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National Community Service

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 26 March 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Mather.]

11.43 pm

With your leave, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to discuss the subject of national community service.

If I can start with a very brief outline, the idea is that this scheme should involve young people between the ages of 16 and 21—boys and girls—and that it should last for a year. It should be not exactly unpaid, but they should be given pocket money while completing their service. It would concern mainly environmental or social service, but there would be a military option as well.

That sort of scheme has been under active discussion by a great many organisations. With every day that goes by the discussion is becoming more interested and detailed. Community Service Volunteers, which is one of the foremost organisations in the country in this field, is interested in the subject, as is the Birkenhead Council for Voluntary Services. I believe that the Royal United Services Institute is carrying out a study of the subject. The noble Lord the Lord Bishop of London initiated a debate in the other place not so very long ago.

I have always been interested in the subject. I have a military background, but the House should not be misled into believing that I am thinking purely in military terms, of sustaining a military policy or anything of that sort.

I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the subject. She pointed out that the Under-Secretary of State for Employment was operating a very effective scheme through the Manpower Services Commission for young people at the moment. No one knows what might happen in the future. It may well be that some aspect of the scheme, if not the scheme itself, could be of great benefit to the country. As a result of that there was an article in the press. As a result of that article in the press the various organisations that I have been talking about have been in touch with me, and I have had detailed discussions with quite a lot of people.

I had an Adjournment debate on dogs once upon a time. This is a subject rather like dogs. One is not really sure to which Department or Minister it belongs. This subject could belong to the Education Department. It is to do with youth. It could belong to the Home Office because that Department is concerned with voluntary services.

I am absolutely delighted that I have drawn the jackpot, because my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who I know is very sympathetic and interested in this subject, is just the person whom I would want to answer this debate, and I am delighted to see him here.

To take "national" first, many people feel that we are rather a narky and divided society at the moment. That is obviously to do with the failure that we have had in many fields of national life and national endeavour. In many ways we lack a sense of nationhood. Strangely, other countries in Europe have been more successful than us. All the other major countries in Western Europe have some form of national service. They also have alternatives for conscientious objectors or people who do not like military service to do some other form of service. I do not judge whether that is cause and effect.

We come now to "community". One of the features that has fallen down recently is our sense of responsibility for other people—our sense of general responsibility for the less fortunate members of society. Those who were in national service will remember that people came in as individuals of all different shapes and sizes, with their own personal priorities and requirements. They were rather selfish and inward-looking. Within a period of six weeks of basic training they were not individuals any more. Of course they were individual people, but they were also members of a group and they were interdependent. They looked to each other, they looked after each other and they had concern for others. In many ways their whole horizon of human relationships had changed. I think we want to imbue in our people a much greater sense of community than a lot of people have at the moment, unfortunately.

"National community service": His Excellency Kingman Brewster, the American Ambassador, gave a very interesting speech not so long ago in which he talked about the "entitlement society". I think many hon. Members are aware that many pople look to the State to provide. Those who do not look to the State to provide are inclined to be quite often selfish and go out and grab and get all they can for themselves. It is important that society is imbued with a much greater sense of service than it has had for some time.

I would hope that it would be a broad-based scheme, taking people from all sections of the community—different classes, colours, religions and from different parts of the country—and bringing them all together.

They would start, I suggest, with three months of something akin to Outward Bound training, up in the Scots mountains or across in Wales—getting a bit fitter, working together, taking on little tasks and projects, stretching themselves, discovering themselves, getting a sense of team spirit. It would be educational, in the best sense of the word.

Having done that induction, they would have various options and various directions in which they could go. They could go into social work, help in hospitals, help old people—decorating their houses, doing their gardens, visiting them—help handicapped people. We do not have the resources to deal with the many problems that we face in our society. There are hundreds of things that could be done.

Alternatively, they could take on an environmental option. Many of our inner cities are most unattractive at the moment. They are derelict and desolate and there is a lot of work that could be done to make them more attractive. If they were more attractive, more people would live and work there. We could regenerate our inner city areas.

Canals that are silted over could be cleared out. Work could be done in national parks and on private estates. Many environmental things could be done. It may be that one day we shall get involved in a large national project, such as a Wash barrage, a Severn barrage or a Channel tunnel. Those are projects on which some of these people could be happily involved.

Another option—and no more that that; no one would put pressure on people or suggest that they should go in this direction—could be a military option, almost a cadet version of national service, with three months' basic training and nine months to follow. It would be nine months' basic military training in fieldcraft, basic military skills, shooting, driving vehicles and signalling. Those are skills that would suit them at the end of their service for becoming reservists, for work in civil defence or in the many areas for which we just do not properly cater at the moment.

