I was delighted to be invited by the Prime Minister to join the Government as the Minister for Civil Society at the Cabinet Office earlier this Summer. Less than two months into my new job as Minister, and I'm still humbled by the passion and enthusiasm of thousands of charities, voluntary groups and individuals across the country that make a difference every day in the communities where they live.
I have spent the last two months exploring my brief which includes volunteering, charities, social investment, youth and more broadly supporting third sector organisations in their ambitions.
My new Ministerial role also gives me an opportunity to promote programmes such as the fantastic National Citizen Service.
National Citizen Service is a life-changing experience open to all 16 and 17 year olds across England and Northern Ireland. It is a unique full-time programme that runs over three weeks in summer, followed by 30 hours of social action - shorter programmes are also offered in spring and autumn. Participants build skills for work and life, take on new challenges and adventures, make new friends and contribute to their communities.
As a father of five children, I am well aware of the various pressures on young people's time and am so proud that the young National Citizen Service participants have given over 2 million hours in community action so far and worked on over 7,000 social action projects.
Last month I went to visit a National Citizen Service programme in Cumbria. These young people were taking part in 'Phase 2' of the programme, spending a week at the Outward Bound Trust in Ullswater and taking on a range of activities that will bond them as a team and push them out of their comfort zone. Many of the people I met had only just got to know each other, and I was inspired to see how these young people met the challenges they faced as a team.
I also met a group of young people who had come back from their overnight camping experience. They had just completed activities such as canoeing and hill walking. Giving young people this independence and freedom is so important to help them to become well rounded adults who want to give back to their community.
Photo: Crown Copyright
National Citizen Service is also a great way for young people to get to know others from different parts of their community. The independent evaluation of the 2013 programme showed that 89% of parents say their child has a better understanding of people from different backgrounds after they completed the programme - and 74% of parents say their child definitely has more friends from different backgrounds. This is testament to the fact that young people across the country, like those I met in Cumbria, find that by living in the same community and being the same age they share more similarities than differences.
Through the skills these young people have learnt and the confidence they have built, it is estimated that participants in National Citizen Service generate up to £6.10 back in benefits for every £1 spent on the scheme. These skills are not only beneficial for future employment but can also form the bedrock of active citizenship - something I feel very passionate about.
I'm also impressed that the first pilots for National Citizen Service in Wales will take place in the Autumn - so young people in three of the four nations that make up the UK are now able to participate in this programme by the end of the year.
National Citizen Service helps young people to feel that they can, and should affect positive change in their local communities. As the scheme marked the 100,000th participant this summer since 2011, I'm looking forward to welcoming the 200,000th in an even shorter time.