"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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.