Thank you, Mr Walker. I will put on record at the beginning of the debate that my party is delighted to support the Bill. We think it will play a very important role in the life of the country going forward. It is important that young people are given the chance to develop skills and interests that will support them well through the rest of their lives—not just into employment, although of course that is a primary concern, but for their wider well-being and for the enjoyment of their lives and leisure time, enabling them to make a positive contribution to society, of which each of them is a very important member. For those reasons and many more we very much support the Bill.
Amendment 4 seeks to strengthen one of the most important features of the National Citizen Service—its promotion of social integration and how it seeks to bring together young people from differing backgrounds who would never otherwise have the opportunity to meet, particularly during their early, formative years. If the shared society is to mean something, it must mean something to young people from different social backgrounds and different parts of the country who can all come together and develop a better understanding of what they have in common and how they can use those new bonds to make a difference to their own lives and to the country. NCS has a very big role to play in strengthening a common identity for young people, but we want to make sure that the legislation will enable that to happen to the absolute maximum.
Amendment 4 reflects the broad support on Second Reading for the work of NCS in encouraging social integration. The Minister said that he was willing to consider the arguments for protecting and strengthening that further in legislation, which is the spirit behind the amendment. The Bill and the draft royal charter mention social cohesion, but cohesion is not an outcome; it is the process. Although that difference may seem fine, it is very important because, without focusing on integration, we will not secure the greater cohesion we want to deliver. Social cohesion is one of the defining challenges of our time. Last year showed us many things and one was how divided this country is, in many senses right down the middle. That makes the role of the National Citizen Service all the more important in trying to bridge that divide and to bring this country back together.
Young people from different backgrounds living, working, eating and facing challenges together is incredibly important, and not just young people from different parts of the country. My experience in south London, as a council leader previously, and today as a Member of Parliament, is that too many young people and too many of our communities lead parallel lives that never come together. Young people living on an estate in relatively poor circumstances, many of them not knowing any adults in long-term, secure, well-paid employment, may grow up believing their future to be incredibly limited and constrained compared with other young people living in nearby streets whose parents work and whose friends are in good employment. They may grow up with very different expectations.
Those young people may pass one another in the street or sit on the same bus together, but their lives never meaningfully meet. It is important that NCS can play a role in bringing those two communities together. Those young people are all part of the same country. They need to feel that they have the same stake in our country and to be equipped to contribute to it to the best of their ability so that they can meet their full potential. We seek to amend the Bill slightly to allow that to take place. The process is necessary to achieve a cohesive community, which we believe will be one of the foundations for the Prime Minister’s shared society. Indeed, she referred to that in her recent speech when the Minister was present.
Amendment 5 seeks to ensure a specific mention for young people from harder-to-reach backgrounds because it is important that they continue to play a full role in the National Citizen Service alongside young people who are perhaps easier to reach. A common theme on Second Reading, raised on both sides of the House, was that we want young people from all backgrounds to continue to have full access to the benefits and opportunities of the National Citizen Service.
The Minister was correct in saying the proportion of NCS participants from a free-school-meals background is higher than in the general population. That is welcome, of course, but the number of young people from that background taking part has fallen from 23% in 2011 to 17% in 2014. That, if not arrested, is a danger, which the trust and those involved in running NCS are focusing on correcting. We do not, however, want participation targets to be met by accessing young people who already have the capacity to participate and therefore miss young people from harder-to-reach backgrounds who might benefit even more from taking part in the National Citizen Service if they continue to have those opportunities.
The purpose of the amendments is to strengthen and support the Bill. The Bill has our full support, but it is still possible to improve it.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Walker? I thank all members of the Committee for joining in the scrutiny of the Bill today. I was delighted on Second Reading to hear Members from both sides of the House endorse the National Citizen Service so strongly, often based on their personal experience in their constituencies. All the discussion today, as begun by the hon. Member for Croydon North, will be motivated by the aim to make NCS the best possible experience for young people in our country. I am grateful to hon. Members for raising the topic of social integration. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said,
“A central challenge of our times is to overcome division and bring our country together.”
