The government has reduced participation targets for the National Citizen Service by more than 100,000 places in 2020, MPs have said.
At a hearing about the scheme at the Public Accounts Committee yesterday, committee member Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Conservative MP for Berwick-Upon-Tweed, said the government’s decision to downgrade the target to 247,000 participants in 2020/21 was realistic.
The government had said it wanted 360,000 young people to take part in the scheme in 2020/21, a target that would be missed by more than 40 per cent at current growth levels, a report from the National Audit Office said last month.
Appearing before the committee, Michael Lynas, chief executive of the NCS Trust, which runs the scheme, was questioned by MPs on the scheme’s transparency and its high cost, which the NAO report estimated was equivalent to £1,863 per participant.
The NAO report said the NCS could exceed its £1.7bn budget if costs did not fall by almost 30 per cent.
Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said the committee was concerned at the NCS’s control of its finances and the lack of information in the public domain about its finances.
"We recognise it has great aims, but it is a crowded marketplace," Hillier said.
"It just feels like it is not tightly financially managed, and the fact that we can find out so little from your annual report and accounts – it is in your gift as chief executive to put out more information in the public domain and you have chosen not to do that.
"That is a risk for your organisation because you are solely funded by the taxpayer, and I think it is only right that there should be more information in the public domain."
In response to MPs’ criticisms, Lynas agreed and said he was working to change governance arrangements and increase transparency. He noted that a bill to establish the NCS Trust by royal charter was also passing through parliament.
Lynas also confirmed there is no legal bar on the NCS releasing more information into the public domain, and said he was happy to provide MPs with the necessary information.
But MPs repeatedly questioned why basic information, such as senior staff salaries, was not available to the public given the amount of taxpayers’ funding the NCS had received. The Conservative MP Richard Bacon asked Lynas: "Why can't you just do it? Are you familiar with the maxim 'don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness'? Why don't you just get on with it?"
Hillier also asked whether Lynas was sure the NCS was as competitive on cost as it could be compared with similar initiatives.
Lynas said the NCS was looking at whether its programmes could be delivered more cost effectively, but it was difficult to "make a direct comparison" with other schemes run by other organisations.
Sue Owen, permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who appeared at the committee hearing alongside Lynas, said the residential nature of the NCS programmes meant it was difficult to compare with other schemes.
"I don't personally feel at the moment that the cost is way out of line with what we're getting for it," she said. "Nevertheless, at the moment there is quite a lot of investment cost and marketing cost, and we would hope in the new set of contracts that we can start to get the unit costs down a bit."
Lynas also said the former Prime Minister David Cameron, who was appointed as chair of a group of patrons at the trust last year, had started work and the trust hoped to appoint a national newspaper editor and a cross-party political figure as patrons in the near future.
John Manzoni, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, and Mark Fisher, director of the Office for Civil Society and Innovation, were also questioned by the PAC at the same session.