Youth unemployment – blaming the benefit system
As part of the softening up process for today’s announcement of a new work experience programme yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph included an article by Alasdair Palmer headed “Youth unemployment: can’t work or won’t work?” He says that “the conventional story” is that youth unemployment is down to the recession, but that “there is evidence that it may not be the whole truth.”
The evidence? He’s spoken to Christine Snell, who runs a soft fruit farm in Herefordshire. “She recruits almost the whole of her workforce abroad, mostly from Bulgaria and Romania” even though she “desperately” wants to recruit locals. And he’s spoken to Dr David Green of Civitas, who says that the benefits system “encourages people not to go out to work – they don’t have to, because they can live adequately on benefits.”
(“Adequately” – it’s a terribly interesting word, isn’t it? Jobseeker’s Allowance for a single person under 25 is £51.85 a week. Benefits may – or may not – also cover their rent and Council Tax, but the amount they’ll have to spend on food, clothing, heating and so on is £51.85. There may be some young people used to pocket money who may think that sounds great, but the experience of living on that very soon disabuses them.)
Dr Green and Mrs Snell both think that we have lots of young people out of work because the benefits system discourages them from working – they certainly don’t accept the “conventional story” that blames the lack of jobs. But I wonder how Mrs Snell and Dr Green would explain this:
Why did these figures change when the recession began? It looks to me as though the fact that we had a recession had something to do with youth employment going down and unemployment going up.
There are currently 500,000 fewer young people in employment than there were immediately before the recession started and 370,000 more unemployed. Is it reasonable to believe that hundreds of thousands of young people suddenly became lazy? The benefit system certainly didn’t suddenly become more generous.
One reason why we’re hearing arguments like this is because the current government is spending so much less on youth unemployment than its predecessor. As youth unemployment spirals up to the million mark, with 400,000 young people unemployed over 6 months the government’s supporters are plainly worried that abolishing the Future Jobs Fund and Educational Maintenance Allowances might lead some people to conclude that they’re the same tight-hearted crowd that abolished benefits for 16 and 17 year olds in the 1980s. So we can expect more of these attempts to blame the victims for their plight – it doesn’t matter if the government cuts and cuts again if the problem is really the laziness of the unemployed or if we need more cuts to benefits, to make sure they aren’t “adequate”.
Take the work experience programme announced today by the DWP. Employment Minister Chris Grayling went out of his way to contrast it with the Future Jobs Fund, which I don’t think I’d have done in his place. Here’s some ways in which the new programme falls short when measured by that standard:
- FJF was for six months, the new scheme offers eight weeks.
- FJF was paid work – at least the minimum wage – this is for unpaid work experience.
- FJF paid careful attention to the risk of displacement and undermining the pay and conditions of existing workers, this scheme seems to have very few safety features.
- Similarly, there is a risk of exploitation with a 8 weeks placement. Work experience, job tasters and the Job Introduction Scheme can help people get jobs, but this has to be balanced against a real risk of exploitation (and displacement of existing workers) that grows the longer this sort of scheme lasts. You have to balance the enhancement of the individual’s chances of getting a job with the fact that they’re doing unpaid work. 8 weeks is simply too long – young unemployed people are going to feel they’re being taken advantage of.
- FJF was for under-25s, this is limited to under-21s; this means it doesn’t cover unemployed people who’ve left FE or HE.
The new programme will cover fewer than 10 per cent of unemployed young people – there are 747,000 unemployed, but the government has told the Social Security Advisory Committee that the maximum number of places will be 73,000. The Future Jobs Fund was not only a far superior scheme, it was going to offer places to well over 100,000 people – the notion that today’s scheme is an acceptable replacement is laughable.