We risk a lost generation of young people

MP Catherine West is fighting for the young generation she fears will be lost through the pandemic.

MP Catherine West is fighting for the young generation she fears will be lost through the pandemic. - Credit: Chris McAndrew (Creative Commons

At Prime Minister’s Questions recently, I asked Boris Johnson what action his government would take to support the 230,000 private renters who’ve fallen into rent arrears during the pandemic and risk losing their homes when the eviction ban comes to an end in August.

He did what he so often does in response to difficult questions, brushed aside my concerns and answered the question he wanted to hear – not the one I actually asked.

The government’s failure to address this looming problem is a real issue here in Hornsey and Wood Green, where unemployment has risen by 176 per cent since March and 16,700 people, almost 20pc of the working age population, are currently on furlough. Housing costs are high and private rents have soared in recent years, leaving many struggling to pay their bills even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, with jobs disappearing and the country sinking into a deep recession, it’s no surprise that in recent weeks I’ve been hearing from constituents who are increasingly anxious about their future.

Many of these are young families and professionals living in rented house shares. No section of the population has been spared the harsh impact of Covid-19, but if the government doesn’t act fast a whole generation of young people look set to face a perfect storm of financial insecurity, missed education, rising unemployment, and growing inequality. The problem is particularly acute for those who were just getting started in their first jobs and for the 800,000 young people who leave schools, colleges and universities this summer and find themselves searching for employment during this unprecedented economic crisis. Already we are seeing the impact this is having on people’s wellbeing. Research by University College London, Imperial and the University of Sussex has shown a sharp increase in the number of young people experiencing mental health problems during lockdown.

I wrote to the prime minister back in June to urge him to develop a national scheme providing high-quality funded work placements for new school, college or university leavers. Hornsey and Wood Green is home to a great number of excellent small and medium sized charities, that work often on shoestring budgets and already have a strong record of welcoming young people on work experience. I wanted to see a scheme that would both provide interesting opportunities and skills development for young people at a time when employment will be scarce and assist local organisations such as these who in many cases have seen their fundraising collapse during the lockdown. It could lead to a qualification which would help in finding future employment when the economy starts to improve.

Boris Johnson hasn’t even replied to my letter, but last week his chancellor launched the “kickstart” job creation scheme that I fear on first glance fails to meet the scale of the challenge ahead. Young people need high-quality, living wage opportunities and genuine new jobs that guarantee real training and increase the chance of finding long-term work. I want assurances that this scheme offers that – it can’t become a way for unscrupulous employers to fire workers and re-hire young people in a lower paid role.

Crucially it needs to get going now. Last week we saw 12,000 job losses announced in just two days. This week, up to 800,000 new school, college and university leavers will start the search for work. Without immediate action to create a summer of opportunity we risk a lost generation of young people.