
However, despite a proud heritage of volunteering and community action in the UK, we are behind some other countries in terms of realising the full benefits of this. I want to touch on some examples of where this works well before looking at specific issues, including the impact on employability and barriers in our current legislation.
Countries such as Germany, France and the USA have recognised the value of youth full-time social action by creating national programmes for young adults which attract upwards of 100,000 participants per year. France set up a Service Civique programme in 2010; just eight years later it was attracting 140,000 participants and it seeks to expand even more this year.
These initiatives can attract such significant numbers of young people because of the quality of the offer. The programmes come with a guarantee of excellence, and volunteers can choose a full-time project in line with their interests and undertake work on the project for up to a year. In return they receive financial support so they can stay involved and incentives to complete the programmes. These rewards mean that even young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can participate.
In America the AmeriCorps programme YouthBuild has had notable success in engaging volunteers from low-income backgrounds. In 2014 a report indicated that 93% of volunteers who entered the programme did not have a high school credential. As I have often said before, university education is not the right path for all young people and I have concerns that we are pushing too many young people down an academic route. I would like to see full-time social action as a possible path into work for young people and would like to see it recognised by the Government as an opportunity to bridge the gap between formal education and employment.
These initiatives provide value for money for the Governments that invest in them. Evidence from the USA’s AmeriCorps programme shows that it returns $4 for $1 invested.
Evidence also shows that these projects improve youth employment and allow young people to explore different career paths while gaining experience and skills. Our Government have recognised the value of that on-the-job learning. Apprenticeships are a brilliant way to gain valuable experience, but volunteering is another path which offers young people the chance to learn skills and try different things.
Social action projects build resilience, improve communication skills, can be really creative and involve teamwork. These are the crucial skills that employers are looking for and which are required even in entry-level jobs. Particularly for those who have struggled with the academic side of school and left education with few qualifications, having work experience in a real-world setting can be genuinely life-changing.
City Year UK is a full-time social action charity that recruits 18 to 25-year-olds. Its programmes are proven to improve work-readiness and the employability of volunteers. Its latest report shows that 90% of alumni were in employment, education or training within three months of finishing the programme.
Under this Government youth unemployment has dropped substantially, including locally in my constituency of Mansfield. There are over 439,000 fewer young people out of work than in 2010, which is great as it means more young people have secured a job, but there is still more to do and I believe that social action is a good way to support those young people who are struggling to find work.
Having a recognisable Government-backed programme in place, rather than the current piecemeal approach, would ensure that businesses understand the experience and skills that young people had gained from their social action project, and it would become a recognisable achievement. While it is good that the Department for Work and Pensions recognises that volunteering can help people develop vital skills for work, I believe we could offer more support for people on full-time social action projects on a fixed term. Currently, full-time volunteers in England are categorised as not in education, employment or training—known as NEETs. In other words, they are seen as part of a problem that needs to be fixed. I believe it is time that the Government changed this status and did more to recognise the benefits of social action programmes. This is where simple changes could have a big effect. Even if we cannot offer financial support, we could remove barriers to participation that currently exist within our welfare system.
Unemployed people claiming jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit are required to spend a certain number of hours per week searching for work. While outside these hours claimants can spend time volunteering, the system could be more flexible for those engaged in worthwhile community projects. Ultimately the volunteering they do can contribute much more than the cost of benefits in many cases.
Universal credit claimants can have their required weekly work-search time, which is usually 35 hours, reduced by half to accommodate voluntary work, but it is still difficult to fit a full-time social action project around 18 hours of jobseeking. That will not be right for everyone: a lot of people want to get straight in to work, and some need to be pushed to put the time and effort into finding work. There is an opportunity to support others, particularly young people, through programmes like this and to deliver positive long-term outcomes for communities and individuals. Simply adding another category to say that they are volunteering and doing something productive and positive rather than being NEET would be a good step forward.
Under current guidelines, the charities that young people volunteer for are also unable to offer training beyond the essentials required for their social action project. That means that any extra training around employability or additional support for the young volunteers is not allowed, which hinders the effectiveness of those programmes. We could easily relax some of those rules at no cost, to help charities to support their volunteers and remove some of the barriers to establishing full-time social action programmes with a clear element of the programme that focuses on employability.
