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Purse strings in a tangle for the voluntary sector?

Community groups and charities might feel the financial pinch under the new Act, writes Sue Jones.

Many people are optimistic about the Government's willingness to involve the voluntary sector in training society's hard-to-reach members, but this optimism is tempered by concerns about funding. The sector specialises in helping those furthest from the labour market: the disabled or those with learning difficulties, the homeless, refugees, those with criminal records or who simply have such limited experience of employment that they cannot find a job.

But these are also the people who find it hardest to join training courses and keep to a long-term programme. So much of voluntary work is about confidence-building and changing attitudes, that it can be difficult to quantify what has been achieved. National organisations such as Community Service Volunteers, have a wealth of experience in helping such people into work or further training. Since 1975, the organisation has been working with young people and adults with special needs through courses ranging from business administration to childcare, carpentry to enterprise training.

A willingness to work is the organisation's only entry qualification and all applicants are accepted, whatever their difficulty or educational starting point. Young unemployed people are encouraged to be volunteers because getting involved in projects builds up their confidence, enlarges their skills and experience and helps them to develop a CV.

Other organisations have a local focus. Peckham in south-east London has more than its fair share of problems such as crime and unemployment. In 1989, local churches set up a charity called Pecan to tackle social exclusion by helping people into jobs. It began with three staff and has helped more than 1,000 people into work through free employment preparation courses. Over four weeks they learn job-finding skills and build up their confidence. Clients also have free use of computers, photocopiers, stationery and stamps for job applications.

Now with 70 staff, Pecan has expanded its range. Adult literacy and English for speakers of other languages lead to appropriate Pitman qualifications. Young people can learn Web design as well as take courses in computer literacy.

The Mental Health Project helps patients referred by local doctors to develop employment skills. Pecan has outreach workers who knock on doors looking for people who hav slipped out of the unemployment system. Like CSV, it encourages volunteering by arranging placements with other local charities for young people on New Deal programmes.

By offering training for work, voluntary groups have been able to claim funding from the training and enterprise councils. But what will happen to them under the learning and skills councils replacing them?

Despite concerns about the finer details, the voluntary sector is largely optimistic. Paul Convery, director of the Unemployment Unit and Youthaid, was "delighted with the White Paper and hugely encouraged by the (Learning and Skills) Act". He believes that the Government has made social inclusion a priority and that the new funding regime for the disadvantaged will be much more simple and straightforward.

CSV's communications director, Bill Garland, thinks that the Government is now ready to be more flexible about training by moving away from an old industrial model of skills tailored to specific jobs and towards the development of skills that will be relevant throughout people's lives. "The old regime was about buying outcomes," he says. "The new one could be much more about meeting need."

Transparency and consistency are the watchwords for the new funding, but the "cushioning and damping" arrangements designed to iron out regional variations could create short-term hardship.

Cash problems should be eased by a new system of monthly payments. Many charities have had to raise expensive overdrafts from the banks. There are still concerns about capital. Given the tendency of training and enterprise councils to drive down the cost of courses, investment has been cut back and the infrastructure has suffered. Buildings are run down and there is not enough equipment.

Pecan would like to run an information technology course for deaf people - but it cannot find affordable premises with sufficient security. Simon Pellew, its managing director, also notes how colleges can draw on government funds for capital investment while charities involved in training cannot.

Paul Convery would like to see a public fund set up to develop the infrastructure of not-for-profit organisations. Low-cost contracts also eat into salaries and staff development, and many voluntary organisations wonder how long they can hang on to their highly marketable workers. It would be ironic if the voluntary sector were to lose staff to FE and Connexions.

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