Why support railways but not the next generation?

There’s no room for complacency because new job opportunities are going to the over-25s

The number of British Neets (young people not in education, employment or training) is shocking – one in seven 16 to 24-year-olds – twice the rate for Denmark and three and a half times higher than in the Netherlands.

Although the figure is slightly down from around a million, there’s no room for complacency because new job opportunities are going to the over-25s. Finally, the government has realised that more people don’t opt for further education than do, and they should not be stigmatised for not seeking a degree. What they need is help to pass basic exams and detailed advice about training and mentoring. Last week the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced plans to create a one-stop “clearing house” to help this 60 per cent of school leavers.

Local authorities will create websites offering training, apprenticeships, courses and work experience to 16-year-olds, and publish results. Clegg promises that schools careers advice will improve; according to Ofsted, only one in five schools offers it to an acceptable level at present. Job centres will help 16-year-olds for the first time, starting with a pilot scheme this spring. And 18 to 21-year-olds who don’t have at least a grade C in English and maths (more than one in three) will be offered help in these subjects, and their benefits will be cut if they refuse. All these ideas are good news, but what bothers me is the snail-like pace at which they have been developed. Since 2008, the number of Neets has been over 750,000, that’s a lot of young people looking for work, some for six years. Why is the Government relying on top-up money from charitable foundations, the Prince’s Trust, and goodwill from employers to put these plans into action?

We can entertain billion-pound railways, but not basic support for the next generation. In the past year, almost half of our civil servants received bonuses totalling £140m. Twelve public bodies gave bonuses to nine out of 10 staff, including the much-criticised Department for Work and Pensions, where some officials got £10,000, even though they’ve made a mess of rolling out benefit reforms. At the Met Office, 98 per cent of the staff got a bonus, even though they failed to predict the wettest winter on record. Plenty of money is sloshing around in government, but somehow it never filters through to the people who need it the most, the next generation. Most ministers send their kids to swanky schools, including Clegg – that’s why illiterate youth gets so little money. 

Bird men of County Durham

It’s emerged that 17 men serving life sentences in HMP Frankland, County Durham, have been allowed to keep pet budgies in their cells, and one man has a cockatiel. Inmates at the jail have included Ian Huntley, Charles Bronson and Harold Shipman – some of the most notorious crimimals in recent history.

Victims’ families have reacted with horror, complaining that the men are having it cushy. In 2012, a Freedom of Information request revealed that 81 prisoners on the Isle of Wight were allowed pet budgies. In 2007, the Ministry of Justice banned the purchase of pet birds; only inmates who had them already were exempt. There’s something utterly petty about banning a budgie; when a small feathered thing might actually teach these men so much.

Violent men often find solace looking after birds. I remember meeting the boxer Mike Tyson years ago when he was briefly linked to Naomi Campbell, and when I asked if he had any hobbies, he replied – my pigeons. Throughout a turbulent life, breeding and caring for his pigeons had kept him going. Sometimes I think that a section of our population would welcome public flogging and ritual disembowelling of all murderers. If a budgie keeps them calm, and stops them venting anger on prison staff and fellow inmates, I don’t have a problem.

Co-op’s big sell-off

Last week I complained about the failure of the Co-op to focus on its core business – grocery retailing – sadly, the news for the troubled organisation just gets worse. New figures show the food division was the worst-performing major grocery chain in 2013, behind Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Asda, hit badly by competition from Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl. The group expects to post a £2bn loss for this year, and has announced plans to sell its pharmacies and farms. It still has retail, electrical, funerals, legal services and insurance – not to mention the banking division, which had to be recapitalised in December.

Sending out surveys costing £100,000 asking for our suggestions isn’t going to turn the Co-op around, and it will take more than flogging off a few chemists to fill that £2bn hole. I’m happy to sit on the Co-op board, after all I’ve got more qualifications than the Rev Paul Flowers. Although I’ve never taken Ketamine, I did spend the first 12 years of my life reading the Co-op’s newspaper Reynold’s News every Sunday – ominously, it closed down through lack of support in 1967. The Co-op needs to get back to basics, serving local communities.

How not to eat 

Tesco is offering “health tours”, using experts from their Nutri Centre departments (they bought a majority stake in the health supplement chain in 2001). The supermarket says the aim is to help “educate shoppers about hidden calories”, part of its mission to combat obesity.

The scheme is being tried out in 13 stores and may be rolled out nationally. Shoppers can seek advice individually, or in groups of up to eight, and are warned about foods high in salt, sugar and fat, as well as being enlightened about how to read the completely confusing traffic-light labelling scheme which all the major retailers have signed up to.

All well and good, but here’s a couple of points to mull over. First, recent studies in The Lancet and other medical journals point out that most supplements and vitamins are not only useless, they may cause harm if taken in excessive quantity. A recent report in Forbes magazine stated that Vitamins D, C, A and beta carotene, B6 and multivitamin pills are all pointless, if you eat the right diet. I never take a single supplement and am fighting fit, but I can cook real fruit and veg from scratch. I’d be more impressed if Tesco were laying on cookery classes instead of trying to subtly promote its new Healthy Living range.

Twitter: @The_Real_JSP