On Thursday Emma chaired a conference on the challenges young people face in the North East. The conference, organised by Youth Homeless North East and the National Housing Federation, focused on high levels of unemployment and homelessness among young people in our region.
Emma told the conference how the weakening of the social safety net under the Coalition had made it easier for young people to become trapped in poverty, and how young people and benefit claimants were often unfairly scapegoated. You can read Emma’s full speech below.
Also speaking at the conference were David Orr, CEO of the National Housing Federation and Mike Clark, Chair of Youth Homeless North East. The conference also heard from a group of young people about the challenges they faced.
Thank you for inviting me to chair today’s conference.
The issues we are tackling today – youth homelessness and youth unemployment – are not problems that will be easily solved, and even a day long conference is not enough time to do justice to the scale of the challenge.
But it is not a challenge we can ignore, and we need to look at the issues in a joined up way.
We need to accept that there will not be an overnight fix, but that transforming the opportunities for our young people will take many years of hard work and coordinated efforts.
That is why today’s conference is such an excellent opportunity.
We have a chance to look at the challenges facing us in depth, and to think about not just what is needed to help this generation of young people, but how to help future generations.
We have a huge amount of expertise in the room to help us do that including the fabulous Key Project in my own Constituency.
In a few minutes I will be introducing Mike Clark, Chair of Youth Homelessness North East and the Thirteen Group.
Mike will be talking about how housing associations and the building industry can be part of the solution to the youth unemployment and skills crisis, not just the housing crisis.
We will also be hearing from Neil Foster from Durham Council, who I know has many years of experience working with young people and businesses. Neil is going to talk about the employment landscape for young people in our region.
We will also be hearing a number of case studies showing us examples of good practice that are already underway.
And I am also delighted to say that the Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation David Orr will be here to discuss next steps for the future.
But most importantly, we will be hearing from a number of young people, because too often their opinions are ignored by the people who make decisions affecting their lives.
Whatever experience those of us in this room have, I am sure we can all agree that nobody is better placed to talk about the importance of these issues than they are.
All of us here know that issues of employment and housing feed into one another. Without a stable home it is very hard to find a job, and without a job it is hard to find housing.
One of the most interesting things about the presentations we will see today is that they look at how the solutions to these problems can also feed into each other.
I am looking forward to hearing about the ways that housing providers and the house building industry can offer work to young people and help them develop valuable skills.
That kind of approach has the potential to transform our communities – not just the physical landscape but also the human landscape.
But I am not going to spend too much time talking about these points, because there are people far more qualified than me speaking today.
What I would like to do is talk about the political context that has fostered this situation, and the changing attitudes to welfare and work that have got us where we are today.
I think that young people today are facing obstacles that previous generations never did, and it is little surprise that some struggle with the incredible demands of making a living and living independently in Britain today.
As an MP, and before that a councillor and social worker, I am constantly working with people who find themselves at the ‘sharp end’ of the system.
The people I see range from those fleeing abuse and ex-offenders to those who fall on hard times due to unforeseen illness or a change in circumstances.
When I think about the difficulties these people face in their everyday lives, I cannot imagine how many of them cope with the additional stresses of earning a living in a world where work is scarce, pay is low and the welfare system ruthlessly punishes every misstep.
When these people are young, the pressures are more unbearable still.
Comparing the early work experiences of myself and my generation, it seems like we lived in a whole different world.
I am not going to pretend things were fantastic because they were not – access to education and good employment was limited.
But even in my area, where people were not very well off, few people lived in such immediate danger of falling into poverty and despair.
Working people, even low-paid working people, could be comfortable, and stories of people going hungry were rare.
What has changed is that the safety net has now all but gone.
By that I don’t just mean the welfare system, but the safety net provided by a home.
Like many young people my early jobs were low paid and unstable, and it took me a little while before I began my career.
But whatever happened, I always had a room at home to fall back on if things went wrong.
If money was tight, I could count on support from family, friends and neighbours who I knew and trusted.
Today if things go wrong it can mean a disaster.
Today, one missed appointment at the job centre can mean weeks of sanctions, and having to turn to food banks just to feed yourself.
Losing your home can mean being rehoused in a completely different town, isolated from the support networks that can help you back on your feet.
