My Lords, when I first put my name down to speak in this debate on the gracious Speech, I thought that I would talk about two items: the groceries code adjudicator and the changes in the competition policy regime, which feature in the Speech. I then learnt that the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill will be before us for Second Reading on Tuesday, and I have little doubt that the competition regime changes will be in a Bill that will come before us soon. With more time available in Second Reading debates than in the sort of debate that we are having today, I decided to latch on to the remarks made by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition on youth unemployment, which to some extent has also been commented on by my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green.
I am delighted to congratulate a Member of the Conservative Benches who is in her place right now, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, who spoke on this subject yesterday and described the terrible expense to the public finances and the lost-opportunity costs of youth unemployment. She made the point that some 16%, probably more than that, are NEETs and causing a great deal of personal, social and financial problems. That is a very serious matter, a terrible waste in economic terms and a very severe social and personal loss and detriment to the young people themselves. In addition to those fairly obvious points, I think that we ought to accept that many young people are alienated, disaffected and are often engaged in criminal or anti-social activity.
Many people have solutions and have their favourite ideas. I dare say that there is no one idea that is worthy of promotion; there are many that are worthy of promotion. One idea that deserves further consideration and is timely to consider now is some sort of non-military national service or citizens' service of one year or more and applicable to young men and young women. When I did military national service way back in the 1950s, it applied only to men, so I naturally think of any modern development as covering both.
This idea was recently advocated-I mention this specifically for my noble friends in the Labour Party-in an article by Robert Williams that appeared in the March 2012 edition of the Labour magazine Progress. Twenty years ago, it was one of the proposals of the commission on social justice that was set up by the late John Smith, then the leader of the Labour Party, with me as chairman and several other present Members of this House on the commission. One of our proposals was for a citizens' service, a community service scheme designed to enable young people to develop personal, social and learning skills and a work ethic through a variety of activities which, no doubt, would have to be looked at and modified and so on as the years go by. They would engage in work that improves the environment by cleaning and improving public spaces and engaging in caring activities in hospitals, care homes and people's own homes, and, importantly, they would have the opportunity to make up for the gaps in their education that so many young people have.
It would probably have to be a voluntary scheme, which is what my commission proposed 20 years ago, because in peacetime-and I exclude the immediate post-war years in Britain-it would politically be very difficult to make it compulsory. Yet I have to admit that a weakness of a voluntary scheme is that some of the very people who would benefit most from a citizens' service would be excluded.
There would be many gains from a citizens' service in educational terms, in breaking down social barriers and in enabling people to improve their personal standing and so on. I believe that it is timely now to revive interest in this proposal. I have not attempted the important matter of cost. A parliamentary committee or inquiry would be needed to establish costs and feasibility and to estimate what I suggest would be, but I have no figures to back this up, a very considerable payback in economic and social gains to the community.