Private sector takes a stronger role among providers for the PM's favourite youth scheme
Last week, the Cabinet Office announced the names of the providers that will run its National Citizen Service programme over next two years.
Versions of the youth programme for 16 and 17-year-olds will run in all nine regions in England and will reach an estimated 90,000 young people by 2014.
The list of latest providers includes a variety of charities and social enterprises plus two private sector organisations - the support services firm Serco and the employment and skills company Reed in Partnership.
The involvement of private sector firms in some of the contracts has caused alarm in parts of the voluntary sector, but much of the criticism of the programme - particularly of its high costs of £200m over the next two years - appears to have faded away. Labour MPs have been among the sternest critics of the NCS, which was perhaps not surprising, given that the idea was put forward by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.
But Gareth Thomas, shadow minister for civil society, says that the party will not rule out continuing the scheme if it wins the next general election. "It's hard to be against a service that provides opportunities for young people," he says. "It would be daft to be against good provision, but we have got to look at what is working."
Before the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats voiced strong opposition to the NCS, describing the programme as "a multi-billion pound black hole" in one media release. More than two years on, the party's line about the scheme has softened.
In a statement last week, a spokesman for the Lib Dems endorsed the NCS programme, saying it was giving young people the chance to "learn new skills and get great experience to put on their CVs".
Charities that have previously expressed reservations about the level of government investment in the NCS programme also appear to have been won over. For example, the youth charities vinspired and UK Youth are part of NCS Network, the Serco-led consortium that won six of the 19 new contracts, even though both charities said last year that the scheme should not be funded at the expense of more established youth programmes.
Doug Nicholls, chair of Choose Youth, a coalition of organisations fighting cuts to youth services, believes that the strong initial opposition to the NCS programme has ebbed away as organisations are forced to bid for the scheme because it's the "only money on the table" He says, however, that substantial opposition remains among youth and community workers. "NCS still remains no substitute for services that provide young people with support 365 days a year," says Nicholls.
Thomas says that questions do need to be answered about how the programme is managed by the government. The NCS programme has always been billed as charities running schemes for young people, he argues, but the involvement of private sector organisations in the latest round of contracts shows that this is no longer the case. "Charities should surely have been the main beneficiaries from this bidding round, but once again, we have a contract that has been advertised as being for charities and a substantial amount of that money is not going to them," he says.
Aside from this, it looks as if the detractors are gradually falling silent and the NCS programme could be here for the long haul.