Sector divided over Labour's community service plan

Compulsory scheme for teenagers reignites volunteering debate

Volunteering organisations are divided over whether Prime Minister Gordon Brown's suggestion that teenagers should perform 50 hours of community service should be regarded as volunteering.

Brown reignited an old debate in a News of the World article this week in which he said a re-elected Labour government would expect all teenagers to perform 50 hours of community service.

Sector leaders stressed that compulsory service goes against the principle of volunteering, but could not agree on whether this mattered.

"We shouldn't see this as volunteering," said Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, director of volunteering charity CSV. "It's community service and it should be a part of the national curriculum in the same way that academic subjects are.

"The Government needs to be careful about the type of service it asks young people to provide. There's no point in asking them to spend 50 hours washing up in a daycare centre, because they won't learn anything from it."

But Hoodless said she welcomed the idea in principle.

"It's long overdue," she said. "France, Germany, Italy and the US have been running successful community service schemes for years and we're lagging behind."

Mike Locke, director of public affairs at Volunteering England, said the scheme would not work if it was compulsory.

"The key value of volunteering lies in it being a voluntary act," he said. "This is what helps young people to develop as citizens and build civic virtues. They should feel that it's their decision, otherwise it's counterproductive."

A spokeswoman for another volunteering charity, TimeBank, warned that the scheme would require careful planning.

"We need to keep hold of young volunteers once their 50 hours are over, rather than letting compulsory service put them off the idea," she said.  

"This will require investment in schools to help them work with community organisations, as well as funds for good volunteer managers to make sure young people have a positive experience."

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