David Cameron personally intervened to prevent funding being cut to his legacy project despite reviews showing the youth organisation was failing to meet targets, even after receiving huge sums, according to a senior Whitehall source.
The National Citizen Service (NCS), set up by Mr Cameron in 2011 to run summer programmes for 16- and 17-year-olds, has received £1.3bn in funding over the past decade – despite failing to meet any government targets, it emerged last month.
Now a whistleblower, who operated at a high level within Whitehall, says the NCS chief executive Michael Lynas had “surprising levels of access” to No 10 when Mr Cameron was in power, meaning detailed and reasoned departmental plans for reducing funding to NCS would be “constantly undermined” by Mr Lynas going to Downing Street to get Mr Cameron’s support to resist any cuts, it is alleged.
Mr Cameron has been in the spotlight over Greensill Capital, which he worked for as an adviser, and his bid for the finance firm to be included in a Covid loans scheme. This week inquiries have been announced into lobbying on the back of the revelations, while civil servants have been told they must declare any second jobs they have in the private sector.
NCS, for which Mr Cameron is still chair of the board of patrons, is currently allocated more than 90 per cent of the youth sector budget – though could now face being partially or fully defunded, The Independent revealed last month. Mr Lynas, who, like Mr Cameron, is an old Etonian and previously worked in the No 10 policy unit, left his role in February 2020.
The source, who no longer works in government, said: “From the moment I got involved, NCS kept me up at night. I thought that unless we got to grips with it, there was a huge scandal brewing. This was an organisation having its mouth stuffed full of gold without having to present a robust case and without being nearly accountable enough. We set about trying to change that, but whenever we sought to rein them in, Mr Lynas would run to No 10 and we’d be undermined. Of all the organisations we worked with, NCS was the worst and trickiest to deal with by far.
“It was a constant battle. Whenever we tried to introduce proper procedures to achieve greater control, Mr Lynas would go direct to No 10 and get it overruled. At one point, we went to Jeremy Heywood [the cabinet secretary] and said, ‘This is mad, this has to stop’. Mr Heywood agreed but it was Mr Cameron who had final say.”
The clear and unambiguous message from No 10 was that “NCS is untouchable”, the source alleged. “Whenever we asked hard questions, the NCS top brass would say, ‘Why are you not behind NCS?’ It was Mr Cameron’s Big Society flagship and he was desperate for it to succeed. We were literally throwing money at it, but Mr Cameron wasn’t particularly bothered whether it was value for money. Our job was to keep giving it more money until it succeeded.”
NCS falls under the Office for Civil Society and there have been at least five government ministers charged with its control since inception. Nick Hurd ran NCS from 2010 to 2014, and the mantle then passed to Rob Wilson (2014–2017), Tracey Crouch (2017-2018) and Mims Davies (2018-2019) before landing on the desk of the Baroness Barran, parliamentary under-secretary of state, in July 2019. The Office for Civil Society was located in the Cabinet Office before it migrated to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in 2016, currently under Oliver Dowden.
The Whitehall source said: “As soon as a new minister was appointed, NCS would be straight in their face, lobbying hard, and making clear their direct line of access to No 10.” There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Mr Lynas.
One big concern – raised publicly by Ms Crouch and internally by several other ministers of state – that persists to this day is the millions of pounds NCS spends on the thousands of young people who “sign up” for the programme but never “turn up” – at an estimated cost of £25m in taxpayer’s money in the last three years alone.
The latest NCS annual report shows that its 2019-20 programme failed to meet any of its own key performance indicators for social cohesion, social mobility, leadership and civic engagement. But in the past, some KPI targets were met and NCS used them to vigorously press its case about “building young people’s confidence”.
How was NCS viewed at that time? “To be frank, we were distrustful of those reports,” said the source. “The research was internally commissioned and paid for so it felt a bit like NCS marking their own homework. It was clear some children really benefitted from NCS but the service was terribly patchy and for some children it was poor.”
Indeed, Kantar, the independent researcher commissioned by DCMS to measure programme impact KPIs, has told The Independent that its evaluation surveys of NCS were based “only on young people who complete the programme” and excluded young people who start but vote with their feet and leave before the end, meaning even the results that showed KPIs were not met were skewed towards NCS.
David Cameron did not respond to requests for comment, while NCS declined to comment. Mr Lynas said: “Under my decade-long leadership of NCS I did the right things in the right way, and am proud to have grown the programme to bring together 600,000 young people from different backgrounds in common purpose, delivering £3.49 in social returns for every £1 spent and boosting university admission by 50 per cent among the most disadvantaged.”
However, the report Mr Lynas relies on to make his “university admission boost” claim is six years old. And his value for money claim stands in stark contrast to a National Audit Office report which pointed out that – at a £1,700 cost per participant – NCS was and remains very poor value for taxpayer’s money.