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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.