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, and sits on the International Trade select committee. He is the cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

Photo: Getty
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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?