As I listened to Barack Obama give his farewell speech last week, I was struck by his warning that for too many, it has become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook, and to never challenge our assumptions. It’s a lesson that applies as much to our country as it does to America.
2016 was a year when the divisions in our country became more apparent than ever. Often it has felt as if social integration – the act of mixing and forging bonds with those from different backgrounds – is going backwards. Last December, Louise Casey’s report on social integration showed that we have much to do if we are to rebuild our communities as cohesive places for people from all backgrounds. One of the things we can do is to make sure our young people don’t retreat into the bubbles President Obama talked about. That’s why I am so supportive of the National Citizen Service.
NCS is a brilliant scheme which has already benefited 130,000 15 to 17-year-olds since it began in 2009. It builds skills for work and life and brings together people from different backgrounds to support community engagement, social action and social mixing. It brings together schools, community organisations, businesses and individuals to build a stronger and more cohesive society.
This week the National Citizen Service Bill, which makes the scheme permanent and gives the NCS its Royal Charter, comes to the Commons where it will receive cross-party support. I hope the Bill will embed NCS as a national institution central to our social fabric. As the Prime Minister has said, National Citizen Service should be a rite of passage for all young people across our country.
For many, NCS is the first step on their youth social action journey – their involvement in the programme embeds the value of service within them. It’s one part of a youth social action sector that is going from strength to strength – as we can see from the good work of organisations like City Year, V Inspired, The Princes Trust and The Scout Association.
The NCS pushes people out of their bubbles by bringing together young people from different backgrounds, across socioeconomic and ethnic lines.
It is crucial we build upon the excellent start NCS has made and ensure there are more opportunities for people to come together and meaningfully engage with those from different backgrounds, in order to bridge the divides that have grown in our society.
Integration should be at the heart of the National Citizen Service, but it can also play an important role in enabling social mobility. For many young people, taking part in NCS is the beginning of creating the diverse social networks they need to flourish and get on in life. So we must focus on ensuring the hardest-to-reach young people are able to take up the opportunity afforded to them by NCS.
Programme providers, such as The Challenge, are doing fantastic work to this end. They employ dedicated Personal Coaches to support young people with complex needs both prior to, and after completing, NCS, so as to ensure there are as few barriers to entry as possible for these young people. We need to build on that and ensure that NCS continues to grow and that it is properly resourced.
My life, both outside and inside politics has showed me the value of service and active citizenship. The National Citizen Service is a 21st Century manifestation of these values. As we look ahead this week to the inauguration of President Trump, whose victory owes much to the growth of division and fear in the United States, we need to listen and act to ensure that Britain becomes a country that takes integration seriously, and offers opportunities to young people to meet and mix with people from different backgrounds to themselves. The NCS is an important part of that challenge.