Today the Prime Minister announced his aspiration to ‘abolish’ youth unemployment. No doubt many from across the political spectrum can agree that this is an admirable sentiment, even if they may differ on how it can be achieved. From Labour’s ‘jobs guarantee’, to the Conservative’s proposed ‘youth allowance’, there is now a growing consensus that government must act to prevent young people leaving school for a life on the dole.
For one group of young people this is currently a very distant goal. Yesterday many rightly hailed the record number of children being adopted, for which this Government must take great credit. However, we also learnt something extremely worrying about the rest of children in the care system, who are always going to be the majority. Ten thousand children leave care every year. For the first time we now know that one third of this group remains persistently NEET aged 19, 20 and 21. That is double the national average.
Although the Government has done much for care leavers in recent years, notably allowing those in foster care to ‘stay put’ until 21 rather than 18, sadly aspirations for this group of young people remain far too low. Local authorities are meant to act as ‘corporate parents’ to those making the transition from care. Any good parent would hope their child would be in education or employment in their late teens. Yet, as the CSJ exposed in our report Survival of the Fittest?, they often encourage a culture of benefit dependency. Many help children in care enrol for JSA before their eighteenth birthday, but provide inadequate support for them to find a job. We have spoken to care leavers who have, as a result, felt that signing on was their only option.
Even when this is not the case, far too little is being done to replicate the support a good parent would provide for a young person starting out in the world of work. As a result, certain paths, available to most young people, are hugely challenging for those who have been in care. For example, many local authorities do not support care leavers to subsist on the low wages of an apprenticeship. Some care leavers find that getting necessary small sums of money from their local authority, to travel to an interview for example, can be almost impossible.
Meanwhile, DWP has shown admirable commitment to care leavers by offering (voluntary) early access to the Work Programme. But on the ground some care leavers find that JCP staff do not understand their complex personal problems, or appreciate that they may have no support network to fall back on if they are sanctioned. The results can be disastrous.
Whatever programmes are implemented in this Parliament or the next, more support is needed for those to whom the state has the greatest responsibility. Otherwise any commitment to tackle youth unemployment will remain a hollow one.