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_

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories