Henry Smith MP speech in the House of Commons debate on the National Citizen Service Bill

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley). I particularly want to highlight her comment that the National Citizen Service should not be the preserve of just those who are confident. Many young people who might lack confidence need encouragement to come forward.

Over the past couple of years, I have been delighted to attend a number of NCS events in Crawley. I have had the opportunity to present certificates to local graduates of the programme on a number of occasions. We often hear people say that our young people simply do not care about their local area and have no interest in getting involved in the community. Given our experiences, I am sure that everyone in the House would contest that assertion.

The National Citizen Service leads to increased community engagement, awareness and social action. I have seen this for myself from NCS participants in my constituency, where the initiative is delivered by the Crawley Town Community Foundation. Cohort after cohort have shown they are extremely committed to helping those less fortunate than themselves, and through the NCS programme, they continue to come up with ways to raise awareness and funds for important local causes. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has previously called for more collaboration between the voluntary sector and the NCS, and such closer working together could lead to an even greater difference.​

I am sure that other operators would be able to learn from what I have seen in Crawley. Last year, through their social action projects, NCS participants worked alongside a host of local good causes, including Crawley Open House, the Springboard Project, St Catherine’s Hospice, the Olive Tree Cancer Support Centre and Save the Children. I would like to use this opportunity not only to commend Crawley’s NCS graduates, but to thank them sincerely for raising more than £7,400 across the three NCS programmes last year, and for volunteering a total of over 7,500 hours of their time to help those local organisations. This consists of more than just fundraising; they have put together packs for the homeless and organised renovation work to help a charity as well.

A little over six months ago, our new Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), took office. Before entering No. 10 for the first time, she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the importance of ensuring greater opportunity for all. The National Citizen Service helps with that opportunity. A key hallmark of the NCS is ensuring that young people are taught skills that they cannot learn in class. More than nine out of 10 participants believe that the NCS provides the opportunity to develop skills that will be useful in the future, and analysis has shown that in the year after participation, the majority of NCS graduates state they have used those skills already. The programme increases wellbeing and lowers levels of anxiety, with the greatest impact being found among those from the poorest backgrounds.

Financial support is available for the one-off £50 fee. In fact, the National Audit Office states that the average contribution in 2016 was £30 as a result of concessions and bursaries. In contrast, estimates show that in 2016 the cost per participant will exceed £1,800—I am sure Members agree that that is an investment worth making. In 2015, 17% of NCS participants were eligible for free school meals, compared with around 10% of young people among the general population. Analysis of the summer 2014 programme has shown that the NCS is estimated to have delivered social benefits valued at between £70 million and £250 million, giving a benefit-to-cost ratio of between £1.12 and £3.98 for every £1 spent.

Research also shows that fewer than half of 18 to 24-year-olds voted at the last general election. While more continues to be done in this regard, I welcome NCS figures showing that participants are more likely to vote and engage in our democracy after finishing the scheme. Indeed, thousands of young people registered to vote while taking part in the NCS. I am grateful to the Government for their continued enthusiasm for supporting the initiative and pay tribute to the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, for establishing the National Citizen Service and his ongoing involvement after leaving public office.

The running of the NCS is not simply a case of a host of local operators doing their own thing, independent of one another and of established charity groups. My own constituency’s local provider, the Crawley Town Community Foundation, works not only to help charities in West Sussex, but alongside the Football League Trust, which supports a host of league clubs in delivering the programme. Crawley Town Football Club has backed ​NCS over the years, including by having the programme’s participants hold bucket collections for local good causes on match days and hosting the graduation ceremonies in the stadium suite overlooking the pitch. That commitment will go further with additional events and announcements in the near future. There is also regular exposure on the club’s website and in the matchday programme. The impact of the association with the local football club cannot be underestimated.

The Bill will place a duty on schools, colleges, and local and national Government to inform young people and their parents, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, of the skills and benefits that can be gained from the National Citizen Service. One of the most powerful ways in which NCS can be promoted is directly by the very people who have taken part. Just under half of last year’s Crawley graduates are still involved in the scheme, which is the highest figure across Kent and Sussex. Will the Minister tell the House what assistance the Department may be able to give to NCS providers to ensure that that rate increases across the country? Will the Department go further to assist the NCS Trust in ensuring best practice?

This month, Crawley celebrates the 70th anniversary of its designation as a new town. It has been a time of reflection on not only the challenges facing us today, but what makes us such a strong community. The National Citizen Service helps and encourages social cohesion, social mobility and social engagement. The young adults who take part in such programmes—let us not forget the staff who help to deliver such schemes and therefore the opportunities—are people of whom we can all be proud. Long may their fine work continue.