The government is keen to express how much it cares about young people.
In an Opposition Day today, Labour will call on the Coalition to force companies - awarded government contracts over £1 million - to offer apprenticeships to 16-18 year olds. The party quotes (but does not qualify) recent statistics which suggest the number of apprenticeships are actually down 9,200 from the same point last year.
The government will probably counter it is doing everything it can to help young people back into work already, and no doubt never miss the opportunity to attack Labour’s economic record as the problem in the first place.
But while the government and the opposition lock horns over semantics and hyperbole in the warm cocoon of the Commons chamber, young people continue to struggle through their unpaid work experience placements everywhere from Poundland to Parliament itself. They face choosing whether to pay down their mounting debt, cover rent or heating bills and generally wonder whether it will ever get better.
Enter Shaun Bailey. He is a London-based youth worker and Special Adviser to the Conservative party on youth and crime. His job is to give the Tories the best research and advice on its youth policy. He is no doubt a great advocate of young people’s rights and opportunities but it comes at a price.
Writing for the Independent immediately before the General Election in 2010 where he stood as the Conservative candidate for Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush he said: “The development of a whole generation is being stunted. They will enter work much later, if at all, and the longer they spend out of work the less they are developing personally.”
He blamed this on the rise of welfare dependency amongst young people and said during the last recession people were more willing to depend on the state as they had done previously.
Since his appointment, Bailey has been incredibly critical about the Coalition policies such as police cuts, the cuts to youth services and the attempted cut to housing benefit for under 25s. But one thing he has always remained silent on is the culture of unpaid work that blights the relationship between young people and their prospective employers.
This ambivalence is perhaps why he decided to advertise for an unpaid intern to work on a community project. The role would involve working three to four days a week in central London with ‘some’ unspecified expenses.
A spokesperson for Mr Bailey said the entire project was volunteer led and he himself was not taking a salary: “We called the role an internship because we hope to be able to teach the successful candidate a number of skills, such as policy analysis, that are rarely taught to young people just starting their careers.
“Over the course of this short internship, we also hope to develop their professional networks and help mentor them in their future career choices.”
Now a non-profit community project which, presumably, will do good for young people, is not on the same scale of abuse as work experience placements stacking shelves in Poundland or becoming a general lackey for profit making companies, but it is still effectively condoning it.
If you can’t afford staff and want to get young people involved in the project fine, but there are better ways to go about it. Instead of taking on one person to work full time, take on four to work one day and call them ‘volunteers’. Or even take on eight to work half a day per week.
An internship is a loaded term demonstrating it is preparation for employment. A volunteer gets involved out of the goodness of their own heart; they do it for the personal rather than professional reward.
Mounting debt, being unable to pay the rent and an over-reliance on the state are only symptoms of this wider problem. Every major political party’s position on youth unemployment seems to be nonsensical.
They want more young people in work and off benefits but think this can be achieved with unpaid work. This represents a massive disconnection with the realities of everyday life or even common sense.
If employers don’t have to pay their staff, they won’t. If their staff does not earn money they need to get money from somewhere and are forced onto the mercy of the state. If the Coalition is serious about making work pay they should not be advertising for work that doesn’t pay.
You can’t pay your landlord in skills and experience.
The Bradford West byelection last year was a profound shock to the political establishment, far more so than any UKIP upsurge in Eastleigh. While UKIP was an older, middle class protest vote, the swing in Bradford towards Respect demonstrated young people could no longer be prevailed upon to vote among the ‘clan’ lines of their parents and grandparents.
Young people don’t care who brings down youth unemployment, ends unpaid work and takes control of the rental sector. We just want a party that cares enough to do that and from the poor showing of the current cohort, it doesn’t look like that will be happening any time soon.
The Liberal Democrats betrayed us. UKIP and Respect remain charisma-led protest parties with stunt policies. The Greens only have one policy. Labour merely use us as a stick to beat Cameron with at PMQs and attract a stronger showing in their city constituency strongholds. Conservatives see us as problem to be contained and ‘dealt with’; their association of youth issues with crime reduction rather than unemployment reduction speaks volumes.
The government and its opposition don’t care about young people; they only care about their parliamentary majorities. So it’s time for young people to stand up and say so.