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A last hurrah for the Big Society?

Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson welcomes the government’s National Citizen Service Bill, with caveats

Given that Parliament has to be kept busy while we wait for the Brexit debates to take centre stage, it is perfectly understandable that Theresa May’s government has brought forward a series of relatively non-contentious Bills this autumn.

On Tuesday, Peers will give a second reading to a short DCMS Bill to put the fledgling National Citizen Service (NCS) on a permanent statutory footing, meaning that one small part of the policy nonsense that was ‘the Big Society’ survives the fall of its progenitor, David Cameron. And presumably his announcement, on the day the Bill was given its first reading, that the former Prime Minster would chair NCS Patrons was not an accident.

The Conservative’s 2010 election manifesto included a commitment to introduce an NCS, explaining that ‘Building the Big Society means encouraging the concept of public-spirited service – the idea that everyone should play a part in making their communities stronger’. Delivered in-house by the Cabinet Office until December 2013, the programme has since been administered by a community interest company called the NCS Trust that has so far received £297m in government grants.

More than 135,000 young people have participated in the NCS since 2011 and last November’s Spending Review included funding for up to 300,000 places by 2019-20, with courses (including a residential element) run in the spring, summer and autumn school holidays. The NCS seeks to bring together young people from different backgrounds and promote social cohesion; to help participants develop greater confidence, self-awareness and responsibility; and to encourage personal and social development through a focus on communication, teamwork and leadership skills.

The emergence of the NCS and its guaranteed funding stream has had a significant impact on the charities and organisations who work in the same field, and on volunteering more generally. Most are positive about the placing of the NCS on a statutory footing, with its own Royal Charter, but there are calls for it to do more.

The NCVO for example, suggest the NCS work more with local charities to ensure its potential as a starting point for life-long volunteering. The Scouts Association see a risk in the NCS remaining a stand-alone intervention that could fail to strengthen other opportunities to develop and support individuals to help them contribute to society. V.inspired has concerns about the gulf that might emerge between NCS and the rest of the youth social action sector. 

Other comments meanwhile, suggest there should be a greater focus on diversity and inclusivity, and that the programme must go further to include those who face additional barriers to getting involved. And there is some concern about the lack of provisions in the Bill to allow young people themselves to meaningfully participate in the future development of NCS.

Although NatCen has been reviewing and reporting on the pilot and early rollout of NCS, it is unfortunate that this Bill has been introduced while the National Audit Office (NAO) is still reviewing whether or not the Cabinet Office is achieving value for money in delivering the programme. With the NAO also set to consider the programme’s ability to both meet the targets set out in the Spending Review and support future growth, it is unclear whether the review (due for publication in ‘the Winter of 2016’) will be ready for our Committee stage next month.

Labour supports the idea of the NCS and one of our senior colleagues, David Blunkett, is a Board member of the Trust. We will however, scrutinise the Bill closely and in doing so, remain grateful to the many organisations who have suggested improvements. And we will of course, be keeping an eye on Mr Cameron’s involvement…

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 24th October 2016

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