Three tests for the New Deal;Comment;Opinion

10th April 1998 at 01:00
A member of the Government's New Deal taskforce in Scotland has warned against expecting a rush of interest in the scheme, which might founder on a lack of available training places (page 4). But Michael Leech, principal of Stevenson College in Edinburgh, also pointed to the frantic activity since the New Deal was announced 11 months ago. There is a need to balance the maintainance of momentum against the danger of unfulfilled expectations.

This week the emphasis was on momentum as the programme went national after trials in 12 areas. The launches across the country were grand and glitzy. Donald Dewar, who is not given to hype, was keen to demonstrate employer interest in the New Deal and to highlight the success stories already chalked up in Tayside. Scotland, it appears, is in the vanguard. Employers are honouring pledges to turn training places into permanent employment and a significant number of 18-24 year olds have left the dole queues which threatened to blight their lives.

It is far too early to say whether this employment creation scheme will prove more fruitful and longer lasting than its many predecessors, dating back to the 1970s. Large companies are clearly responding. But in a country like Scotland, with many small and medium size concerns, lack of training facilities may deter employers or shortchange the young people who sign up.

The old accusation that training schemes are a way of massaging employment statistics will be hard to bury. In some parts of the country it is hard to see sufficient jobs being created to meet demand. After all, it is an underperforming economy that creates long-term unemployment in the first place.

There are three tests. The first is how many of those on benefit accept training rather than risk losing money. So far on Tayside the uptake is very healthy.

The second test is how many training places turn into jobs. The Government can will the means for a New Deal and "encourage" young people to become involved. It cannot force businesses to take on more people than they need. Lean workforces are as much a priority for this Government as for its predecessor.

The third test will be the hardest. How many jobs will prove permanent? For the New Deal to succeed the economy has to remain buoyant. In a downturn former trainees will lose their hard won jobs and reappear in the dole queue - further embittered.

Ministers made clear this week the links between employment, welfare, health and law and order. The New Deal is part of a wider strategy to reduce youth crime by creating opportunities and stimulating self-reliance, to divert resources from benefit handouts because the need has declined and to make communities healthier because they can afford a better standard of living. It will take at least the lifetime of this Parliament to judge whether it was politically wise to let so much ride on the New Deal.

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