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Youth Unemployment

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 15 October 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the estimate by the Office for National Statistics in Labour market overview, UK: October 2020, published on 13 October, that approximately 60 per cent of those unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are aged between 16 and 24, what action they are taking to reduce youth unemployment.

My Lords, the Government are taking unprecedented action to protect young people’s jobs, with more than 9 million of them supported via the furlough scheme. Earlier this year, we announced our £30 billion Plan for Jobs, which provides an unlimited number of Kickstart placements, recruits new youth employability coaches and establishes youth hubs across the country. We are also expanding our excellent sector-based work academy programme to offer bespoke opportunities to support claimants to fill job vacancies and pivot into new careers.

In July, about a quarter of a million 18 year-olds left schools, sixth-forms and other colleges. Most of them are now on the unemployment register. I accept that Kickstart will help trainees to some extent, but much more is needed. An unemployed 18 year-old should be able to take a one-year course, such as an HND or an HNC, to acquire better skills. If they do this, however, they must pay £6,000 or more for the course; often, they have to take out a loan. It is morally and politically unacceptable that we expect 18 year-olds to take out a loan to receive a training course. These courses must be free. I ask the Minister to convey my views to other Ministers because, rest assured, we will need more measures to reduce youth unemployment.

I am happy to relay to Ministers the noble Lord’s concerns about loans and the fact that 18 year-olds are asked to take them out. I will certainly pass his concerns on to the Department for Education as well. However, we have launched a wide-ranging youth employment programme. We have the National Careers Service and the new enterprise allowance. We are doubling the number of work coaches; please do not underestimate the work of these great people and the difference that they are making in getting young people into jobs, which is what we all want.

In the 1980s, when I was growing up in the west of Scotland, there were very high levels of youth unemployment. In Glasgow, it stood at 80%. There were few opportunities and little hope. Now, we are walking into something similar. Will the Government agree to hold a job summit to meet trade unions, local authorities, metro mayors and representatives from Scotland and Wales and talk about all the different things that can be done to prevent such a catastrophe? It is the job of the UK Government to lead. Will they take the initiative here?

I thank the noble Baroness for that constructive idea; I will certainly take it back to the department. However, we are holding what are almost local job summits around the country and people are working closely in geographical areas to achieve exactly what she challenges us to achieve.

Sixteen to 24 year-olds suffer discrimination through universal credit in that they do not receive the full amount. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that these young people receive a fair, realistic and just entitlement under universal credit so that they can meet their essential living costs and support themselves in seeking new work?

On young people on universal credit receiving help to get work, I say that we do not compartmentalise any age groups. We are doubling the number of work coaches and we have the job finding support service. We have a £150 million support fund that can be used flexibly to meet the needs of people going into work. The support that young people will get will be second to none and we will turn every stone to get them into work. The noble Baroness will know that lots is being said about universal credit at the moment. I will not add to that but it is being looked at all the time to see how we can make life better for people.

My Lords, does the Minister recall a saying that I often heard in my youth: “Idle hands make light work for the devil”? We all know that the years between the ages of 16 and 24 are a period of a transition—but, for many, a transition to what? Services for this age group have been severely cut. We worry about their mental health, drug abuse, county lines and knife crime but, if we do not put in place a robust and effective range of services, these young people are in danger of being left behind. Do the Government have in place an action plan for these young people?

The Government have an action plan that we are putting into action. It is our Plan for Jobs, which is grossed up into a £30 billion fund. I have already mentioned some of things that we are doing with that money; I do not want to repeat them. I take the point about the devil making work for idle hands, I really do, but what is different here is that young people will get a work coach—a personal coach—who will stick with them. We will do everything we can to make sure that young people transfer into work, achieve their destiny and do not fall into activity that we do not want to see them involved in.

My Lords, blunt-instrument measures that force the shielding of the old and vulnerable, instead of allowing them to choose to shield themselves, are devastating areas of the economy in which young workers’ careers flourish. This is widening the divide between young and the old. The Government are balancing many considerations, but are they including the impact of tighter restrictions on intergenerational harmony? And, crucially, what are the Government doing to support young people who are not receiving universal credit?

The department is committed to providing targeted support for young people, including those who are still claiming jobseeker’s allowance. This support offers basic skills training, traineeships, work experience, sector-based work academies and support that is funded through other organisations. I would say to the noble Lord that immense work is going on with different businesses. I know that my Secretary of State and the Minister responsible for employment will be going to Pinewood Studios to launch “from aviation to the creative industries”. The Buckinghamshire LEP has done a great job and we hope that there will be opportunities similar to that all over the country.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the compassion and passion in her answers but, as we must acknowledge, this is a very serious situation. The Resolution Foundation now forecasts that unemployment among the 18 to 29 year-olds could triple to 17% by late 2020—a level not seen since 1984. Given the well-established link between unemployment and mental health, and the risks of a mental health epidemic, will the Government undertake to fund support for additional mental health provision, in addition to the education and employment initiatives which she has unpacked, to support this very hard-pressed and vulnerable Covid generation?

