HL Deb 09 June 1981 vol 421 cc119-22

3 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to make a statement about the outcome of ministerial discussions regarding some form of general community service by school-leavers, which were reported recently in the press.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, the Government are not at present considering any new proposal for community service by school-leavers, although we have welcomed the discussion generated by the recent publication of Youth Call's debating document. There are national programmes to help young people who cannot find work—in particular, the Youth Opportunities Programme—and the Government will be considering the development of these programmes in the context of a review of special employment measures later in the year.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that reply. Is he aware—I am sure that he is—that a considerable number of people with long experience of young people, their needs and their problems, have been advocating some form of nationwide community service for many years quite unconnected with the current unemployment situation among teenagers? Is the noble Earl further aware that recent public opinion polls among young people themselves have indicated that a significant majority of those asked would welcome being called upon to undertake tasks of benefit to other people in their neighbourhoods or in the wider community?

In view of the widespread interest in this idea, and some reservations expressed about it, would it not be helpful if the Government were to give some indication of their views on this suggestion at this point in time, coupled with an assurance that any such scheme would not be linked with the unemployment situation or used as a substitute for jobs?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am well aware of the interest in some form of national community service. I am also aware that this is a long-standing interest and not restricted to the very critical situation at present when unprecedented numbers of young people are leaving school in an unprecedentedly poor labour market. I am aware of that position. On the question of the poll, it is certainly true that if you asked people whether young people should be given something useful to do, overwhelmingly they will answer "yes". The difficulty is whether you can do this voluntarily or whether you need an element of compulsion. The Government's view is that our present schemes within the Youth Opportunities Programmes and others, are probably the best way to proceed. We review them in the light of situations that arise.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the first priority under present circumstances must surely be that as many young school-leavers and college-leavers as possible should get into a proper job where they can start earning a living for themselves and for their country? When it comes to expanding or developing the Youth Opportunities Programme, would he also agree that there are two constraints: one is what we can afford; the other—which may be the greater—is finding a sufficient number of people adequately qualified and skilled to manage the schemes which make up the programmes? Unless the young people on the programmes are given an experience which is useful to themselves and provides something which is useful to the community, the public expenditure is not justified.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for some very sensible supplementaries, if I may say so. The difficulty is that the kind of jobs available now for 16 year-old school-leavers—fundamentally unskilled jobs—are disappearing fairly fast out of the economy. Most people who think of themselves as having a professional background will not seek to put their own children on the labour market aged 16. This is increasingly liable to be denied to others due to changes in the economy. The Government's longer term objectives are to ensure that all 16 or 17 year-olds not in education or real employment should receive some systematic vocational preparations necessary up to the age of 18. We are trying to move towards this.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that if there is—as many noble Lords would wish—to be some kind of national community service, for school-leavers at any rate, in order to operate it successfully it would have to be compulsory?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I tried, in my initial Answer, to give the Government's view that a form of compulsory national community service would not be possible or desirable, and that it would be better to proceed by extending the existing programmes into a systematic form of vocational preparation. My Lords, I apologise for not answering the second supplementary from my noble friend Lord Sandford. He is right to say that there are difficulties, particularly as one comes out of recession, in finding sufficiently skilled people to act as the trainers.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is widespread interest in all parties in both Houses and throughout the country in some form of community service? If this is brought about, will he make sure that at least volunteers have the opportunity of doing some of that service in our armed forces? Is it not a fact that £383 million is being dedicated this year to the under-25s for job opportunities? From that sum just 1 per cent. would allow several thousands to get very useful training in our armed forces. In an emergency later on, that might be of supreme importance to the safety of our country and our community. Would he exclude military service as one of the options open to young people?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence sponsors Youth Opportunities Programmes at present and has done so for some time. Ministers are discussing what further help might be given to unemployed young people by the Ministry of Defence.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether the Government would consider running a course for children who have completed their O-levels in the maintained sector? They leave school next week, as my daughter does against the wishes of her parents. Could this course be for useful citizenship, first aid, home nursing and those things which would then enable the children to make better volunteers?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the experience of the noble Baroness, as I too am in a rather comparable parental position. But the Youth Opportunities Programme provides some social skill training, including elementary nursing. As I said in my original Answer, we think that refining and improving this programme is still the best way to proceed.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, while not wishing to detract from the proposal in Lord Hunt's Question, would the noble Earl not feel that a major contribution could be made to reducing unemployment in the 16 to 18 age group by persuading very many more of them to stay on at school or in local colleges and instituting a national mandatory system of maintenance allowances? That would be a great deal cheaper than the money we spend at present on the job opportunities scheme on unemployment pay.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I have investigated this. Unfortunately, much as I should like to agree with the noble Lord, there is not a straight trade-off in cost between a form of allowance while one is still at school and either supplementary benefit or a youth opportunities allowance later. I agree with the noble Lord that it is desirable for people to stay on at school in order to get the right mix of qualifications and skills for a much tougher labour market in the future.

Baroness David

My Lords, could the Minister say, if his department is really promising some further definite voluntary year's training, whether some form of voluntary service could be a part of that training? That would be very useful for young people and the community as well. May I ask this specific question: Why has his department not responded to requests for funding for 2,000 community service volunteers? This is a scheme which has been costed by well-known accountants. This request was made some 11 months ago, further information being provided to the voluntary service unit at the Home Office at the noble Earl's request last January. This seems so necessary at the moment.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am very well prepared to take up this specific case with the Manpower Services Commission, which, as the noble Baroness knows, operate these schemes. My information is that community service volunteers have had fairly substantial Government funds in the past, but I will look into the present position.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, while accepting what the noble Earl the Minister has said about community service, would he not agree that it would be much more beneficial for the young people themselves and for industry generally if he were to do something which would further apprenticeships in all forms of industry?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I think that nearly everybody is agreed that the present apprentice system is unsatisfactory, that it is much too rigid and needs change. It is with that in view that the Government have asked the Manpower Services Commission to review the apprenticeship system in this country. We will of course be deliberating on the results of that review.

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