Short-changing the kids

This Budget put profit before young people.

The Chancellor's key soundbite during his Budget speech was that Britain will be "held aloft by the march of the makers", but it will also be accompanied by the silent march to the jobcentre by the young jobless – especially those aged 16-19.

No one seems to have noticed that Osborne's Budget was void of any substantial help for them. Instead, he offered tax breaks for corporations, to help their profit margins. And even what scraps he did offer had nothing to alleviate the pressures faced by young people in this country today.

The government will say it is increasing apprenticeships by 12,500 a year. Although this is of course welcome, ultimately it will be possible only if there are jobs created. More importantly, however, it has nothing to offer the almost 200,000 young people doing NVQs, many of whom will be receiving EMA or will have to complete the course to be able to go on to do an actual apprenticeship.

The Budget did not have a single word to say to these young people. If anything, George Osborne's silence on this speaks volumes for this government's overall commitment to the young.

Take the news on stamp duty: the average age of a first-time housebuyer is 30 and is expected by some to rise to 44. Or the raising of the personal allowance: this won't help the almost one million unemployed young people in the country. And as only 23 per cent of 16-to-17-year-olds were in employment in the last quarter of 2010, this is clearly not something the majority of adolescents can benefit from.

Then there was the headline announcement: a penny off fuel duty, accompanied by fare rises of 6.2 per cent on average. How will this help young people, when so many more of them use public transport?

You would think that, faced with such facts, the last thing a government would do, if it really had the interests of young people at heart, would be to continue scrapping EMA, especially after a number of leading economists last week signed an open letter in support of the policy. Osborne could have even looked at his own Budget, as on page 33 of the Red Book it even states that participation in learning by 16-to-18-year-olds has continued to rise.

But no extra money will come from the Treasury for EMA's planned replacement, meaning that it will have to be found from within the Education Department, leading to further education cuts.

There are strong rumours that the extra funding will come from careers advice for 16-to-19-year-olds, an area heavily deprived of funds already. Only this week leading head teachers warned the government that closing the Connexions youth service will put almost two million young people at risk of having to enter the job market bereft of advice.

The English economic historian and advocate of further education R H Tawney wrote of education in England in the 1920s that the biggest obstacle it faced was that "the prevailing temper of Englishmen is to regard as most important that which is commercially profitable, and as of only inferior importance that which is not". Ninety years later, it still rings true.

James Mills is part of the Save EMA campaign.

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Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit:

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage