Ruined youth reap what the politicians sow

6th December 2002 at 00:00
In 1966 - after a never-to-be-forgotten summer spent on the west coast of America - I started my university course in Ireland. And although I instantly fell in love with Dublin, I remember being deeply shocked at the sight of the tinkers begging in O'Connell Street.

It was something which, as an English teenager brought up in a welfare state, I had never seen before. Yet by the end of the 1980s, we began to see begging on the streets of our own cities. Worse, our beggars were completely destitute. Worse still, most of them were young, on the threshold of their lives.

Regular readers of this column may feel that I am too eager to blame Mrs Thatcher for the ills of this world. Yet this shameful change in the quality of British life must be laid fairly and squarely at her door. Partly, it was due to youth unemployment, and partly to the sale of council houses.

OK, I suppose it could be argued that the first of these factors was due to a global economic turndown and that there was little the British government could do about it. And you could say that the benefits of the latter policy were greater than the negative effects, and that welcoming millions of householders into the property-owning democracy outweighed the disadvantages of losing most of our stock of affordable public housing.

But mainly it was a change in the benefit regulations in 1988 which threw thousands of young people onto the street. No longer were 16 and 17-year-olds eligible to draw the dole if they were unemployed; they were deemed to be the responsibility of their parents. At the time, I was a deputy section editor on The Sunday Times. We ran numerous articles - mostly by Frank Field - warning what would happen to those children not fortunate enough to possess responsible parents. The Government took not a blind bit of notice. And the predictable came to pass.

So it was with the old familiar feeling of impotent rage that I read the new study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which shows that the generation born in 1970 are twice as prone to depression as those born 12 years earlier, who came to maturity before the 1979 election. Although more of the later-born group achieved degrees, those without higher qualifications faced a perilous future, with more likelihood of being excluded from national prosperity.

A second key reason for this shocking finding is the Youth Training Scheme. In the 1980s, as unemployment soared to over four million, the Government was desperate to mop up jobless school-leavers. So, with a great fanfare, the YTS was born - a one or two-year scheme on a starvation allowance which acted as a giant holding tank for the young unemployed.

But the YTS had another, less publicised function: to replace the apprenticeship system. This offered a thorough four or five-year induction into a trade, on a proper training wage. But the system was controlled by the hated trade unions. And so it was virtually destroyed, with an incalculable effect on the job prospects and mental health of hundreds of thousands of young people, whose entry into the adult world was disrupted and - in some cases - ruined.

The effects of what governments do last long after the politicians have retired - or died. Only those who are old enough to remember what happened at the time can see those policies working their way through the generations. And it's pretty thin comfort to know that you were right all along.

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