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National Citizen Service

Volume 584: debated on Wednesday 16 July 2014

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, just as it was to hear part of the last exchange between hon. Members and the new Minister of State for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities, whom I know well. He knows that I know him well, and I hope that we will be working more closely together in future, given my interest in skills and through my chairmanship of the Skills Commission. Of course, I must also welcome the Minister for Civil Society, the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), who will be replying to this short debate of ours. I know him well, as do most of us in the House, and we are delighted to see him in his new position.

Anything that I say today about the National Citizen Service is not a criticism of what we have; it is an appeal to do more and to make it more thoroughgoing and rigorous. In a recent question to the Prime Minister, followed up by an article published last Saturday in the Yorkshire Post, I argued for people to realise that 100 years ago this August, a war started that led to the deaths of 16 million mainly young men, all over the world.

I was recently in France, overlooking a hill where 300,000 young men died during the first world war. Seventy hectares are still in a red zone and no one can go there. Any of us who think this year about that war and the casualties do not want that ever to happen again. We had a second world war, with—not many people know this—even more casualties worldwide, because of the sophistication of the weaponry used. We perhaps take it a bit for granted that there has not been a conflagration of that size since, although there have been, and still are, conflagrations, wars, and dreadful civil unrest and unhappiness across the world; I am thinking this morning about Gaza, Israel, Syria and so on. There is an extensive list.

I suppose I sound a bit like Colonel Blimp when I say that probably the best trainers ever in this country were the armed services. I have done a lot of work looking at the history of training in this country. The armed services, when we had national conscription and national service, took every young man who could see and walk into national service and made something of them. All the research shows that the experience was dramatic, certainly for young men in our inner cities and in our big towns, who would rarely move off their local estate or out of their local neighbourhood. National service took those young men and not only gave them a skill, a trade, a routine and much else, but sent them all over the world and all over the United Kingdom. They met people whom they would not otherwise have met, and many of them married them, so we had a real opportunity for mobility and change.

It is interesting that the young people who are able to travel, to see the world and to meet other people from other places are the sort of children who most of us in this room have—who I have. I have four children who have done their gap years in exotic places, some of which I have never been to. These young people have travelled and gone to university, well away from home, so there is mobility for them, but that mobility is not shared, particularly in the most deprived communities in our land.

May I be the first Member on this side of the House to congratulate the Minister on his new role? I look forward to working with him. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing the debate. I particularly enjoy working with him on a cross-party basis, as we are both co-chairs of the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group. I welcome how he is framing his remarks.

As chair of the all-party group on the National Citizen Service and volunteering, I would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support. Does he not think that this issue would also benefit from cross-party consensus?

As the hon. Gentleman said, he works well with me and I hope he can work with me on the much more ambitious programme that I am going to talk about today. Nothing I am going to say today is negative about the existing National Citizen Service programme, but I want to finish my analysis. I believe that we have become a very different country. More and more people are living in cities and towns, with fewer people living in the countryside. There are real problems with the mobility of young people—getting off their estates, travelling, and getting away from their sometimes troubled environments.

I would like to see an open discussion about the possibility of having a much more powerful National Citizen Service, because we are in a time when democracy is under threat. When I asked that particular question of the Prime Minister, the other thing I said was that, 10 days before, only 36% of people voted in the European elections and even fewer voted in the local elections. Interestingly, if we look at Europe, even countries that are so keen on getting democracy had levels of involvement of 19%.

It is worrying for Europe and for our country that there is a disengagement from politics. All of us, when we are out canvassing, or in different parts of the country—in my case, trying to persuade the people of Scotland to stay in the Union—hear too often that the perception is that democracy does not make any difference because we are all the same. I think we need citizenship, because it will get to the root of that kind of attitude.

The hon. Gentleman has my absolute support for his passion on the subject, and I have seen the complete transformation of young people who engage in the NCS programme. They all go on to become constructive and proud members of our local communities.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I shall point us to the direction I want to go in. There is complacency about our democracy. From studying history, we know that when we become complacent about our history and learning its lessons, problems emerge—extremist politics of various kinds. If there is a vacuum, there is a danger, historically, that something will fill it.