I believe NCS has enormous potential in that area and is already showing its strength in bringing together people from different backgrounds. To echo a point made on Second Reading by Tim Loughton, when one visits an NCS programme one can see young people from very different backgrounds at either end—literally—of a rope.
The 2015 Ipsos MORI evaluation of the programme found that eight out of 10 NCS participants feel more positive about people from different backgrounds after they have been on the programme. The Bill and the charter must, and will, ensure that that remains a core part of NCS. Indeed, article 3.1 of the royal charter sets a primary function for the NCS Trust to provide programmes
“with the purpose of enabling participants from different backgrounds to work together in local communities to participate in projects to benefit society”.
The charter goes on to say at 3(4)(a) that one of the objectives of the trust in exercising its function is
“to promote social cohesion by ensuring equality of access to the programmes by participants regardless of their background or circumstances”.
It makes it clear that an essential element of NCS is that participants from different backgrounds work together. That is in practical language what social integration means on NCS. The Bill would ensure that Government, Parliament and the public can hold the NCS Trust to account for its success in that area.
Clause 6, which we will come to later, sets as one of the specific reporting requirements
“the extent to which participants from different backgrounds have worked together in those programmes”.
The Bill and the charter, although they do not use the precise words, cover the need for social integration as an integral part of NCS in future, as it is now. Both consciously use language that describes what social integration actually means in the context of NCS: participants from different backgrounds working together.
We want the Bill to remain in plain English and to avoid packing it with too many conceptual terms or buzzwords. If we add “social integration” we could add many other phrases such as “social cohesion”, “social inclusion”, “social mobility”, “social engagement” and so on. Instead, the functions listed in the charter and the Bill should focus on what the trust should actually be doing; in effect, doing what it says on the tin.
Although we agree entirely with the underlying principles of the amendment, I do not think it would add anything to the Bill that is not already sufficiently covered. However, I will commit, without guarantees, to look at whether we might be able to capture the importance of social integration any better in the royal charter. I will look at the royal charter, but the Government do not support the amendment because the phrase “social integration” would not add anything meaningful to the Bill.
On the second amendment, I am again grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon North for raising the importance of engaging with hard-to-reach young people. It brings me back to the key principle of NCS—that it must be accessible to all. NCS participants leave home to stay with other young people from different schools, streets and towns. That is part of what makes the NCS experience so special. Social mixing sits at the heart of the trust’s functions, as set out in full in the royal charter. The trust must enable participants from different backgrounds to work together.
Article 3.4.a of the charter specifies that, in exercising its functions the trust must ensure
“equality of access to the programmes by participants regardless of their background or circumstances”.
To bring together people from different backgrounds, it will have to promote the programme across the country. It will have to work with its providers, schools, local authorities and other youth sector organisations to make sure that young people know about the programme and that there is a place for them, regardless of their circumstances. That is our manifesto commitment and that is what is hardwired into the Bill and into the charter.
On a point of clarification, on Second Reading, many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members raised the fact that NCS should retain the flexibility not just to work within local communities, but also around the rest of the UK, to ensure communities can work together. Does this clause give the flexibility for NCS to be able to work with other authorities from around the rest of the UK, so this could become a more national programme?
This is not a UK-wide programme as it currently stands. Wales and Scotland have not so far chosen to undertake NCS and there is a separate organisation undertaking it in Northern Ireland, which we will come on to. The NCS Trust has flexibility to deal with any organisations it chooses to deal, because a key part of the Bill is to keep its independence in making choices about whom it uses on a day-to-day basis. We do not want to get involved in the day-to- day running of the NCS Trust.
