Leading Article: Help for the jobless young

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THE provocative Americanism 'workfare' has not passed the Prime Minister's lips, but something akin to it has been forced on to the political agenda. In his Carlton lecture, on Wednesday evening, Mr Major speculated cautiously about whether paying unemployment benefit unconditionally served the interests either of society or the jobless.

Answering questions in the House of Commons yesterday, the Prime Minister returned to the subject. He invited a public debate into ways in which the unemployed could 'be kept in touch with the world of work'. Mr Major stressed that 'an element of compulsion' could not be ruled out.

Many, not merely those on the unreconstructed wing of the Labour Party, would be inclined to join the debate by responding, understandably though simplistically, that a good proportion of the unemployed needs no compulsion. They want to work. The best way of keeping these people in touch with 'the world of work' would be, these government critics might argue, to stimulate the economy and so provide this group with the jobs it craves.

The nature of the current recession is such that it has reached out to embrace middle- aged, middle-class, middle Englanders - many of them skilled, experienced, articulate and Conservative-inclined - who do not take easily to being patronised, or to being told that they need to maintain their experience of work. Lord Tebbit's suggestion on yesterday's Radio 4 Today programme that the unemployed should be compelled to spend their time planting trees along the fringes of motorways, cleaning polluted beaches or even going shopping for the elderly will not go down well with them.

To insist that unemployed people in their late forties or fifties perform some form of community service is insulting and futile. (If they want to do so, they should, of course, be encouraged.) These are people who, unless very lucky, will not work again, however hard they retrain and 'keep in touch'. They should receive adequate unemployment and other benefits and be allowed to go their own way. If they wish to start small businesses or to become involved in business education - as Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Employment, suggests - there should be incentives for them to do so, such as tax holidays and the abolition of red tape.

Where the Prime Minister's proposals would make great sense is in dealing with that crucial group, the 18- to 25-year-old unemployed. If these young adults do not come to understand the discipline of work - or its alternative - in their formative years, they are likely to be lost for ever to productive society. They will become alienated and sink into apathy, petty crime or the black economy. For them, the measures ought to involve quality industrial training (which does not come cheap), as well as the discipline of community service.

But such a package would not be enough for many young people. Their levels of literacy and numeracy are often so low that they need remedial education. Otherwise they will not be able to acquire flexibility and the ability to learn new skills when required. Mr Major's proposals should be a sophisticated approach designed to deal with the problems of selected groups, not a cheap and simple way of punishing all those without work.