When the legislation to turn the National Citizen Service into a royal charter body came before the Lords last October, I said the fact that the NCS provided young people with a great opportunity to meet new people, try new activities and develop skills and confidence at the critical ages of 16 and 17 was not up for debate. "However, pretty well everything else in this bill should be," I added.
I did so partly because the decision to spend more than £1bn on one project at a time when valuable public services for young people are disappearing seemed somewhat cavalier. Furthermore, the NCS Trust, an organisation that enjoys unprecedented political support and received 99 per cent of its funding of £475m in 2015 from government, has a weak governance structure and a patchy performance record.
However, my main concern stemmed from the fact that the decision to scale up was justified on the basis of an evaluation report commissioned by the Cabinet Office at a cost of £1m. Extensive and expensive as it was, it failed to ask two crucial questions: how does this scheme compare with other similar schemes for young people? And could the intended outcomes be achieved more efficiently and effectively by putting the scheme out to tender?
The NCS Trust is a community interest company that, despite receiving grant funding just shy of £0.5bn, chose not to disclose expenditure such as director’s salaries, so working out key indicators overheads and unit costings is difficult. So my colleagues and I set about due diligence. We asked why this organisation whose four-week engagement with 16 and 17-year-olds costs between £1,500 and £1,850 per place is given preference over the Scouts, whose placements last for about five years at a cost of £500? Why should an organisation that was from the outset insulated from the rest of the voluntary sector be fast-tracked to royal charter status? Why should an organisation that had not only failed to meet its targets for young people on placements, but had overpaid £10m for places not filled, be deemed not just suitable to scale up the programmer but, in the words of Lord Maude, "become a permanent feature of the landscape of our nation". The more forensic our questions, the louder the bluster from the government.
This government is not the first to fund a vanity project, delivered by a favoured organisation with a high-profile chair and a questionable record of delivering measured outcomes. It would be the first to do so within two years of the stinging criticism of the government’s role in the debacle of Kids Company. Perhaps that is what prompted the Public Accounts Committee to hold an inquiry that put our questions directly to the NCS. The committee’s hard-hitting report, published in March, uncovered further weaknesses in governance, leadership and safeguarding, and called for robust plans from the trust and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport about how costs will be modelled and long-term outcomes systematically evaluated.
The Liberal Democrats have long argued for increased support for civic participation by young people, but this ill-conceived, deeply flawed service cannot go ahead at such vast expense. Plans to set the NCS in the stone of a royal charter body must be halted, not least because Privy Council guidance states that "new grants of royal charters are these days reserved for eminent professional bodies or charities which have a solid record of achievement and are financially sound". The NCS, despite unprecedented political support, is neither.
There must be truly independent research that benchmarks NCS effectiveness against competitors in the voluntary youth sector. Time should be spent reshaping this into a sustainable, affordable programme that complements the rest of the voluntary sector, faith and community organisations. The Conservatives must not use public funds to saddle us with Kids Company 2 just to satisfy a political whim.
Baroness Barker is the Liberal Democrat’s spokesperson on the voluntary sector in the House of Lords