One of the biggest challenges facing the country at the moment is how to get our young people into work.
For too long decision-makers sat back and watched as youth unemployment figures soared. Former Labour Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, admitted last month that the problem became noticeable back in 2004 and I remember writing a letter to The Gazette in November 2009 warning that the local unemployment figures were becoming a real cause for concern for Ealing and Acton.
Clearly, one of this Government’s top priorities must be to address this burgeoning problem. The previous Government presided over a 42 per cent rise in youth unemployment, but clearly, under this Coalition Government too, the problem continues to challenge us, and that is something for us to deliver on.
I believe we now have the foundations in place to do this. Tied in with the welfare reforms that have just passed through parliament are a package of measures to help turn the problem around. One thing that Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith’s work has really highlighted is the damage a spell of unemployment can do to young people at the start of their careers.
So the Government is spending £1 billion on the Youth Contract which will provide employers who take on young people with £2,275 each and aims to create 250,000 extra Work Experience places over the next three years.
Work Experience is just one part of the strategy to help more people, and crucially young people, find work. But it is a key part and it was disappointing, not to mention baffling, to see the Labour Opposition joining activist groups in attempting to dismantle the scheme which is being provided with the support of many large companies and agencies.
It is an entirely voluntary scheme for people between 18 and 24, and unlike under the previous Government, the scheme now allows young people to keep their benefits all the way through the 6 to 8 weeks of training they get. Despite the hostility to the scheme generated by the Opposition, many thousands of young people are queuing to sign up because of its proven success in helping them find work - 51 per cent of people are coming off benefits and getting into work, many of them with the same company with whom they completed their work experience.
The most important part of the scheme is providing young people with the chance to build up their confidence and also to get in the habit of getting up in the morning to go to a job.
Another part of the strategy is to expand apprenticeships. The Government wants to see 250,000 apprenticeships in all by 2015, and specifically, 30,000 additional apprenticeships for 16 to 18 year olds.
Locally, apprenticeships are on the rise in Ealing and Acton. The latest figures show a rise of 140% compared to the previous year. I joined the local Acton Training Centre during National Apprenticeship Week to find out more about their work. They are truly optimistic about what they can deliver, but we want more local businesses to get involved in the Apprenticeship Scheme and I hope to be organising a meeting with local businesses and the Minister for Business later this summer.
It will hopefully provide an opportunity to impress on our local businesses that by participating in the scheme, they stand to benefit from Government support.
At the heart of this issue, of course, and for the longer-term, is Education. Too many young people continue to leave secondary school without even the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. This is hardly likely to help them into work and we need to ensure our schools are also up to the challenge of sending their pupils out into the world of work fully equipped and ready to go.
Secretary of State, Michael Gove, is at the head of enormously important reforms that we hope will start to turn this massive problem around – it won’t happen immediately, but it can’t happen too soon.