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Labour looks to voluntary service: Scheme for school-leavers could be included in party's next manifesto. Rosie Waterhouse and Colin Brown report

LABOUR yesterday moved a step closer to adopting voluntary community service for school-leavers after two reports supported the idea.

The reports were welcomed by David Blunkett, its health spokesman, who has led calls within the party for young people to be recruited to voluntary service. 'There are 1 million young people not in work, training or further education. We need to offer them some real hope,' he said.

The Commission on Social Justice, set up by Labour, suggests a Citizens' Service under which all school-leavers would be encouraged to spend three months involved in community-centred projects.

Mr Blunkett said they should be given nine months and the schemes should be aimed at all young people, not just as a way to 'get youngsters off the streets'.

The programme, put forward in a commission policy paper under the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), could become part of Labour's election manifesto. It would mark a shift away from centrally-controlled state solutions to unemployment towards more community-based schemes.

The IPPR document says it would give young people a bigger stake in their communities. It estimates the total cost per year would be more than pounds 370m for 250,000 volunteers. Each would work for three months and get a weekly allowance of pounds 50 plus food and travelling expenses. Participants would also receive benefits for use after the voluntary work ended, which would include assistance with education, training or housing costs.

The paper, by James McCormick, a research fellow with the commission, also argues that improved employment prospects and reduced crime rates would pay back the investment.

Drawing on figures in a new study for Community Service Volunteers, the paper claims that, by its fifth year, every pounds 100 invested in a service covering 150,000 young people could yield savings of up to pounds 25. Citizens' Service would have three goals: to bridge the gap between education and work or training, giving volunteers the chance to learn practical skills; to break down social barriers as projects would bring together people from different social, racial and regional backgrounds; to give users and providers of Citizens' Service more say in shaping public services.

Sir Gordon Borrie, chairman of the commission, said: 'Almost 1 million young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in employment, nor are they training, nor are they studying. The costs of social exclusion for this group are all too obvious.'

A separate study for the charity Community Service Volunteers concluded that a voluntary citizens' service would significantly reduce crime and unemployment.

The report, by researchers at the Henley Centre, estimates that the costs associated with youth crime would be cut by 10 per cent, saving over pounds 13.5bn in the first five years of a government-backed programme involving 250,000 18- to 21-year-olds.

A further pounds 298m would be saved within five years by providing opportunities and experience for young people to break the cycle of long- term unemployment.

Citizens' Service; IPPR, 30- 32 Southampton St, London WC2E 7RA; pounds 2.95.

Establishing a National Community Service Programme for Young People - the Costs and Benefits; CSV, 237 Pentonville Rd, London N1 9NJ; pounds 2.95.