Since I started up this campaign I have lost count of the number of public debates, speaker events and conferences I have attended on the subject of youth unemployment. Usually these events have had two things in common. Firstly, they were all fascinating, interesting discussions on youth unemployment. Secondly, however, none of them actually had any practical impact. In other words they didn’t lead to any changes in government policy; or any increase in cross-party co-operation; or any big initiatives by employers. At some of these events – for example the debate I attended last year run by Channel 4 – I actually left the event feeling less hopeful that youth unemployment could be seriously tackled compared to how I felt when I arrived at the event.
However, the event I attended this week was perhaps the best of them all and it has given me some much-needed hope for the future of young people in this country.
The event in question was the first ever Youth Employment Convention. The event was organised by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (“CESI” or “Inclusion” for short), with the backing of organisations such as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and City and Guilds; and employers such as O2 and Barclays. Hundreds of delegates from employers, charities, representative organisations, a few politicians and also many young people attended the two-day event, on Wednesday 8th and Thursday 9th May in central London.
There was only one downside of the event, which I feel is important to highlight at the outset. While the Convention did include Government representatives, to my knowledge not a single Government Minister or Parliamentary Private Secretary with responsibility for any aspect of youth unemployment showed up. This is despite the fact that some Government Ministers had – as I understand it – been invited by the organisers.
To me at least this is a little worrying. Ministers had an opportunity to attend a ground-breaking event which had many experts on the issue; employers; organisations which are working on the ground to tackle youth unemployment; and young people – yet none did. It becomes more worrying when you consider that the event was being held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster – a (very) short walk from both the Houses of Parliament and many government departments. It is just not good enough and suggests that there is nowhere near enough focus in the Coalition Government on tackling youth unemployment.
However, that one gripe aside, the Convention overall left me with a sense of hope. It had a packed agenda of interesting debates, panel discussions and networking sessions to enable the delegates to hear from a range of inspiring speakers, to share best practice and ideas with each other. There were so many discussions and ideas and so much going on that it is difficult to pinpoint particular moments of interest. However, two moments really stood out for me above all else.
The first was the final session of the first day of the Convention, where there was a debate on what youth employment policy promises should be included in manifestos for the 2015 General Election. The panel for that debate included representatives from the Trades Union Congress and the AELP, as well as representatives from the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and Conservative Party. I was fortunate enough to speak from the floor after the panel had outlined their ideas, and I argued that the politicians on the panel should work together on a cross-party basis to get on with implementing the ideas suggested now, in 2013, instead of waiting 2 years until after the next General Election.
The last time I suggested something similar to at a panel event at Channel 4 in 2012, the idea of politicians working together on a cross party basis to tackle youth unemployment was dismissed quite abruptly and without much consideration by many of the panellists. This time around, however, something rather different happened. The politicians all agreed on the importance of cross-party co-operation. Instead of sniping at other parties as the Labour MP on the Channel 4 panel had done, the Labour MP on the panel actually emphasised areas of cross-party consensus such as on traineeships. In addition, the politicians I was able to speak to after the panel discussion expressed support for my ideas and asked to find out more about my campaign – something which again differed from the Channel 4 event.
The second stand-out moment was the final session of the second day, which was a panel discussion which included Dr Peter Kyle, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO). ACEVO were responsible for the ACEVO Commission on Youth Unemployment, chaired by David Miliband, former Cabinet Minister and Labour MP for South Shields. The Commission produced what is widely regarded as an excellent report on the subject.
Dr Kyle spoke briefly about the report but what really caught my attention were his observations about the complexity of youth unemployment as a public policy issue. When ACEVO were first looking into youth unemployment in detail, he noted that the issue seemed very big, intimidating and complicated to them. However, when they started studying the detail and considering the issues, it quickly became clear that youth unemployment was actually more simple the more you studied it, and much easier to solve than many other public policy issues. Indeed Peter Kyle even argued that he felt youth unemployment in the UK could be ended within 5 years if all local authorities and the UK Government had the political bravery and focus to do so.
I was very pleased to hear this from an expert as my own study and the study of other volunteers in the group of this subject has led us to similar conclusions. While youth unemployment it is intimidating at first, it is surprisingly easy to tackle youth unemployment if the political will can be found to do it. That insight is a large part of the reason why we exist – and why we hope to find that political will.