Perhaps we do not have anything like the extremes of left or right that we had in the Europe in the 1930s, which Michael Oakeshott wrote so vividly about at that time, but we have a serious problem of engagement, and we also have much higher migration than we used to. It is true—it would be nonsense for Opposition Members to deny and not address this fact—that many people come to this country. They want to learn about the country, be good citizens and be absorbed into the culture of this country, and they get very few opportunities to learn.

I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s ambition. As one of the architects of the National Citizen Service, which I thought he was talking about, I wonder whether he acknowledges that the NCS, which this year will, hopefully, take 90,000 kids through its programme, has a much higher proportion of children from free school meals and deprived backgrounds, and from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and is providing just that degree of social mix? There can be a kid from Eton on one end of a rope and a kid from the youth justice system, from east London, on the other end, and, as I have seen with my own eyes, they are entirely reliant on each other. In other circumstances, they would never have come together, and that is what is being achieved.

This is becoming embarrassing, Mr Caton. There are all these Members from across the House whom I have become accustomed to working with closely on various issues. I agree with that point, too.

I come to the nub of what I am saying. I am not criticising the existing service, but we are a bit complacent, in that we think it is enough. I do not think that it is enough. I go to many university campuses and talk to students. Everyone thinks that if people enter higher education, if they go to college, they learn something about this country, but all the evidence is that very often they do not. They might go to study physics, architecture, design or foreign languages, but my experience is that, even in the higher education sector, very little time is spent talking about the culture and nature of this country, the nature of democracy and the nature of a parliamentary democracy in particular.

What also worries me is that when, as Chair of the former Select Committee on Education and Skills, I looked at the way in which citizenship was taught in schools, I found that it was not very good at all. We visited many schools, and too often that was the situation with citizenship, despite all the brave efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and all the other efforts that were made. What we found on the ground was the old story of the PE teacher who does not have a heavy timetable being asked to teach citizenship. There was no training, no back-up and no real curriculum. We found that it was very lacking.

The one exception—the one bright star—was the Blue school in Bath and Wells. It had innovated and created the Learning to Lead campaign. We were so keen on the Learning to Lead campaign that I persuaded the Edge Foundation to give it £100,000, and I believe that it is now in nearly 150 schools. It really works, because it changes and suffuses the nature of the school and teaches people about how democracy works.

The view expressed at the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was so traditional that I thought he might be crossing the Floor to join all his positive colleagues on the Government side of the House. If he would like reassurance about how widely drawn and diverse the youngsters are who take part in the National Citizen Service, he should please come and see Lincolnshire and Rutland’s, which is most professionally run by Elaine Lilley and her colleagues.

I appreciate that intervention as well, but I am not going to be doing what the hon. Gentleman thought; let me just finish now. I believe that there is a complacency outside the House about citizenship. I believe that citizenship teaching should be much more rigorous. I believe that it would fit into another radical scheme that I propose, because I do not believe that anyone under the age of 25 in this country should be unemployed. We looked at that in the former Select Committee.

The fact is that it is a terrible waste of talent, money and everything else if a young person becomes unemployed before the age of 25. In my view—I have said this very clearly in the House many times—every young person should be in employment with training, in education, in training or getting high-quality job experience. The leader of the Labour party was misquoted recently on this. No young person should be allowed to be living on the margins of society on a little bit of benefit, a little bit of housing benefit and so on. Too many lives are destroyed by that dependency that develops up to the age of 25—

No. My citizenship programme would build on the excellent citizenship programme that has been so innovative and has grown. I have looked at the current programme and I think that it is good, but it is still small. I believe that there is a cost of £50; it certainly was that the last time I looked. As I said, the programme is small. It will have engaged 100,000 people this year, but I want to build on that experience. It has been a good learning process, but I want my hon. Friends on my side of the House and my friends of a different type on the other side of the House to come together on this. I do not think that there should be a political—

I thank the hon. Gentleman, my near constituency neighbour, for giving way and I welcome the Minister to his post. May I clarify what the hon. Gentleman is saying? I get where he is coming from. Attending National Citizen Service events at the John Smith’s stadium in Huddersfield and at Huddersfield town hall, we saw the wonder of the teamwork. People were away from home and working together in self-reliance. Is there not a fear that burdening the scheme with the citizenship training provided by local colleges, such as Huddersfield New college and Kirklees college, could take away the sense of adventure, self-reliance and teamwork that our young people are getting from this fantastic scheme?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, but that is not what I am saying. I do not want to touch that scheme. It can carry on—it can improve and we can learn from it. However, I think that there is a deeper lesson: we need a more thoroughgoing programme of inducting people into our society.

