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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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.