Monday, 15 December 2014

Just one more heave to close the gap on youth unemployment in Northampton

One of the gravest consequences of the Great Recession across Europe has been the growth in youth unemployment. For those under-25s, their own epithet of ‘NEET’ was created to reflect a significant cohort not in education, employment or training. The tragedy of effective exclusion from the labour market can cast a long shadow over future prosperity, wastes a vast amount of latent talent and creates a massive production gap. That is to say nothing of the social scars which disenfranchisement can generate.

That is why the ‘NEET’ agenda has been the most pervasive to address. In Northampton, our own Northampton Alive project has been at the forefront of driving economic development. And our ambition expressed in Challenge 2016 has achieved a significant reduction in the number of young people not in education, employment or training. Indeed, at its most recent meeting, it was decided that Challenge 2016 has now run its course. But the issue of NEETs in Northampton has not yet been concluded.

Despite the very commendable progress we have already made, Northampton Alive will continue to spearhead a demonstrable commitment to the employment and skills of young people in our town. In that vain, we will be identifying a new target, with a view to bringing the level of youth unemployment (currently 2.8 per cent) into sync with the current average level of unemployment, which stands currently at 1.7 per cent.

In putting together our plans, we have been mindful of the need to not dilute other performance improvement campaigns in the town. Our focus on the under-25s reflects the serious skills shortages impacting on business performance and growth, and the reality that statistics are published on a monthly basis (making our ability to track progress demonstrable). In Northamptonshire, there is a high job density (jobs per head of population), which has made labour shortages increasingly an issue for businesses in the area. We hope that our efforts will contribute to a reduction in the number of people becoming long-term unemployed – as such, an early intervention could deliver multiple benefits for our economy and society.

I am passionate about making sure that young people in Northampton are able to make a contribution to the future prosperity of our town, and am delighted to have played a part in driving forward various initiatives that should facilitate that. The consequence of what we have already done has reduced the absolute number of 18-24s unemployed to just 1,560 – but it is in all of our interests that we should go further.

Not for the first time, Northampton’s example provides an interesting blueprint for other areas affected by the scourge of youth unemployment. Across Europe, the consequences of failing to address this challenge are demonstrable and profound. Getting the economy right has been the primary focus of public policy since the financial crash. One of the most pervasive long-term legacies of this failure in financial services could be within our grasp in Northampton of being overcome; our sustained and determined efforts promise the prospect of making a real change for young people in our town for decades to come.​

Monday, 8 December 2014

Closeted Existence

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest successes of the Government has been the most radical reform of social security since the creation of the welfare state. In Iain Duncan Smith as Secretary of State, we have seen a bold, compassionate and spirited attempt to reverse much of the cynical politically-driven re-distribution of money and responsibility from individuals and communities to the State. Nobody can doubt his personal commitment to poverty alleviation and eradication, nor that this reform will stand out as the most effective of the last five years.

That is the context for what must count as one of the worst interventions by a senior clergyman for a very long time. Archbishop Justin Welby’s calls for the nationalisation of local charity bodes ill from a body which should know better. The Church of England makes a very valuable contribution in every community in the land, and should be better placed than most to diagnose the real cancer eating away at our collective cohesion.

Despite the success of the Government’s welfare reforms, the reality is that the system continues to cost more than we can afford. On the basis of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mutterings, he wants the State to consume more of our national resources so that even more can be absorbed by what, undoubtedly, he regards as a benevolent, patrician State. But perhaps his experience blinds him to the consequences of an insatiable and rapacious government machine. Governments do not create wealth, and the more that the State grows, the fewer resources are available – either for benevolence and charity, or for private consumption.

Fundamentally, however, people’s quality of life is determined more by the decisions that they make; to argue that the government should make all of these and distribute welfare to a grateful and dependent populace is absurd. We need governments to make fewer decisions, and for individuals and communities to be given the space to take responsibility. Less government will achieve more efficiency, and we can then focus on making sure that welfare and charity achieves maximum efficacy in addressing the needs of the vulnerable and the unfortunate.

I am disappointed that the Archbishop has reached for the easy headline and the glossy public relations ahead of addressing what is one of our most major challenges in the post-Great Recession world. But perhaps he has been spending too much time listening to lazy politicians like Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, who have developed and promulgated a narrative of dependence in a quest for easy votes – an argument grounded in sophistry.

