PAC criticises high costs of National Citizen Service

14 Mar 17

The National Citizen Service may no longer be justifiable because of high participant costs and a lack of transparency, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have said.

In a report published today, the PAC said the scheme was at a “critical juncture” and may need to be reformed to ensure its future viability.    

Since it was introduced under David Cameron in 2011, the NCS scheme has placed 300,000 young people aged 16 to 17 in residential and community projects lasting typically four weeks.

The government intends for the scheme to become a ‘rite of passage’ for young people, to foster a more cohesive society – a remnant of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ programme.

The scheme is administered through the NCS trust, which falls within the remit of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport. Since 2014-15, the trust has received around £475m of public money.

MPs reviewed evidence that suggested the scheme was succeeding at least in the short term. An assessment by the Office for Civil Society revealed that over 80% of young people participating in an NCS summer programme felt more positive towards those from different backgrounds afterwards.

However, the committee highlighted that DCMS lacked the data to measure the long-term outcomes of the programme or understand what was working.

Also, it found the trust could not justify the “seemingly high” cost per participant, which was expected to be £1,863 for 2016. In the report, MPs compared this unfavourably with other similar organisations, such as the Scout Association, which is estimated to spend £550 on a place lasting four years.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, noted that the government intends to increase participation in the scheme, citing the positive experiences of participants.

“However, this does not in itself justify the level of public spending on the programme, nor demonstrate that NCS in its current form will deliver the proposed benefits to wider society.”

Hillier also highlighted the reluctance of the trust to disclose certain financial information such as the salaries of its directors. This attitude “did nothing to build confidence” in the organisation, she said.

According to the report, the trust paid around £10m to NCS providers for places that were not filled. Moreover, MPs criticised the “relaxed attitude” taken by the trust towards recovering these funds. 

A Bill is currently before parliament that will, if passed, see NCS become a Royal Chartered public body. It would then be obliged to meet minimum standards of governance, accountability and transparency.

Although the committee welcomed these prospective changes, it said it was “unclear” whether the trust had the skills and experience to successfully grow the organisation.

Hillier concluded: “We urge the trust and central government to review fundamentally the way NCS is delivered and its benefits … before more public money is committed in the programme’s next commissioning round.”

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