Liberal Democrats can be rightly proud of a number of things we’ve achieved in government, from taking millions of low-paid workers out of income tax and re-linking pensions to earnings, to helping children from low-income families via the Pupil Premium and introducing Equal Marriage. But it’s also true that some of our former voters have lost faith with us over some of the other things we’ve signed up to and we need to regain their trust.
We need to do that by setting out a clear vision of a Liberal Democrat Britain and what we would seek to do if given a further period of office. I believe the next great mission for the Liberal Democrats is clear. To give hope and the prospects of a brighter future to all of our young people.
Last week’s report by the Prince’s Trust, talking about the effects of long-term unemployment on young people, made for devastating reading. For those of us with a special interest in youth policy, it provides a salutary reminder- if one were needed - that the faltering economic recovery we are now starting to see has yet to be felt in many areas and by many people. The talents, enthusiasm and abilities of our young people are the best resource we have in our country. The country we’re building today- both its opportunities and its problems -will be inherited by them. It is, therefore, a moral duty as well as an economic necessity, to do all we can to ensure that all young people -whatever their background or current circumstances - are the best educated and well resourced in the world.
For its annual Youth Index, the Princes Trust interviewed 2,000 young people and their findings need not only to make national headlines - as they did last week- but also to ring alarm bells at the highest levels of both local and national government. They should be seen as a national emergency. The report states that almost a million young people are struggling to find a job across the UK, and that 40% of jobless young people have faced symptoms of mental illness as a result of being out of work.
It quotes a young lady, called Afsana, who says "I was unemployed for nearly three years. Being out of work stripped away my self-worth and I became severely depressed." It finds that one in three long-term unemployed young people have contemplated suicide and more than a quarter have experienced panic attacks. So providing new and better opportunities for young people is not only important for our country’s economic future but also for the wellbeing of the next generation.
Of course long-term youth unemployment is, tragically, nothing new. It has been steadily rising under successive governments but none have successfully, in a sustained way, addressed the problem. It has to be said, when it comes to the present coalition, that’s not for the want of trying. Thanks to Lib Dems being in government, the Youth Contract was introduced. Launched in April 2012, it will provide nearly half-a-million new opportunities for 18-to-24-year-olds, including apprenticeships and voluntary work experience placements. The scheme also marks a substantial increase in the support and help available to young people and offers potential financial incentives to firms that take on young people through JobCentre Plus or other government initiatives.
This is clearly a step in the right direction, but there has been some criticism of the Youth Contract not having had the take-up it should have done by now, so clearly there is work still to do in terms of getting the message out there to those who need to hear it most. Something else this government has done to make it easier for businesses to take on young people is to abolish employer National Insurance contributions for employees under 21 years of age. And, under the coalition, there has been a substantial rise in the number of apprenticeships being offered to young people and moves to make it much simpler for employers to take on apprentices.
Each of these is a substantial step forward and shouldn’t be underestimated. However, that much more needs to be done is clearly undeniable. Two specific things I, personally, would like to see happen are as follows. Firstly, a return to mandatory face-to-face Careers Advice in schools. Ofsted recently found that around 75% of schools are failing to provide adequate careers advice to students.
Due to changes forced through by Michael Gove, schools themselves are now responsible for arranging careers advice for year 9 to 11 pupils, after the regrettable disbanding of Connexions in 2012, it no longer has to be face-to-face. Ofsted’s report, published in September last year, stated that, "...too few schools are providing careers guidance that meets the needs of all their students." It went on, "Very few of the (sixty) schools visited knew how to provide a service effectively or had the skills and expertise needed to provide a comprehensive service. Few schools had purchased an adequate service from external sources." And, "The information students received about careers was too narrow. Too many students were unaware of the wide range of occupations and careers they might consider."
This clearly needs to change and quickly. We need to make sure that further education, vocational qualifications and apprenticeships are given the same level of priority as potential options for young people as is going to university.
And, secondly, that no young person is just abandoned to their fate. I’ve seen media reports and heard first-hand that - if they break certain rules put in place by the government through the Job Centre- then so-called NEETs (young people not in employment, education or training) are denied Jobseeker's Allowance and end up not being on any government list, not monitored, helped and so on.
Now, of course, we all have to take responsibility for our own behaviour in our lives and if we break rules there are always consequences, but the state should never just turn its back on young people. There must always be a lifeline, a chance for a young person who might have taken the wrong path to make a turning and have a chance of fulfilling their potential and becoming a productive member of society.
Our economy will not properly recover until we’ve got the scourge of youth unemployment not only under control, but put into reverse. Unemployment is never "a price worth paying." For the sake of a whole generation - and ones to come - we need to make tackling long-term youth unemployment a national mission. One that should be led by the Liberal Democrats.