Angela Neustatter on community service - the non-compulsory kind
JAMIE ATKINSON took a pride in being "the best loafer on the block" after he left school and, remembering a life of practised idleness on benefit, he grins. "I got into a routine - up late in the afternoon, lounge in the bath for an hour or so. Once a week I'd be down the office signing on the rock'n'roll, otherwise I sat in front of the box and the days just passed away. It would get to three or four in the morning and then I'd go to bed and same again the next day."

That has all changed. These days Jamie, 21, one of nearly a million young people neither employed nor in education, is up at breakfast time, ready to start the business of helping a group of other young people, those with learning difficulties, to cope with life. He lives with them at Cabrini House, in Orpington, Kent. Jamie is a volunteer on a one-year placement, organised by Community Service Volunteers, a charity which places volunteers for up to one year, paying them £l0 a week above their benefit.

Volunteer work in the community is something politicians are falling over themselves to endorse. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are committed to such schemes and the Government is also interested in volunteer projects (though hasn't yet gone further). But not everybody shares the enthusiasm. "Marginal work at marginal pay for those on the margins of employment," sniffed Simon Jenkins in the Times when the idea of Citizen's Service was first floated last June. Other critics argue that the £300m a year a national scheme would cost, paying the young people and those organising them, is too much. Jamie disagrees: "I've met quite a few people like myself on schemes and they feel like me that it's the first time we've really felt useful and enjoyed ourselves." A Gallup Poll found that 64 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds support volunteer work.

Community Service Volunteers has placed 50,000 volunteers in the 30 years of its existence, in jobs ranging from working in children's homes to working with adults with learning difficulties. It guarantees to place anybody, and its list of volunteers ranges from gap-year students to pre- release prisoners.

Celia Baldry, 22, volunteered two months ago to spend a year working with disabled people - something she wants to do as a career. She has moved in with Graham, who has bad multiple sclerosis and needs almost everything done for him. Celia washes and shaves him, cooks for him, feeds him and takes him out in his wheelchair. She says: "It's a big job. I work with the physiotherapist and the speech ther- apist to arrange what he needs."

What Celia is giving to Graham is evident, but she is also clear that he, and the situation, are giving her something, too. She worked before as a nursery nurse but suffered from depression and attempted suicide. After treatment she got a job in a children's hospice. But when her employer found out about her mental health past he sacked her. She says: "It was terrible. I couldn't get another job because I had no reference. My confidence went completely.

"I was told about CSV, and because they have a no-rejections policy I felt able to apply. I intend to work with Graham for six months and then with a team. At the end of that I should have something to demonstrate to employers that I'm worth having."

If 250,000 young people were brought into community volunteering, the cost of youth crime could be cut by 10 per cent, according to the Henley Centre for Forecasting.

Robert Rosario, aged 19, speaking on a mobile phone from his black Golf, believes it will have helped him stay on the straight and narrow. He was recently released from Feltham Young Offenders Institution where he served 18 months for attempted burglary, but the last six weeks of his sentence were spent working with people with special needs.

"I volunteered because I wanted to do something useful with my time inside. I'd had no experience with old people but it felt good to know I could help them. I think it brought out the better side of me. I got a good report at the end, and although I have a job at present working with cellular phones I don't think it will last. I'm determined not to go back inside, and if anything can help a chap like me, with a prison record, to get another job it'll be my volunteer experience and the certificate."

If volunteer schemes can keep people like Robert out of prison then the taxpayer, too, could reap the rewards.