Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Mislead and kept in the dark

UK unemployment has risen to 7.9%, with youth unemployment now at a record high since 1992 - more than one in five 16 to 24-year-olds are out of work. In our area of south-east Sheffield, the number of people getting Job Seekers Allowance has leapt by a massive 43% in the last year.

The economy has stalled, the government doesn’t have a growth strategy and the big cuts in public expenditure, which will result in further job cuts in the public and private sectors, are yet to kick in. Nearly every family in our area is affected some way. And it’s going to get worse.

Every job loss brings with it the risk of getting into debt or loss of home. There hasn’t been another time in the last 20 years when ordinary families will need access to good debt advice – independent, high quality, free and not from the sharks who want to make money out of misery.

Last week, the government did a sudden u-turn on the massive cuts in support for debt advice work it had announced just a month ago, but only agreed support for another year. You might have thought that local councils would also see good debt advice as a high priority at the moment. Despite the massive challenges they are facing, most councils have done. But, not in Sheffield.

Last week, I visited Mosborough Citizens’ Advice Bureau. As well as other advice, a large number of local trained volunteers supported by a small number of paid staff provide debt advice to individuals and families in our area. Yet, in the face of increasing demand, Sheffield City Council is proposing to cut the CAB’s grant, guarantee funding only for 1 month, and require cuts to home visiting services to people with disabilities and sessions at a local health centre and with tenants’ associations.

This will inevitably result in big cuts in advice, and specifically, debt advice services at the very time when they are needed most. Far from a Big Society, it will also result in a Smaller Society, as there would also be big cuts in the number of volunteers who can be trained and supported.

It is now also clear that the council’s support for a whole range of services is only being guaranteed for 1, 3 or 6 months into the next financial year. Whilst other councils are being clear about the scale of the cuts – services and jobs - for next year, Sheffield City Council is keeping us all in the dark.

It is planning a budget with big cuts in expenditure, but will only take the big decisions about what they will actually be after May. The leader of the council’s recent statements about the number of job losses that will result from the council’s budget are simply disingenuous. Either, he doesn’t actually know – because he’s ensuring that the big decisions on actual cuts won’t be taken until after the local elections – or he does know, and he’s keeping the rest of us in the dark.

Whichever, it isn’t transparent and we’re all being mislead.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Not a Price Worth Paying

This weekend, I spent a long time on the doorstep just talking to people about what was happening in the lives of their family.

The biggest single issue was employment. Nearly every household had someone who was worried about their job security, or had someone who was out of work already, or had a young person about to leave education – at 16, 18 or 21 after higher education – who was really worried that they wouldn’t be able to get a job.

Quite often, older family members took me back to the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher, faced with unemployment rocketing up beyond 3 million people, ended the obligation to work if you could. That government said ‘unemployment was a price worth paying’. The result was high unemployment that lingered for years.

Last month, the Office of National Statistics reported that the number of 16-24 year olds out of work is now at its highest point since April 1992.  Youth unemployment has increased by 70,000 in the last 6 months.  

At the moment, the dramatic rise in unemployment is overwhelmingly affecting the poorest areas – in Sheffield, the increase in unemployment in David Blunkett’s constituency was twenty times the increase in Nick Clegg’s constituency and there are more than ten unemployed people looking for work for every vacancy. So much for sharing the pain fairly. 

Yet, whilst unemployment soars and growth is sluggish the government is hitting young people with a triple whammy: jobs cuts, the removal of education maintenance allowances and a tripling of tuition fees. Without work and study, what are they supposed to do?

A report, written by Barnsley Council Leader Steve Houghton, led to the establishment of the Future Jobs Fund which would have created up to 200,000 full time paid jobs for young people up and down the country.  But, the government has now scrapped this programme.

All this will have a significant impact on the life chances of our young people and store up considerable problems for the future. The Government’s ‘Big Society’ programme offers no hope either, as 75% of youth charities are cutting projects.

These policies need to change quickly if we are to stop this becoming first a youth unemployment crisis and then, inevitably, a longer-term crisis for many communities.