The trust will have to report each year on the extent to which participants from different backgrounds have worked together. Parliament can hold it to account directly for how it has demonstrated that individuals have come together in NCS groups. In addition, in the updated version of the royal charter, we have added a recital to the preamble to further emphasise the point that
“it is desirable to take steps to overcome any barriers to participating in volunteering opportunities which young people may face as a result of their background or circumstances.”
The Bill and the charter put these responsibilities front and centre. The documents have been drafted to ensure that there is no legal ambiguity: there can be no doubting what the trust is there to do and what it is there to deliver. I hope that hon. Members recognise that the words “hard to reach” can be interpreted in various ways. Some groups of young people are not necessarily disadvantaged but are hard to reach for NCS. For example, independent school pupils are under-represented on NCS, often because they have access to many other competing opportunities. Ultimately, we want all young people to take part, including “hard to reach” young people. The charter makes it clear in article 3.4 and the preamble that the trust must take steps to make NCS accessible to all.
Social mobility and social mixing are important components of NCS. It would not be NCS if young people from different backgrounds were not coming together to make a difference in their local communities. If the Trust did not promote the programme—including efforts to engage “hard to reach” young people—it would not be fulfilling its functions, as set out in article 3 of the royal charter. I therefore do not think this amendment is necessary and do not support its inclusion in the Bill.
I thank the Minister for his response to my questions and I recognise what he said about looking again—without guarantees, sadly. However, the willingness to look again at the royal charter is welcome. We would be happy to work with the Minister on that basis.
It is important the Bill continues to enjoy cross-party support in the way it has so far. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I will be brief, but there are a couple of issues that need to be drawn out. Clause 1 defines the NCS Trust for the purposes of the Bill. In the Bill, “NCS Trust” simply means the body that will be incorporated in the royal charter. The draft royal charter for the trust has been laid before the House, and the charter is the trust’s key constitutional document. It works together with the Bill, which creates a framework of accountability for the new charter body. The primary functions of the trust are laid out in the royal charter and repeated in clause 1 as part of the definition of the NCS Trust. The functions lay out the trust’s core purpose, which is to arrange the delivery of the NCS programme and, of course, to promote it.
Clause 1 specifies key outcomes that the trust will be tasked to pursue in order to achieve these primary functions. The NCS programme must aim to bring people together from different backgrounds, as we have discussed; the programme must also enhance the skills of participants and enable them to work on projects to benefit society. That expresses the essence of what NCS aims to achieve.
For the purposes of clause 1—and this why I particularly wanted to deal with this now—there is a definition of young people. It means 16 and 17-year-olds, but it can also include 15-year-olds or people who are between 18 and 24. That reflects the way in which the royal charter defines which young people the NCS programmes must be available to. The charter ensures that the programmes are always available to 16 and 17-year-olds: the core group for NCS. However, at its discretion, the trust may allow children who are 15 or 18 to 24 on the programme. That reflects its current practice and is designed for exceptional circumstances when someone is unable to do the programme when they are 16 or 17. For example, they may have a learning disability, or perhaps they have caring responsibilities—something of that nature.
Part of NCS’s strength is that it provides a common experience at a particular age; we will not, therefore, broaden the normal age range. NCS Trust will not proactively recruit participants who are over 17. Part of the strength of NCS is that it brings people together to share a common experience at a distinct point in time, at a formative stage of their life—in this case, post GCSE—but not every 16 or 17-year-old will be able to participate. For example, it may be more appropriate for a young person who has a disability to take part when they are slightly older. That is why the charter, as reflected in clause 1, gives the trust discretion to allow young people aged 15 to 25 participate. We want NCS to be available to any young person aged 16 or 17 who wants a place, and the provision is an important part of ensuring that that is the case.
Clause 1 specifies that “young people” in the Bill means those residents who are receiving education or training in England. The NCS Trust will arrange for the delivery of NCS only in England and, as I said, it is important that it is open to any young person in this country as per the manifesto commitment. That includes refugees and people who are living, training or receiving education in England. Clause 1, therefore, is essential: it provides the key definitions and should stand part of the Bill.