Speech: the Government must tackle youth unemployment

Lord McFall’s speech on youth unemployment in the House of Lords.
Read this speech in Hansard, Parliament’s official publication.

John McFall, Lord McFall of Alcluith

My Lords, I am privileged to participate in this debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Adonis on his compelling and lucid exposition of the problem and the way forward. As my noble friend Lord Giddens said, this is a complex problem, and we have to see it in the wider context of inequality and global unemployment. According to ILO figures, there are 75 million unemployed people aged between 18 and 25. The first thing the Government should do is to look again at growth. That has been missing from this agenda, and it is very important that we look at it.

There have been recessions in the 1980s, the 1990s and now. After each recession, youth unemployment went up, but since this recession youth unemployment-those without work and not in education-has increased by 232,000. Mention has been made of the Labour Government’s target to eliminate child poverty by 2020. That was not fully achieved, but the figures today show that 900,000 young people have been taken out of poverty. That is a cause for some celebration, but there is much to do. I suggest that the Government copy the Labour Government’s 2020 target for child poverty by having a similar target for youth unemployment. The first priority should be to reduce it to pre-recession levels using jobcentres. The Labour Government used jobcentres, when they were revamped, very well to get people into employment. Establishing a youth employment and skills service would be very important in that area.

The Government need to be mindful of the welfare cuts of £2 billion that took place on Good Friday this year. There has been talk of an extra £10 billion of welfare cuts. It is very important that the Minister says that that will not happen, because the cuts that have taken place have already affected low-income families and people looking for jobs. Today’s Daily Telegraph reports the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions saying: “Get a job, IDS tells parents on dole; Working at least 35 hours a week is only way to lift children out of poverty”. We agree, so we are looking for government proposals to see how that is done. The overriding message today has to be that it is not the private sector that is going to do this. We are facing massive deleveraging. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, this recession is going to take many years to sort out. We are talking about a decade or more, so a government initiative and an active welfare state are very important.

The Government could illustrate their commitment on that by ensuring that each government department-indeed, each government Minister-has a number of such young people. If the Prime Minister were seen coming out of Downing Street into his car with a couple of young unemployed people behind him, it would send a powerful visual message that the Government were taking this issue very seriously. A Minister for Young People, particularly unemployed young people, is very important.

Education has been mentioned. Education is the way forward. I left school at 15 or 16. My second chance came by going back to night school, then to further education and then to university. For me, that was the pathway forward. It was my salvation. We cannot emphasise enough the need for education. The suggestions that have been made to the Minister today should be taken very seriously. We should use further education colleges, particularly in the technical skills areas and local areas, to foster that extra employment for young people. Above all, the economy needs to be rebalanced. There is a growing north-south divide. I know that from representing an area where employment has consistently been relatively high. I suggest that there are still lessons to be learnt from the Mittelstand in Germany and from the Fraunhofer Institute about how they integrate manufacturing and education. A lot could be made of that issue.

We are establishing a forgotten and invisible generation, particularly those without skills or qualifications. I saw that when I was a deputy head teacher in the 1970s in Glasgow. I was put in charge of a truancy unit, as it was called, for children who did not come to school. They were demotivated at such an early age. They were alienated, and it was very difficult to get them to engage. The message is that we should not give up. We need a more intensive approach in education. My noble friend Lord Adonis made a number of very valuable suggestions on education, which I think the Minister has taken on.

As a former teacher, I have also seen the long-term effects when young people leave school alienated and disillusioned. It has been my sad experience to meet some former pupils 10 or more years later. They have a partner or a wife and children, but when you ask them about their job, they say they have never had one. Between 18 and 25 are the precious six or seven years. Experience and statistics show that if we do not get young people at that time, we have possibly lost them for life. That is the message that we have to address today. The overriding question is how we address the insecurity in society. As the right reverend Prelate said, our generation feels that the next generation will not have the same chances. I suggest that economic progress and social stability go hand in hand and, if we do not tackle youth unemployment with vigour, we are destroying the future not only for young people in this generation but for all in society.

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