In December 2016, the Government launched the full-time social action review, which was chaired by former chief executive of National Grid, Steve Holliday. Mr Holliday published his findings in January 2018, and they acknowledged that youth full-time social action plays an important role in meeting many governmental priorities including social mobility, inclusion, careers education and skills development. The review called on the Government to better support, encourage and recognise full-time volunteers. It made several recommendations on how to achieve this, but I am keen to focus on what I believe is the most significant of the recommendations, which is to introduce a full-time social action pilot scheme for young people. The creation of a Government-backed pilot would be a huge step forward, and such a scheme might ultimately grow to emulate initiatives such as those in Germany, France and the USA. A Government -backed scheme would help to provide a new pool of easily identifiable, work-ready young people with real-world experience and a renewed sense of civic duty.
This kind of thing has regularly been discussed in Parliament. I have worked closely with the National Youth Agency as part of my work on the all-party parliamentary group for youth affairs and I am pleased that it supports Volunteering Matters in its call for HMRC to recognise full-time volunteering through awarding full national insurance credits. This would mean that volunteers did not lose out because they chose to volunteer and give back to their communities. I hope that the Government might also consider opportunities to support full-time social action using the Dormant Assets Youth Organisation, which has already committed to invest in programmes that help young people facing barriers to work. I would argue that a full-time social action programme would fit that remit perfectly. We also need to build on the APPG’s recommendations for investment in a youth workforce of professional youth workers and skilled volunteers to support social action projects and provide leadership and mentors for young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The National Youth Agency’s youth covenant is also worthy of support and recognition.
I am pleased that the Government support several programmes that enable volunteering opportunities, including the #iwill Fund, which aims to create more opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to volunteer, and the Connected Communities Innovation Fund, which aims to tackle barriers to volunteering and mobilise more people. These are important steps, but it is time to look again at the benefits of full-time volunteering.
Polling conducted by Censuswide on behalf of City Year UK in 2016 found that over 90% of those polled thought that a recognised programme of full-time voluntary civilian national service should be on offer for young people in Britain. Over half of the 16 to 25-year-olds polled said that that would definitely be an option for them, and nearly a third would consider signing up for such a programme if it was Government-backed. A programme like that has the potential to build a platform for young people from different regions and socioeconomic backgrounds to serve together side by side for a common purpose while restoring national pride and a sense of duty and service. There is also an opportunity here to work with young people who are disabled or have special educational needs, to offer mentoring and guidance, help in to work where that is possible, and other support that might currently be lacking.
The Government’s civil society strategy commits us to equip young people with
“the ability to help the country tackle its most urgent challenges” and to ensure that they have the
“opportunities to develop the skills, networks, and resilience that can improve their life chances” and
“fulfil their potential”.
What better way to achieve this than through a programme of full-time social action? The creation of such a programme would maximise public investment in the National Citizen Service, the Government’s short-term social action programme for 16 and 17-year-olds. The NCS has laid a solid foundation on which to build a more intensive long-term offer. Nearly 100,000 young people engage with the NCS every year. Figures for 2016 show that more than 1,400 young people in Nottinghamshire participated in the programme. I helped to assess and judge some of their community work, working with Notts County FC Football in the Community, and I have met young people in Mansfield who have benefited from the programme. I know that many of them would be interested in full-time opportunities. A national full-time social action programme could ensure that the NCS is not just a one-off intervention, and that it instead creates a lifelong habit of social action.
Interestingly, the UK Government already support full-time social action for young people, but only for those who serve abroad in the International Citizen Service. The Department for International Development has allocated £8.5 million for the International Citizen Service next year, but no money is allocated to those choosing to serve their communities through social action here in the UK. If we could replicate that support so that young people could equally help and volunteer in our public services and good causes here in the UK, that could benefit those young people and their local communities.
If the Government need any further reason to act, an independent report by Pro Bono Economics found that encouraging 10,000 young people to volunteer full-time for a year could earn the UK economy between £28 million to £119 million. A relatively modest investment in a Government-backed programme would pay off quickly, but I hope that colleagues agree that the benefits are far more than simply economic.
