Volunteer scheme runs into trouble

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PLANS FOR an army of "millennium volunteers" to revitalise sink estates and cut crime have become mired in controversy after the failure of attempts to recruit an unpaid chairman for the project.

Tony Blair is now expected formally to launch the national scheme this autumn. It will be run by civil servants after national advertisements did not produce a suitable figure willing to do the job without pay.

Despite pounds 15m start-up funding from the windfall tax and repeated assertions that the project was a permanent one, voluntary groups were shocked to be told at a recent meeting that they must seek their own funds after two years.

Some have also complained that they cannot run schemes for the money they are being offered - a maximum of pounds 50,000 a year for two years.

The programme was the brainchild of David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and the groups say both he and his junior minister Margaret Hodge are deeply committed to it. But some groups are now accusing civil servants of hijacking it and watering down its aims.

Advertisements for a millennium volunteers chairman brought only 35 applicants and none was deemed suitable. It has been reported that Victor Adebowale, director of the Centrepoint charity for homeless people, and John Baker, chairman of National Power, were approached but turned down the post.

Now it will be run from a unit in the Department for Education and Employment that is being headed temporarily by Chris Wells, formerly in charge of the department's millennium projects.

Mr Blair is expected to launch nine pilot projects for which contracts have been let, ranging from community service volunteers schemes in Sunderland and Southwark, south London, to a British Trust for Conservation Volunteers programme in Exeter.

Community service volunteers in Southwark are helping to raise reading levels in schools, working in parks and helping police with crime prevention.Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of community service volunteers, has written to Mrs Hodge asking for help after being told that government funding will not meet the pounds 80,000 annual cost of its programme. Others complained that a good idea was being ruined by bureaucrats and had suffered a loss of vision. Credible applicants had been ignored. "There was a risk that the civil servants would not be able to keep a powerful, energetic chairman in check," one said. "They wanted something controllable."

A DfEE spokeswoman said there was no question of the scheme being "hijacked", and added: "The establishment of a unit within the department will help to secure the long-term future of the programme."