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My Lords, I am glad to have the chance to speak in this important debate. I was involved early on in the life of NCS. When David Cameron appointed me Minister of the Cabinet Office in 2010, straight after the general election, he said: “Oh, and by the way, you’ll have responsibility for implementing National Citizen Service”. Knowing as I did that this was very much his personal vision, personal idea and pet scheme, it was perhaps not the most reassuring task to be given. I am hugely grateful to my colleague Nick Hurd, who was my deputy in the Cabinet Office and who very personally, in a very hands-on way, took responsibility for making this vision a reality. It was a huge privilege and responsibility for us both to take this through. It was designed and conceived as a rite of passage for young people from childhood to adulthood. It took them out of their comfort zone. It brought young people together from all backgrounds; it was of the essence that there was a social mix and that this was a process of young people getting to know people they would not have otherwise come across.
I urge your Lordships, if you have the chance next summer, to go and visit some of these schemes and talk to the young people, because you will hear some incredibly moving stories. I visited many schemes over this period and talked to hundreds of participants, and a couple of stories stick with me. I asked a young Afro-Caribbean girl from south London what she was getting out of it and she said: “It is often said older people don’t understand young people. What you don’t understand is that young people often don’t understand each other”. She also said: “I have spent time in this scheme with young people I would have thought came from another planet and yet I find we have the same interests, the same concerns, the same anxieties and the same kind of aspirations”. The story that that told me of the social cohesion that can come out of the small-scale stories here was powerful.
I also recall a young man in one of the schemes in Yorkshire. I asked him what he was getting out of it and he said—this has always stayed with me—“I always thought I wasn’t very likeable and yet I have come here in a different context, out of school, out of the existing relationships, put in with a lot of other young people who I didn’t know, and I have made friends in a way I wouldn’t have made friends before”.
If you talk to the staff, they will all say that in the short weeks that the NCS scheme takes, you can see almost before your eyes young people maturing, growing and becoming bigger people. That is incredibly powerful and moving. When you talk to the young people and ask them what they are getting out of it, they will all talk about getting more confidence; they are becoming more confident. The reality is that there is a social and economic payback from the scheme. Some of it is short term, for sure, but some of it will be much longer term. You get young people who know themselves better, know each other better and therefore know their country better; who are more likely to be ready for work and employable when they leave school; and for whom social action is much more likely to have become a habit.
I am delighted that the Bill is making the scheme permanent. That is really important. I give credit to Members in other parties who have embraced the scheme. When the scheme was very much the personal vision of one Prime Minister from one party, it would have been easy for other parties to want to stay clear of it and for a potential different Government to want to change it. I pay particular credit to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for the part he played in gaining wider support for it across the parties.
The Bill makes the scheme a permanent feature of the landscape of our nation, and that is extremely good news. I have one or two issues with it. I think it is fair to say that the journey from 2010 to here was not always easy. At the beginning, officials wanted us to issue a White Paper. That is normally the response of civil servants—I say that with a little trepidation, a few feet away from the former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. We resisted a White Paper: we did not want it to be set in stone, we wanted to get on and do it, try new ways of doing things, see what worked and develop it on that basis. That has been the approach all the way through, and it will be incredibly important in the years ahead that it does not become set in stone; the new trust must want to innovate.
In the early days, many of the existing youth organisations rather resented what we were doing. They thought it was distracting money from supporting their organisations. Then, when we had resisted that, some of them tried to persuade us to badge what they were already doing as NCS. I remember several of them coming to say, “We do something pretty close to this, so why can’t we just get the credit and the money for it?”. We said, “No, this is distinctive, new, doing something genuinely different from any other scheme”. It was important that we were rigorous in insisting that it remained different.
Then, when it became too big for it sensibly to be managed in-house by our brilliant team in the Cabinet Office, we were urged to create a quango. I so strongly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said: that it must not become an NDPB—or whatever the initials are. We resisted that; we insisted that the NCS trust should be genuinely independent of government. Obviously, we were going to take a very close interest in it, because it was disbursing very large amounts of public money, but I believe that it was right for it to be wholly independent from government.
We faced the same argument when we were setting up Big Society Capital, the world’s first social investment bank, taking money from dormant bank and building society accounts and putting it into a social investment bank to support social enterprises and charities. This was the brainchild of Sir Ronald Cohen. The previous Labour Government had planned that it should be a quango, but again we insisted that it should be totally independent from government and unrestrained by the sense that the Government were always looking over its shoulder.
The royal charter approach gives it permanence, which is important and a clear positive. The danger is that the independence becomes imperilled. I do not think I have heard the phrase arm’s-length body here but when that phrase is used it is normally meant to convey the sense that it is at a distance from government —but as we know, of course, at the end of an arm is a hand, and the hand can be used to hold and control the body. That must not be the case with this new entity.
Of course I understand the need for accountability with very large amounts of money. I do not think that I am open to accusations of being cavalier about public money. The work I led in the Cabinet Office in the last Government saved the taxpayer more than £50 billion accumulatively, so I take the responsibility for public money pretty seriously. However, it has often occurred to me that the Civil Service is often much more interested in scrutinising to death how others spend public money, rather than in how government itself spends money. We need to beware of the danger of creating accountability to the extent that it inhibits the entrepreneurialism which is important here.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, on the appointments. I would go further than he did and say that the Government should not even be appointing the chair of this body. Yes, the chair should be subject to approval by the Government. I agree with the noble Lord that Stephen Greene, the current chair of the NCS Trust, has been brilliant. He is entrepreneurial, passionate and knowledgeable; he has devoted a huge amount of time and energy to making this work. However, he is unconventional, and frankly I doubt whether he would have survived going through the often tortuous process of the public appointments morass that we often struggled with.
I support the Bill but I hope we can explore in Committee how it can be less of an arm’s-length body and more of a body that is located at least one step away from government so that the Government can intervene—that is obviously necessary with this amount of money being spent—but not day by day, week by week or month by month. It should be at a distance where, to intervene, the Government have to do something proactive so that this is not routine control. It needs to be an event out of the ordinary that prompts intervention by the Government. I hope we can explore that as we take this important Bill forward.