The coalition must rethink its approach to youth unemployment

Ministers must accept that the immigration cap will not help young Britons into work.

Today's rise in the number of young people not in employment, education or training is the biggest since records began in 2000. Compared with the same period last year, there are now 119,000 more 19-24 year olds not in education, work or training, representing a rise of 18 per cent. These figures follow new research published yesterday by the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development showing that while youth unemployment rises, employer demand for migrant workers continues to rise.

Both sets of figures should cause the government to rethink its approach. Tomorrow's migration statistics will confirm whether the trends are pushing the net migration target further out of reach: the previous quarter's figures showed emigration of British nationals down by more than 25 per cent since 2008, and immigration from Eastern Europe rising, both trends which the government can do little about. Last week, the Spectator magazine was one of the first to take the questionable argument that used to be levelled at Labour, that 'too many new jobs are going to foreigners', and turn it against the government. Yesterday's CIPD survey suggests that this pressure is likely to worsen, as employer demand for migrant workers continues to rise, particularly in the private sector, with 32 per cent now saying they are planning to recruit migrant workers in the next quarter:

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Source: CPID, August 2011

This national picture disguises significant regional variation. Employers in London (40 per cent) and the South (30 per cent) are significantly more likely to say they intend to recruit migrant workers than those in the North (14 per cent). There is also anecdotal evidence that the Government has underestimated the disruptive effect on employers of its 'cap' on non-EU migrant workers. In talking to business and other pro-migration audiences, ministers cite the fact that the interim quotas for 2010 were not fully taken up, to suggest that the cap has not been too restrictive. But at a recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on migration, employers and business associations confirmed that unused quotas reflected pre-emptive decisions by companies not bothering to go through the laborious process of applying, in the expectation that they would be disappointed. This new survey gives more detail on how these employers are reacting to the cap by switching to other kinds of migrant workers: more employers say they plan to hire EU migrant workers (34 per cent), than up-skill existing workers (23 per cent), or recruit more graduates. Eight per cent say they intend to offshore jobs abroad.

Why do so many employers still prefer to hire migrant workers? The CIPD survey casts doubt on the idea - a major theme in the reaction to Iain Duncan Smith's recent demand for employers to give priority to British workers - that it is all about 'soft skills'. The survey finds far more employers citing hard skills or specific experience - and interestingly, only 16 per cent saying they prefer migrants because they are cheaper:

Why do you prefer migrant workers? CPID, August 2011

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The overall picture is one of employers struggling to fill skills gaps despite rising levels of unemployment - suggesting that a renewed focus on training and skills would be more useful than attempting further restrictions on skilled non-EU immigration.

With today's NEET figures, last week's ONS labour market figures showing youth unemployment rising above 20 per cent, and the cuts in public sector employment starting to bite, the fall in the proportion of private sector employers planning to hire school-leavers must also be particularly worrying - though there is some encouraging news in rising awareness of apprenticeships.

In relation to immigration policy, the risk remains that a combination of trends beyond the government's control - British emigration, immigration from the EU, and employer preferences - will lead the government to adopt even more drastic measures on those limited areas of immigration it can control, like skilled workers from outside the EU, students, or settlement policy, simply because that is the only way to affect net migration numbers, even though the specific measures are likely to further hamper growth.

It is not too late for the government to break out of this dynamic, redouble its efforts on apprenticeships, and start the long term task of improving vocational education and training, accepting that the cap and net migration target will not solve the crisis in youth unemployment, and will only slow our economic recovery.

Matt Cavanagh is Associate Director at IPPR

Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage