In 1997, Gordon Brown announced what he claimed were the “most radical welfare reforms since the Second World War” and declared that the unemployed young would be first in the firing line. “How,” he asked, “did a society like ours get itself into a position where we are wasting young people’s talents like this?” Under his new Welfare-to-Work programme, funded by a £5 billion windfall tax on the privatised utilities, the welfare state would be transformed, making it crystal clear that “staying at home is not an option”.
That was 13 years ago. Fast-forward a dozen years of supposed fiscal ‘prudence’ during which the biggest fiscal crisis in memory crashed everyone’s party and we find Gordon’s replacement as Chancellor, Alastair Darling admitting on August 19th 2009 “this country risks a ‘lost generation’ as the number of NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) rises to nearly 959,000. These figures are further evidence that the recession has had a devastating impact on the ability of school and college-leavers to find work.”
Given such a decade, it was pure déja vu to witness Labour Leader Iain Gray declaim to the faithful gathered in a drookit Oban last weekend that “What holds this country back is not its constitutional status. It is every child growing up in a family made dysfunctional by drugs or alcohol. It is every pupil who leaves a school unable to read write or count properly. It is every youngster who drifts into unemployment and an empty future.”
Mr Gray’s speech was peppered with personal international references from Chile to Mozambique to Cambodia, so recent claims that he has no hinterland clearly cannot be true. He must therefore be fully aware that, as a part of Britain, Scotland shares an abysmal record of failure in NEETs as, in contrast to elsewhere in Europe, our numbers continues to rise—a calamity that affects many more than just those youngsters involved.
Government figures show that each new NEET dropping out of education at 16 costs an average of £97,000 during their lifetime. The worst will cost more than £300,000. Given that these figures are worsening (the million mark was passed in Q3 of 2009), that is well over £100bn of public money diverted from schools, hospitals, etc, to say nothing of anger, frustration and disillusionment suffered by generations of youngsters whose hopes lie in ruins.
Comparable rates in other European countries throw a harsh light on any achievement we may claim through the Chancellor £5bn windfall spend after 1997. While both UK and Scottish NEET statistics now hover over 15%, our Nordic Council neighbours tell a very different story. Both Denmark and Norway hover around 5% with a lower figure for 16-year-olds while Scotland’s fare worse than our average. And how has ‘little’ Denmark weathered the recession now buffeting ‘Great’ Britain so badly? Their overall unemployment rate has risen from just under 4% in 2007 to just over 4% this year.
As long ago as December 2006, East Lothian’s then Labour administration had developed its own NEET strategy, with five priority targets aimed at East Lothian’s three areas of multiple deprivation, all identified in Prestonpans and Tranent. At that time, our economy was still booming and the total of all NEETs in Scotland was only 32,000, while East Lothian’s was barely 500. After three years of following their ‘targeted’ strategy, that number is now 1,720 or 28% of the age group. This tripling to over 1 in 4 is a miserable failure for any strategy. Only South Ayrshire and (more ominously because that’s where our good jobs are) West Lothian and Edinburgh are worse.
However, if East Lothian were to suddenly find itself on a par with Denmark, we could find our NEET tally collapsed to 370 and £170,000,000 freed up to invest elsewhere. More importantly, an additional 1,300 of our young people would be contributing locally with jobs, hopes and a real future. Is such an enlightened option not worth consideration, rather than ridicule?
In his speech, Mr Gray seemed to relish blaming the Scottish Government for our present ills: “In the chamber and committees the Labour group has harried, hounded and hamstrung SNP ministers.” If, as he claims, “Our public finances were sustainable and our spending in-line with the needs and priorities of the people” and “The Labour government held our economy together”, he must expect the public to suffer collective amnesia over this past decade. That whole time, it was Labour administrations at all levels who doubled the spend of public monies in education and health to so little effect, as well as funding—yet still failing—many worthy causes such as NEETs.
East Lothian may still be relatively prosperous but it still has its areas of multiple deprivation. Worse, with NEET rates now triple what they were before, some new thinking must precede hosing in any more money after the last largesse, especially as we should be agreed that we have none to spare. Oban’s rain was heavy but even it cannot wash away a fiscal reality that ex-government ministers of any or all stripes ought to share.
 Meet the Neets, Daily Telegraph, 15th April 2007
 Leader’s Speech to Labour’s Scottish Conference, Oban, October 30th 2010
 Starting Well or Losing their Way? The Position of Youth in the Labour Market in OECD Countries. Glenda Quintini and Sébastien Martin, OECD SOCIAL, EMPLOYMENT AND MIGRATION WORKING PAPERS No 39, 2006
 Scottish Census Results On-Line 2011
 Youth Unemployment Rising in Most Areas, The Guardian, 11th August 2010