Leading Article: An alternative to wasted youth

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The Independent Online
EVER SINCE National Service was abolished, older people have argued for its restoration as a way of getting young people off the streets and teaching them discipline and responsibility. The idea never survived serious analysis: it would be expensive, unpopular and an unwanted burden on the armed forces. But the limited success of Training and Enterprise Councils and the burden imposed by unemployment and crime have kept alive the search for alternatives.

Two reports published today endorse the idea of a national community service programme under which young people would be encouraged to spend three months in community-centred projects such as helping the elderly or cleaning up the environment. They would be paid pounds 50 a week plus food and travelling expenses and would gain credits on their educational record to enhance their chances of finding a job later.

The idea has had a number of previous incarnations, most notably under the auspices of David Owen's Social Democratic Party. All the more significant, therefore, is the fact that it now comes from the Labour Party's Commission on Social Justice, demonstrating a striking readiness to consider radical ideas regardless of origin.

The most obvious objection is expense. That is dealt with in a separate study by the Henley Centre for the charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV). This argues that if a quarter of a million 18- to 21- year-olds were brought into the programme, it would cut the costs of youth crime by 10 per cent, saving more than pounds 13.5bn in its first five years, plus another pounds 298m by reducing unemployment. It looks a sound, if long-term, investment.

Another objection is that only young people already imbued with public spirit would be attracted, leaving the unskilled, unmotivated and criminally inclined untouched. But the money on offer should help, and experience suggests that the forecast may be unduly pessimistic. The CSV has a programme giving young offenders the chance to spend the last month of their sentence doing voluntary work. Although there are no figures to show whether it reduces recidivism, the charity has found great reserves of energy and commitment among those taking part.

A third objection is that three months is not long enough to be of much benefit to the volunteers or to the projects involved. But volunteer organisations do not regard this as a problem, especially as no formal training would be required. Moreover, there is a case for keeping the term short, to put as many people as possible through the programme. A flexible approach should keep open the option of longer terms.

With almost a million people between 16 and 24 neither employed nor in education, the waste in money, social resources and human lives is shocking. Any constructive ideas for tackling the problem should be welcomed. The Government could do worse than take a leaf out of Labour's book by looking at the merits of the idea rather than its origins.

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