Labour and the social democrats have always loathed aspiration. Genuine empowerment challenges their hegemony, and undermines that dependence which secures them votes without much effort. They revel in spending other people’s money, and dreaming up new ways to capture people in a web of mutual dependence. Their narrative depends upon a relentless pursuit of ‘the rich’, and a helpless, exploited ‘poor’. Sometimes their language changes to reflect the outcome of focus-groups, but the fundamental entrapment remains consistent.

Nobody can be in any doubt that the Labour party has no concept of living within our means. Their current prospectus of punitive taxes and ever-more spending is as flawed now as on each of the other occasions when they have resorted to their instincts. Nick Clegg, the politician who can’t even pluck up the courage to be present for the Autumn Statement, is in no position to lecture anyone about sensible economics.

Addressing the scourge of poverty in our nation is a big challenge, and one which needs to be faced. We have made a good start in delivering reforms to a bloated and profligate welfare system, but much more needs to be done to make sure that the very poorest and the most needy feature prominently in what is delivered. I commend and salute the excellent work done by food banks and other charities in responding to local needs in their communities. They provide a first-class example of what we need to do; and what can be done outside of the apparatus of the State. Only those who live is a closeted world would suggest that this effort would be more effective if nationalised and provided by the Government. I would like to think that the Archbishop of capable of a far more intelligent response than his unsophisticated utterances over the weekend imply; and a debate which encourages responsibility, reduced dependence and priority for the most in need would be a far more welcome contribution.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Autumn Statement brings promise of economic spring

We were told that this week's Autumn Statement would be the last major economic event of this current Parliament. Few would have envied George Osborne’s task, but he delivered a statement that will lay the foundations for a majority Conservative government following next May’s general election.

I have long called for action to help promote and support the aspiration of those wishing to own their homes, and the Chancellor’s policy on stamp duty goes beyond my expectations. By reforming this tax so fundamentally, the Government will go beyond helping people onto the ladder to supporting those throughout almost the entire housing market. Only those at the very highest end of the market will pay more – a progressive reform which will be welcomed in every community in the land.

My appetite for infrastructure investment has also been given a firm fillip in the Chancellor’s plans. At a local level, I have championed the Northampton Alive project which has contributed to the transformation of my own town centre, and the work in Northampton is a good model for others wishing to drive regeneration in their area. Properly configured, infrastructure acts as a driver of growth and facilitates local success. For a government dedicated to rebalancing the economy away from reliance upon the City of London, a clear programme of infrastructure investment is vital. Nobody can deny that the Government’s commitment has been enthusiastic and ambitious. Yes, I would like to see progress on High Speed Two accelerated, as capacity on the West Coast Main Line becomes ever-more challenging to manage, and I shall not miss an opportunity to encourage Ministers to press on with this vital project.

Critics may have chosen to make a big deal of the limited progress on our public finances, but few will miss the irony that they themselves would have pursued a path resulting in more debt – and therefore a far worse performance. Sadly, the path from recession has been more tentative than was originally anticipated, but a steady hand on the tiller has ensured some gentle steps towards a more sustainable fiscal environment. Dangers amongst the Eurozone remain ever-present, and we still need to tread carefully. I would rather that we were in a stronger position, but the easiest time to have fixed the roof was when the sun was shining. Labour’s careless profligacy exacerbated our pain, and it’s not clear to me that they have really changed their ways from what amounted to a fairly mealy-mouthed response to yesterday’s statement.

Inevitably, I must make an observation on the broader issue of the coalition; as George Osborne was presenting this major statement of government policy, we were treated to the absence of the Deputy Prime Minister who had skulked off to Cornwall for a spot of marginal seat campaigning; whilst the Business Secretary, not for the first time, was attempting slyly to destabilise the Government’s statement of economic policy by grizzling towards the media. It’s sad that, after more than four years in government, a party barely capable of achieving double figures in the opinion polls is incapable of getting to grips with collective responsibility. If consolidating the progress made on the economy is so unacceptable to these ministers, then they should act with integrity and resign from the government. To continue discharging the functions of office whilst conducting a counter-insurgency is unacceptable. Frankly, their contribution would not be missed, and they might be able to recover some of the contempt in which they are held well beyond Westminster.

George Osborne has asked to be given the chance to finish the job. His progress towards delivering a full recovery may be slower than he anticipated and all of us desired; but nobody can doubt the Conservative party’s resolve to return to prosperity. Nearly seven years after the crash, few would argue that we are out of the woods yet. But compared with the alternatives, there is really only one credible way forward. And I have no doubt that those tentative signs of growth will develop into tangible recovery in the coming months.