David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has pledged to triple the number of places available on its National Citizen Service youth programme to 90,000 by 2014.
In his speech at yesterday’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Cameron said the NCS would help to build stronger communities.
He said: "One of the people who took part this year, Owen Carter, wrote to me and said: ‘This has changed my perspective of life – you can do anything if you work hard and have a supportive team around you. You can do anything.’ That's the spirit I'm talking about. That's why we're tripling the scale of National Citizen Service."
NCS gives 16-year-olds the opportunity to take on new challenges and participate in volunteering activities over the school summer holidays. The government had initially promised to invest £50m and make 11,000 places available to young people in 2011 and up to 30,000 in 2012.
No figures have been made available as to how much the government will spend on rolling out the scheme to 90,000 young people in 2014, but it would cost in the region of £90m based on an average cost of £1,000 per place. Places on this year’s programme cost about £1,300 each, but the government expects costs to fall as more young people take part.
A statement from the Cabinet Office said the evaluation of this year’s pilot was under way, but initial evidence from the Challenge Network, the largest pilot provider this year, showed that more than 15,000 young people expressed interest in the 3,200 available places. Of those who took part, there was a nearly 100 per cent attendance rate and a 95 per cent retention rate throughout the full-time stages of the programme, it said.
About 18 per cent of the young people who took part came from low-income families, 5 per cent were from high-income families and 46 per cent came from ethnic minority groups.
Last month, Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, told parliament that almost a quarter of the 11,000 spaces on this year’s programme had not been filled.
Neil Cleeveley, director of policy and communications at the local infrastructure body Navca, questioned whether it was right to allocate significant funds to the programme at a time of cuts.
"Navca isn’t opposed to the NCS, but we are saddened that local volunteer centres are being starved of funding while cash is thrown at this political initiative," he said. "As it wasn’t possible to fill all the places on this year’s scheme, you have to wonder whether some of this money could be better spent on supporting local youth volunteering."
Cameron reiterated his commitment to his big society agenda. He said his "driving mission in politics is to build a big society, a stronger society".
"We value community spirit and social action too," he said. "We see it every day in our own lives, it's one of the great things about Britain. Over the last five years of the Labour government, the number of people volunteering went down. Last year, the decline was halted."
He also pointed out that the government was giving neighbourhoods new powers to take over the running of parks, playgrounds and pubs and "making it easier for people to give their time and money to good causes".