Britain's lost boys need more than just another acronym

The great fear of the socially included is that the excluded will make our ordered lives miserable
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WANDERING ALONG in a summer daze at the weekend, my mind a universe away from the inner London street, I suddenly realise that the harsh young male voices impinging on my daydream are talking to me, or rather at me. There are four of them, 13- or 14-year-olds, with scrawny bodies and those faces that make you scared and sad at the same time: peaky, underfed complexions, darting feral eyes. "What time is it?" asks one. "Give us some money," demands another. "Got any cigarettes?" asks a third. The fourth blocks the way. They exude an aura of threat undermined by immaturity, hovering on the borderline between irritating bits of kids and dangerous young men.

The fight or flight instinct is highly unpredictable. To my own astonishment, mine autopiloted towards a fierce scowl and a tone derived entirely from memories of a gorgon junior school teacher. It was her voice, not mine, that berated them about the necessity of saying "please", even when harassing strangers on the street. They were still young enough to be startled by this authority bluff, and ambled away, substituting obscenities for action. If they'd been two years older, I'd have abandoned the pretence of confidence and run for it.

The faces of these trainee tormentors came back to me yesterday as I read the Social Exclusion Unit's report on the "lost boys" who disappear from the system after they have left school, or even before. The unit estimates that there are some 160,000 young men roaming the country's streets, jobless, dependent on petty crime, likely to become drug users and dealers. Many will father children they will not care for, or even know. They can barely read or write. A UN report indicates that Britain's literacy levels are lower than those of many Third World countries.

The real cause for shame is how long it has taken us to notice the scale of the problem and to set about tackling it. In a previous incarnation as a Moscow correspondent, when I wrote a magazine piece about juveniles living rough at the local railway station, hustling and stealing for a living, the response was formidable. Documentary makers telephoned to ask how they could contact the kids (they really do ask questions like that about down-and-out teenagers living rough in Russian railway stations). Charities called up asking for permission to use the pictures in their next campaign.

Yet the gap between those youngsters and the ones you can see hanging around the amusement arcades of any British city is not so great. Nietzsche inverted the Christian concept of Nachstenliebe - loving your neighbour - and observed that mankind was far more likely to succumb to the easy pathos of Fernstenliebe, the love of those far away. The most disconcerting of modern philosophers poked at a nub of inconvenient truth. Horrified by pictures of distant poverty, we demand that something must be done about it, while the immiseration in our own country meets with a shrug and a shake of the head.

The great fear of the socially included is that the socially excluded will invade our streets and make our ordered lives miserable. The urban middle classes are moving to the suburbs, buying better education and safety as part of their house price. Labour's minister for London Herbert Morrison boasted in the Fifties of "building Labour into the inner cities" by erecting council estates in formerly middle-class areas. What they didn't mention was that in the process they were building poverty and strife into the inner city.

But the housing turned out to be badly designed, the Labour-run schools failed those who depended on them, and the unemployed became trapped on benefits. We had every reason to know that things were badly wrong and likely to get worse, yet successive Conservative governments could come up with no better ideas about how to redress matters than to launch periodical jihads against DHSS fraud, and wag admonitory fingers at the people on their "little list" of miscreants. Nothing changed.

Some people find the phrase "social exclusion" too close to jargon for comfort. But it strikes me that it contains an important message. It points to the existence of substantial number of people in Britain who are cut off not only from material welfare, but from access to society's goods that the rest of us take for granted: education, health, job opportunities and the chance to broaden our experience beyond the task of mere survival.

The Government is now proposing a national register to keep track of school-leavers and to give under-achievers a minder who will monitor their progress and help them find their feet in an adult world for which their homes and education have left them sorely unprepared. Inevitably, there will be cries of nanny-state interference with individuals. But the real problem is not too much nannying, but too little. We collectively abandon vulnerable youths, only to make their acquaintance again later, in the courts and prisons.

Two warning signs flash urgently throughout the unit's report, and both have been inadequately dealt with by the Government to date. The first is the recommendation that teenagers be channelled into training. Training for what? Governments, left and right, have been singularly bad at anticipating the needs of the labour market. Even countries such as Germany, which has had a far superior record in this area, now concede that modern economies develop quickly in directions that are difficult to predict. Yet New Labour persists doggedly in believing that the centralised solutions of a Cabinet Committee on Training are the way ahead. When business organisations such as London First warn of a "chasm" opening between the training supplied by the state and the needs of employers, their views are dismissed. Another national council is set up, another qualification with an impenetrable acronym is invented.

Employers need incentives to train and retrain their workforce themselves, not a load of youngsters prepared for the market conditions of two or three years ago. The disjuncture between training and the labour market is already undermining the efficiency of the New Deal on youth employment. Mr Blair semaphored as much in his speech marking its second anniversary, when he acknowledged that too many people were dropping out and too many employers were unhappy about the quality of the young people they were sent.

Three-and-a-half billion pounds is too much to squander on a scheme that does not deliver what it promises. The New Deal is not beyond rescue, and its basic precept, that young people must expect to work and be prepared for the world of employment, is entirely right. But it is crying out for more vigorous scrutiny of its implementation. Welfare to work's status as a flagship New Labour policy should not be used as an excuse to protect it from frank reassessment. We have done a lot of wishful thinking about the causes and perpetuation of social exclusion. It is time for some clear thinking instead.