The political class is finally waking up to the youth unemployment crisis

All the main parties now recognise that what is needed is not just an emergency response, but a more fundamental reconfiguration of the education to work transition.

It's not news that youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems the UK faces. Wednesday's labour market statistics showed that, while wages and living standards continue to stagnant, at the very least employment is holding up. The same is not true for the young; the youth unemployment rate edged up by 0.1 per cent, and shows no sign of starting to decline. But recent announcements from all political parties, and yesterday's publication of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report, show a welcome appetite for the kind of wide-ranging reform needed.

Up to now the post-crisis response to this issue has been just that; a series of temporary measures, including 160,000 wage incentives for firms to hire youth, and three years of funding for work experience places. While apprenticeship numbers have increased, most of the new places have gone to the over 25s. But politicians of all stripes now recognise that what is needed is not just an emergency crisis response, but a more fundamental reconfiguration of the education to work transition. The coalition recently embarked on a wide ranging review of youth spending, Labour has announced a youth guarantee of work or training, and the Conservatives an obligation on young people to be either 'earning or learning'. While there is still a debate to be had on the specifics of each policy, broadly speaking the Labour and Conservative announcements at least recognise the fact that many young people are too far from the labour market to be expected to find work through the usual Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme offer, and need a more certain back-stop providing up-skilling and real, paid work experience.

Yesterday's report from Alan Milburn puts some much needed flesh on the bones of this reform agenda, sketching out some practical steps we could take to increase the employment chances of youth, picking up on many of the arguments and ideas suggested by my colleagues at IPPR. Firstly, it recognises that young people are not all alike. For those young people without prior work experience, the report suggests that the state should offer a 'participation payment' for those engaging in high quality work placements with training. This would improve the current traineeships policy, which provide a similar offer but with no compensation for the work-based element. For those with some experience of work, it advocates the adoption of a job guarantee to prevent young people staying on out of work benefits.

In addition, it recognises that too many young people leave school and simply drop off the map. A significant proportion of the UK’s NEETs are not claiming any out of work benefits and are therefore difficult to find and reengage. The Milburn report proposes two initial solutions: better monitoring of who is currently NEET and at risk of NEET-hood at a local level will certainly help, as will the introduction of a system similar to UCAS but aimed at those not going to university, in order to better signpost and link young people up with the work and training opportunities available to them.

The youth unemployment problem is still not solved. Much more work needs to be done to ensure that the training options mentioned above are of sufficient quality, and don’t just function as a warehouse for disadvantaged young people. Milburn’s target for half of all firms to be offering apprenticeships and work experience does not solve the currently poor targeting of apprenticeships on young people, and looks very ambitious given our low levels of firm involvement in youth training. But nonetheless we should welcome the fact that youth unemployment is very much still on the agenda, and that there is appetite for the kind of ambitious and wide-ranging reform needed. The current situation, with the labour market starting to recover in earnest but the young very much left behind, is simply not good enough.

"Too many young people leave school and simply drop off the map." Photograph: Getty Images.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.