If the coalition wants to reduce NEETs, it should bring back EMA

Since the Education Maintenance Allowance was abolished, full-time attendance for 16-18-year-olds has fallen by 3.8 per cent.

"It should not be forgotten", wrote William Hazlitt in his classic essay On the Ignorance of the Learned, "that the least respectable character among modern politicians was the cleverest boy at Eton." This will never seem truer than from the discussion over the government’s plans to take benefits away from young people, only a week after an old Etonian proclaimed permanent austerity, and days after another says the super rich are a "put-on minority".

It seems perverse that when the number of NEETs in our country is larger than a city the size of Birmingham, the way to solve this problem is to further undermine them, while at the same time further enriching those whp benefit most from government policy.

What this represents is another crude right-wing attack on social security, portraying benefits not as part of a safety net to protect people, regardless of age, from market forces beyond their control, but as social stigma, handed down from on high to those deemed victims of their own fecklessness.

This unbalance in priorities is building up future costs. According to the government, the estimated cost across the lifetime of each 16-18 year old NEET equates to a £56,000 loss to the taxpayer, and a further £104,000 loss to the economy; and when combined and added up, the aggregate cost of all those classed as NEET is over £100bn.

Instead of talking tough on young people, the damage being done to them should be reconsidered. Evidence is slowly rising that austerity policies, such as the abolition Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), were a grave mistake by this government. From the Department for Education’s own data, for the second year since the EMA was abolished at the end of 2010, full-time attendance for 16-18-year-olds has fallen by 3.8 per cent. This equates to over 52,100 fewer students lost from the education system, with a potential cost of £8.3bn added to the taxpayer and the economy if they go on to be NEET.

This is the equivalent of filling the House of Commons Chamber more than 80 times over. It is bigger than the student body of both Oxford and Cambridge combined. And if it was assembled in one straight line, it would reach from Nick Clegg’s house in Putney to the door of No. 10 Downing Street, and almost back again.

Of course, it is too soon to prove with certainty that this is due to the scrapping of EMA alone. But it does suggest that the government has dangerously undermined an entire age group through policies such as this. And it provides fertile ground for the proposals by IPPR to fix "the broken school-to-work transition" with a 'youth allowance' and 'youth guarantee'.

But the way in which the reforms are presented risks chastising young people for problems they did not create and letting the super rich off the hook. For example, one chilling suggestion in the IPPR report is the withdrawal of Employment and Support Allowance from disabled young people, forcing them to take a near 40% cut in their incomes by instead claiming the 'youth allowance'. This is done chiefly to save money. It could prove penny wise, but pound foolish, if it makes recipients hostile to the scheme. 

As for Cameron and Osborne, in the week we found NEETs remain a city-sized problem, they must show young people in the Autumn Statement that they are respectable characters - and not just clever boys from Eton.

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Protesting students carry a cardboard skip opposite Downing Street on March 16, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.