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Youth Unemployment

Volume 534: debated on Monday 24 October 2011

It is good to see so many people in the Chamber who have discovered an interest in work and pensions.

Work experience and apprenticeships are central to improving the prospects of young unemployed people. We are making up to 100,000 work experience placements available and strengthening the links between the work experience programme and apprenticeships. We are also providing additional Jobcentre Plus help for 16 and 17-year-old jobseeker’s allowance claimants and offering earlier entry into the Work programme. It is worth reminding ourselves that of the 991,000 16 to 24-year-olds who are unemployed under the International Labour Organisation measure, 270,000 are full-time students. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) will be aware that Harlow is one of the Government’s new enterprise zones.

I am, of course, delighted that Harlow is an enterprise zone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of cutting youth unemployment is to encourage Government contractors to hire apprentices? Figures from the House of Commons Library show that if just one apprentice was hired for every £1 million of public procurement, it would instantly create 238,000 apprenticeships and cut youth unemployment by a quarter.

My hon. Friend is right. Under the new arrangements, suppliers must provide an apprenticeships and skills report within six months of the contract start date. The idea is that they will periodically show their progress towards meeting a commitment to employ 5% of apprentices in delivering the Department for Work and Pensions contract to which they are entitled. Work programme providers will be paid primarily for the results that they achieve, which means that they will be under pressure to do a similar thing.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that under the previous Government, youth unemployment rose by 40%. Will he reassure the House that the measures he has just outlined will ensure that under this Government we do not have a repeat of that shameful record?

My hon. Friend is right that youth unemployment rose from about 2004, regardless of a growing economy. One problem was that when the previous Government came to power, there was a guaranteed training place for all 16 to 18-year-olds, which they scrapped. That was one of the worst, most short-sighted decisions that any Government have ever made.

Youth unemployment in Blaenau Gwent grew by a massive 12.8% last year. The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion has highlighted the benefits of the future jobs fund, which helped 500 young people in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State look at bringing back the future jobs fund, given the current crisis of youth unemployment?

As the hon. Gentleman should know, we made a commitment to complete the placements that had been committed to until March. That meant that there were nearly 64,000 additional places under the future jobs fund, bringing the total to 105,000 places. We believe that the future jobs fund was an expensive way to try to get people into employment. Almost half of those who went in have ended up back on benefits.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which suggests that only 12% of employers planned to recruit school leavers aged 16 in the three months to September 2011, and that just 15% intended to recruit school leavers aged 17 to 18? That issue was raised during my visit to Lincoln college on Friday. I suspect that he is as concerned as I am by those statistics. Will he tell the House what the Government will do to encourage employers to invest further in our youth?

We are talking a lot to employers about that problem. My hon. Friend is right about it. I return to the answer that I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) about ending the training scheme. That really affected 16 to 17-year-olds. I have brought in the £30 million innovation fund to look at ways in which we can give people approaching the age of 16 better skills for the work force. Employers have told us that many people who leave school at that age are simply not ready for work. We have allowed jobcentres to work with many of those people to get them ready for work. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) is absolutely right that this matter is a priority for us.

Youth unemployment is now the highest it has ever been. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Chancellor that Britain is now “a safe haven”?

I am not quite sure what the right hon. Gentleman’s linkage is in that question. Youth unemployment is high now, which is deeply regrettable, but he needs to take some responsibility for that. We have to remember that when we came into power, after a period of growth before the recession, the level of youth unemployment was higher under the last Government than the level that they inherited back in 1997. Frankly, his lectures on youth unemployment are like crocodile tears in the desert.

Since this Government have taken office, they have closed the future jobs fund and shut down the flexible new deal, and replaced them with a youth work scheme that costs less than the Department spends on stationery and guarantees interviews, not jobs, and with a Work programme that turns out on closer inspection to be all programme and no work. Meanwhile, youth unemployment is going through the roof.

I looked for the Department’s flagship youth unemployment policy on its website this morning, and what does it say?

“Page not found. The page you are looking for may have been removed or moved to the National Archives.”

So much for the priority that the Government gave to youth employment.

The last time unemployment was this high, it was not the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) who was trying to bring down the Government over Europe but the Secretary of State himself, the commander-in-chief of the Maastricht rebels. Instead of today’s debate, on which the Prime Minister has wasted so much time, should we not be having a debate about how we put a proper tax on bankers’ bonuses to get 100,000 young people back to work?

I must say, the right hon. Gentleman coming up with the wrong page suggests more about his ability to negotiate the website than about the Department.

I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said before: it is time the Opposition took responsibility for the mess that they got us in before we took over. Since we walked through the door we have had in place work clubs, work experience, apprenticeship offers, sector-based work academies, the innovation fund, European social fund support, the skills offer, the access to apprenticeships programme, Work Together, the Work programme, Work Choice, mandatory work activity and Jobcentre Plus. He has to recognise that under Labour’s watch, youth unemployment rose to a level higher than that at which they found it in 1997. It was a disgrace.