National Citizen Service BillOctober 25, 2016
My Lords, I speak today with a tremendous sense of delight at the arrival of this Bill, and its reception so far. I declare an interest as one of those who helped early on to establish the groundwork for what became the Challenge Network charity, before the 2010 election, to create one of the original pilots of the National Citizen Service programme, where I was involved from as early as 2008 – and as part of the team who helped write the policy into the 2010 Conservative manifesto, and I subsequently advised on it from within the Cabinet Office under the Coalition government.
I remember when I was first approached by members of David Cameron’s team in opposition, in my previous role as a founding Partner of the Shaftesbury Partnership, which I am currently re-joining in a non-executive capacity and in which I therefore declare an interest. We were invited to design a working prototype to accompany, refine, and road-test the original policy idea which had been proposed by David Cameron (and before him many others from across the political spectrum over the years) as part of his leadership campaign. It was a memorable time, helping to put together the original design brief, and then helping to cultivate the charitable angels and private donations for the research study and subsequent pilot, and then pulling together the senior team to help design the business plan and then actually run the pilot. The donors, who I won’t all name today, must nonetheless be thanked, for without their generosity we would not have been able to learn what we now know – insights which have been shared more broadly throughout the NCS programme and community. It was all in all a textbook example of social innovation at the time, and everything seemed to go ahead relatively smoothly – such was the support and the favour behind the idea. I have to remember here also to thank the then staff and trustees of Absolute Return for Kids, who at the time released me to work part-time on projects such as these through Shaftesbury. Much credit in particular needs to go to Patrick Shine, co-partner at the Shaftesbury Partnership, who went on to chair The Challenge Network charity in those early years, as well as to Craig Morley who we recruited following a successful career in Proctor and Gamble and as a mentor with the Prince’s Trust to help lead the project – who became its first CEO. I also want to highlight the work of Jon Yates, who had a strong background in youth work and was a McKinsey consultant previously, as well as Doug Frayley, who came out of the world of Google who brought tremendous experience in HR. Whilst we played a role in getting pilots going in those early riskier years, it was very important that from the beginning the charity would have its own independent footing, and cross-party support, and it has since grown to be through the efforts of many others, a successful provider of the National Citizen Service, incubated by but now separate from the Shaftesbury Partnership.
Of course a huge amount of work has been carried out since then both in government, and at the grassroots level, and Ministers, present and former, as well as the team at the NCS Trust led so ably by Stephen Greene, and Michael Lynas and his team, and the existing and past providers should feel proud of having been part of something truly special and ground-breaking. We are now witness to a phenomenon that has cross-party support, which has produced tremendous impact in social outcomes, particularly in that much needed area of creating social capital across wealth and social divides in an age of social isolation, and at a scale that has been achieved without much or any compromise in quality, in but a very short space of time. The policy has united many behind it from a diversity of political and other backgrounds, from leaders of charities, faith groups, businesses, politicians, and members of the media – an amazing achievement given the level of debate and differences in opinion in other areas of our body politic these last few years. As I have found with Teach First, this is a programme that has found many fathers and mothers, and rightly so, and the more the merrier. And there was perhaps no greater sense for me that this had arrived as a truly national programme, when once a few years ago on holiday in the Lake District, my family and I happened to bump into a Challenge NCS team on a mountain of all places, totally by accident. And I remember at the time being struck by how you could almost go anywhere in the country and there would be people whose lives were being touched and affected by this scheme.
It is in light of this only appropriate that we now bring forward this policy onto a longer term basis, and I whole-heartedly welcome this Bill as a result. I want to turn now to make a number of remarks relating to the Bill, based on my experience of this scheme and look to the future, to ensure it continues to make the impact that others have highlighted. I will cover first the reasons behind bringing it onto a statutory footing, areas to ensure a continued focus on, and tackle a number of questions and concerns that have been raised about the policy over the years.
Firstly the appropriateness of bringing the policy onto a statutory basis. Over the years I and others have sought to work to bring about what used to be called social reform in the days of my great hero the 7th Early of Shaftesbury, but which we sometimes call social innovation today. In days past and still sometimes today, this takes place through Parliamentary procedure – think about Wilberforce and his efforts to bring about the end to Slavery, and more recent efforts to end trafficking and its ill effects today. At other times, reform and scalable social innovation took place outside of Westminster and government, through the creation of campaigns, and movements, and charities and social enterprises that became ultimately of sufficient impact and scale that government could not ignore it. This latter approach, which itself arguably was instrumental in bringing about the successes Wilberforce and others in his era enjoyed, catalysed by the likes of Granville Sharp many decades before Wilberforce’s arrival on the scene – is one I have felt the most affinity with: social innovators should work to bring about change through piloting and development outside of government, and then seek to see how these ideas once tested can be rapidly designed to scale, and then brought into contact with and affect government policy where appropriate. This in contrast to the default thinking that government should seek to take on the role of innovator from the inside out, which does not always in my view work, especially in today’s highly media-driven environment.
