This summer I met a young lad called Anthony Bloomfield. He is only 16, but has already experienced more of life than others his age: bunking off school, getting into trouble with the police. As he himself admitted, his academic and job prospects were limited. If there was ever someone who appeared destined to become a “NEET” – not in education, employment or training – it was Anthony. Or, rather, that was the case a few months ago, but somehow he came across the National Citizen Service, a government summer camp that gives 16- and 17-year-olds a combination of work experience, team-building, social action volunteering and, most importantly, something to put on their CV.
When I met Anthony in the garden of a youth centre in Bristol he had helped transform, he was buoyant – the experience had given him the confidence to change his life, he said. The NCS isn’t going to guarantee those who take part in the camp a job or a college course, but it’s certainly going to help. It is the living embodiment of David Cameron’s elusive Big Society.
I thought of Anthony when I sat in the Manchester conference hall on Wednesday watching Hayley Lockwood take to the stage. Hayley also completed a National Citizen Service course this summer. She told the ministers, MPs and activists present that it had given her the confidence to address this 2,000-strong audience, her smile a mixture of bashfulness and pride as the applause rang around the hall. Hayley, and a group of other youngsters on apprenticeships or starting their own businesses, were the warm-up act for the Prime Minister. For those in the Conservative Party who adore the Cameroonian vision of social action, they were very warmed up indeed.
Minutes later, the Prime Minister was before us to deliver his end of conference speech. The one policy announcement in his 27-page address was plans to cut benefits for under-25s who are not in work, education or training, making it clear why we heard from Hayley and the other youngsters. Cameron said he wanted to offer young men and women something different to “choosing the dole” and “opting for a life on benefits”. If these youngsters were our own children, Cameron said, we would be pushing them into doing something. There should be only one choice: earn or learn.
The Prime Minister is right that these NEETs need help. There are more than one million of them, and the number is rising. The young men and women I spoke to in Bristol in August told me how their lives were transformed when they were given a glimpse of a future other than on the dole. Cameron quoted a former NEET telling him: “I feel worthwhile”. That is what I heard, too, that day in August.
But if he really thinks that anyone, beyond a tiny minority, chooses a life on benefits, makes a conscious choice to claim the dole rather than have the financial and psychological reward of earning a salary, then he has misunderstood the message these young people have given him.
I have close family and friends who have experienced joblessness. It is a crushing blow to confidence and hope. Forced to apply for jobs which have no relevance to their experience or career. Taking anything out there if only to escape the despair of signing on, even if the hours are not family-friendly, and the work conditions are bad. Finding nothing at all – because economic growth is not exactly going through the roof – and wondering if they will ever get a pay cheque again.
The Prime Minister has never been there, and nor will he. He is lucky. It fits the narrative and salves the Conservative conscience to believe the unemployed are feckless scroungers whose only enthusiasm is to bleed the benefits system dry. Yes, these cases exist, but they are not the majority. The slogan of Tory conference was “For Hardworking People”. It might disturb, or surprise, Cameron to learn that many of those on the dole today are indeed “hardworking people”, they just cannot find work.
Then there are those who have illnesses, physical disability or mental ill health not profound enough to be eligible for available allowances, but enough to hamper their prospects – be it in job interviews, or holding down work.
Mental health problems are keeping large numbers of people out of work. There are more than 724,000 people claiming employment and support allowance (ESA) because of mental and behavioural disorders, but there are countless others who struggle with mental health issues but do not qualify for this allowance. Losing your job, or struggling to find one, can lead to depression, only deepening the problem. It is becomes a spiral of despair.
The Government is already sanctioning benefits in certain circumstances. This new threat – which Cameron is planning for the Conservative manifesto, in a tacit admission that it will never be approved by the Coalition – of targeting the under-25s is not surprising, given that ministers wanted this age group to lose housing benefit, before the Lib Dems blocked it. But to force the young unemployed to give up benefits altogether is grossly unfair as it targets a vulnerable group. Entering adulthood is already a challenge for the human spirit – this plan would cut off the hope of youth.
Because what if this new choice, to earn or learn, is not enough to cover more than one million NEETs? If there were enough jobs for these young people, wouldn’t they be already filled? Are there really enough apprenticeships, vocational or academic courses out there to make the “choice” of a life on benefits redundant? Is a Tory government going to fund this choice? The government is creating a new tier of “elite” vocational college courses, called Tech-levels, to equip teenagers with the right skills to get a good job. But at the same time, it is axing state funding for thousands of other college courses it believes aren’t good enough. Yes, some of these courses in subjects like “ski chalet hosting” and “key fob design” have dubious benefits. But they cannot all be useless. Studying to be a beautician should not be frowned upon – anyone who does this would be joining a growth industry.
In the “land of hope” that Cameron promised us this week, what happens if there isn’t the college course, the apprenticeship, or the job for a NEET? What next? A life without unemployment or housing benefit? Benefits should be there to protect us when we fall, not be pulled away because life has delivered us a series of blows. When you’ve had an excellent education and prosperous upbringing like Cameron has, I am sure it is difficult to imagine living without the protection. For young people like Anthony, it is an ever-present threat.
Cameron remodelled his party to be compassionate. The creation of the National Citizen Service, and the genuine commitment to social action, are the very best of the modern Conservatism he promised when he became leader eight years ago. When he launched his “earn or learn” policy on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said “let no one paint ideas like this as callous”. But that is exactly what it is.