Personally, I do not believe that such a programme should be voluntary. I think that every young person in this country should do it. It should be equivalent to a year’s commitment; they should be able to do it full-time or part-time over a longer period. It should be applicable to the college and university student, as well as the young person coming out of school who does not yet have a job. It is a radical programme that I want and it builds on what already exists.

I have found that certain Conservative Ministers are rather jealous of me, because I studied at the London School of Economics with the well known Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who believed in the pursuit of intimations—not picking up wonderful policies of the left or right, which was the cure-all for everything, but learning from experience and edging forward. I have become much fonder of that kind of attitude as I have got older.

What we can learn from what we have done in the citizenship programme is that there is a real need. Disturbingly, we have found in Birmingham schools and in some in Bradford that there are things going on that we need to find a positive alternative to, rather than just getting into a frenzy when we pick up on something like that. There is also the very worrying experience that I had when I was Chair of the Select Committee of increasingly seeing people withdrawing children from school and saying that they were being home educated. We then lost track of them.

There are some real problems in our society. It would be silly of any political party to sweep them under the carpet. I think that a thoroughgoing one-year commitment to a national citizenship service, learning from the excellent work being done in the voluntary programme, is the way forward. I will continue pressing for that with the new Minister and with my colleagues on the Opposition and Government sides.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this important debate and I thank all hon. Members for their extremely constructive contributions. There are lessons that we can learn. Individuals and Members from both sides of the House have come to the realisation that this is something that it is extremely important to do. The hon. Gentleman, in looking back to national service—those of us who had parents who did national service have heard the stories of that and what they got from it—brings us forward to what the National Citizen Service is really about.

The issue of citizenship goes to the heart of my values and beliefs as a father, as a politician, and now as the Minister for Civil Society. Just last month, I visited a project in Peckham called Leaders of Tomorrow, which to me was an exemplar of what national citizen service is about. When I was invited by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday to take on this role, I was thrilled by the opportunity, because it gives me the chance to pursue an interest of mine—something that I have taken outside the realm of being a Member of Parliament. It is the bread and butter of what I do every week, not just as a Member of Parliament but as someone who has a huge interest in the importance of social action. I have spent the past eight years going to Rwanda on something called Project Umubano, which is a social action project. We in the Conservative party take a group of 50, 60 or sometimes 70 people to Rwanda to work on five or so different social action projects.

I am glad to have the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. On that point, does he agree that the citizenship programme is a key part of social action? Just this weekend, I saw some fantastic work being done by Cornwall college, which is really engaging young people in social action, and I am sure there will be a legacy for the rest of their lives.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. From a standing start, the programme of national citizenship now engages 10% of young people in the relevant age bracket. As someone who has five children between the ages of 16 and 25, I know that engaging young people for three weeks of their summer is a challenge. Most have the attention span of what they see on their iPhones or whatever digital devices they play with. The fact that the Government are now engaging 10% of our young people every summer represents a huge success.

I saw at first hand the value of bringing together young people from different backgrounds and supporting them in giving back to their communities. Each and every one of us sees many examples in our constituencies of youth organisations that bring together groups of young kids from different backgrounds to work together. It is vital that we encourage all our young people to participate. That is why His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was right to create the “Step Up to Serve” campaign, which is supported by all three main party leaders, with the ambition of increasing the proportion of young people taking part in social action in our country to 50% by the end of the decade. That is a tremendous ambition, and as Minister I am committed to working as hard as I can with community groups to try to engage our young boys and girls. It is right that the National Citizen Service, which is delivered by the independent NCS Trust, should be part of that vital cross-party campaign.

