Are young people suffering under a conservative government? Not according to Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock who said it last week that it was an ‘active policy decision’ to exclude the under-25s from the new National Living Wage. Mr. Hancock continued to add that:
Youth unemployment, whilst falling quite sharply, is still a long way above the unemployment rate for the over 25s
– and so the solution is to maintain the old, lower National Minimum Wage rates for the under 25s.
This is most likely borne out of the idea that introducing a Living Wage across all employees will increase unemployment, but that is a very simple assumption to make. Big firms would be unwilling to, but wouldn’t be unable to pay a Living Wage – so it wouldn’t create much extra unemployment; where it may cause issues is in small firms who may not have the means to afford paying a living wage to its employees. But, if anything, it may reduce unemployment by indirectly increasing demand for labour. Sadly, though, like a handful of other Conservative policies concerning young people, there appears to be a lot of smoke and mirrors about the intention of these policies.
Take the scrapping of Housing Benefit for unemployed 18-21 year olds, which removes an important safety net for many young people. Now, I can understand the idea of using the removal of benefits as an incentive for young people to be either ‘earning or learning’ and that is what the Conservatives are (sort of) doing by merging housing benefit with other benefits to form a Universal Credit – with a youth obligation to enter an apprenticeship/enter work. The only problem is universal credit will be paid monthly, as opposed to weekly/fortnightly. This would cause issues with budgeting, and, as if young people on low incomes are struggling enough already to stretch any benefits they receive, this problem will worsen – which may cause problems with juggling bills, rent etc. Nice idea in principle, but flawed. They could just cut Housing Benefit but add the Youth Obligation to it, avoiding change for change’s sake.
This is not the only example of financial help for young people being slashed or changed in some way. Also outlined in July’s Budget was an intention to cut maintenance grants for students from low-income families, and convert them into loans – the reason being that George Osborne said the grants had become “unaffordable”. Right, so they’re converting them to loans so they can recoup the costs back; not forgetting many students fail to pay back their loans in full – so that may prove to be another futile measure. But not all Conservative measures have been, or look to be, futile – the rise in tuition fees in 2010, while deeply unpopular and shackling many graduates with, what is effectively a higher graduate tax, that will be harder to pay off, has fuelled a rise in university places and subsequent university expansions to accommodate this. And, at least repayments begin after graduation, without having to faff around with hefty upfront payments whilst studying.
Having said this, targeting young people as a source of cuts is nothing new (e.g. the scrapping for EMA for sixth formers in 2010) and will continue until the Conservatives have reached their targets for deficit reduction.
Unfortunately, that means that it won’t just be young people who will suffer, but millions of other people who will find themselves shackled by the draconian ‘Osbornomics’. Admittedly, this is not the biggest concern regarding young people. We’ve spoken about 18-25 year olds, the cutting of Housing Benefit, effects on unemployment etc, but what about the root of the issue? Why are even talking about youth unemployment amongst this age group – is it that people are leaving school without the relevant qualifications, and what will be done about this?
Well, widespread reforms across the education system, drafted up by former Education Secretary Michael Gove, look set to shake things up. The most notable changes are the introduction of an EBacc at GCSE (English, Maths, Science, History/Geography and a language) to help raise standards and provide ‘rigorous’ teaching. It sounds all well and good, but what does ‘rigorous’ mean – an increase in the quantity of exams or the difficulty of them? Either way, it could provide an opportunity to stretch the most able students, but as for the less able students, well that’s uncertain. If they don’t achieve the grades they need, what other options are available for them? They can’t be left on the unemployment scrapheap unable to secure an apprenticeship; which would perhaps raise the argument for a second qualification, similar to the old vocational CSE, to provide a direct route into an apprenticeship after completing the qualification, something which could go hand-in-hand with their new Youth Obligation/Universal Credit scheme. That said, going back to something resembling the CSEs, last taken in the 1980s, would represent a backward step, given the Conservatives introduced GCSEs in the first place.
There is plenty here for the Conservatives to ponder, and about whether they could be walking into an own goal by leaving many young people in the lurch. The local elections next year, and the General Election in 5 years, will give clearer indications on the impact these policies have had or will have amongst young voters. Time will tell.