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National Citizen Service Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour 3:18 pm, 25th October 2016

My Lords, I have a declared interest in the register, mentioned by the Minister. I am grateful to him for commencing his speech today by mentioning the impact of NCS on young people and the impact of the work of young people on communities and the most vulnerable. If this Bill is worth anything, it is to embed what NCS means for young people themselves rather than the technicalities, the charter and the necessary accountability provisions that are spelt out in what is, after all, a modest measure.

I offer my support for the Bill and in doing so recognise the enormous contribution over generations that not only individual volunteers but organisations committed to full and part-time volunteering have made in providing the backcloth to the decision of the Government four years ago substantially to fund an experience of volunteering for young people around the time that they reach the end of key stage 4, and the way in which that might be embedded as part of a much broader commitment by the British nation to encouraging people to understand the value of mutuality and reciprocity. It is why I believe that there can be no political party in this House or beyond that would doubt the importance of the experience that young people will gain from National Citizen Service.

Embedding, as I know from my time in Government, is a critical feature of something surviving. I will come in a moment to the issue of one endeavour that I was involved in, namely citizenship education, but many good things foundered because there was not the commitment of subsequent Ministers or even the same Government to the initiatives started. If this Bill enables us to embed that experience for young people and then build on it, so much the better.

The antecedents are substantial. Almost 20 years ago, we commenced the initiative Millennium Volunteers, which built on a number of volunteer programmes—again, full and part-time—that already existed: Community Service Volunteers, of which I was once a member of the trust and which is now Volunteering Matters; the Prince’s Trust with its short programmes; the national Conservation Volunteers; Groundwork; and very many other initiatives that led to some subsequent government initiatives as well. I pay tribute to Dame Elisabeth Hoodless who, over her many years leading CSV, pioneered the idea of an experience for all young people and the issue of full-time service, which I know my noble friend Lady Royall will refer to in greater detail.

I want to spell out three things. First, it is critical that the National Citizen Service follows an existing pattern of commitment by young people to the idea of citizenship and commitment to others. That is why it is critical that the review the Government undertake of citizenship education and related issues takes into account the vital nature—not just for recruiting young people to NCS but for their own growth as young adults and the commitment they can make to society—of ensuring that citizenship education is reinforced. At the moment, there are real dangers. The numbers being trained to teach citizenship has fallen dramatically. The in-service continuing professional development is at risk. The question of those encouraged to take the GCSE, even though it is a core subject, has been in considerable doubt. Of course, A-level citizenship is to cease, along with a number of other A-levels over the next two years. Frankly, that requires a further look and review. The regulator and department should be much more on the ball in terms of what is happening in future.

We have the Government talking at great length about character education, as though that can be taught outside the broader experience we are debating this afternoon. Of course, we have the Prevent strategy. None of these things can possibly be seen in isolation. They are critically linked together in terms of developing that experience of giving and receiving.

When I was 16, I volunteered to go and see an old lady called Mrs Plum. I used to go every week in term time until, two years later, I was leaving the school for the blind to go back to Sheffield. I went to tell Mrs Plum that I hoped I had been some help to her over the two years. As soon as I told her I was returning to Sheffield, her response was, “Well, David, I really hope I’ve been some use to you over the past two years”. This is of course a reciprocal venture. We give and we gain. Volunteering shows that. As the Minister described, it builds the confidence, self-esteem and outward-going nature of young people. It helps develop their understanding of the world around them. It also teaches them how much value they can give to others, and what a reward that can be.

The opportunity for volunteering needs to be widened. As I said a moment ago, this should be an experience that flows from already understanding why social action matters and why Step Up To Serve, with the uniformed organisations, is important.

I pause only to make an appeal that I have made many times in my life: voluntary organisations committed to and working with young people should work together. People think that the voluntary sector, the charity sector, which I have always embraced, is full of loving people who desire to work together and want nothing more than to encourage other organisations. I wish it were true. Unfortunately, it is not. What the NCS Trust is doing is not a threat to other organisations, uniformed or otherwise; it is an opportunity for them to work together. The NCS Trust needs to learn more about how to work collaboratively, but so do many other organisations, because this can be a win-win if people are prepared to commit in that way. So what comes after the National Citizen Service, as well as what went before it, is absolutely critical to success.

I hope we will be able to build on this with whatever review the Government feel is appropriate. If it is not going to be a commission, I hope it will be a serious review of how we can make this work for every young person and expand the experience in terms of what they gain from the NCS: the four weeks, including the residential; mixing with young people from very different backgrounds, which the Minister mentioned; and the way in which social action is encouraged and young people are thereby enabled to understand the impact that they have on others. I hope also that it will encourage full-time opportunities, perhaps leading to a year of service. No doubt my noble friend will refer to this.

I need to put some questions to the Minister. This is an exploratory endeavour in which we are on a journey together, and putting the quality of outcome before numerical targets is essential. My own Government, including in the eight years I was in Cabinet, were bedevilled by setting targets and if we did not meet them it looked like failure. The present Government do it with inward migration. It does not matter how well you do, if you set an impossible target you will always fail to achieve it, with the consequence that people believe that you have not achieved the outcome. In this case, the outcome is the experience gained by young people. Therefore, the 92,000 that were on National Citizen Service this year is a phenomenal achievement in the time it has taken to build that outcome measure. My first request is: please do not set targets that are impossible to meet and result in diluting the brand and undermining confidence in it.

My second question concerns the transition. The Minister mentioned this, but in mechanistic terms. There has to be a commitment to transition from the existing board to the oversight under the new arrangements. Please let there be time to do that. If not, there will be a dislocation in that transition process which will be damaging to young people.

Thirdly, please reinforce again and again that this is going to be independent of government. It cannot be a non-departmental public body. Young people do not like government schemes. It is just a fact. If we have not learned it bitterly over the past 40 years, starting with the youth training programmes, we might learn it now. Maximum independence, with proper oversight and accountability, is essential. I understand oversight and accountability. I understand that the Government have had their fingers burned in recent years with large sums of public money, which have to be accounted for and must be used wisely. But let us try to get the balance right. Control-freakery is not a feature of an individual Government; it is built into the psyche of government processes and procedures.

Finally, can we make sure that the transition includes independent scrutiny of who is appointed? It is my view, and that of the National Citizen Service Trust, that it would be entirely wrong to have a formal government or opposition appointee on the board. Obviously, the chair is appointed through government but the board should be appointed openly through normal public service recruitment programmes and should be seen to be independent. The board should not be paid. Those of us who serve on the board currently would be horrified to think that we were receiving funding for doing the job. I want to pay tribute to Stephen Greene, the present chairman, who has freely and readily given the most enormous amount of time to getting NCS off the ground and making it work. He is committed to the future.

We no longer have a duty on public bodies in the Bill; the original draft did. I hope that there will be an entitlement built in so that schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities will not feel that this is an imposition, but take on board the idea of an entitlement for young people to feel that this is something that builds a generation for the future. I believe that we can do it together if the Government are prepared to listen to any sensible suggestions made during the passage of the Bill to enhance its support and its impact. If these suggestions are helpful, so much the better.

I know that this afternoon, those who speak will do so from the heart, because all of us, from all parties, care deeply that we create a nation with a commitment to giving to each other, to opening up civil society and democracy, and to making sure that what we do for young people is more than simply teaching them the basics, but teaching them the foundation for life. That is why I am prepared to give my wholehearted support to seeing the National Citizen Service, along with its partners, succeed in the future.