Leading Article: Making young people care

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NO POLITICIAN of any standing has yet called for the return of national service as an antidote to youth unemployment and the demoralisation and alienation that can lead to antisocial behaviour and eventually to crime. But David Blunkett, Labour health spokesman, has come rather close. It is a sign of the times that Mr Blunkett felt able to invite John Smith's Commission on Social Justice to consider the introduction of a nine-month period of compulsory community service for everyone between the ages of 16 and 21.

The idea has superficial attractions. There is a wide variety of tasks crying out to be done in this country. Elderly people may need someone to do the shopping or to tidy their flats. Under proper supervision, participants could take children in care to the seaside

or the countryside. Polluted beaches might usefully be cleaned. Motorways would be more attractive if trees were planted along their verges.

Given that participants would be involved for nine months, there would be time for them to learn basic vocational skills, working alongside people repairing run-down properties, for example. Mr Blunkett also envisages formal vocational and remedial training and education in citizenship.

The Blunkett plan contains a strong element of Fabian social engineering. He harks back to the healthy social mixing that, at least in theory, national service ensured. For Mr Blunkett, compulsion would be necessary to ensure that the scheme embraced the idle and the mildly delinquent as well as the ambitious and the socially conscious among unemployed young people. However, its purpose would also be to ensure that, say, the academic high-flier and the public school pupil contributed to the community before moving on to university or an agreeable job.

The pragmatic objections to Mr Blunkett's idealistic scheme are formidable. It would be impossible to extract 'caring' labour (albeit paid) from press-ganged youngsters. Compulsory national service worked because it involved military discipline. At a time when schools are reporting 60,000 truancies a day, it is hard to see how compulsory community service would function. There is a danger of creating a two-tier system under which the enthusiasts volunteer to aid those in need and gain an education, while the rebels end up in punitive units collecting garbage from beaches.

Perhaps the way forward is for Mr Blunkett and Ann Taylor, Labour education spokesman, to get together. Instead of making community service compulsory, Labour might consider raising the school-leaving age to 18 and altering the curriculum to include a term or two of community service. (Many schools already have schemes that could be expanded.) Such a change would be costly and involve considerable retraining and recruitment of teachers and instructors. But it would be less grandiose and perhaps more productive than Mr Blunkett's alternative.