The NCS grew out of the recognition of a need to equip our young people with the skills and confidence they require to transition into adulthood, to re-engage them into a cohesive society and to utilise their energy and passion to improve their local communities. NCS is delivering against each of those needs. The 2012 independent evaluation of the programme found that 92% of participants thought that NCS gave them the chance to develop skills that would be useful in the future, and 95% said that NCS gave them a chance to get to know people with whom they would not normally mix. Two or three Government Members made that point.

NCS participants so far have given some 2 million hours to serving their communities, taken part in more than 50,000 social action projects and raised almost £750,000 for charities around the country. That is a tremendous achievement for the initiative from a standing start. Since 2011, nearly 80,000 young people have benefited from their involvement in NCS, and the programme is on track to have its 100,000th graduate this summer. The NCS started in England and spread to Northern Ireland, and I am delighted that it will soon be launched in Wales as well.

NCS is a special opportunity for our young people at a critical point in their lives, but social action is a habit that evolves over a lifetime. Across our country, there are many fantastic examples of organisations helping our young people to give something back. The Government have granted up to £11 million through two youth social action funds to encourage more young people to take part in social action and support high-quality programmes across England. A further £3 million will be granted through the vulnerable and disengaged young people fund for social action programmes working with vulnerable young people, including those in care and young offenders. As a result of our support and the efforts of charities and community groups across the country, 2012-13 saw the highest levels of informal and formal volunteering in England among 16 to 25-year-olds since 2008-09.

I welcome the Minister to his new position. I know that some work has been done on this, but is he aware of any further work on progression routes for those who graduate from the NCS? That is an area that could benefit from his attention in his new brief.

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. She is exactly right, and I have been talking about precisely that topic this morning. How can we engage local businesses? If someone gets a certificate to state that they have graduated from the NCS, will local businesses in our communities recognise the certificate and say, “I will give this person a job opportunity,” whether that be a summer job, a temporary job or a full-time job? The hon. Lady makes an excellent point.

I welcome the Minister to his new post. I assure the hon. Member for Huddersfield that Government Members were not ganging up on him earlier; we were very supportive. On the point that the Minister just mentioned, career academies offer some business engagement with young people at the ages of 15, 16 and 17. I recently set one up in Lincoln, which is a good model. The Minister, in his new role, might like to look at such academies.

On the NCS, the hon. Member for Huddersfield made a point towards the end of his speech that needs to be looked at. He mentioned those who are home educated, who might miss out on the opportunities that the NCS offers. When I was out with my NCS team in Boultham park recently doing some clean-ups, one home educating mother came up to us and asked whether her nine-year-old daughter could join in. Her daughter was a little bit too young for the NCS, but there is a need and a desire among parents for their children to be included.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We want to get more people involved, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield urged us to. That means committing resources to engage positively with parents, and I will be using part of our resources to do just that. Many people still do not know about the programme, so it is important that we try to market this great opportunity to young people.

The hon. Gentleman talked about national service and the skills that young people learned there. I remember hearing when I was younger from my stepfather, who went through national service, about the mix of people he encountered. All sorts of people from all sorts of background got together, and many people found when they left national service that they had a greater sense of social mobility than they had had when they entered.

We are not simply talking about skills. The hon. Gentleman described engaging with people, trying to create a cohesive society, encouraging individual responsibility and developing a responsible society. Those are all the hallmarks of NCS. He said that not enough is being done, and I am sympathetic to that. Like him, I would love every young person to be engaged in some form of community work or social action. I would draw the line—he did not really cross this line—at making such work compulsory, because I do not think that it is necessary to do so. If people engage with us voluntarily, they will be engaged with their communities for life. That is the sort of sense of social responsibility that we want to create from the NCS programme.

I conclude by returning to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He talked about Professor Oakeshott, and about the concept of learning from our experience. We are engaged in an iterative process, and we will continue to learn from it, continue to grow and continue to engage people, particularly young people. I am told that nearly 300 young people are expected to take part in the NCS in Huddersfield and the surrounding area this summer. I was pleased to note the hon. Gentleman’s tweet on meeting some of the NCS participants last September:

“Inspirational young people @NationalCitizensService in Huddersfield Town Hall if these guys are the future we’re OK!”

I could not agree more.

Sitting suspended.