We have a fine professional Army—probably the best in the world for its size—but we have a small reserve force. The new scheme would be one way in which we could build up our reserve forces.

Among the other options, we could bring in all that is happening at the moment. We could bring in the voluntary services that we already have. They could be knitted into the scheme. We could bring in apprenticeships. People could do the three months' basic training and go on to an apprenticeship. We could make conditions—I am only making suggestions at the moment—that anyone who was going to be a school-teacher should perhaps be required to go through the course before training as a schoolteacher.

We could make another requirement on university grants—students would get a full grant if they had been through the course, but part of the grant could be a loan to be repaid if someone had not been through the course. There are all sorts of tunes that one could play with such an operational idea.

I believe that, as I have said before, it would be educational, in the best sense of the word. Some people are born and brought up in a single environment, are perhaps unemployed for a while and then get a job—perhaps not a satisfactory job—without ever having had the opportunity to travel, to meet people from different backgrounds or to see other activities, other jobs and other things that they may wish to take up.

I am also convinced that anybody going through the scheme would be far more employable at the end of the scheme. There would be queues outside the jobcentres waiting to take on people who had undergone the training. It would be a valuable experience for many of our young people to take on before they finally settled down or before they were in a position to decide how to settle down in a particular job, operation or career of their choice.

Another point which could be for discussion is that I suggest that it may be appropriate that those on the scheme to have a sort of semi-uniform. Perhaps they would wear blue jerseys and jeans and wear little badges to identify the unit or sub-unit that they belonged to. In that way they could build up and engender an esprit de corps—"We are doing a grand job, we are doing it together."

They would live communally. Obviously, when undergoing Outward Bound training they would live communally, but when they came back they could live communally. Naturally, someone from Liverpool could decide to do the nine months in Liverpool or in Winchester. This scheme could be very flexible. They could do three months on environmental work in London and six months on social work in Manchester. There would be a whole range of options which people could choose so that they could gain the experience which, with guidance, they felt would suit them best.

As regards accommodation, I believe that we could take advantage of a lot of semi-derelict property that exists at the moment. We could use some of the schools that will become vacant as the school population falls. Course members could move into a school or a derelict house that was scheduled for demolition but had not been demolished and bring it to a standard that was suitable for the period of their stay within the organisation.

Should such a scheme be voluntary or compulsory? I think that it would be untenable in this day and age to start off with a compulsory scheme. I do not believe that we should ever want to go for a compulsory scheme, although I can see the advantages of doing so in that if such a scheme were voluntary, some of those who would best benefit from it would not, in any circumstances, participate. But I understand that there are 950,000 16-year-olds at the moment and it would be quite impossible to set up a scheme overnight for 950,000 people. So making it compulsory is not on.

After the scheme has been running for a year or two, it may be advisable to withdraw unemployment pay or supplementary benefit from anyone between the ages of 16 and 21 until he had been through the scheme, because in all fairness it would be an opportunity that would be available; it would be employment which these young people could take on if they wished to do so. This is a controversial point, but if anyone were trying to destroy the scheme he would say "We cannot afford it. Where will we get the money from?" I understand that unemployment pay and supplementary benefit for young people runs into hundreds of millions of pounds, so it would be a very potent source of finance.

There are also the schemes such as the youth opportunities programme run by my hon. Friend through the Manpower Services Commission. There will be between 250,000 and 260,000 places this year, I understand. I am told that with the pay that such people receive, the cost of administration and everything else, those places actually cost £40 a week. I am further told that some of the voluntary organisations running their own activities can achieve voluntary work at a far smaller cost.

I have suggested that there would not be any pay but merely pocket money. All would be found; clothes, food and accommodation would be provided and there would be £5 or £7·50 per week on top of that. But some of the money from the youth opportunities programme could be moved in the direction of the scheme because I believe that some of the benefits of it—I shall hear what my hon. Friend says in a moment—are at least as good as some aspects of the youth opportunities programme.

There are jobs that could be done for private enterprise and for local authorities and we could obtain fees for that work. Also, as time went by, there would be a possibility of substitution. Some of the work that is currently done for local authorities by high-priced labour I think would be better done and done with enjoyment by young people in the scheme. Again this is a sensitive issue which would have to be phased in so as not to take employment rights from anyone.

An optimist always looks upon a problem as being an opportunity and we have plenty of problems around at the moment. Young people aged 16, 17 and 18 want to make their mark. If they cannot make their mark in a way that will satisfy them and the community, they are all too prone to make it in a damaging way. I believe that if we were to set up a scheme such as I have suggested young people who now uproot trees would be proud to plant them; young people who mug old ladies would be proud and pleased to help them.

