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Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 October 2008

2. How many young people were not in education, employment or training in the latest period for which figures are available. (227248)

The latest figures show that there were 730,000 young people aged 18 to 24 who were not in education, employment or training in England. Around 260,000 of those young adults have caring responsibilities and a further 78,000 have a disability or sickness. Since April this year, we have made it possible for 18-year-olds with a history of not being in employment, education or training to be fast-tracked through the new deal programme on a voluntary basis; and from April next year, early entry to the new deal will be mandatory for 18-year-olds who have been in the NEET category for six months. Since 1997, the Government have increased the numbers of young people active in work or education from 3.9 million to 4.7 million. Through the measures we have taken, we aim to continue that progress.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, but notwithstanding the measures and results he referred to, one of the principal stains on this Government’s reputation is without question that during a decade of economic growth, rising employment and falling unemployment, hundreds of thousands of young people were allowed to fall through the net and effectively do nothing with their lives as they were not in education, not in training and not in the apprenticeships that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier. Now, at a time of economic hardship when jobs are being shed and the cupboards are bare, will the Secretary of State please tell us what measures he can bring to the table today that suggest that he knows how to bring down the number of NEETs at a time of economic difficulty?

First, at the risk of repeating myself, what was achieved in the decade of growth was a huge increase in the number of young people in education and employment and, of course, a dramatic reduction over the same period in long-term youth unemployment. The hon. Gentleman is right that, within the overall number of NEETs—it is a much smaller number than in the past—who do not have caring responsibilities, who are not out of work and bringing up their families, who are not among the 80,000 owning or buying their own homes and so living in households with significant incomes, there is a core of people about whom we remain worried.

I would say to Conservative Members, however, that opposition to increasing the participation age for training and work is the worst possible policy. The best way of ensuring that young people do not end up out of work, out of training and out of education is to ensure that, between 16 and 18, they are either in college or in work with training. I regret the fact that the Conservative party rejects the most practical measure that the Government are putting in place to deal with the issue in the longer term.

Second only to the Isles of Scilly, Wakefield has the second highest rate in the country of young people not in education, employment or training. With 11 per cent. of 16-year-olds classified as NEETs and just 22 per cent. progressing to higher education at 18, despite our excellent GCSE results, will my right hon. Friend sit down with me, Wakefield council and Wakefield college to discuss what can be done to stop that tragic waste of talent during the years before the secondary school age rises to 18?

I would be delighted to do so. I know that my hon. Friend is very keen on the development in her area of a stronger offer for higher education. Part of the challenge—it is only part of it—is to make sure that the aspirations of young people of talent and ability are raised to the highest possible level. In some parts of the country, local access to higher education is not as strong as it could be. The Higher Education Funding Council will shortly end its consultation on our new university challenge, which might be one of the issues that we should discuss for Wakefield. A number of other Members have a similar interest for their areas.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to look at The Daily Telegraph this morning? If so, he will have seen an excellent article by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), a former welfare Minister, in which he points out that the number of NEETs under this Labour Government is now at record levels and suggests that the new deal should be scrapped for having failed young people and that the money saved should be spent on better projects in order to deal with the forthcoming economic difficulties that the country faces.

I shall undoubtedly read the article with great interest. It is difficult for me to comment, given that I have not seen the article or the statistics that it contains, but I can say that some of the statistics that are currently in play are very misleading. I do not think it fair—[Interruption.] May I be allowed to make my point? I think that the hon. Lady will agree with me.

If, for example, a mother decides to stay at home looking after her children and to study part-time, she will appear as a NEET in some statistics, but I do not think that a mother who chooses to do that should be labelled as someone who is not doing something useful or active, and the same applies to others with caring responsibilities. We must accept that there is a much smaller but, yes, hard-core problem involving those who have dropped out of the system and are not engaged in education and training, but I believe that the higher level of conditionality on benefit and the much earlier intervention with young people—particularly those who have already been out of work for a couple of years before reaching the age of 18—is the way to go.

Those core principles are at the heart of the new deal, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is making very clear that much more active and much earlier intervention involving more young people is the key to ensuring that they do not stay outside the employment, training and education system for long periods.