Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) made grim reading. According to ONS, the number of young people without a job rose to 993,000, taking the youth unemployment rate to 21.2% nationally. The vast majority of commentators believe that youth unemployment will top the 1 million mark again sooner rather than later. The real significance of this, of course, is the fact that youth unemployment isn’t just something that affects us in the here and now, but which blights communities for generations to come. Up here in the North East, this is something we understand only too well. One of the biggest issues for the region has been the struggle to recover from the Thatcher-engineered mass unemployment of the 1980’s, which left so many of its young people permanently outside the job market, and with few prospects of improving their situation without leaving the North East.
Youth unemployment in the North East now stands at almost 51,000, equating to nearly one-in-four of 16-24 year olds in the region (24.8%). Even more worrying, there is evidence that the Government’s austerity measures are taking us back to the dark days of those Thatcher Governments with regards to long-term youth unemployment. In October, the TUC published analysis of the latest jobless figures which showed that long-term youth unemployment in the North East had jumped to 27,600, an increase of 17% since the Government came to power in 2010. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the trajectory of this Government, support for young unemployed people has headed in the opposite direction (down 26% on the commitments made by the last Labour Government under their “Youth Guarantee”). These cuts in support equal a cut of £270.58 per young person claiming JSA, across all regions. Combined with the axing of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the hike in tuition fees and the proposed scrapping of housing benefit for the under 25s, this toxic mix of cuts are making it much harder for young people to get on and find decent long-term work. In a flooded labour market, young people are often left vying for the few entry-level and low-skilled jobs that there are with the recently unemployed and the “underemployed” created by austerity. In the North East, it is estimated that there are on average 7.5 jobseekers per vacancy. In Hartlepool, the figure jumps to 11 unemployed people for each available role. It is a recipe for a disaster.
The Coalition’s response has been woeful. The Work Programme is now in tatters. MPs on the Public Accounts Committee dismissed it as “extremely poor” after it managed to move just one in 28 people off benefits and into a job – and of course it has been mired in controversy following the workfare scandal. The Youth Contract, based on diminishing funds and the voluntarism of employers, is heading in a similar direction. It is becoming increasingly obvious that it too amounts to another fig leaf to mask unemployment and to encourage unpaid or extremely poorly paid work. What is needed, of course, is the creation of decent, well-paid work for young people. While Labour’s commitment to a jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed is a start, we also need a commitment to sustainable work and well-paid, quality jobs in our regions. That will mean investment in public transport, green industry and skills development, none of which is possible while the party’s hands are tied by the fiscal doctrines of austerity. If we are going to break the vicious cycle of youth unemployment in regions like the North East, the Labour Party will need to be economically bold. There really is no time to waste.
This article was originally published in Labour Briefing. To subscribe, go to http://www.labourbriefing.org.uk/