The coalition is wrong to be complacent about unemployment

The latest fall in unemployment becomes a rise if you take out the massive drop in London.

The DWP select committee has given its verdict on the government’s much-heralded Youth Contract. And it’s not good news. The scheme compares poorly to previous projects and is in danger of missing its targets. You might not be surprised – after all there are still over a million young people out of work and long-term youth unemployment has more than trebled in the last year. You hardly need a report to tell you things aren’t going well.

So why is unemployment falling? What is going on behind the headlines? Well, closer study of the figures reveals that new employment minster Mark Hoban was perhaps a little rash to describe the state of the labour market as "very encouraging." What we are really seeing is that in great swathes of the country Britain’s jobs crisis is becoming deep set. For Britain’s women, there has been no let up – women account for 80% of the rise in long-term unemployment since the election. And our construction industry, a sector we need roaring back to life if we are to rebuild Britain, has seen nearly 120,000 jobs wiped out since the election. Whilst in eight out of twelve regions across the country , unemployment is higher than it was in May 2010.

In fact, the latest fall in unemployment becomes a rise if you take out the massive drop in London as it prepared to host the Olympic Games. Even for those in employment, the glass is emptier than you might think. Two-thirds of the increase in employment since the election is due to a rise in people becoming temporarily employed, or working part-time - now at record highs. And that rise is almost entirely down to people who would rather be in full-time work. They are being forced to take part-time jobs because no full-time jobs are available.

So how do these figures square with ministers’ claims that their flagship Work Programme is doing the job? Well the signs aren’t good – earlier this year DWP downgraded its projection for their flagship scheme by almost half. The sad truth is ministers refuse to tell us how they are getting on. The figures remain tethered behind a depressingly familiar wall of secrecy along with the truth about their Youth Contract and the blueprints for the increasingly beleaguered Universal Credit. David Cameron once told us that sunlight is the greatest disinfectant, but if something is rotting in DWP, it seems ministers aren’t ready for the cure.

The time for secrecy and excuses has long past. Britain desperately needs a change of course. We are now in the longest double-dip recession since the Second World War,  the government’s failing economic plan has pushed borrowing up by a quarter already this year and programmes to get people off benefits and into work seem to be stuck in neutral. The select committee’s report should act as a wake-up call. Thanks to research done by Acevo we know that today’s youth unemployment emergency is set to cost our country £28bn in the coming decade – that’s money we can’t afford to waste.

We now need decisive action – not more tinkering round the edges. Ministers should listen to the International Labour Organisation and urgently bring in a jobs guarantee, like Labour’s Real Jobs Guarantee. They should pay for it with a sensible tax on bankers' bonuses and create a fund that'll help us get 100,000 young people back to work.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war