Previous generations knew that if they made mistakes or fell on hard times the safety net was there to give them a second chance. Today, recovering from a setback is all but impossible for some.
When a person has a financial crisis, a housing crisis often quickly follows, and vice versa, and without that safety net of state and family support it is incredibly hard to work your way out of poverty once you are in it.
I don’t think there can be any doubt that public attitudes to benefit claimants have hardened in recent years.
Yes, times are hard and working people are struggling to pay their bills.
But the extent to which the Government and some sections of the press have demonized claimants is quite shocking, and there is no doubt in my mind that they have done so for political gains.
Much of the Government’s welfare reform is counterproductive. Sanctions look tough, but the research shows that they have little effect because the problem is rarely claimants’ attitude to work, but a lack of suitable job opportunities.
The Bedroom Tax is another policy built to look tough, but in fact it has had little effect on under-occupancy.
In my South Shields there are nowhere near enough one bedroom homes to go around.
Instead it has created a huge spike in rent arrears, so local authorities have less money to spend on building and maintaining properties.
But from the Government’s point of view these reforms are not about addressing unemployment or housing supply issues.
They are about scapegoating the poor and winning votes from those who believe the worse off are ‘scroungers’ who deserve to be punished.
So when the Government talks about scrapping housing benefit for the under 25s, this is the context we should see it in.
It is not about making the system fairer – nothing could be more unfair than leaving a young single parent or young disabled person homeless.
It is about pandering to prejudice and cynically attacking the poor for political gains.
It is the Government failing to stand up for those citizens who need its protection the most.
All across the board, it seems that young people are easy targets for this Government.
Those who value their education lost the right to Education Support Allowance, meaning many could not afford to stay in school and take A-levels.
Those whose families scraped together the money to do so then faced the trebling of university tuition fees.
At every turn young people have been sent the message that their country does value them and their government will not lift a finger to help them achieve their potential.
Things are no better in the world of work.
Nearly one in five under-25s in the North East are unemployed, but never is it suggested that this is a result of Government failure to invest in jobs.
Instead they are told that it is their fault, and shunted between make-work ‘training’ classes and unpaid, unskilled workfare placements.
It makes me angry when people accuse our young people of not wanting to work. When I was younger and unemployed I was desperate to find work.
I do not know anybody who is able to work who does not want to.
Without a supportive state, we need to look elsewhere for initiatives that can improve the prospects for young people and protect the worst off.
We need to look to housing associations themselves, who understand the needs of tenants and are already doing their utmost to protect them from the worst injustices of the bedroom tax.
We need to look to businesses, who are stepping in to deliver specialised training for young people and providing a genuine route into work.
Today we will be hearing about some of that progress, and it is great to see these organisations bringing about real improvements for young people in our communities.
It’s also great that forums like this one exist so that we can coordinate our approach and begin to address some of the structural problems around housing and unemployment, in ways that we could not do individually.
But in the long run we need something else – a national change – and that is to transform the way our society sees young people and our responsibilities towards them.
We have to realise that by investing in young people’s skills it is not just them who benefit, it is us.
We are all better off in a society where people are well-trained, have stable homes and are able to support themselves.
This is the approach Labour is trying to adopt.
We want to raise the minimum wage and offer incentives for employers to pay a living wage, because making work pay is the best way to get people out of poverty and help them live independent lives.
We want to create new high-standard technical qualifications, because those are the skills that can lead to a stable and lifelong career.
We want to scrap the Bedroom Tax, and instead focus our energy on building 200,000 homes per year over the life of the next parliament, because we are interested in solving the housing crisis, not assigning blame and punishment.
I won’t pretend that these are comprehensive solutions, or that change will happen overnight.
But the approach is important because of the goals it sets for the kind of society we want to live in.
The key difference between what I and other people in this room believe, and what the Coalition Governmentbelieves, is that we see poverty, homelessness and unemployment as complex problems that are a result of more than individual choices.
We believe that we have a responsibility to help our young people achieve their potential, to find work and to make their way in the world.
That is why I am very pleased to be here today to chair this conference. I think that we all share a belief that collaboration and innovation are the best approaches to problem-solving.
We know the issues, and we know the obstacles, now our task is to think about how we can overcome them.