The Lib Dems must make tackling long-term youth unemployment their mission

It is a moral duty as well as an economic necessity to do all we can to ensure that all young people are the best educated and well resourced in the world.

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.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage