The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Brooks Newmark): 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.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): 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 this, and I am sure there will be a legacy for the rest of their lives.
Mr Newmark: 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.
Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): 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.
Mr Newmark: 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.
Karl McCartney: 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.
Mr Newmark: 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 were OK!”
I could not agree more.