Jobless told: join Army or lose benefit

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JOBLESS youngsters will be urged to join the armed forces as part of the programme which cuts benefit from young people who refuse work or training.

The move - the closest any recent government has come to returning to National Service - has already been introduced in trial areas and is expected to be extended nationwide.

The initiative, by George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, is an innovative response to a shortfall of 9,500 recruits inherited from the last government. Mr Robertson and the Armed Forces Minister, John Reid, believe it will also help increase recruitment of ethnic minorities, who are under-represented in the armed forces.

However, it will raise unease among some critics who fear youngsters from deprived areas or backgrounds could be forced into a life in uniform - a form of economic press-ganging.

At present all 16-24 year olds who have been unemployed for more than six months are called into interviews and given four options: full or part-time training, work in the voluntary sector, a place on an environmental task force or a job with training. Those who persistently refuse all the options lose part of their benefit.

One ministry source said that, although there will be no element of compulsion, the armed forces will "in effect be a fifth option". Ministers want all those who go for a "gateway" interview to be told about career options in the armed forces.

In addition to working with the employment service to achieve this, the MoD plans new co-operation with further education colleges. This will enable youngsters keen on a service career but lacking in the necessary educational or physical qualifications to develop them while on the New Deal and join up at the end of their training.

The services would offer visits, placements and "taster days" to service units throughout the training to give a clearer picture of Army, Navy and RAF life. Each of the three services has identified areas in which to concentrate its efforts. The Navy is pinpointing Swansea, west Wales, Newcastle, Gateshead and south Tyneside; the Army Tayside, Sheffield and Rotherham; and the RAF is concentrating on the Wirral and East Midlands.

There are two areas where all three services have been operating : Newham in London and Sandwell in the West Midlands. These were selected because of the high level of unemployment and the concentration of ethnic minorities.

One MoD source said the Government was offering young people "a way in, a way up and the chance of a service career where they can get first class training and education which will benefit not only the MoD but the wider economy if they leave".

The initiative marks the return of the services to large-scale recruitment. The MoD claims limited success in reducing its manpower shortfall over the last year, with army vacancies being cut by 900.

However, its difficulties have been compounded by the upturn in the economy. Traditionally the services find it easier to recruit in times of high unemployment.