Cruelties in the way much-needed welfare is handed out to NEET families is preventing their children from social mobility, writes Andrée Deane-Barron
Why would the government establish policy that so defiantly restricts the progress of another? I am referring to the welfare benefits system and its adverse effect on the take-up of apprenticeships, especially among those who are in most need of training and employment.
This barrier to improved life choices and opportunities is a restriction on social mobility and social justice – and the current situation doesn’t help the government’s target of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020.
When a young person starts an apprenticeship they earn a wage that’s not often much higher than the £3.70-an-hour legal minimum.
Nevertheless, their parents will generally lose their entitlement to housing benefit, child tax credit and child benefit. No consideration is made for the lower wage apprentices earn, nor the fact that many of these young people remain dependent on their parents.
According to the latest DWP statistics, housing benefit averages approximately £95 per week, the child tax credit is worth nearly £60 per week, while weekly child benefit is £20.70.
In some circumstances losing these benefits can end as a reduction of several thousand pounds a year, a loss which would be significant for nearly any family, let alone one already is struggling to manage.
It makes absolutely no sense that our welfare system doesn’t address these consequences
Understandably, parents often discourage their dependants from taking on an apprenticeship and, catastrophically, are forced to accept that they remain not in education employment or training (NEET).
According to a 2010 study, those who have spent time out of work and education are far more likely to be unemployed later in life. The average individual life-time cost to the Treasury of somebody being NEET is £56,300, but more important is the cost to an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth.
It makes absolutely no sense that our welfare system doesn’t address these consequences: the human cost of this waste of public money is appalling. Apprenticeships have the capacity to transform lives and give young people the tools they need to succeed, regardless of where they’ve come from, and the benefits system shouldn’t be holding young people back.
In our latest ‘Transforming education’ manifesto, Central YMCA called on the government to remove barriers for learners, but again and again our cries have remained unanswered.
It is understandable that enthusiasm for welfare reform is low given the colossal task of rolling out universal credit, and perhaps changes to schemes that are soon to become legacy benefits, such as housing benefit and child tax credit, are unlikely.
Child benefit however is not included in universal credit, and alone amounts to over £1,000 per year for families. Ensuring that parents can keep this benefit when a young person in their household becomes an apprentice surely isn’t a mammoth task, and it’s one that should have cross-party support given the apparent bipartisan consensus on the need to promote apprenticeships and encourage social mobility.
When I gave evidence to the education select committee a couple of weeks ago, this consensus certainly seemed evident, and many members agreed with me that the government really shouldn’t be passing up such a relatively easy hit.
I’m hopeful therefore that the committee will join Central YMCA in pushing for reform, but we know that changes to the welfare system alone won’t solve everything. There are other barriers for learners, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds or who have learning difficulties and disabilities.
I wholeheartedly agree with the social mobility commission’s proposal to adopt a more ambitious and unifying approach in order to maximise everyone’s life chances and enable them to achieve their aspirations.
Individual ministers have taken some action over the years to improve social mobility, and I wouldn’t want to deny anybody’s personal commitment, but often it seems cross-departmental issues like these fall through the cracks.
It is only when the government takes an overarching approach to social mobility will issues such as the unintended negative impact of the benefits system be avoided.
Andrée Deane-Barron is education and skills director at Central YMCA Group