I will say to the right reverend Prelate that we do not underestimate the seriousness of this situation. I think that we are all mindful of the impact that it can have on the lives of all those who are affected by unemployment. On the question I have been asked about mental health, I am not sure what support, fiscally or otherwise, is available, but I shall talk to my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and write to the right reverend Prelate to confirm it.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the complaints that I have been making to her department about the increasingly poor performance of call centres? In conversations I have had with people working in call centres, they have said that they are very short of staff. When will the Government engage with all these call centres? They already have people there to do the training. They should get them to create the jobs that are needed so that proper performance standards are met by these companies—and if they are abroad, the work should be brought back home, which in turn will create many jobs for the young unemployed.

I can confirm to the noble Lord that I will go back to the department with this and speak to the Director General for Service Excellence. I also offer to meet with the noble Lord so that he can share his concerns verbally and get some answers.

My Lords, I am afraid that the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has now elapsed, so we will move on to the next business.

In fact, the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has not elapsed. We have an extra five minutes, which is wonderful. I therefore call the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin.

My Lords, thank goodness for that. Black, Asian and culturally diverse people are more likely to be unemployed, and the 16 to 24 year-olds in this group are no exception. They are finding themselves at the very bottom of the pile during this pandemic and are hardest hit, with little hope of finding a job. So what pathways and policies are being put in place beyond the six-month Kickstart Scheme to reassure these vulnerable young people, many of whom are suffering from anxiety and depression?

The point I would like to make to the noble Baroness is that the ethnic minority employment rate reached a record high of 67.5%, which is an increase on the previous quarter. It is not good enough, but it was an upward trend. The point that the noble Baroness makes is completely justified; this is of great concern. I should say that the Government have unlocked an additional £150 million from dormant bank accounts to support charities and social enterprises help vulnerable individuals into work.

My Lords, we seem to be having some technical problems, so I suggest that the House should now adjourn for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.

My Lords, we will now recommence consideration of the Private Notice Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for a further three and a half minutes. I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf.

I am grateful to your Lordships for dealing with the local difficulties. The point I emphasise is that, while everything I have heard about the immediate action that the Government are taking is encouraging, I am concerned about when things go wrong, as they will, and youngsters land up in the court system. What action do the Government propose to ensure that the harm already done is not aggravated by that experience?

It is important that, when young people fall into the court system, they have good role models and mentors to keep them on the straight and narrow. As far as the DWP is concerned, our work coaches will be providing that support. I am not aware of what the Home Office is doing, but I am happy to find out and write to the noble and learned Lord.

My Lords, it is now clear that the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have not been equally distributed across society. Official statistics show that the number of under-25s on universal credit nearly doubled during lockdown, rising by 250,000 to 538,000. What assessment has the DWP made of an age-stratified approach to Covid, which could allow resources to be focused on older people and high-risk patients, while allowing younger and healthier people to keep working and businesses to stay open? Given that the DWP exists to get and keep people in work, what forecasts and representation are the department making to the Prime Minister?

The impacts of Covid-19 are felt differently by different groups, which is why the Plan for Jobs supports people of all ages. We are supporting the most vulnerable through our wider offer and specific programmes, such as job entry targeted support. People need hope in this very difficult time, and I assure the whole House that we will make sure that there is no poverty of hope, aspiration, determination and inspiration for our young people.

My Lords, I declare my non-financial interest, as in the Members’ register. With the comprehensive spending review a matter of weeks away, does the Minister agree that organisations such as the National Citizen Service, with a proven track record of equipping young people with life skills and facilitating volunteering activity—both of which contribute to employability—should have their income streams protected?

I pay tribute to the work of the National Citizen Service. Not wanting to disappoint the noble Lord, I cannot comment on what the Treasury may or may not do, but I am sure that the National Citizen Service has made its representations well known.

My Lords, there used to be many more opportunities for young people in small businesses in sectors such as hospitality, travel and retail. Which sectors does the Minister believe are likely to offer young people the best opportunities for jobs with small employers in the current environment? What are the Government doing both to encourage young people into those sectors and to make small businesses more aware of the benefits of employing young people with the skills that they desperately need, notably in the digital and STEM areas?

The three sectors to which I would refer all noble Lords, which are recruiting young people, are health and social work, education and manufacturing. Through our sector-based work academies, we are trying to ensure that young people are equipped with the skills that they will need in the difficult days coming. We are working hard to ensure that.