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Alert sounds on volunteer programmes

Josephine Gardiner finds community service schemes are causing unease. A solitary alarm bell was ringing at the end of last week over an idea which seems common to all major political parties - a voluntary national community service programme for young people.

A document published last Thursday by the independent think-tank, Demos, argues that the schemes under consideration are seriously flawed. Whether introduced by a Labour or Conservative government, they run the risk of ending up as universally-despised "make-work" projects with as little real-world credibility as the Youth Training Scheme. Volunteers from among the unemployed would therefore be scarce.

It is almost exactly a year since Labour's Social Justice Commission floated the Citizens' Service scheme and it is this model with which the Demos document mainly takes issue. Citizens' Service proposed three months of voluntary community work for up to 150,000 young people, who would receive Pounds 50 a week allowance. Much of the cost, it was argued, would be offset by the reduction in crime and benefits to society. The proposal, which was enthusiastically endorsed by Labour education spokesman David Blunkett and, later, Tony Blair, was widely seen as an attempt to address the problem of the 16 and 17-year-olds who had slipped through the education and training safety net - without committing the Labour party to restoring benefit to this group.

But all such schemes, suggests Ivan Briscoe, author of the Demos pamphlet, are psychologically unsound because they ask those who have received least from society to contribute a good deal more than an averagely-comfortable citizen would be prepared to.

"They ask those at the bottom of society to act in an altruistic way, serving 'the community' rather than themselves, but without offering any clear reason why they should do so."

Young men in very disadvantaged areas "appear particularly immune to the lure of community work of any sort," he writes. This phenomenon is not wholly explained by benefit rules that require claimants to be available for work all the time, he said last week, and anyway, "there are a whole range of different benefit rules across Europe, but you see a similar pattern."

Another problem, says Mr Briscoe, who has worked with the unemployed in Manchester, is that in order not to trespass on paid workers' territory, the tasks of volunteers will inevitably be "menial and marginal", offering little hope of future employment. "Look at YTS. Although Citizens' Service is different, it is by no means certain that it would be seen differently by the unemployed."

Mr Briscoe also argues that such schemes are based on unrealistic costings, and inadequate supervisory arrangements for the young volunteers. "The problem is that a ragbag of objectives is contained in these schemes; some can be met, some can't, and others may be conflicting."

It seems unlikely, however, that these warnings will succeed in deflecting the three major parties from their commitment to voluntary service. All three are now involved in discussions with the Prince's Trust, and Community Service Volunteers (CSV) - which has been running its own schemes on a limited scale for 32 years - and the questions now revolve around refinement of detail and the mechanisms of implementation, rather than the idea itself.

It is not difficult to see why the plan has such a strong cross-party appeal. For Tony Blair, it offers a paradigm of New Labour, balancing rights with responsibility, service with enlightened self-interest. For the Right, there is the promise of reducing crime and getting young people of all social classes off the streets and into socially useful occupations. For some, there are perhaps reassuring echoes of National Service.

The Liberal Democrats adopted Citizens' Service as policy - the first party to do so - at their last conference. Last month, John Major said he would be launching a "comprehensive programme for voluntary service", called Make a Difference, in June. This, he promised, would be "the most far-reaching initiative ever - not a centralised plan to compete with private effort, but one that will reach into the wellsprings of goodwill that are found in literally every street in our land."

The detail seems to be hazy, though Andrew Rowe, Conservative MP for Mid Kent and a CSV trustee, said he feared that the Tory scheme will be "pretty small-scale" and that the finance would be "pretty thin".

Also last month, Tony Blair reiterated his support for the Citizens' Service scheme, which, he said, "embodies the idea of a 'something for something' society that I want to build in Britain".

A spokeswoman for David Blunkett, whose support for Citizens' Service predates his education mantle, said that although details were still being discussed, it was "very likely" that a Citizens' Service-style scheme would appear in the party's manifesto. Mr Blunkett himself was dismissive of the criticisms from Demos. He said on Tuesday: "What we are looking for are ideas of how to implement Citizens' Service rather than disparage it. The one thing that is certain is that prolonged youth unemployment is the most demoralising and corrosive element in a dividedsociety." It looks unlikely, however, that Labour would restore benefits for 16 and 17-year-olds on taking office.

Many people involved in developing community service seem to be already well aware of the problems highlighted by Demos. Chris Reed at the CSV said: "the challenge is in marketing the schemes. The traditional image of the volunteer is a middle-aged woman. We must prove that this is not 'make-work' and that we won't be substituting volunteers for paid workers."

James McCormick, who wrote the Citizens' Service document for Labour's Social Justice Commission last year, said some of the points raised were still being discussed. A CSV survey had shown that 64 per cent of young people are in favour of a community service scheme, he said, so the scheme has a head start, but "if young people see it as yet another Government scheme to keep them quiet, something that is done to them, then it will fail."

Andrew Rowe said that if community service "was reduced to the question 'Did I get value for money?', a very important element of it goes out of the window".

He added that it was patronising to suggest that only the middle classes were prepared to contribute to society without a strong financial incentive.

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