Offering, through independent volunteering and education, opportunities for young people to equip themselves with the skills they need to get on in life, and to be responsible for their own progress and their own decisions, is in my view an intrinsically conservative thing to do.
I encourage the Government to consider a pilot scheme, perhaps in a deprived area such as Mansfield—it might be the ideal place to do that—to see what impact full-time social action has on young people’s employability.
I hope that, in her reply, the Minister can provide an update on what the Government are doing to support full-time social action since the publication of their response to the full-time social action review for young people last July.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ben Bradley on securing the debate. He is a great advocate in this House for the interests of young people. His dedication and enthusiasm in promoting the work of the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs speaks volumes.
I, too, am on the record speaking of volunteers as my favourite people. Volunteers’ passion and commitment shine through and raise some interesting thoughts cross-Government.
Let me deal with the intervention by Mr Cunningham—although he is in discussion at the moment—about youth crime. That is a complex issue, which is often tied to local factors. I have just met the Prime Minister and other Ministers following our summit on youth violence. We are absolutely committed to working on that through a multi-agency public health approach.
I agree with Mike Kane about the value of social action and engagement in and through our schools.
It is worth taking a few moments, given that we have the Chamber to focus on the subject, to look at the broader picture of youth social action and why it is such an important part of our efforts to improve young people’s life chances. In this country, we have a proud record of helping others. It is the cement that binds our communities together. Almost a quarter of the population formally volunteer at least once a month and many more do so informally. As we have heard, social action is about people coming together to help improve the lives of others and solve the problems that are important in their communities. It involves people giving their time in a range of ways—from volunteering and community-owned services to community organising or simple neighbourly acts.
Does the Minister agree that many of those projects help young people to find their way forward in life? Often, young people have not quite made up their mind about what they want to do in life. There is therefore value from that point of view. Equally, we must remember that not everybody is academically-minded. People might have good skills but not necessarily be academically good. I sometimes think that we lose track of that when we go on about further education and university education. Volunteering is important and a key to some of the problems that we have with young people on some housing estates, particularly where there are acts of violence, burglaries and so on. The Government could focus on that much more.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I responded earlier about the Government’s focus on the taskforce on serious violence. I also absolutely agree with the earlier point about intergenerational understanding. Volunteering can support our young people, from giving them more opportunities to learn soft skills to gaining that intergenerational understanding, perhaps through soft mentoring. That should be encouraged in all our communities and I am sure that much goes on in our constituencies that we are not aware of, even as MPs. It is vital that we continue to support such activity.
A good example is the dementia friends programme run by the Alzheimer’s Society. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport ministerial team recently had a refresher about how to support people living with dementia and turn understanding into action. That programme has been very successful, and many people have taken part in it. There are 2.5 million dementia friends working to create an environment in our communities in which people with dementia are able to live well and be cared for.
If we are to renew and refresh the spirit that keeps our communities vibrant, we must keep young people in a central role. It is absolutely vital that we support the latest generation of active and involved citizens, so I am pleased that the Government are developing a new youth charter and are doing broader work to support that activity. Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust recently recruited 15 young people to spend time with older people in their own homes, to help combat loneliness. In time, that project will grow to 200 young people. That is just one of the projects supported by the Pears Foundation and the #iwill fund, which is backed by the Government and the National Lottery Community Fund. As we have heard, social action will help open doors for young people. Young participants will develop essential skills and the tools for work and life that we have been talking about. Such programmes will build their resilience, enhance their wellbeing and, more importantly, help them give back to their community.
In 2017, the National Youth Social Action Survey by Ipsos MORI found that young people who take part in social action have higher life satisfaction, improved job prospects and stronger personal networks. However, it is not the hours that young people spend doing social action that is crucially important to those individuals and our communities, but the quality of the social action and experience. For example, it matters that the social action is part of the community, is focused on a community problem and is shaped and owned by the young people taking part. We heard earlier about the soft skills learned through the experience of mentoring.
The full-time social action review, chaired by Steve Holliday, was an important and extensive piece of work. In total, 180 individuals and organisations were consulted, and 48 pieces of evidence were submitted by charities, businesses, young people and youth sector stakeholders. Roundtables conversations were held for providers, economists and employment and regulation specialists. Vitally, 77 young people also took part in the focus groups. Videos promoting the review reached more than 84,000 young people.