What is powerful about this Bill and policy, is how the two have come together: politicians on the one hand recognising the past benefits historically of National Service and calling for some variant of it to be brought back, and social innovators and philanthropists who took the risk to develop and pilot, test, and then scale – with government support – prototypes to create not just a rite of passage, but forge new links between young people from different backgrounds, and then to create a pool of citizens ready to play their role in our democracy and in society. And having tested this policy over the last number of years, it is appropriate, given the benefits it brings to the country and to communities within it, and given the public spending involved, for it to be brought onto a long-term accountable footing. But with the caveat that the innovation and experimentation that led to its realisation from a policy idea to a workable national programme, is not lost as NCS becomes in effect a new national institution. The 7th Earl himself voiced concerns when the pioneering work of charitable educationalists was nationalised, and it has taken many years and much effort perhaps to bring our education system to the point where new ideas and approaches are accepted once again through the Academies and Free School movements. I certainly hope and expect that this Bill will enable new entrants and smaller providers with fresh ideas, to continue to bring their innovations and approaches into the programme.
Which brings me to the point I want to make about this Bill and its emphasis. It is very important that in bringing NCS onto a statutory footing, that we do not create a huge bureaucracy, and I am glad the approach being taken is apparently one that seeks to strike a balance between accountability and being sufficiently hands off to allow the Trust to get on with the job. It is important for example that the National Audit Office does not just look at past success, which may ultimately favour larger providers including the Challenge Network, but also has a remit to explore the degree to which smaller and new providers are allowed to come in and innovate and experiment and tailor to different audiences and niches whilst maintaining the focus on building social capital across different social groups. Will my noble friend the Minister be able to reassure us that this will be considered in the Bill and that there may even be exemptions for new and smaller organisations in the commissioning process to counteract that risk-aversion that can sometimes reign, effectively drawing up the ladder behind the early providers, who already know how to meet commissioners demands in terms of track record and measurement? What has begun through a process of partnership and innovation, ought to My Lords, continue, even as we seek to bring the scheme to a wider national institutional level.
Secondly, I feel that it is really important that over time, effort is put into working with the Scottish government and the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies to bring this policy to all young people across the United Kingdom. Whilst respecting and understanding the competence of each part of the UK to oversee its own work in this area, I do think that one of the greatest benefits to having young people from around the country engaged in NCS, is the creation of a strong sense of service to both the local community and to the wider world. At a time when politics is becoming perhaps uglier, and more fractious, more and more of our young people desire being part of something bigger, and it would be a shame to lose the sense of camaraderie that I know was enjoyed by Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English young people during the era of National Service in the early 20th century, and of mutual respect – no matter what the future may bring in terms of the destinies of our respective nations. I would be glad to hear the noble Ministers thoughts on this.
In my remaining time, I want to turn to some of the questions that have been asked about this policy, which have been posed over the years, and I am keen to see how the Government will address them. The first is to do with the relationship between NCS and other youth charities and providers. I have noted that many different charities and groups have been involved in provision of the programme, some 200 at the last count, and it has been good to see how close links have been established to enable those such as the Scouts and other groups to benefit from NCS alumni becoming mentors and supporters. I would like to know how the Bill can help support this partnership between NCS and large and small youth charities and groups to bolster their efforts to bring improvement to their communities and young people – avoiding for example a situation that has at times characterised the relationship between the BBC as a national body, and other television channels or media organisations – with the one at times competing against the others rather than being a source of impact and unique programming. How will the Bill and principles enshrined in it and the NCS charter or equivalent ensure that the work focusses on that which no other private body alone could do?
The next question which is often raised is one of cost. I am glad that funding has been allocated up until 2019/20, and that any young person who wants to be involved in the NCS programme will be granted a place. It is because the policy requires a significant amount of public funding that we are now engaged in bringing it into statutory accountability. Equally, from my understanding of the programme’s design, there is a necessary cost to create a deep change and bond in the lives of those young people from affluent and low income backgrounds participating through the residential activities that first take them away from their day to day lives, at a key moment of transition in a young person’s life, and then help gradually reinsert them back into the communities in which they are a part – which every study I read in the design phase indicated was key to bringing about the social benefits which have been reported from the programme in the years so far during which it has been in existence. We will need to have courage to continue to fund this necessary cost, so that we can in turn see the benefits longer term in society, which will ultimately have a potential impact on government spending in the form of greater social cohesion, greater community participation, lower crime, and better educational and vocational outcomes. I recall the stories of those who served together historically in the years of National Service, side by side in training and in the field – this cannot be replicated simply by funding a few hours a week important as that is, but through a sustained initial training period – one which NCS exemplifies. And so I would like to ask the Minister how the Bill will safeguard beyond 2020 the spending on this policy, and prevent future short-sited governments from seeing this programme with its many long-term benefits to the country as a quick way to balance the budget in future.
My Lords, we have in the past decade come a long way on this journey to creating a National Citizenship Service. There remains a tremendous amount to do in the decades to come – not least in designing our policies around other key transitions in our lives not just in our youth. In light of this, I welcome this Bill as another milestone in ensuring that this innovation, building on the experiences of the previous century, will enable many young people to become citizens and even the social reformers and innovators of the century to come.