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19 June 2014

Thursday 19 June

I spent this morning with Shadow Minister for Small Businesses and Enterprise, Chuka Umunna, visiting our Build-it project. This programme helps young unemployed people from his Lambeth constituency and across south London to develop the skills and networks for a career in construction. They are provided with practical work experience with contractors on regeneration projects, industry specific qualifications and personalised one to one support from a youth worker to overcome any barriers they face to getting into work. Meanwhile they are volunteering to make practical improvements to the estates where they live.

As the local MP for Streatham, Chuka knows the area incredibly well, and is familiar with some of the challenges the young people that Build-it works with face. He and I talked about the importance of good youth work, and its value to young people in providing challenge and support to them to help navigate through the challenges of teenage years and young adulthood.

We also talked about Labour’s plans for changing the benefits system for young people which Party Leader, Ed Miliband announced earlier today. The thrust of these changes are aimed at reducing entitlement to JSA for 18-21 year olds and replacing it with a means-tested training and employment allowance, which is conditional upon them working towards qualifications.

It is a policy which potentially has some merits, since (as Chuka explained) it will – if implemented – remove the current 16 hour barrier which limits young people from volunteering or doing part-time work above that number of hours or risk losing their benefits. And it is also aimed at stimulating training and re-engagement, which at its heart is of course a good thing.

But from our experience of working with young people who are on JSA or outside of the benefits system altogether, I certainly don’t think it offers us a whole solution.

Talking to the young people on Build-it and the delivery team who work with them every day, as well as the mentors who help them learn new skills, it was apparent that while some of their challenges in finding work were about a lack of qualifications, that is certainly not the only issue. In fact, lots of young people on employability programmes have Level 2 or Level 3 or equivalent qualifications. Others even have degrees. But they can all still face barriers from a lack of experience; or that their qualifications aren’t relevant for what employers are looking for; or that they face other challenges in their lives which are stopping them from re-engaging in training or education.

Using our learning from Build-it, we’ve also developed our newest youth-led employability programme, Talent Match London, which is working to engage young people furthest from the employment market, with known barriers including disabilities, a history of offending or being a carer.

What makes programmes like Build-it work (so far over a third of the 600 young people who have been through the programme have gone into work, and another third into education) is not only the skills training and qualifications that the young people achieve, but critically the personalised, one-to-one support they get in helping them to manage their lives, grow their own confidence and resilience, take on some of their personal challenges and so become genuinely ready for work.

I couldn’t find anywhere in Labour’s announcement today of a commitment to supporting these things, even though most MPs from all parties that I have met – including Chuka – seem to whole-heartedly appreciate that these are vital elements for some young people and their development. Through Build-it, and Talent Match London, this is being delivered through a strategic partnership working with a wide range of voluntary sector partners. London Youth and others are looking to change the way employability services work. We all want them to  start with the needs of young people; offer one-to-one support where it is needed; engage employers from the start; and lead to the development of real transferrable skills for young people. We don’t know all of the answers yet, but we’ve already learned that while qualifications are important, they are only a part of what young people need.

As all parties begin seriously gearing up for next year’s General Election and thinking about their various policies in more detail, today’s announcement is likely to the first of many about youth unemployment and young people more generally. So I hope we will hear more going forwards about the kind of approach that we think works.

But in addition to the content of the policy, perhaps the thing I hope for most is that all parties think about how they make their arguments clear through the media. A very disappointing thing about today’s announcement was not necessarily what was in the policy – which while flawed has some merit – but the way it was presented. Both the Guardian and the BBC led with the news that this was a response to opinion polls that said Labour are felt to be soft on benefits, immediately reinforcing the negative narrative surrounding young people. That cannot be the way youth policy is framed in the run-up to the next election if parties want to show themselves to be progressive and working in the best interest of all people. Especially if we want to see more young people getting involved and voting!

Let’s hope that future discussion of what might help support young people can not only be more rounded in policy terms, but also be presented in a positive rather than a negative light.