76,000 teenagers left without income: Fowler admits many school-leavers have slipped through benefits safety net

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The Independent Online
THE Government disclosed that 76,000 school-leavers had slipped through the training and benefit safety net, intensifying the row over 'dead-end' teenagers.

The extent of the number of young people without any official form of income was seen by Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders as evidence that the Government had failed in its policy of persuading school-leavers to take up training by withdrawing their welfare benefits.

The figures were given by Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party, as the Tories attacked Labour for proposing the 'politics of the past' with plans by its Social Justice Commission to create a 'citizens' service' in which, over five years, 150,000 16- to 24-year-olds would do voluntary work for pounds 50 a week.

Sir Norman said nearly 80,000 young people had not found a job, had not gone on to a government training scheme, and were not receiving income support. It was not known why they had slipped through the net - many of them were probably still at home.

Many may be supported entirely by their parents, but some may be among those who have fallen through the net and resorted to begging.

Government figures show that 88,000 school-leavers are unemployed, of whom 12,000 are receiving income support. David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, said there were 292,000 16- to 17-year-olds in training and only 140 waiting longer than eight weeks for a place. He said: 'As far as I am concerned, the opportunity of weeding grass verges is the politics of the past.'

Mr Hunt said that by promising to restore benefits for school-

leavers who had no work, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were encouraging them to spend 'a life of dependency on the dole'.

The proposals by the commission were welcomed by Labour leaders, but they showed that there is likely to be a battle within the Shadow Cabinet over the exent of the scheme.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, who pioneered the idea, said on BBC radio that he favoured an extensive scheme to cover all those aged between 16 and possibly 21, who were unemployed.

'The commission had an initial 150,000 in the report . . . I think we could build that up over five years so that we are looking at perhaps 600,000 to 700,000 young people out of the 1 million that have no job, no training, no work scheme.'

While approving of the proposals, Jack Cunningham, Labour's spokesman on foreign affairs, dismissed Mr Blunkett's figures as 'not what the report said'. Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, was more sympathetic: 'I think it is absolutely excellent - it will meet a very positive response among the public.'

Malcolm Bruce, for the Liberal Democrats, welcomed the scheme but said he wanted to ensure young people emerged with proper training for jobs.