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National Citizen Service Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:07 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Liberal Democrat 4:07 pm, 25th October 2016

My Lords, I join in the thanks to the Minister for introducing this short but important Bill. In doing so, I declare an interest as a member of the advisory council of NCVO. I am also a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I have spent most of the past 30 years in various forms of public service, and in different ways, most of the people I know are also involved: they are active in their communities and they volunteer. I think that we would all agree that our lives are enriched by that experience. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is right to say that the benefits of public service work both ways. So if the creation of NCS opens that sort of opportunity for more of our young people, that is, of course, to be heartily welcomed.

However, this large project, serving some 300,000 young people, will come at a cost of £1 billion in the forthcoming five years. That is not a reason not to do it, but it is a reason why we should look very carefully at all aspects of the scheme—starting, of course, with the legislation that establishes it. Having set budgets in local authorities for some years, I am always acutely aware that expenditure on one thing means that you do not have that money to spend on something else, so it is simply not good enough to say we should do something because it is a good thing to do; the question is whether it is the best thing we can do. In its briefing, the LGA points out that this investment is being made at a time when most local authorities have spent the past few years cutting services under their youth budgets because of cuts in their own financial settlements, and we have heard from my noble friend Lady Barker about the quite stringent conditions under which many charities are operating.

It is interesting that there has been quite a sea change in the past few years in that more young people are volunteering. I have seen reports that there has been a 52% rise in youth volunteering. To some extent, social media and on-line tools make certain sorts of voluntary engagement easier than they have ever been. For that reason, it is important for this scheme to have a relentless focus on those who are hard to reach or disadvantaged through poverty, disability, dysfunctional family lives and so on because they are the ones who potentially have the most to gain. For people with serious disadvantage, a cost of £50 is a big hurdle, so I was pleased to hear the Minister comment on ways of making that affordable. That should be one of the key indicators when Parliament carries out its scrutiny.

The National Deaf Children’s Society raised very important points about the cost of delivering the programme to young people with particular needs, such as British sign language interpreters or speech-to-text reporting, It is currently left to NCS providers to meet the cost of supporting disabled young people, and they are concerned that this funding will not be forthcoming. I am sure that similar issues would arise with visually impaired young people and those with other disabilities. I have a close family member dealing with ME. I hope that there will be enough flexibility in the scheme to manage those sorts of difficult intermittent conditions.

It is very important that we focus on how this scheme is to be promoted within hard-to-reach groups. I am a bit concerned about the emphasis being put on mailings from HMRC to promote it as that seems rather dependent on parents receiving mailings and then acting on them. In dysfunctional families, this may very well not happen, and those who need it most may be passed by.

I was also very taken with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, that young people do not like government schemes. If they do not like government schemes generally, something coming from HMRC might be particularly problematic for them. I know that there are wonderful people in HMRC—indeed, I am married to someone who works for HMRC—but there is a question about the tone of that very first engagement coming from HMRC. It also seems odd that in a scheme designed to transition young people into adulthood, the first engagement is through their parents. I am not entirely sure that we have got that right. I know that local authorities have fought very shy of becoming too closely involved with this, but they certainly need to be involved in a whole range of ways. I also wonder whether there is an opportunity to work with local authorities on voter registration in the context of this scheme because it seems to me that a great part of becoming a citizen later in life is to vote when you have the opportunity.

To a large extent the success of this scheme will depend on the providers, so I have been interested to hear from a whole range of people who have been involved so far as well as from NCVO and other parties. While there are some areas of disagreement, they are not significant and there is widespread consensus on a number of things. The first is that the scheme must sit firmly within the context of the whole of a young person’s life from the age of five to 25 and not be about just this brief period. Secondly, we need to ensure that the whole experience is of high quality and, as Justin Davis Smith, formerly of NCVO, put it, that the programme becomes the,

“must-do choice for young people”.

I think that is right.

Thirdly, the programme needs to sit within the wider volunteering system and make effective use of the knowledge and expertise of specialist charities, social enterprises and providers, especially in their localities. The scale of this programme could mean that smaller providers get frozen out of the commissioning process, as is often the case. The social action part of the programme should be not just a one-off but the start of a long-term involvement with volunteering and social action. However, finding meaningful voluntary activity is not always easy. Voluntary organisations themselves need more resources to manage an influx of volunteers; without them young people either cannot participate or will receive a poorer quality experience as volunteers. Fourthly, partner organisations need to be effectively and adequately resourced. One of the existing providers, The Challenge, explained how it provides personal coaches for young people who have been involved with the criminal justice system or who have been in care. This is almost certainly effective, but, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, it is very expensive.

The Bill also makes a number of provisions to make the NCS Trust accountable to Parliament and the public, which is welcome. We have to think acknowledge and, perhaps in later stages of the Bill, think about how we manage the tension between the sort of independence which the noble Lord, Lord Maude, talked about and the need to manage a very large sum of taxpayers’ money. I got slightly nervous at the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Maude, about the morass of public appointments. As boring as process sometimes might be, it usually ensures that you get a solid outcome in which people can have trust. With Kids Company we saw what happens when you have exuberant, charismatic leadership. It does not necessarily work well. We need to learn those lessons.

Conventional reporting—the annual report, the accounts and so on—can be of limited use. Charities now quite rightly focus on the impact they have, and NCS reporting should be exactly the same. Some of it will be qualitative, drawn on the experience of participants, but given this amount of public money, I expect to see a lot of data about the numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who complete the programme rather just start it and those with disabilities. Over time, I expect some outcomes with regard to those who remain involved with voluntary service and to whether there have been impacts on employment, reductions in crime and so on, both on a personal level and in aggregate.

It is no longer good enough for something to mean well; we have to get it right. I cannot put it better than the youth social action charity City Year UK. In its briefing it said that it is vital, now 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 that NCS at 16 should be the beginning and not the end of those opportunities to serve.