Young people painted a mixed picture of full-time social action opportunities. They found that some experience helped them through a difficult point in their lives and furnished them with new skills for their future. However, some highlighted that barriers prevented them from taking part in full-time opportunities. Important issues were raised, such as the availability of adequate financial support to cover living costs, and the negative implications for social housing, study and wider caring commitments. One person said:
“on balance, it would be a struggle to say it was worth it, by virtue of the short and long-term personal and financial repercussions...I do not regret the time I spent volunteering, but would personally not recommend anyone take a voluntary position unless they have significant financial backing.”
The review also states:
“The evidence demonstrating the impact of full-time social action in contrast with part time social action is currently very limited. Many organisations argue that quality of social action is more important than quantity”.
That last point is very important.
We are aware of the value that full-time volunteering can bring to those who participate. However, devoting limited resources to the expansion and further evaluation of an approach that the extensive review has told us has little additional benefit to other approaches is not the sensible way forward, especially as many of the barriers to full-time volunteering arise out of personal life experiences. The Government, rightly, welcomed the report that acknowledged those issues and, importantly, set out a series of steps to make sure that full-time social action opportunities are more accessible. In our response, we welcomed a number of the recommendations, including the excellent work led by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to create good practice guidelines for organisations that provide full-time social action opportunities. Importantly, one recommendation in the panel’s report mentioned a proposal for a Government-backed full-time social action pilot, as has been mentioned. That is a well-intentioned proposal, but given the lack of clear evidence and the feedback currently from young people, we do not think there is sufficient evidence for a separate full-time social action fund.
As the House is aware, we back a number of high-quality programmes for our young people, and last year we published the civil society strategy. It sets out an important vision for the next 10 years and shows that there is a vital role that young people can play in tackling challenges and creating a better future in their community through this strategy. Our national flagship policy is the National Citizen Service, which is a programme open to all young people aged 15-17. It is designed to deliver a concentrated programme of positive activities and personal development. Crucially, it includes the opportunity for social action for our young people. I am pleased to say that nearly 500,000 young people, from all social backgrounds, have so far taken part in NCS. Together, they have given more than 12.5 million hours of volunteer time. We also know that NCS graduates give back an additional 6.3 hours of volunteering per month compared with their peers who have not taken part in NCS.
It is also important that the Government listen to the views of young people. We know that young people care deeply about the environment, so as part of the 2019 Year of Green Action NCS has been asked to, and will, directly engage young people in many environmental projects, including Clean Air Day. NCS is especially good at involving a higher proportion of young people with special educational needs. For example, in 2018, 5% of NCS participants had special educational needs; the figure for the comparable population was 2%.
As we heard earlier, we are also supporting young people to participate in social action by backing the #iwill campaign, which is run by Step Up To Serve. The campaign involves crucial work with businesses, as well as with philanthropists, the voluntary sector and local institutions, to make social action part of life for our 10-year-olds up to 20-year-olds. In support of that work, and in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund, we are working with other funders to create new opportunities for young people to participate in social action. The £40 million #iwill fund has to date partnered with 20 match funders, and it is estimated that 650,000 new opportunities will come forward for young people.
As I said earlier, social action is not just important for young people; we have heard about the importance of the civil society strategy, in which the Government have set out the importance of mobilising the time and talents of people of all ages. The initiatives are wide and reflect the needs of communities. For example, we are working to train 3,500 more people in community organising via our place-based social action programme. We are also working with the National Lottery Community Fund to help local areas to create a shared vision to address local priorities and to shape volunteering, co-designed services and social action.
Let me pick up on my hon. Friend’s point about using dormant assets. The Department is absolutely doing that and is shaping the next stage of our strategy in respect of interventions for young people through the use of such assets. It is absolutely right that we do that.
In conclusion, we are aware of the huge benefits that social action can bring to young people. Although we are not looking to privilege a particular volunteering route, social action will be an essential part of our thinking as we examine ways in which we support our young people and their futures.
Question put and agreed to.