"Get on a bus and go find work": It's not as easy as all that

Transport is a serious hinderance to employment for young people, according to a new report from the Work Foundation.

Shortly after the last election, Iain Duncan Smith made headlines by telling Newsnight that unemployed people in Merthyr Tydfil, an economically depressed town in Wales:

Had become static and didn't know that if they got on a bus for an hour's journey, they'd be in Cardiff and could look for the jobs there.

IDS was derided for having an "on-your-bike" moment – recalling Norman Tebbit's infamous request that unemployed people get on their bikes and look for work elsewhere.

In fact, the very thing he cited as a reason why unemployed people should find it easy to get work is a major barrier to employment, especially for young people, according to a new report from the *Work Foundation*.

The report claims that transport costs have made it difficult for one in five young people to take part in education or training, particularly those living in rural areas. That latter group then face further obstacles if they do manage to complete training, since finding a job which pays enough to make the commute worthwhile is tricky itself.

Young people are twice as likely as those over 24 to walk to work, and 50 per cent more likely to take a bus; even of the 55 per cent who travel by car, a fifth of them travel as a passenger.

Which means that, even discounting the fact that younger people have less money, the continued above-inflation rise in bus fares disproportionately hits the exact sector of society which is suffering 20 per cent unemployment:

Local bus fares index, adjusted to inflation using RPI. 100=2005

Even apart from money, however, transport poses problems for employment. The fact is that without a car – which is prohibitively expensive to buy and run – large numbers of jobs are simply inaccessible:

In many areas across the UK [London is an obvious exception], bus frequencies and reliability have decreased over the past decade. The vast majority [over 80 per cent] of bus services in England outside London are deregulated, and loss-making services are often cut.

Concessionary fares are the most obvious solution to the problem, and are woefully underused. Only four of the 89 local travel authorities outside London offer money off for unemployed people, and only 25 offer it for young people. Even if they do, that does not solve the fact that the gutted state of many rural and suburban networks leaves them woefully unsuitable for many types of work - good luck using them if you don't have a predictable nine-to-five job.

The report suggests, in addition, schemes like "wheels to work", which loan out mopeds or bicycles to people who struggle to access employment.

Katy Jones, the lead report author, writes that:

The government should guarantee concessionary fares for young, long-term unemployed people. To keep support in line with participation in education and training, it should also extend transport assistance up until the age of 18, in line with planned increases in the participation age.

Hopefully Iain Duncan Smith has learned a bit more since 2010 about the problems with "just getting on a bus"; but if he hasn't, he would do well to listen to the Work Foundation now.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.