We have many other problems with the environment. There is much that we should like to do for the environment. We have vast numbers of elderly and disabled people whom we are only beginning to help. We regret it, but we do not have the resources to deal with this problem.

As I have said, we have the problem of the reserves being under strength. We have no proper civil defence system. We have problems of an undisciplined, a selfish, a centrifugal society breaking apart at the seams, particularly in many urban areas. I believe that a scheme such as this could be of great benefit and overcome many of those problems. So, as I say, a problem can be an opportunity.

I know that my hon. Friend will have his brief. I know that he is sympathetic about many of the objectives I have been outlining. I would not expect him to give any commitment of any sort, but all I would ask him, please, is to look at this proposal. It is not just my proposal but a proposal that other people have made. It is not something that is going to start overnight; perhaps 20,000 people in the first year, 40,000 people in the second year, and so on and so forth. But I ask my hon. Friend to look at the proposal with his colleagues with a view to deciding whether they can introduce a study. I would not ask him tonight if he would introduce a study, because I am sure he would not be in a position to say so. I would just ask him whether he could investigate the possibility of introducing a further detailed study of this scheme. There is one at the moment going on in the United States of America which will be reporting in two years' time, and I would hope that we can do the same here.

12.1 am

I am pleased to be able to reply to this debate, and I am pleased that it should be my Department that has landed it, even though it is after midnight on Budget day. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) will realise that I shall not follow him down the military route, but I am sure that the Ministry of Defence will read his comments and comment on them. But what I am pleased about is that this debate has shown once more the opportunities which are open to a Back Bencher to bring new ideas to the attention of the House and a wider public.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on both the time that he has devoted to the development of his proposal for a national community service and the very clear way in which he has explained his proposal tonight. I hope that many people, both inside and outside the House, will give their views on what he has suggested. I was interested to hear of the reactions that he has already had.

I should like to discuss, first, the size and nature of the problem which so concerns my hon. Friend and me, and, indeed, my ministerial colleagues. I should then like to talk about our experience with the youth opportunities programme, in terms of its cost and effectiveness, and then explore the considerable common ground between us.

As my hon. Friend has already suggested, I do not think that it will surprise him that I shall be expressing certain doubts and qualifications about his idea. Indeed, I think that he would be very much more surprised if I were to announce tonight that the Government had decided to accept his proposal lock, stock and barrel. But there is much, as will become apparent, on which we can agree.

We clearly share a concern about the high level of unemployment among young people. In particular, we are anxious that school leavers should be able to make a good start in their working lives. One can scarcely think of a worse start for a school leaver than to suffer a long period of unemployment, with all the attendant difficulties which my hon. Friend has described.

Youth unemployment is, of course, only one part of the general problem of unemployment. For a permanent solution we must look to an improvement in the economy as a whole and to the policies set out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer earlier today. But, at the same time, we must continue to look for constructive alternatives to unemployment for those young people who have not found jobs.

I was interested to hear that it was not just unemployment but the sense of national identity which my hon. Friend was developing in addition to that.

I also want to make it clear that nothing I say tonight should be taken as in any way detracting from the activities of the Outward Bound Trust. Outdoor activities have a contribution to make to the development of responsible attitudes, including awareness of others, self-discipline and self reliance, and the role of Outward Bound is well known and respected.

I hope that I have said enough both tonight and on earlier occasions to show that there is no complacency in the Government about the level of youth unemployment. It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that youth unemployment is out of control and rapidly rising. Each year, currently, about 700,000 young people leave school. The number of school leavers still unemployed in December 1979 was some 35,000. In other words, most school leavers enter employment or further education without first going through a long period of unemployment. The latest figure for unemployed school leavers was released by my Department yesterday. It showed that the number unemployed in Great Britain this month was 28,787. This is fractionally less than the figure of this time last year but nearly 9,000 less than the figure in March 1978.

Of course, one of the main reasons why there has not been a rise in youth unemployment over the past 18 months is the support given both by this Government and by the previous Labour Government to the youth opportunities programme. This programme has grown considerably since its introduction in April 1978, with its range of opportunities for unemployed young people in work experience schemes and training courses, and by the end of February it covered some 95,000 young people currently in training.

The emphasis of the programme is not on simply removing young people from the unemployed register but on giving them an experience which will make them more attractive to an employer at the end of their course, and this may well be more a matter of maturity, motivation and confidence than of learning specific vocational skills.

