This is a time for action on jobs, not self-congratulation

The government have stopped acting on youth unemployment - and it's on the increase


The publication of yesterday’s labour market statistics was the cue for the usual round of self congratulatory statements from ministers. It clearly is a good thing that – by contrast to the first three years of the current parliament, when there was almost no growth at all – the economy is now growing.

But ministers’ self-congratulation is ill-advised. You don’t have to spend long going through the tables published today to identify serious problems.

In particular, long term unemployment remains historically high. Getting back into work when you have been out of work for a long time is very difficult – and the longer the period of unemployment, the harder it is.

The current Work Programme is clearly under-powered for the task. We need much bolder support for the long term unemployed, before it is too late for a whole cohort of people who lost their jobs after the global crisis hit.

Today’s figures also highlight continuing high youth unemployment. Although the ministers’ statements didn’t mention it, youth unemployment went up, to 764,000.

Youth unemployment has now risen compared with the previous month for three months in a row. This month – for the first time since mid 2013 – it is higher than three months ago. And the increase is the highest jump for almost two years.

The problems facing young people have been partly hidden by the overall decline in unemployment. In fact, the relative position of young people – compared with older jobseekers – has worsened steadily since the election. Youth unemployment was 2.5 times overall unemployment at the election, but the multiple has risen steadily – to 2.8 times last month and 2.9 times this month.

In Germany, the rate of unemployment among young people is hardly any greater than the overall rate. The picture in Britain is very different, and getting worse.  Everyone can see how bad this is for our economic prospects – the CBI makes the point, for example, that ‘more must be done to resolve the underlying structural challenges that make it hard for young people to make a smooth transition into the workplace’.

And yet the current government is doing less. They had a “’Youth Contract’ offering ‘wage incentives’ to employers taking on unemployed young people. It was a half-hearted version of Labour’s ‘Job Guarantee’ proposal – the small minority of employers who were aware of it found it confusing. 

Take up was about a tenth of the level predicted, and it was quietly scrapped early last summer. That was exactly the moment when youth unemployment started to go back up. Ministers were giving up just when they needed to start doing more. The Youth Contract was a costly flop, and another example of Tory Welfare Waste.

Every other European Union member state is introducing some form of youth guarantee. Mr Duncan Smith assured his counterparts the UK had no need to do so. He was mistaken.

When issuing their self-congratulatory statements, ministers are always careful to add that ‘more remains to be done’. That is true – but they are not planning to do any more.

We can use this recovery to extend opportunity to young people, and to large numbers of others denied opportunity for far too long. In that way we can harness much more of the economic potential of people who – with support – could get over the barriers keeping them out of work today. But it will require new initiatives like Labour’s Compulsory Job Guarantee.

The current government’s tired approach – a seemingly ever increasing use of sanctions at jobcentres; referring them, if that doesn’t work, to the under-powered Work Programme – has run its course. It’s time for a change. It’s time for Labour.

Stephen Timms is the shadow minister for Employment. Follow him on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.