It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Devine, whose contribution was impassioned and at times entertaining. I must take issue, however, with his claim that those on the Government Benches have a monopoly of concern and interest in unemployment. We would take that claim more seriously were any of them willing to engage with the current circumstances.
I congratulate those on my Front Bench on securing this debate at a time when the international economy and financial system is undergoing a trauma that none of us has seen before in our lifetimes. As someone described it to me last night, the pieces have been thrown up in the air, and we do not know whether they will fall down in the same place—they will probably not—and how they will fall down. We do know, however, that real economic pain is starting to be felt.
I think that the hon. Member for Livingston—forgive me if it was not him—called out "Rubbish" when my hon. Friend Mr. Gale talked about some of the economic difficulties being felt in his constituency. However, that is the reality. If we talk to any of the major recruitment agencies—perhaps some Government Members will have the opportunity to do so in the next 18 months—they will tell us that there is a freezing-up of recruitment in certain important sectors in our economy. This is not just a banking and financial crisis. The real economy is starting to slow down, and a real economic chill is starting to set in.
I want to focus on an issue that has been mentioned in passing by several hon. Members—youth unemployment, in which I take a close interest. Ministers have claimed repeatedly at different times in recent years that long-term youth unemployment has been virtually eradicated or wiped out. Unfortunately, the statistics simply do not back that up. Those who do not believe the statistics should go down to any town centre in the middle of a working day. In most constituencies, they will see large numbers of young people doing nothing with their lives.
My hon. Friend Mr. Carswell hit the nail on the head when he said that although we had experienced 10 years of good times—or relatively good times—involving sustained economic growth, the operation of a flexible labour market and the falling of the headline unemployment rate, during those good times there had been no success in tackling the hard core of youth unemployment. In fact, it has become worse. That represents a major stain on the reputation of the Government who were elected in 1997. I seem to remember from their election campaign that one of their five key pledges was to bring down youth unemployment, but what has actually happened is that youth unemployment has increased.
In 1997, the Prime Minister—with, no doubt, his famous moral compass buzzing—described youth unemployment as a "human tragedy", as "sickening" and as "an economic disaster". Those are the terms on which we should hold the Government to account. At the time, the Prime Minister asked
"How did a society like ours get itself into a position where we are wasting young people's talents like this?"
We can ask exactly the same question here in 2008. The Prime Minister said at the time that
"staying at home is not an option", and that it would not be an option. Well, it is, actually, for too many young people; for 1.2 million young people, staying home or hanging out on the streets is an option.
That is the scandal of youth unemployment that is on the Government's charge sheet. At a time of sustained economic growth with, as near as dammit, full employment in many parts of the country, when the cohort of 16 to 24-year-olds is shrinking slightly as a proportion of the overall population, why should there be a 70,000 increase in the number of people of that age who are not in education, employment or training? My constituency is in Wales, and in Wales the position is even worse. Nearly 20 per cent. of 19 to 24-year-olds are doing nothing constructive with their lives. Research commissioned by the Prince's Trust suggests that youth unemployment is costing the country £3.6 billion a year.
What has let the Government off the hook over the past 10 years is the fact that we have benefited from a large influx of migrant workers. I for one do not consider it a negative development that people have come into our country with skills, drive and entrepreneurial initiative—it is a good thing that they have come into this country—but it has let the Government off the hook. They have not seriously had to tackle the long-term problem of youth unemployment.. The fact that 1.2 million young people are not in work has not caused severe economic problems, because the gaps in the labour market have been filled by migrant workers.
Reference was made earlier to the role of Jobcentre Plus offices. I for one have spent significant amounts of time with my two local offices. I have huge admiration for the staff, who are trying to do an excellent job, but they are very clear about what they can and cannot do—about what they are cut out to do and what they are not cut out to do. During my discussions with them, they have made clear that they are simply not in a position to address the multiple and complex needs of many newly unemployed young people who do not have the basic life skills and basic literacy to perform even very basic jobs in the modern labour market.
During the summer recess, I spent some time with my local Prince's Trust organisation. It has a fantastic training centre at Pembroke Dock. Although it is in the neighbouring constituency of Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire, a significant part of the client base comes from my constituency. I participated in CV-writing workshops, and in all sorts of other activities. That is an example of a third sector organisation that is trying hard to rescue a lost generation of young people and give them back some self-esteem and direction in their lives, or at least to return them to the lowest rungs of the ladder, which will hopefully lead to sustained employment in due course.
I make the following appeal to the Government. At a time when businesses are starting to suffer, we should also remember that the charitable sector is starting to suffer as a direct result of the economic downturn, and there are organisations such as the Prince's Trust and Fairbridge that provide strategic work in this area. A recent survey—it was published today, I think—by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations pointed out that there has been a 72 per cent. increase in demand for charities' services, that 88 per cent. of chief executives of charities expect their income to fall as individual and corporate donations decrease, and that 30 per cent. of charities say they have been forced to make redundancies. I know the Government recognise the role the voluntary or third sector plays in working in conjunction with the private and public sectors to tackle long-term—and in particular youth—unemployment, and I appeal to them to recognise the particular pressures it might be facing at this time.
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