"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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.