At the beginning of this year Theresa May gave the annual Charity Commission lecture which she entitled ‘The Shared Society’ which was widely recognised as a way of putting to death once and for all the ‘Big Society’ of David Cameron. She stated “it means not being ambivalent about the efforts of all those who give their time, money and expertise in the service of others; but recognising, supporting and championing those who lead the way in shaping a civil society that can bring the talents of so many in our voluntary sector to bear on some of the great social challenges that we face together. That is why I have continued the important work that David Cameron began through the Points of Light programme, using the office of Prime Minister every day to recognise an outstanding volunteer in Britain whose service can be an inspiration to us all. It is why we are making National Citizen Service a rite of passage for every young person in Britain and supporting all those brilliant organisations in the Prince of Wales’ #iwill campaign who are encouraging our young people to give their time in the service of others”
I have highlighted the section relating to the National Citizen Service which is designed for young people between the ages of 15 and 17 for short period in the Spring, Summer or Autumn each year because it is far from a rite of passage for every young person in Britain and whatever the aspirations that Mrs May has for it, its prospects of ever becoming so are looking less and less likely. I was Chair of a charity that piloted one of the first roll out schemes of NCS in 2011. NCS was the brainchild of Francis Maude who was MP for Horsham and our charity had a base in Horsham so it seemed liked a good place to start. However small acorns do not always turn into Oak Trees.
According to the ‘latest’ data published on the Government website in August 2015 “More than 135,000 young people have participated in National Citizen Service (NCS) since 2011. Young people can participate in NCS in spring, summer and autumn each year. More than 200,000 young people will have participated in NCS by the end of 2015.” However behind these figures is the information that The Office of Civil Society (OCS) which is the Government Department responsible for NCS spent £62m on the NCS in the year to 31 March 2013 which rose to £175m in the year to March 2016. The numbers involved were around 40,000 young people in the year to March 2014. This gives a cost per participant of some £2,108 for the programme at that time and even though the cost is expected to have dropped to £1,853 this year, this is £300 more per participant that the 2015 Spending Review proposed. A week after Mrs May’s speech the National Audit Office published a report that had identified some £10m that has been spent on places not filled which should have been ringing alarm bells for Mrs May when she was preparing her speech. According to the NAO in 2016 around 93,000 young people took part, filling 75 per cent of the 124,000 places available. NAO also warns that participation targets are ambitious. It said that to reach 360,000 participants by 2020 it would need an average growth rate of 40 per cent over four years “exceeding the 2015 and 2016 growth rate of 31 per cent and 23 per cent respectively”
Since then at least one matter that was unknown to most people has become public. It has emerged that Engage4Life Limited one of 10 main providers of NCS went into liquidation 14 months ago with debts of more than £500,000, including around £400,000 owed to nine local NCS providers. It appears that the director of E4L, Gareth Holohan, received a total of £710,000 in dividends around three months before E4L went bust. The NCS Trust itself has stepped in to act as the regional provider in South West England in the wake of the collapse. This is a clear example of where the private sector is not achieving value for money, and where charities should be involved.
Another challenge is that the social impact of NCS is also beginning to lose social traction. An evaluation of the scheme found that the financial return for every £1 spent for the spring 2015 programme was between £0.70 and £1.24, while for the summer project it was between £0.78 and £1.59. The only part of the initiative estimated to guarantee a social return was the autumn programme, which delivered a return of between £1.18 and £2.38 of benefits for every £1 spent. The potential social benefits the scheme is believed to deliver include improved education and career outcomes, increased happiness, better mixing with people of different backgrounds, and increased participation in volunteering. The figures represent a decline on social return estimates for 2014, when every £1 invested in the spring programme was estimated to return between £0.75 and £3.11, the summer programme between £1.12 and £3.98, and the autumn programme between £0.96 and £1.71.
It seems vital that when the Government is spending such sums of money on their pet programme, money which otherwise could be used for other youth services that its control over costs and value for money is robust.