Good news on the jobs front, but why is the Youth Contract not working?

A year on from its launch, the Youth Contract looks feeble in comparison to the problem it is trying to solve. It's time for a jobs guarantee.

Today’s labour market statistics continued the good news of recent months. Employment rose at the fastest annual rate since 1989, and the inactivity rate, the proportion of the population neither in work or looking for a job, is at its lowest level since 1991. Whilst there are legitimate questions about how this 'jobs miracle' is possible given the poor state of the economy, we should be very encouraged that of all the issues the UK faces, job creation does not appear to be one of them at the moment.

But behind the positive headline numbers there are still some sections of the population facing a very difficult jobs market. Youth unemployment, which was falling at an encouraging pace until a few months ago, appears now to be stuck in reverse, with the number of young people unemployed rising 11,000 in the latest quarter. Even more worrying, the number of young people unemployed for over a year, and in danger of permanent wage scarring and disconnection from the labour market, is up by 10,000. There are some positive signs, with the numbers of economically inactive youth falling and employment amongst the group rising, but the high level of unemployment points towards a large proportion of the young being left behind as the labour market improves overall.

And what is being done about it? The coalition’s Youth Contract, launched over a year ago, aimed for a radical increase in support for young people’s entry into work, providing incentives for employers to take on young employees, increases in apprenticeship numbers, and greater provision of work experience placements. It was hoped to be, in the words of Nick Clegg, "a major moment for Britain’s unemployed young people".

And where are we now? Today’s data shows that youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. A week ago Cait Reilly succeeded in challenging the DWP over its mandatory work activity scheme. And last month the latest apprenticeships data showed that new places were disproportionately going to the over-25s, with the number of school-leavers moving into apprenticeships actually falling. A year on, the Youth Contract looks feeble in comparison to the problem it is trying to solve.

A better approach would be to tackle both the short and long-term causes of youth unemployment head on. Firstly, IPPR has suggested that a jobs guarantee be adopted, with anyone unemployed and claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) for over 12 months offered a paid job at the minimum wage. There were almost 80,000 young people in this group in December, a rise of 35,000 on a year ago. This would offer instant help to them, and is a fundamentally better policy than making people work for their JSA.

Over the longer-term, we need a revolution in how the system of transition from school to work operates. At the moment, most of the 50 per cent of young people who don’t go to university are faced with poorly-funded careers advice, low-quality or non-existent apprenticeship places, and a confusing plethora of vocational education options of variable worth. This group are being ill-served by the system, which doesn’t offer the skills or the experience needed for them to fully flourish in 21st century Britain.

Changing the deeply ingrained transition system will be difficult, but the evidence from other countries suggests it is not impossible, if the will from politicians, employers, unions and wider society is there. IPPR is currently carrying out a major research project in order to learn valuable international lessons on youth unemployment that can be applied to a UK context.

Today’s jobs data was great on most fronts. But if we fail to tackle the deeply-set issues around marginal groups in the labour force, including youth unemployment, we are in danger of a recovery for some, but one that misses out on those most in need.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

Nick Clegg claimed the Youth Jobs Contract would be "a major moment for Britain’s unemployed young people". Photograph: Getty Images.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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David Cameron's speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.