Because it is comprehensive and is available nationally and to every young person who qualifies, the provision in the programme is very varied. It must cater for all groups among the young unemployed. It must meet the needs of young people with a wide range of abilities and interests coming from widely differing backgrounds, very much like the national service that my hon. Friend and I both entered. It must be flexible to reflect differing local circumstances and emerging needs. The objective of all parts of the programme is to give unemployed young people the chance to join the working community.

Some elements of YOP bear a resemblance to parts of the proposal put forward by my hon. Friend. First, one type of work experience which is on offer to unemployed young people is in community service. Between 1 April 1979 and the end of January 1980 it is estimated that nearly 17,000 young people, including school leavers, entered this part of the programme. Community service offers young people the chance to gain work experience in various forms of health, welfare, social and educational services. I am anxious that more use should be made of this type of service.

Secondly, it has always been the view of the Manpower Services Commission that every young person in the work experience elements of the youth opportunities programme should have the opportunity of appropriate further education or off-the-job training. An increasing number of young people within the programme are taking advantage of these opportunities on a day or part-time release basis, the greater number of them going to colleges of further education.

The education and training thus provided includes in particular training in what have come to be called life and social skills—essentially, how to cope with the demands of working life, how to work as a team—a factor my hon. Friend referred to—to communicate effectively and to take responsibilities. Some of this training has been provided experimentally in a residential setting, especially where day release facilities are not practicable and where residential provision is more cost effective or where a residential course is necessary to meet a young person's need in terms of personal development. Some courses combining both day release and residential elements have been authorised in exceptional circumstances.

Calls on the Manpower Services Commission to provide a more extensive outdoor education element to the off-the-job learning are being made increasingly. Before embarking on such a programme, the Manpower Services Commission is making a careful study of the experimental provision thus far made. The indications are that a number of problems need to be overcome—the selection of trainees needs to be carefully made, there needs to be a clear understanding of what is expected or required, and good communication is necessary with the sponsoring organisation.

The value of outdoor education and residentially based training courses for leadership training has long been supported by leading industrial and commercial sponsors. For the less able, the less confident, the socially maladjusted and the less motivated youngsters who make up at least a part of the youth opportunities programme group, the value of such courses has not been so apparent.

Given the increasing concern with cost-effectiveness in all public spending, the Manpower Services Commission must more than ever be sure that any greater use of outdoor education facilities in YOP is directed to improving the work motivation and personal development of those involved.

The Commission is therefore considering what criteria should be established for the use of Outward Bound type facilities that will meet these requirements. I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that the Government have decided to rely on YOP in the 1980–81 financial year to provide young people with a real and constructive alternative to unemployment. As he said, we are extending the scheme and the number of entrants will increase from some 210,000 this year to 250,000 to 260,000 in 1980–81. The number of filled places will increase to 100,000 to 105,000. That expansion will enable us to operate for a further year our undertaking that no Easter or summer school leaver who remains unemployed by the following Easter should be without the offer of a suitable place on the programme.

For the longer term, I do not think we should ignore what is known about the size of the age group, particularly when we are discussing a proposal to set up a new national organisation. The 16–19 age group will reach a peak in 1981, and then begin a long and substantial decline. In the 10 years up to 1991, the age group will fall by some 25 per cent. This will have implications for many aspects of national policy, but not least it may have some effect on the employment situation for young people.

I want now to make some specific comments on the proposal we are discussing tonight. I start with costs. On this day of all days in the year, that must be in all our minds.

If we look at YOP for a comparison, the MSC will be spending some £150 million in 1980–81 on this programme. There are certainly savings elsewhere on the unemployment benefit and supplementary benefit which would otherwise be paid. One rough and ready rule of thumb suggests that net costs are perhaps half of gross costs. Even so, considerable sums of additional expenditure are clearly involved. That is why YOP and other special employment measures are reviewed annually by Ministers in order to ensure that the programme to reduce unemployment is within a level of expenditure that we can afford.

Similarly with the proposal for a national community service, there will be a cost. Moreover, the longer the period during which individual young people are covered by the service and the greater the residential element, the greater that cost must be. I understand that any proposal should be voluntary and I am relieved that there will be no suggestion of compulsion, because of difficulties that would then arise. Moreover, community service grudgingly given might be of no benefit to anyone.

However, my main point has already been implied in what I have said. We already have a scheme that aims to prepare unemployed young people for employment and for a full role in society. Therefore, although I share my hon. Friend's objective that young people should contribute to society, there remains a difference between us on the means of achieving it.

Nevertheless, I am glad that I have had an opportunity tonight to learn more about my hon. Friend's proposal. I look forward to further discussions with him about ways in which his ideas—which, I well know, are the product of considerable thought and effort—can help us ensure that our programmes for young people prepare them as fully as possible for the world that we have created.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.