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National Citizen Service Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Labour 3:53 pm, 25th October 2016

My Lords, it is a pleasure to support this Bill but of course it needs and deserves proper scrutiny and proper amendment in due course.

At the start, I have to associate myself with everything my noble friend Lord Blunkett said about citizenship lessons, which I believe are critical for the well-being of our civic society. I trust that the Government will not only do more but will review the present lamentable situation. I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive introduction to the Bill. I am a great supporter of volunteering for people of all ages. It is good for the volunteers, for the people whom they serve and for society as a whole. However, my one concern at this time of financial constraint, including in vital local authority services, is that volunteers are increasingly required to fulfil rules that should be undertaken by public services. However, this is not the case with young people and it is not the case with the NCS.

Sitting on the Labour Benches, I am of course partisan but I warmly welcome the initiative taken by David Cameron in establishing the NCS and enabling it to grow over the last four or five years. It is a tribute to Michael Lynas, who does a fine job as the chief executive officer of the trust and his team that the trust has successfully grown and retained the support of all political parties. That must and will continue. I also pay tribute to the fantastic volunteering organisations up and down the land that work with young people.

As we have heard, and as the charter makes clear, the raison d’etre of the NCS is to promote social cohesion, social engagement and social mobility, to boost the confidence and resilience of young people—and that is exactly what it does. I have to admit that, when I was first introduced to the NCS, I was sceptical and I assumed that like many other projects, it would be dominated by middle-class youngsters whose parents knew how to get the best out of the system for their children. However, my fears were assuaged when I talked to graduates, who told me of their fantastic experiences, spending time with people who in their daily lives they would never come across, because so many of us live in ghettos, rarely meeting people whose lives are different due to class, race, religion or disability. I now know that is one of the great strengths of the NCS—bringing people together, breaking down barriers and enabling them to establish lasting networks. It has also enhanced participation in civic society, encouraging young people to take an interest in debate on matters of local or national interest—working with Bite the Ballot, for example, to promote their understanding of how to participate in national and local elections, thus empowering them.

The Prime Minister, Mrs May, has talked much about social mobility, which is encouraging, but it should not be thought that the expansion of NCS was a silver bullet. It is but one tool—albeit a very necessary one—in the tool box. While the NCS has my strong support, and I welcome this Bill, it is in my view not ambitious enough. While not undermining the NCS in any way, it could do so much more to sustain the sector and embed the concept of volunteering in our society. When a young person has volunteered, they are not only more able to meet the challenges of future life, they also enhance their employability. I have spoken to several large employers of late, who say that when considering the CVs of young people applying for apprenticeships, graduate training or other employment, more and more weight is given to the social action that they have undertaken. That is why it has become more and more important to ensure that all young people, including especially the hard to reach, can take up the opportunities to volunteer. I know that this is the intention of the NCS, but it is not explicit in either the Bill or charter, and reaching the hard to reach requires intensive action and funding. We should therefore table an amendment making specific reference to attracting the hardest-to-reach young people. There are some NCS projects relating to hard to reach and, if they are successful, I suggest that some of the funds should be ring-fenced for this specific purpose.

Social cohesion is one of the key principles of NCS. The experience and result of the Brexit referendum laid bare the depths of the divisions in our society. It will take time to heal those divisions, and working with young people is critical to foster understanding and inclusion. One group of youngsters in desperate need of understanding and inclusion are the refugees recently arrived, and still arriving, from Calais. If they could be included in NCS programmes when most appropriate for them, but as a priority, it would be fantastic for them but also for their fellow participants. I hope that the Minister would agree that we ask NCS to take this forward. I firmly believe that NCS should not be seen or act in isolation. It should be part of the journey mentioned by the Minister—and here I declare an interest as a member of the advisory council of Step up to Serve, and a trustee of City Year. Individuals and society benefit most when a young person’s journey is coherent and cohesive with social actions of many kinds, from primary school through to their 20s, from Step up to Serve, which promotes social action from the age of 10, to City Year and Volunteering Matters, which provide full-time volunteering opportunities for young adults.

NCS provision, while invaluable, must not be at the expense of other interventions and experiences of social action. What can and will be done to ensure that the grant funding for NCS will not dramatically change the ecosystem of youth social action, which includes so many excellent organisations? It is also extremely important that the funding committed to run NCS should not be at the expense of local services for young people. All noble Lords will be aware that councils have had to make difficult decisions to protect statutory services that support the most vulnerable children and young people, and local spending on youth services has fallen by an estimated £370 million since April 2010. It is essential that councils, which know the needs of their communities, should also be able to provide services, and I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that this will be the case.

The Minister, the sector and the NCS Trust have all said that the investment in NCS should help the wider youth social action journey, pre- and post-NCS. Will the noble Lord confirm that this is still the Government’s intent? If so, will they consider an amendment to both the draft Bill and the charter to establish a further objective of the NCS Trust along the lines of supporting, and not undermining, existing provision that contributes to a coherent youth social action journey? This would ensure that NCS governance and decision-making truly understood how its resources and presence supported the wider journey, ultimately making it more likely that the substantial public investment in the trust went further in supporting young people and, importantly, gave confidence to the wider sector. It would also give permission for NCS to promote other opportunities more substantially and even invest in them.

