LEADING ARTICLE:Labour gets it right on jobs

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The Independent Online
Nice one, Gordon. If Labour had its way the mind-numbing existence of the unemployed youth - sleeping in, watching Richard and Judy on daytime television, kicking round the streets with their mates - would last no more than six months. As Gordon Brown announced yesterday, Labour would offer them a choice of four different job and training options: full-time education on benefits, work in the voluntary sector or on an Environmental Taskforce, or subsidised jobs in the private sector. If they turned them all down, their benefits would be cut. Labour has several obstacles still to overcome, but this could be the most ambitious attempt yet to tackle the growing social and economic problem of youth unemployment in Britain.

Currently 600,000 young people under the age of 25 are registered unemployed. Many have never worked. They are largely unskilled young men living in the inner cities, and the longer they stay on the dole, the more difficult it is to find work. And it isn't hard to imagine the social consequences of hundreds of thousands of bored young people, written off by employers, pacing the streets.

But is concern for our social fabric sufficient reason to compel young people to enter government programmes? Mr Brown described his proposals as the best anti-crime policy Labour could have. Presumably this is Labour being "tough on the causes of crime"- and if the Unemployment Unit is to be believed it would be tough on young people, too. After all, for government to make rules about how we spend our days sounds draconian.

The rest of the community, however, is already supporting these young people by providing them with a giro every fortnight. And Mr Brown is not proposing to force them into anything: he would simply withdraw 40 per cent of their benefit if they refused to participate in programmes developed to help them to find work and support themselves. He is right to do this. There is no reason why the rest of the country should subsidise idleness, and it is entirely reasonable to expect unemployed people to accept certain obligations alongside new opportunities.

The deal cuts both ways. If government is to reduce benefits for the under-25s after six months, it has a responsibility to give them real chances and choices to do something better. So tacky schemes just to get people off the streets won't be enough - we need mechanisms and projects which really improve the chances of finding work. Training for the unemployed has been notoriously unsuccessful in the past, and great care would need to be taken to avoid repeating previous mistakes. Private sector jobs would need policing. Otherwise government might find itself subsidising employers who abused the policy by turfing out each young person after six months and taking on someone new.

But despite all the potential problems, this is a very welcome proposal. We've heard much from new Labour about "rights and responsibilities" in the past year or so. Here is a policy that could turn rhetoric into reality.