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

Photo: Getty
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The new catchphrase that John McDonnell hopes will keep Britain in Europe

The shadow chancellor's gambit could prove decisive. 

John McDonnell has a new catchphrase: “Tory Brexit”.

It may sound uncomfortably close to the name of a new character in Star Wars but it’s what McDonnell and his team believe is the best route to turn Labour voters out for a Remain vote in the coming referendum.

Shadow ministers and Labour MPs are increasingly worried that Labour voters don’t know what the party’s stance on the referendum is – and even more troublingly, they don’t much care. That much of the media has covered the contest largely through the prism of the Conservative succession has only made matters worse. The government’s message about the dangers of Brexit, too, are calibrated towards the concerns of Tory voters: house prices, security, and the economy.

As I write in this week’s New Statesman, Vote Leave, the official campaign to secure a Brexit vote on 23 June, has long known that the referendum will be won and lost among Labour voters, hence their early focus on putting more money into the National Health Service and the dangers of the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP).  

Vote Leave have also, quietly and effectively, been putting it about that a Brexit vote would allow fairer immigration rules for non-European migrants, something that, I’m told, is beginning to make itself felt among Labour voters who have relatives in Africa and from the Indian subcontinent in particular. It is families from these nations that have felt the biggest effects of Theresa May’s failed attempts to meet the government’s net migration target, with even short trips to attend weddings, funerals or graduations falling foul of the Home Office.

McDonnell’s “Tory Brexit” line is intended to defuse those lines of attack. As one aide puts it, “the idea you can get away from TTIP by leaving Europe under a Tory government – it’s nonsense. You’d have TTIP max”. Similarly, the party will push back in the minority press against the idea that a Leave vote negotiated by a Conservative Prime Minister to the right of David Cameron would be more liberal on migration from outside Europe after Brexit, with Seema Malhotra, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, to play a big role in that enterprise.

(It also has the added bonus of keeping open the idea that Brexit under a leftwing government mightn’t always be the worst thing in the world, which, depending on your perspective, either defangs the minority of Labour politicians who are pro-Brexit, or allows McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn  to keep the party united while not closing the door on supporting a Leave vote at a later date. Either way, it’s canny politics.)

Will it work? The fear for Remain is that Vote Leave have a strong message to get their voters out, though the Remain campaign are confident that they are out-organising the Leave campaign on the ground. The fear of an unmuzzled Conservative party may prove decisive in getting Labour voters to the polls on 23 June. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.