This weekend, I spent a long time on the doorstep just talking to people about what was happening in the lives of their family.
The biggest single issue was employment. Nearly every household had someone who was worried about their job security, or had someone who was out of work already, or had a young person about to leave education – at 16, 18 or 21 after higher education – who was really worried that they wouldn’t be able to get a job.
Quite often, older family members took me back to the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher, faced with unemployment rocketing up beyond 3 million people, ended the obligation to work if you could. That government said ‘unemployment was a price worth paying’. The result was high unemployment that lingered for years.
Last month, the Office of National Statistics reported that the number of 16-24 year olds out of work is now at its highest point since April 1992. Youth unemployment has increased by 70,000 in the last 6 months.
At the moment, the dramatic rise in unemployment is overwhelmingly affecting the poorest areas – in Sheffield, the increase in unemployment in David Blunkett’s constituency was twenty times the increase in Nick Clegg’s constituency and there are more than ten unemployed people looking for work for every vacancy. So much for sharing the pain fairly.
Yet, whilst unemployment soars and growth is sluggish the government is hitting young people with a triple whammy: jobs cuts, the removal of education maintenance allowances and a tripling of tuition fees. Without work and study, what are they supposed to do?
A report, written by Barnsley Council Leader Steve Houghton, led to the establishment of the Future Jobs Fund which would have created up to 200,000 full time paid jobs for young people up and down the country. But, the government has now scrapped this programme.
All this will have a significant impact on the life chances of our young people and store up considerable problems for the future. The Government’s ‘Big Society’ programme offers no hope either, as 75% of youth charities are cutting projects.
These policies need to change quickly if we are to stop this becoming first a youth unemployment crisis and then, inevitably, a longer-term crisis for many communities.