Yesterday was a depressing day on the economy. Unlike the constant gloom from the Eurozone, the latest unemployment figures felt very immediate and close to home. An extra 63,000 unemployed young people aged 18-25 was a worse increase than I had feared and raises the worries that once again we will have a generation scarred by long term unemployment.
I was able to take my anger to the Lords chamber and challenge Lord Freud thanks to the foresight of Lord Peston in tabling a question on youth unemployment a month ago. As the last employment minister, I had passed on to my successor falling unemployment; finally increasing participation in education and the Future Jobs Fund we’re having an effect. Depressingly, the lessons have not been learned and unemployment has now risen for the last eight months – preceding the Eurozone crisis (see Larry Elliot’s excellent article in today’s Guardian).
Talking about the scarring effect on young people is nothing compared to going and talking to them about their situation. Today I went to Portsmouth in my capacity as Patron of You, a trust providing supported accommodation and housing services along the south coast. You manage a hostel for young people in the City and I spent what was both an inspirational and depressing hour or so there today.
The manager and her staff provide a temporary home for twenty five 16-25 year olds. They stay for an average of three months before moving on, often to the local Foyer. Staff do a wonderful job with what can be challenging tenants. They provide more than a safe place to live but food, employment and learning support, independent living skills, mentoring and help with move on accommodation. A chat with her and two outreach staff was very revealing.
First is the consequences of the “Southwark judgement”. It appears that this means that any 16 year old is now entitled to present themselves to the local council and be treated as a “looked after child” if they’ve been kicked out of home. As a consequence kids are turning up on their sixteenth birthday and taking priority for any vacancies. The hostel is now having to turn away increasing numbers of 18-25 year olds who are ending up on the streets, with all the social consequences that follow.
The residents, by and large, try their best to make a success of things whilst living at the hostel and claiming benefits. In the last year things have got much tougher. Jobcentre Plus are now much more likely to impose sanctions on their benefits and ignore the appeals of staff. For example one resident had an interview that coincided with his signing on time. He went early to explain he couldn’t make the signing on time and was told it wouldn’t be a problem to come back later and sign on. He asked for something to say that this would be OK and was reassured it would be fine. He came back later and, despite his protestations, suffered a six week sanction. No money for six weeks. The hostel had to feed him from what resources they could muster. Another applied for five kitchen porter jobs in the fortnight but missed one being advertised at the Jobcentre. He suffered a similar sanction.
It is as if Jobcentre Plus staff have a target to reduce the costs through sanctioning.
Then there is the problem of residents on full time courses at college who pass their 19th birthday. At that point they have to pay for their course and Jobcentre Plus requires them to actively seek work full time. They have to give up on their course however well they are doing and however close they are to completing it.
The other thing that is changed is the challenge of getting a permanent home. I met a young lad of around twenty. Articulate and confident, he appeared to have a lot going for him. He’d been at the hostel and then the Foyer for the last couple of years. He was waiting for an operation on his arm at the end of the month. He too had suffered a sanction for not applying for a building job even though his doctor had written to say he couldn’t do building work until after the operation. He was also looking for a rented flat. He’s got the deposit, but now the housing benefit rules have changed. He has to now share to qualify for getting his rent paid and most landlords don’t want numbers of young people so they say no one on benefit under 30 allowed without a guarantor. He therefore can’t move on and he is blocking someone else moving on from the hostel into the Foyer.
It is really tough for these youngsters. They get labelled and it is hard to keep positive. And it is getting much harder. When I mentioned that the last time this happened a generation was scarred, that many went permanently on the sick, the manager got quite animated. The staff do come across those getting too much sickness related benefit. A few had parents who had claimed that their children had various medical conditions so that they qualified for more benefits. When these children got to 16 they then automatically got passported on to higher benefits fitting these conditions. Staff who have struggled to report this were very frustrated that these cases continued whilst money was being regularly taken from those who had so little.
It was an eye opener. Some of these problems have been around a while and were under my watch. I have to take responsibility for that. But it is getting much worse and as the economy stagnates it will only get worse. Oh, and I almost forgot to say that the latest housing benefit changes being consulted on means many of these hostels will have to close.