Being NEET is no fun at all

954,000 young people are not in education, employment or training

Today’s headline grabbing bad news number is 0.3 per cent. That is the latest revision to the GDP figures for the first quarter of this year and it confirms that the UK economy is not just suffering a double dip recession but that it is deeper than we previously thought [as our economics editor David Blanchflower writes].

But also announced today is that during the same period, the number of young people aged 16-24 years old that are not in education, employment or training (NEET) rose by 29,000 to a new record of 954,000. This lost generation has been growing almost non-stop for more than a decade but the latest rise is clearly a result of the weakness of the British economy.

The worse rises have been in Yorkshire and Humberside, the North West and the East Midlands, which have all hit new record highs. One in five young people in Yorkshire & Humberside are now NEET, up 19 per cent, with a similar rise in London.

The number of male NEETs is also at a new record high and this underlines the impact of the economic climate. Female NEETs are far more likely to have had a teenage pregnancy or have another caring responsibility, for a disabled or elderly relative, that either causes their NEET status or prolongs it.

Being NEET is no fun at all. Research from the Prince’s Trust show that young people who are NEETs are almost twice as likely as other young people to lack a sense of belonging in life. More than a third of NEETs (37 per cent) lack a sense of identity, and this figure rises to nearly half (47 per cent) for those out of work  year or longer. More than a third of unemployed young people (34 per cent) feel isolated all or most of the time, increasing to 45 per cent for those who have been out of work for a year or longer. Almost half of young people not in work (48 per cent) claim that unemployment has caused problems including self-harm, insomnia, self-loathing and panic attacks. Young people are twice as likely to self-harm or suffer panic attacks when they have been unemployed for a year.

So what is the Government doing about it? The new "Youth Contact" is a plan for 160,000 job subsidies and an extra 20,000 apprenticeships but it has yet to have an impact. On its own, it is clearly not enough.

Resources are vital to tackling NEETs, as Barry Sherman’s Education Select Committee showed in their excellent report at the end of the last Parliamentary session. A recent report from children’s charity Barnardos on the replacement to the EMA highlighted its inadequacy. Today’s figures do likewise.

IPPR research shows that apprenticeships – and vocational education more generally – play a key role in supporting young people’s transitions into work in many northern European countries where rates of youth unemployment in these countries are much lower than in Britain.

They say "you’re only young once" and it’s true. I now realise how lucky I was to be a teenager in the late nineties. Those of you in your teenage years in 2012 have my profound sympathy because it is not you who have failed, but Britain that has failed you.

A very young NEET (maybe). Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

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