It was almost exactly 18 months ago that I became the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on youth employment, taking over from the indomitable Chloe Smith MP, a doughty campaigner for young people. Whilst she was in charge, we renamed the APPG from youth unemployment to the rather more positive and optimistic title it holds today.
As chairman of the APPG, I remain unrelentingly positive about the promise and potential that young people have. With hard work and an inner drive, there should be no limits to their aims and ambitions. Likewise, our bold aim as a country, our moral mission even, should be to eradicate long-term youth unemployment. But our mission as a society should not be just about driving down youth unemployment from its historically high levels, worthy though that aim is. We must also show that we do so because we care for each individual young person as a unique human being, dare I say it, made in the image of God.
What is the modern, compassionate and Conservative response to the needs of young people? Received wisdom has it that young people are attracted to Jeremy Corbyn and his offer as set out in Labour’s manifesto. Undoubtedly there is some truth in this. But with youth unemployment within touching distance of its lowest level since comparable records began, and with it peaking as the coalition took over from Labour, it is odd that so little credit accrues to the Conservative Party.
Driving down youth unemployment is insufficient in and of itself to make us attractive to young people. We have to be explicit with our Conservative offer and with our vision, which must be of opportunity and of aspiration.
Those furthest from the labour market
There is no better place to start than with those furthest from the labour market and those who struggle to get a fair first start. Let me introduce the report from the youth employment APPG, which was compiled with the help of our secretariat Youth Employment UK (YEUK); with the wisdom of organisations who have attended our events such as Talent Match and City Year UK; and with the insight of charities who have responded to our call for evidence such as the Prince’s Trust and Leonard Cheshire.
The evidence suggests that young people who are furthest from the labour market often have at least one or more significant barrier to employment. These include: disability, mental health issues, low education attainment, homelessness, care leavers, carers, a criminal record and low aspirations. Without first overcoming these barriers, young people cannot be expected to make good and sustained progress into employment, education or training.
To achieve this end, personalised support is a crucial factor. This may include a keyworker, non-formal training, or supported work experience.
And this is where I introduce Waverley House. Waverley House is in my constituency in Dorset, is run by Bournemouth Churches Housing Association (BCHA), and offers housing and support services for socially excluded 16-24 year olds. Mentors, known as keyworkers at BCHA, are integral to the positive outcomes achieved at Waverley House. This stable, adult relationship is so often missing as young people grow up today.
Most young people referred to the project have had no boundaries or stable relationships with important adults in their lives. Naturally this can mean that they are reluctant to discuss what has been traumatic and chaotic. But they learn that it is better to be open about mental health issues, lack of education, family breakdown and drug and alcohol misuse; and that this enables a keyworker at Waverley House to put relevant support in place for them from the minute they begin living there.
Keyworkers can help with budgeting and benefit advice, and with life skills such as cooking, cleaning and food shopping. Then there are job applications, CVs, lifts to and from appointments, interview practice.
Let me tell you about one particular resident. I will call her Jane. Jane is a peer mentor, who is supporting Waverley House’s youngest residents through their GCSE year. Coming from an incredibly difficult background herself, Jane has worked hard with her own keyworker to achieve some great successes herself – an apprenticeship no less – and she now wants to support others the way she herself has been supported.
Ultimately, consistency of support is critical. All young people require a stable home, guidance and consistent boundaries from supportive adults. Keyworkers give this in abundance even during the most challenging of times. It is true that Waverley House is small scale, but this is part of what helps it work. The results show that the staff at Waverley House are clearly doing something right. Peer mentoring should be rolled out across the country.
Giving the next generation hope
As we move from the specific example of Waverley House, how can this be translated into policy across the country? We are an aspirational nation, and this is highlighted most by the energy and vigour of our young people. Their drive and potential is huge. They rightly want the opportunity to build a brighter future and it is our job as parliamentarians to enable them to fulfil that promise. This is why we must redouble our efforts to give young people the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career and build a better future for themselves and their families.
Our offer should ensure that young people have the opportunities and experiences, and acquire the necessary skills, to build a career in the fast-changing modern labour market.
It should also ensure that there is individual and tailored support. The example of Waverley House shines through. Not all are successful. But all are treated as unique human beings, and our national policies should aspire to that ideal.