As has been said, NCS represents a very large investment of public money. It is welcome that the Bill establishes scrutiny measures around value for money, but does the Minister agree that questions about value for money can be answered only in the context of other youth provision that contributes to the stated outcomes of NCS, and that this should be included in the welcome annual report to Parliament? Related to this, we should table amendments on reporting to ensure, for example, that NCS has to state how many young people have begun their journey with other social action organisations and how many people have gone on to further social action or volunteering opportunities. We would then have a clearer view of the journey and could act if necessary.

I am glad that the Bill states that the NCS must report on the quality of the programmes provided or arranged by the trust, but it gives no indication as to how quality should be judged. I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister on whether there will there be specific criteria or a peer-led assessment. The continued success of NCS will depend to a large extent on evidence of the change that it is bringing about in society—in the improvement that it makes to the lives of our young people. My noble friend mentioned outcomes and their measurement. I suggest that the Government should commission a longitudinal impact study on the life outcomes of graduates so that in future we will have hard evidence of its success.

The charter will, as intended, help the NCS Trust demonstrate its independence from government and party politics, although we should be under no illusion about the ease with which a charter can be amended by a Government working through the Privy Council with no proper scrutiny. In parenthesis, I very much regret that there was no consultation with the sector on the contents of the charter. I welcome the fact that both the Bill and the charter provide flexibility for the trust in delivering its objectives. As many in the sector know, my own view is that young people should be required to give back more in terms of volunteering after they have graduated and following the considerable investment by society. This is not just a matter for NCS; it is a matter for wider society, which should provide quality volunteering opportunities and leadership. There are so many tasks to be fulfilled which could improve and enhance our communities and, while there are many excellent voluntary organisations, sometimes the leadership is lacking—perhaps understandably, given our busy lives and daily treadmills. I hope, however, that, working in partnership with councils and local voluntary organisations, NCS will be able to ensure that there is a commitment to local volunteering that goes way beyond the short-term confines of the scheme.

Finally, I turn to City Year, our campaign for a legal status for full-time volunteers in the UK, and the opportunity wasted by not including this, or even the concept of a year of service, in the Bill before us. NCS is an important part of a mosaic of volunteering opportunities and it cannot thrive in a vacuum: it must be part of the journey. It is vital, more than ever, to give the next generation the chance to play their part in shaping our country, and themselves, through service to others and NCS must not be the end of those opportunities to serve. That is exactly what City Year does. It recruits young people to give a year of service, working in schools in high-poverty communities to bridge the gap between what pupils actually need and what their schools are designed and resourced to provide. It changes the lives of students in the schools and it changes the lives of the young people who serve. It transforms lives and it also changes the outcomes of schools in the most disadvantaged areas. It is a win-win-win situation and we want to expand. Society needs us to expand for social and economic reasons, but there is a problem—a barrier.

While City Year UK and Volunteering Matters are set up to provide full-time volunteering opportunities, and other charities such as the excellent Scout Association, vinspired and Mayday Trust use full-time volunteers as part of their wider work, the volunteers have no legal status.

This means that full-time volunteers are defined as NEETs—not in education, employment or training. Not only does this make the young people feel they are part of the problem when they should be—and are—part of the solution, it means that they are not entitled to national insurance contributions, which would protect their pension contributions. Full-time volunteers can be given expenses by their charity, but charities are forbidden from paying expenses if the volunteer is ill. Volunteers are also forbidden from receiving personal development training or help from the charity they serve when they look for jobs at the end of their programme.

This is clearly a crazy situation. In America, France and Germany full-time volunteering—referred to as “service”—has a legal status, and engages not hundreds but hundreds of thousands of young people every year. Those Governments provide awards, such as discounts on university fees, for participants, who also get cards that give them the discounts for trains and cinemas that students enjoy. Their experience comes with a respected government-endorsed brand, and they are sought after by employers keen to hire young people with maturity and real-world experience.

I am passionate about a year of service, and the need for recognition by the Government in terms of a legal status grows by the day. City Year UK currently works in education, but there is so much more we could do in health and social care, in environmental protection and in heritage. As the evidence from the wonderful AmeriCorps programmes demonstrates, young people undertaking a year of service do not take the places of full or part-time employees. Trade unions, public services and business all recognise that they provide added value. That is exactly what we need in this country. We have a crisis in social services, some of it due to isolation and loneliness; when we suffer an environmental crisis, such as a flood, there are seldom enough people to provide immediate help and support for citizens and the emergency services. So much more could and should be done, in addition to the extraordinary work by City Year in schools.

There are rumours that the Government are going to set up a commission to look at the concept of a year of service and the introduction of a legal status. I ask the Minister: will this become a reality, and if so when? Why was it not included in this important but rather sparse Bill? With those questions I will finish, reiterating my strong support for NCS and this Bill. I have no doubt that the Minister is in listening mode, and I hope that in Committee the Government will both accept amendments and come forward with their own amendments to address some of the issues raised today.