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National Citizen Service Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 3:08 pm, 25th October 2016

My Lords, I am grateful to the Chief Whip for introducing the Bill and almost propelling it straight to Third Reading in his enthusiasm. This is a modest Bill in size about a programme that is large in aspiration. Building on the success of NCS so far, the Bill is mainly concerned with establishing sound and transparent governance arrangements. We want to keep it focused on this defined purpose.

Like several of your Lordships, I visited NCS this summer. In the garden of a care home outside Leeds, I saw a group of young people who had never met before that summer. They came from different estates, suburbs and villages. They had united as a group, had fun and adventure and were now serving their community. I could see how that group of young people would come out of NCS better equipped for the future and how the community around the care home would have their lives enriched by their new garden. That experience was not unique to a group in Leeds. The same thing was happening to tens of thousands of young people this summer, and thousands of communities benefited.

The more young people take part across all parts of the country, the more transformative NCS can be. A maximum of four weeks long, with no cost if parents cannot afford it, NCS is accessible to everyone. In 2015, 17% of NCS participants were eligible for free school meals, compared with around 10% of that age group as a whole. Of their own accord, some young people take to Twitter and say that NCS changed their life. Those are not the words of people who have access to opportunities like this every day.

However, the real strength of the programme is that it appeals to people from all backgrounds and brings them together. They learn together, live together and form one team. The independent Ipsos MORI evaluation found that 82% of people leave the programme feeling more positive about people from different backgrounds. They also leave feeling stronger and better prepared for the future. The same evaluation showed that 83% of participants graduate from NCS feeling more capable than they had realised they were. They have seen their confidence, communication and creativity soar. They have designed their own social action project to support their community.

NCS is a programme for young people, but it is not only the young who benefit. Residents of a Weymouth care home benefited from a new sensory garden built by NCS participants. East Durham mothers and fathers of premature babies benefited from care packages prepared and distributed by NCS participants. Merseyside Huntington’s Disease Association benefited from funds raised by NCS participants. The NCS Trust estimates that in the 16 months following the summer programmes, the 2013 and 2014 graduates gave back an additional 8 million hours of volunteering to their communities.

Together these elements form the ethos of NCS: social cohesion, social mobility and social engagement. NCS is one opportunity in a broader social action journey. Up and down the country, many excellent charities and organisations offer a broad range of programmes for people before, after and alongside it. We also believe in the value of a single, unifying rite of passage for young people, and that is NCS.

The NCS Bill is short and focused. It works in conjunction with a royal charter. No single party can lay claim to NCS as many voices were involved in its development. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, sits on the board of the current body. The Government believe that the NCS Trust has the potential to become a national institution. Incorporating the NCS Trust through a royal charter sends an important message that the trust is a body beyond partisan political concerns and must continue to appeal to young people of all backgrounds. A draft of the royal charter has been published as a Command Paper and was laid in the House when the Bill was published for noble Lords to see. The Bill begins by referencing that royal charter and the functions of the NCS Trust that it describes. These functions capture, in practical terms, the heart of what NCS is here to achieve.

The NCS Trust will be a new body in a new form designed to endure, but we must not lose the expertise and experience of those who have worked in the current body. Under their stewardship, NCS has become the fastest-growing youth movement in this country for 100 years. The Bill therefore makes provision for schemes for the transfer of staff, property, rights and liabilities from the current body to the NCS Trust.

The Bill allows the Government to fund the NCS Trust out of moneys authorised by Parliament. In addition, it allows the trust to charge fees for participation at variable rates so that anyone, no matter their background, can afford to go on NCS. At present, the maximum fee is £50, but the average is less, and many participants pay no fee at all. The royal charter requires the trust to ensure equality of access to NCS for young people regardless of their background or circumstances.

As NCS has such value to the nation and is paid for by it, it is essential that the public trust it and can have confidence in the public money spent on it by the NCS Trust. The bulk of the Bill is therefore a considered series of measures to hold the NCS Trust to account for that funding. The trust must prepare annual accounts, and the National Audit Office will be its auditor. The accounts will be laid before Parliament.

At the start of each year, the trust must publish an annual business plan setting out its strategic priorities and annual objectives. At the end of the year, the trust must provide government with an annual report that will in turn be laid before Parliament. The report will set out how the trust has fulfilled its priorities and main functions, and the Bill lists a series of specific requirements that it must also address. These include the value for money of the programme and the extent to which it has mixed people from different backgrounds.

The potential for NCS to be a unifying force in a divided society is enormous. NCS can break down barriers at the very time—the transition to adulthood—that they could become entrenched. Independent evaluation found that a striking 95% of participants said that NCS gave them a chance to get to know people whom they would not normally meet.

Finally, the Bill requires the trust to notify government if a breach of contract results in serious financial consequences, a provider is in serious financial difficulty or a member of staff commits fraud. This will allow government to take rapid steps to minimise the loss of public money. The NCS Trust will be subject to the Freedom of information Act, the Equality Act and the Public Records Acts. Together, these measures will ensure that the NCS Trust works efficiently, effectively and transparently.

The other purpose of the Bill is to help more young people to hear about NCS. The Bill enables HMRC to pass on information about NCS to the young people, parents or carers whose addresses it holds. In the same way as receiving a national insurance number marks a coming of age at 16, we want this letter with an invitation to go on NCS to mark it, too. The Bill will in this way help make NCS a rite of passage for the young people of this country.

This Bill and the royal charter aim to build on the success of NCS so far and create an institution that the public respect and believe in and that is worthy of the task before it: to change lives and help tackle some of our country’s biggest social challenges. I look forward to hearing your Lordships’ views. I beg to move.