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Here's one group you won't hear from in tonight's debates

The youngest and the poorest are being shut out of the election

This week, the election got underway with much fanfare  about the ‘most closely ever’ contested campaign, and both David Cameron & Ed Miliband warning dramatically from the campaign trail that a ‘stark choice’ and ‘two futures’ lie ahead for the electorate. There’s onegroup of voters, however, for whom this portrait of a vibrant democracy at work could not be further from the truth.

Over the past few months Barnardo’s has been asking the vulnerable young people that it works with how they feel about the forthcoming election.

“Politics is for richer, older people”, is one comment we’ve heard repeatedly, along with ‘they’re all the same’, and followed depressingly by “why should I even vote?”. The sad reality is that for this group of voters, who are young, largely on welfare and facing difficulties finding work, there has been very, very little announced so far in the way of political offering that would be likely to change their minds.

They are, for example, exactly the group who’ll be ignored by Labour’s pledge today of 80,000 ‘youth apprenticeships’ -  but only for those academically privileged enough to have two A Levels. Similarly, they are the voters who’ll be hit hardest by the Conservative Party’s recent proposals to make unemployed 18-21 year olds ‘do community service’ or lose benefits. 

The idea that all school leavers face a stark choice between fecklessness & employment, punishment and reward, is an enduring political theme. It’s a simple moral narrative that’s changed little since the 1982 call to get ‘On Yer Bike’, and has re-surfaced in the run-up to this election in the welter of proposals from across the political spectrum which aim to restrict the young from claiming benefits.

Yet, for most young people, this notion is hopelessly outdated and untrue.

Over the past twenty years the labour market has undergone a fundamental shift. At the bottom end of the market, a proliferation of part time & zero-hours contracts have left job insecurity increasingly the new norm for the lowest paid. At the top end high level positions are also on the increase, whilst jobs are fast disappearing at mid-level.

Young people have been particularly disadvantaged by the new ‘hour glass economy’. Lacking skills and experience, they are twice as likely as older people to be in part-time or zero-hours work. They bore the brunt of the last recession, carrying double the burden of unemployment than their proportion in the labour force. Even now, worklessness remains stubbornly high.

For the disadvantaged people Barnardo’s works with, it's a struggle to even get a foot on the bottom rung of the career ladder. One young woman told us that she had applied for ‘about 100’ jobs in the space of a week without a single call back, because she didn’t have the qualifications or experience.

Whilst youth unemployment hasn’t gone under the radar of the political establishment, the solutions on offer often simply don’t work for the most marginalised.

Apprenticeships, for example, have been offered as a panacea by successive Governments, spurring a 77% rise in placements in just three years (2009 – 2012).  Yet whilst the number of older people on apprenticeships trebled in this time, amongst 16-18 year olds it has fallen.

There's a commonly held idea that apprenticeships offer a leg up for a young person who isn’t academic. The reality is that young people cannot even get on an apprenticeship unless they have achieved good (A-Cgrade)GCSEs. Placements are often offered to people who are already in work.

It’s sadly unsurprising then that young people from our London service only knew one person who’d managed to get on a good apprenticeship.  A young man who’d left school with two GCSEs explained that “we apply for apprentice ships all the time, but just don’t have the qualifications”.

Meanwhile those who try to gain  crucial qualifications through college or university, often tell us that they simply can’t afford it.

One young care leaver told us that she had started a graphic design course, but had to drop it after she was told she couldn’t claim benefits and study. Without parents to fall back on for accommodation, she told us, she had no other choice.

Following the abolition of the old ‘Education Maintenance Allowance’ hardship grants – and its replacement with a ‘Bursary Fund’ a third of the size - many students tell us they struggle even to pay the day-to cost of study such as food and bus fare.

These issues have been well documented by organisations like Barnardo’s. Despite this, neither of the two largest political parties has committed to providing either adequate financial support to allow the most disadvantaged to study, or appropriate routes into work.

I would like to see the next Government introduce a ‘Skills suitcase’, that will help every young person to fulfil their potential. This includes increasing education hardship funding for the poorest, so that lack of money is no longer a barrier to study.

They also need to completely overhaul vocational training in this country to ensure that places go to the people who most need them. They can start by reclaiming apprenticeships as something primarily for the under 25s.

To impose punitive sanctions on young people without taking these measures is to throw them out of a plane without a parachute. A Government that does this, sends young people the life-long message that the political system works against them, giving them no reason to take part.

To borrow a phrase from David Cameron, democracy is a two way street. The political establishment now needs to prove it is willing to get ‘on its bike’ and represent young people. Or, they will walk away from the election booth entirely, and that will punish us all.

Javed Khan is CEO of Barnardo's. He tweets at @JavedKhanCEO.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.