Nearly 20 years ago, the New Labour ‘government-in-waiting’ was celebrated for putting major reductions in youth unemployment at the top of its election pledges.
David Cameron similarly made youth unemployment the lead policy announcement of his otherwise insubstantial conference speech. He was wise enough not to repeat New Labour’s proposal for better youth training schemes, in view of the acknowledged abject failure of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Youth Contract.
But his claim that young people opt for a life on the dole was ill-informed, on three fronts.
Firstly, the evidence of the years preceding the financial crisis provides little support for it. For example, for many 16 and 17 year olds for whom meagre state allowances made a difference to their families’ distressed household finances, the modest Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) tipped the scales enough to keep many more in school or college until they were 17 or 18. But the EMA was cancelled in the first round of Coalition ‘austerity measures’.
Last month, the Secretary of State introduced a requirement that every 16-18 year old who continued in school or college must resume study of maths and English if he or she has not achieved Grade C GCSEs in those subjects. As a result, any realistic possibility of prolonging study was removed from many young people from the poorest households, and from those who struggle with English, or mathematics.
Secondly, young people are consistently amongst the earliest, worst and longest-lasting victims of recessions. The million unemployed under-25s come close to making up a grossly disproportionate 40% of the total unemployed population. Freezing recruitment is most employers’ simplest passive response to a squeeze on profits, followed by using qualifications to filter surfeits of applications, to the detriment of young people who are least likely to continue to study.
Young people do not choose the dole: they are denied gainful employment.
Thirdly, Labour’s landmark 2008 Education and Skills Act raised the statutory participation age to 17 (and to 18 from 2015) – the first such reform in more than four decades.
During its passage through Parliament, Labour’s Bill had been dogged by Opposition criticism of its effect of criminalising young people who failed to study or work, who would risk custodial sanctions. In 2011, the Coalition revived the dispute, seeing in some ill-conceived clauses of the 2008 Act an opportunity to disable all of its enforcement elements. At a stroke, the Coalition largely debilitated the best policy prospect in 40 years for ending non-participation amongst 16-18 year olds that did not depend on reviving a now-vanishing youth labour market.
Spared the threat of a criminal record for non-participation, disadvantaged by the cancellation of the EMA, and deterred by the prospect of two more years of failing to meet unrealistic expectations of attainment in mathematics and English, many of the most vulnerable, ill-qualified, ill-supported young people for whom the 2008 Act was intended will follow the only path available to them: state benefits, via a scarring sequence of dashed hopes in search of low-skilled local jobs.
Unshamed by a record of youth non-participation worse than that of almost all 29 OECD countries, the Coalition now proposes to withdraw most of the last remaining welfare rights of young people, including those who are likely to be worst affected by recent changes.
The Coalition’s objections to the last-resort criminalising measures of the 2008 Act had good cause. Putting in their place nothing more than a manifesto marker that promises to drive more young people towards withdrawal or destitution, with all the attendant risks of desperate and sometimes criminal responses, gives new force to the notion of ‘punishing the poor’.
The obverse of Labour’s hyper-regulatory interventionism, prospective laissez-faire Conservative policy towards non-participating young people now smacks of abandonment. Young people’s freedom to decline recognised forms of ‘participation’ is protected, but its consequences are neglected, leaving the criminal justice system to pick up some of the fruits of frustration and despair.
Meanwhile, the Coalition’s current Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill seems at least as likely to propel those young people charged with anti-social behaviour towards a criminal as a civil response, in the shape of a Criminal Behaviour Order. For a Conservative Party that had apparently acquired a new-found zeal to oppose the criminalisation of vulnerable young people, its current and prospective policy developments are beginning to look like double standards.
Dr Ross Fergusson is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the Open University and a member of the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research.