A plan to end NEETs through reform, not cuts

We should shift spending over time from paying benefits to young people because they haven’t got skills and work - and instead investing in them so they do.

IPPR is not proposing to 'scrap benefits for under 25s', as claimed in the headline on the front page of the Daily Telegraph this morning. Our new report out today sets out a plan for radically reducing the number of young people who are NEET (not in education, employment or training). Losing touch from either learning or earning is deeply damaging for young people’s own prospects – and often hugely costly for society. Our ideas draw on lessons from countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, where they have a distinct work, training and benefits track for young people – separate from the adult welfare system – and very low levels of NEETs. The plan is built around three core reforms:

First, replacing existing out-of-work benefits for young people with a youth allowance which provides financial support for those who need it, conditional on participation in further and vocational education or intensive job search. This would overcome the structural flaw in JSA for young people, which is that it prevents them from training and treats them like adult jobseekers even if they haven’t yet completed their initial education. And it would prevent young people drifting away from learning or earning altogether, by closing off access to inactive benefits, except for those with serious disabilities and very young children.

To pay for this extension of eligibility to financial support to the 440,000 young NEETs who currently receive no benefit (or incentive to engage in learning or work) and the 260,000 who are in (non-HE) study but not in work or already claiming a benefit, access to the youth allowance should be means tested on the basis of parental income until young people are over 21, mirroring the rules governing the university maintenance grant. In other words, a redistribution towards young people in low income families to help prepare them for work – drawing on the evidence from the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which boosted educational participation among disadvantaged teenagers.

The second plank of the reform is to establish a youth guarantee that offers young people access to further education or vocational training plus intensive support to find work or an apprenticeship. For those not learning or earning after six months, paid work experience or a paid traineeships should be provided, to place an upper limit on the period young people can be inactive or unemployed. Unlike the current system of benefits and support, a youth guarantee of this kind would be directed towards the two things that really make a difference to young people’s chances of building a career: completing their initial education and gaining practical employment experience.

To pay for this substantial expansion of provision for young people, expenditure on 18–24-year-olds in the Work Programme should be re-directed, along with adult skills and apprenticeship funding for over-24s. When public spending is tight, the priority for the state should be to focus resources on giving young people the best possible chance of improving their skills and getting a job. Consistent with a 'social investment' strategy, the political goal should be to shift spending over time from paying benefits to young people because they haven’t got skills and work – and instead investing in them so they do.

Third, and finally, these structural shifts should be combined with a major act of institutional reform. The government should set national objectives and priorities for the youth guarantee, but local areas should organise and deliver it. Decentralisation should start with London and the eight 'core cities' in England taking on resources and responsibility for their young people. These cities should establish governance arrangements, including a key role for employers, plus plans for commissioning a diverse network of local providers. Finally, to increase opportunity for young people and drive employer engagement in this new system, large firms should be offered the choice of offering youth apprenticeships themselves, or paying a dedicated 'youth levy' to train and prepare the future workforce, with resources controlled by employers via the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

Youth unemployment is probably the most visible and damaging consequence of recession – and politicians of all parties will seek to demonstrate they have an answer. Too often in the past, this area has been bedevilled by initiatives that fail to get to the root of the problem. As the next election approaches, we need a plan for substantial reform that would mean all young people are learning or earning.

Unemployed brothers Andrew and Jonathan Courtman in Corby Town Centre on April 24, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.