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National Citizen Service Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:32 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 3:32 pm, 25th October 2016

My Lords, I regret that I have to begin with an apology. For the first time ever in my time in your Lordships’ House, I will not be able to be here for the end of the debate. I apologise for that: it is the first time that has happened, and I really hope it will be the last.

I asked to speak today because there are a number of points that I feel have to be made. This is an intriguing Bill, one that sets a challenge for your Lordships’ House. I say that because the fact that the National Citizen Service provides young people with a great opportunity to meet new people, try new activities and develop skills and confidence at the critical age of 16 or 17 is not up for debate. However, pretty well everything else in this Bill should be.

The decision to spend £l billion on one project at a time when public services for young people are being decimated is a political decision that the Government will have to take and will have to defend. No doubt they can do that. There is a much more fundamental question, however, to which this House needs to have an answer. Why is such a large amount of money being given to a single organisation that has a comparatively weak track record in the field? The Minister will no doubt point to the fact that the Cabinet Office spent a considerable amount of money—I wish he would tell us how much—on commissioning surveys into the effectiveness of NCS. I urge your Lordships to read the survey report that has been produced by Ipsos MORI. It is a very extensive and elaborate evaluation and produces some excellent statistics. In particular, the cost-benefit analysis that it provides is exceptional. It points out that for every pound spent on the scheme, between £1.25 and £4.65 of benefits accrue from it. That is impressive stuff, and any charity or voluntary organisation would be happy beyond measure to have those sorts of data at their fingertips.

There is, however, one big flaw in that evaluation. It was not a comparative evaluation: it sheds no light on the question of whether this service could be delivered more effectively and efficiently by anybody else. It does not do that because the question was never asked. To go from the state in which the NCS has been over the past few years, with exceptional government support, to a huge infusion of funds on the basis of some flawed research is really quite dangerous. It falls to your Lordships’ House to do the due diligence on this proposal, which has not been done by the Government so far.

I have not been able to find the audited accounts of the National Citizen Service; I am sure they exist but they are not available on the organisation’s website. Will the Minister ensure that a copy is available to Members of your Lordships’ House along with the organisation’s annual report? According to the last available audited accounts, roughly what was the income of the NCS, what was its rough expenditure and what level of free reserves did it have at the time of audit? I ask that because it is important information for your Lordships to know before we invest this amount of money into the organisation.

While I could not find out as much as I wanted about the NCS, I looked in some detail at the work of its biggest delivery partner, The Challenge Network. I did so because it sent me a briefing, as it probably did to other noble Lords. This charity was set up in 2009 with five employees; today it has 700 staff, an income of £53 million—£47 million of which comes from the NCS—and it has free reserves of £9 million. In a period when hundreds of charities have either merged or closed altogether, this one has had a charmed existence. However, as demonstrated by its annual report, particularly its accounts, it is almost wholly dependent on central government for its funding. So we have a proposal to invest a lot of money in the NCS when its biggest delivery partner is similarly reliant on continued central government funding. We have a duty to examine that in some detail because I am not convinced that it is a recipe for sustainability.

Unsurprisingly, other organisations in the voluntary sector have raised questions about this huge investment into one particular organisation. They have done so because they can see that in these straitened times it is not so much a competitor as a game-changer in terms of its impact on local volunteering. Here I pick up the points made by the NCVO when it asked that the NCS should have a duty upon it to have further and better collaboration within the voluntary sector. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, about the mythical view of the voluntary sector as a place where sweetness and light reign: my own personal experience is that in the voluntary sector people do not stab you in the back simply because it is quicker and easier to stab you in the front and they have the moral authority to do so.

Given that there is likely to be a significant reduction in money for volunteering, particularly from local authorities, we need to ensure that if this is going to be the big volunteering game in town then it is done in full collaboration with, particularly, local organisations and small organisations. The briefing from The Challenge Network prayed in aid the fact that results could be achieved only by big organisations that had the economies of scale to deliver them. What ought to be running through people’s heads when they read phrases like that is the Work Programme, under which investment that was promised for small voluntary organisations did not happen and big suppliers like A4E were found wanting.

Great claims have been made for the National Citizen Service. It claims to be unique in its extent and reach with young people from all sections of society. Members of your Lordships’ House who are also Members of the Select Committee on Charities would have heard the Church Urban Fund making similar claims last week. We therefore need to interrogate the uniqueness of the claims made by NCS and its backers.

In introducing the Bill at a meeting with Peers yesterday, the Minister said this Bill is intended to make NCS more sustainable and accountable “if it receives more public money”. That seems to lie behind the decision to make it a royal charter body. It is intriguing that the Government have chosen the most cumbersome governing structure possible. Other royal charter bodies often talk about just how difficult it is to make even minor changes to their governing documents because they have to get Privy Council approval. No doubt, the Minister will say that the Government are doing a belt-and-braces job. It looks a lot more like belt-and-braces and a load of cement. We have to consider whether this is the best treatment and why this organisation is being treated in such an exceptional way.

Charities and voluntary organisations are under great pressure to prove their efficacy and efficiency. They have to compete for funds, deliver contracts and prove their worth to funders. It is right and proper that they should. In those circumstances, this decision to treat this organisation on exceptional, favourable terms must be questioned. We have seen what happens when Government become enthralled by a particular organisation, such as Kids Company or A4e. When £l billion is at stake we really should not allow such a mistake to happen again. I look forward to receiving answers from the Minister in due course and to detailed consideration of this Bill in Committee.