Podium: The socially excluded need our help

From a speech given by the Demos researcher at the launch of the `Real Deal' project in London
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The Independent Culture
WHEN TONY Blair came to power, he pledged that there would be "no forgotten people". Young people in particular would be given special attention. Three out of five of the Government's pre-election pledges concerned them, including the New Deal for the Unemployed, the pounds 3.5bn flagship programme to get 250,000 young people off the dole.

But new Demos research shows that the youth unemployment figures tell only half the story. For every person under the age of 24 who's registered as claiming unemployment benefit, there is another who is off the register, yet still not in work, education or training. While the Government is focusing its attention on those who are receiving the Jobseeker's Allowance or are on the New Deal, more than half a million jobless young people lie outside that network of support.

So who are these half-million young people who are not on any register? Why are they not claiming unemployment benefits? About a fifth of the total group are aged just 16 or 17, and are therefore not eligible for any allowance. This is the group that was pushed out of the system during the Eighties and has still not been brought back in by the Government. Of the rest, about 125,000 are classed as unemployed but are not claiming benefits, while more than a quarter of a million are mothers or carers.

Perhaps most worryingly, 65,000 of the half-million are completely "missing". They are not in work, training or education; they are not undertaking caring duties, nor are they disabled. We have no way of knowing what is happening to this group.

Why should we bother about this problem? Well, these young people have extremely low prospects. Their independence from government programmes is not a sign of health, but of isolation and neglect. More than half live in households where no one works, 40 per cent have never worked, and a third have no qualifications at all. The cost of ignoring this problem will also be borne by their children, by local communities, and by the taxpayers who spend billions alleviating the problems of ill-health, crime and poverty.

So what can be done?

The main answer lies in targeting and staying in touch. The Government's focus needs to encompass all young people who are not in work, training or education. To do this we need more knowledge about individuals. We need databases that integrate different kinds of information held by the Government, so that we can really see which young people are most at risk, and which programmes make a long-term difference to them.

Conventional wisdom suggests that young people are mostly drawn into programmes by financial incentives. But the existence of large numbers of 16- and 17-year-olds who are not taking up training places despite the attraction of an allowance illustrates that economic rationality alone is not sufficient to explain young people's behaviour.

We need to draw on the experience of grass-roots projects that have successfully mobilised young people into active work or education.

In order to achieve independent adulthood, young people need a series of clear stages through which they can pass. The classic middle-class transition from school to A-levels to university provides structures that allow not just the accumulation of qualifications, but also opportunities for socialisation and personal development in a supportive environment. For young people who cannot gain access to these frameworks, the routes to secure employment, status and fulfilment are less clear.

The solution is not simply better traditional institutions of education and training. Young people increasingly combine activities rather than follow a linear sequence.

Work, formal study, parenting, training and time out can all form a part of an individual's programme of development. The challenge is therefore not to push young people through particular programmes, institutions or discrete stages, but to weave together activities and opportunities across transition points. The glue for this new underpinning structure, including responsibility for managing knowledge about what works and who is at risk, could be a new range of youth brokers who are independent from any one organisation, charged with brokering opportunities and constructing pathways for young people.

The existence of hundreds of thousands of young people outside the New Deal illustrates the Government's current failure to help some of Britain's most excluded people. If it is serious about social exclusion, it must recognise them as truly forgotten people.