Why I don’t want to become part of the lost generation

Youth unemployment is scarring a whole cohort of young people.

My name is Ava Patel, I’m 23 and I have a degree in Journalism from Nottingham Trent University. After I graduated I spent over a year looking for jobs and I finally got one manning the phones in a call centre. I’ve not just been rejected for journalism jobs but for manual work too, including shelf-stacking at a well-known supermarket, despite being qualified and making all the effort to get the job. The most common reply I’d get to an email or an application form I’d spent about 45 minutes completing was “Due to the high number of applications your application has not been successful on this occasion. We cannot provide any feedback.” I read the same message so many times that when I finally got the call centre job, I was over the moon. I’d often get advisors at the Job Centre whilst I was claiming Job Seekers Allowance asking me why I was even there, to which I’d simply reply, “can’t get a job.”

Countless rejections without feedback started to chip away at my confidence but when I found out other graduates were struggling to find employment too, I realised it was less to do with me and more to do with the fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs for young people. We are becoming the lost generation, there are over a million of us searching for work. We do have qualifications, work experience and drive, but we do not have the jobs to apply them to.

I finally got a position to work to raise awareness of youth unemployment as part of this year’s Channel 4’s Battlefront Campaign to tackle youth unemployment. I’ve had the opportunity to attend the Lib Dem Conference and the recent Channel 4 News Class of 2012 event hosted by Jon Snow, with contributions across the political spectrum, from MPs Damian Collins, Stella Creasy, David Milliband and Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King. While the debate was heated and passionate, not enough solutions were put forward. The Youth Contract only goes so far and all the goodwill behind work experience, training and apprenticeships schemes does not lead to job creation. We can have all the work experience in the world, but it won’t help us if there isn’t a paid, full time job at the end of it. We as young people need long term job creation, not more initiatives that provide short term solutions.

When I got the job to be a Battlefront campaigner it felt like my hard work and persistence had paid off. It almost felt surreal to think someone out there wanted to employ me, wanted to see all I had to offer. Part of Channel 4’s education output, this year Battlefront is focussing on the single most important issue facing young people today – the fact that over one million 18- to 24-year-olds in the UK today, according to the Office of National Statistics, are without a job. Youth unemployment is no longer a problem, but a disaster. And this is exactly what I said in the interview process. Along with three other campaigners we’re raising awareness of the issue on camera and online and my aim is to get young peoples’ voices heard. For too long employers and politicians have been calling young people job shy and lazy but for the vast majority of us this simply isn’t true. My ultimate aim is to speak to politicians about how they can provide solutions to make the labour market more accessible to young people. The current government’s answers to youth unemployment via the Work Programme and Youth Contract do not guarantee jobs and do not offer a sustainable long term solution. We lose £5bn per year in taxes and the economy loses £10bn per year in economic output because young people aren’t working [pdf], a crisis our country cannot afford, especially in the current economic climate.

In the past year alone youth unemployment has risen by 41 per cent (pdf) and it rose again this month. Young people like me, my friends and other Battlefront campaigners are suffering scarring effects of long-term unemployment and planning ahead for a life where we will never earn as much as previous generations. It’s no longer enough to give token gestures as we slowly lose our self-esteem, that’s not the tag line we want for the class of 2012.

Ava Patel is a Channel 4 Battlefront campaigner

A woman walks past a jobs board in Liverpool. Photograph: Getty Images
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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity