Focus: Meet the 'Neets': a new underclass (Sunday Times 27 March) A group of 1.1m people who are not in education, employment or training (Neets), are being blamed for many of society’s ills. Robert Winnett on the battle to tame Britain’s feckless youth Though they do not realise it, Robert and Amanda Reed from Barking in Essex are of unusual interest to Tony Blair and his government. They are, believe ministers, part of a new and distinct social tribe gnawing away at Britain‟s values and resources. In government offices, universities and think tanks throughout the country, dozens of academics and policy wonks are quietly measuring, monitoring and agonising over them. Why? Because they are Neets. It‟s not a hair infestation and it‟s not another word for cool. It‟s the name being given to a particular group of young people who find themselves living on the margins of society. Take Amanda, now 24. She played truant from school and dropped out at 16 with no qualifications. At 17 she had her first child, Jordan, and at 19 her second, Chloe. “I wanted to become an actress and got a part in Grange Hill when I was 17,” Amanda said last week. “But I had to turn it down when I got pregnant.” She has no qualifications and apart from some casual modelling, she has never worked. Family life was not easy and after falling pregnant with Chloe, she split from the children‟s father. Later she married a childhood friend, Robert, and last year the couple had a baby of their own, Taylor. Robert has followed a similar ground-skimming trajectory. He left school at 16 after failing all five of his GCSEs and started a plumbing course. He lasted two months before dropping out. “After I left plumbing college I did a few days rough work here and there but then I just dossed as I wanted to do my own thing,” he said. “Before I realised it I had a family to support.” Since quitting the plumbing course he has survived on state benefits. The couple live in a three-bedroomed council house on a rough estate and get by on £700 a month in welfare payments. They aspire to a new council flat in nearby Dagenham. “We have to take every day as it comes,” said Amanda, who has never been abroad. In Blair‟s Britain there are millions of people on benefits of one sort or another, but the Reeds are in the special category known in Whitehall as Neet: not in education, employment or training. A class of über-chavs, they encompass a wide range of people, from the law-abiding who have fallen on hard times, such as the Reeds, to the truly antisocial neighbours from hell. What they all have in common is that they are not doing anything productive and are costing taxpayers a fortune. Last week Blair made a rare speech about faith and morality in which he asserted that single mothers were “piling up problems for the future”. The comment was striking from the leader of a party that has traditionally defended single mothers and vehemently condemned those who have sought to stigmatise them. But Blair‟s words only hinted at the scale of the government‟s true concerns. Sixteen years after the American sociologist Charles Murray warned that a big new underclass was looming, official studies and ministerial papers — which ministers have chosen not to highlight — reveal that it has finally arrived in the form of the Neets. Aged between 16 and 24, they number 1.1m and are responsible for a social and economic drag on society that is vastly disproportionate to their numbers. A study by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) conservatively estimates that each new Neet dropping out of education at 16 will cost taxpayers an average of £97,000 during their lifetime, with the worst costing more than £300,000 apiece. Their impact on crime, public health and antisocial behaviour was so marked that the study found that a single 157,000-strong cohort of 16 to 18-year-old Neets would cost the country a total of £15 billion by the time they died prematurely in about 2060. They are, says the study, 22 times more likely to be teenage mothers; 50% more likely to suffer from poor health; 60% more likely to be involved with drugs and more than 20 times more likely to become criminals. So daunting is the scale of the challenge that all ministers have been briefed on Neets and — while for reasons of political correctness they have not been publicly identified as a distinct group — many government policies are now directed at dealing with the problems they raise. Indeed Labour now has an official “Neet target” under which the total Neet population is to be reduced by about 20% by 2010. Geoff Mulgan, Blair‟s former head of policy who left Downing Street last autumn and is credited with identifying Neets as a class, admitted that solving the problem was one of the government‟s top priorities. “If you crack this issue, lots of other things will fall into place,” he said. But Murray, who was vilified by many on the left when he warned of the underclass timebomb, believes it may all be too little, too late. Last week he was as uncompromising as ever and urged ministers to drop their political correctness and get the problem out in the open. “When I was looking at Britain in the 1980s, the offspring of the first big generation of single mothers were small children,” said Murray, speaking from his home in America. “Now they are teenagers and young adults and the problems are exactly those that I was warning they would be — high crime rates and low participation in the labour force. “These people have never been socialised and they simply don‟t know how to behave, from sitting still in classrooms to knowing you don‟t hit people if you have a problem. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to take these people now and provide basic conditioning. “There has always been a small underclass but now you have got a major problem, who are being called the Neets.” There is one consolation: at least all sides now agree that the phenomenon is real and that something should be done about it. Somehow the Neets must be helped to drop a consonant and become — in the jargon of Whitehall — Eets: educated, employed and trained. IT was in 1989 that The Sunday Times first brought Murray, a controversial academic, to Britain. Murray had chronicled the emergence of an entrenched underclass in America and was curious to see whether the pattern was being repeated on this side of the Atlantic. His original underclass theory rested on three pillars — the number of unmarried mothers, the number of unemployed young men and the crime rate. When all three rose above a certain level, Murray believed, the underclass had arrived. He later simplified the theory, deciding the key indicator was simply the number of unmarried mothers. In Britain Murray found that since records began during the time of Henry VIII, the number of children born to unmarried mothers remained stable for centuries at between 4% and 5%. After the second world war, the numbers began to rise slowly to about 9% in 1976 before rocketing in the 1980s. When Murray arrived in 1989, he was shocked to find the figure stood at 23% and it has now risen to more than 35%. At the time, evidence of Murray‟s British underclass was only just emerging and he was warning of problems in the future. For his efforts he was given a drubbing by the left who said his work lacked “scientific evidence” and was “misleading”, perhaps “wilfully so”. He found few friends in the Labour party who were keen not to upset their core voters — many of whom were under Murray‟s microscope. A decade on, the mood has changed, though the causes of the Neet phenomenon propounded by Murray remain contentious. An unlikely supporter of Murray‟s thesis, the former Labour minister Frank Field now describes Britain‟s Neets as a “lost generation” and is calling for firm action to be taken. “I regard this as the first nonviolent loss of a generation,” he said last week. “Just as happened in the first world war, we have wiped out a generation. Surely we can say that the traditional family unit is the best way to nurture children without making it a campaign to beat up single mums.” The government, wary of being so outspoken, is nevertheless hurling brains and billions at the problem. Leaked minutes of a meeting last May of the cabinet committee on public services and public expenditure, which is headed by Gordon Brown, reveal a sense of desperation. It was noted: “There [are] still over 170,000 young people in the 16-18 range that [are] not in education, employment or training [the Neet group]. Although some steps [are] being taken to tackle these issues, greater priority [needs] to be attached to these groups, and incentives [need] to be introduced into the system to encourage more effective interventions for them. “Serious proposals and actions [are] needed on the pupils who leave school without qualifications, the Neet group, who [are] being left behind.” At the meeting, the government agreed to introduce a new target to reduce the number of Neets in Britain by 2010. Councils throughout the country have now drawn up strategies and the worst areas are being visited by a new army of Neet officers charged with bringing the numbers down. The analysis by the DfES and other government studies seen by The Sunday Times reveals a catalogue of problems. Neets are far more likely to come from broken homes and to have spent time in care. Many also have disabilities or special needs that have not been properly dealt with and have hindered their time at school. Once reaching their teenage years, the study found, the average Neets were 11 times more likely to leave school with no qualifications. One study states: “Each year there are 56,000 births to this age group [16 to 18-year- old Neets]. One per cent of women who are in the non-Neet group were mothers. Among the group of Neet women age 16-18, 22% were mothers . . . 60% had children by age 21 and 40% had two children by age 21.” While Neet women are disproportionately represented on maternity wards, Neet men tend towards crime. Three-quarters of those appearing in youth courts are Neets, with many committing burglaries and thefts. Drug use is also high: about 71% of Neets have used drugs [compared with 45% of non-Neets], with 10% classed as addicts. The financial impact on taxpayers is dramatic. The DfES study calculates that the current cohort of 16 to 18-year-old Neets will cost a total of at least £15 billion. This includes £226m in handouts to teenage mothers, more than £70m clearing up their crimes and more than £8 billion in unemployment benefits. It‟s no fun for the Neets either, as the borough of Barking and Dagenham illustrates. Nicknamed Neetville in Whitehall, it counts one in four young people in the area as Neet, the highest concentration in the country. The effects are all too clear on the Gascoigne estate, a grim collection of 1960s tower blocks. The Royal Mail, take-away firms and even refuse collectors have stopped visiting the estate and postmen call it “Beirut on a good day”. One local postman said: “It is a bad area, the worst I have seen. Practically every time we go there the vans get broken into and letters or parcels get nicked. As soon as you turn your back, teenagers smash your side window with their fists or a brick and steal whatever is on the seat.” David Green, head of Civitas, the think tank, says Barking and similar areas across Britain are now paying the price for soaring numbers of unmarried mothers and divorces. “The warnings made in the 1980s about the breakdown of traditional families were very relevant and we are seeing the effects,” he said. More than 3m children are now brought up by single mothers. Murray and his acolytes say that cultural change in the 1960s laid the foundation of the problem. They say subsequent changes to the state benefit system, giving priority to single mothers, coupled with economic problems, spawned the Neet phenomenon. That theory is rejected by Mulgan and others close to Blair. “The biggest cause of the problem was a massive rise in unemployment in the 1980s,” said Mulgan. “This had a huge knock-on effect which happened to coincide with a period of family breakdown.” The argument continues over causes. But the biggest divide remains over what to do about Neets. PARTICIPANTS in the chatroom of ChavScum.co.uk, the website that documents chav style, were putting forward stringent ideas for tackling the new underclass last week. “Everyone not going on to higher/further education should have to perform some sort of national service,” said one contributor. “If everyone had to serve in say the fire service, on ambulances, as community wardens etc for at least a year, then not only would something be put back into the community, but it may, just may instil some life values. . .” Labour prefers a more subtle approach, combining carrots and sticks. To meet its Neet targets, it appears to have settled on a three-pronged strategy, comprising reforms to education, new judicial sanctions and restructuring benefits. The big carrot is cash to stay at school. Gordon Brown has increased grants for the offspring of poor families staying at school after the age of 16 — currently the subject of a multi-million-pound advertising campaign. A new service based around local community offices is also to help steer Neets towards worthwhile careers. Brown has pumped hundreds of millions into providing and promoting more vocational training, including vocational GCSEs, and encouraged wealthy sponsors to back specialist city academies in poor neighbourhoods. The leaked cabinet committee minutes record: “One of the main contributing factors to pupils dropping out of school or becoming disengaged from education (is) that they felt they were not learning anything important. It [is] important to make school-leavers feel that they had achieved something useful.” Treasury insiders also claim that one of the main themes of this month‟s budget was Neets — although the phrase was not used and many commentators missed its significance “People have missed the importance of what we said on education,” said one senior Treasury official. “It really is central to what we are doing.” The government‟s goal, the chancellor said, was for all children to begin their education at three and stay in education or training until the age of 18. Brown has also reformed the benefits system to give specific help to young people in training. Handouts have been replaced with tax credits that top up earnings rather than simply pay out money to those out of work. However, the measures have met mixed success. Although the number of Neets has fallen marginally since last year, Britain still has one of the highest education drop-out rates in the developed world. The second Labour strategy has been to wield a big stick. The government is encouraging the use of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos), which ban people from disruptive behaviour with the threat of prison for breaking an order, and wide-ranging curfews banning teenagers from going out at night. Last week, an entire family from the Wirral in Merseyside was handed an Asbo after plaguing neighbours; it banned them from the area for up to seven years. Many of the country‟s leading think tanks, including the left-wing IPPR favoured by new Labour and the right-wing Civitas, are now rushing to complete the first comprehensive academic studies of Neets. Simone Delorenzi from IPPR said: “We are looking quite widely across all the issues seeing what kind of interventions could be introduced. We don‟t know which of the factors defining Neets are triggers of the problem and which are causes. For example, do youths committing crime become Neets because they can‟t get a job with a record or vice versa?” However, critics say such studies and measures, while useful, do not address the underlying problems of lack of personal responsibility. Such a move was tried in the 1990s when the Conservatives launched its disastrous “back-to-basics” campaign. Today, the Tory approach is different. They now believe that the answer to the problem lies in reforming the education system to offer more opportunity for vocational training and bringing in voluntary organisations to help encourage Neets in the community. They would also send 25% more people to prison. Murray believes that both Labour and Tory approaches are misguided: only tough action will have an impact, he says. “In America we tried all kinds of training and mentoring problems which were lavishly funded but the consistent lesson is they just don‟t work. “The US has dealt with the problem of the underclass by putting 2m people in jail, which has had a big impact. We haven‟t rehabilitated anyone but just kept them out of society. It is not a happy solution but it is the only solution.” !!! AMONG the left-wingers who have come to accept, in part at least, Murray‟s concerns, Field is one of the few willing to speak frankly. The former Labour welfare minister believes that, while governments can provide help, the road to improving lives starts early and at home. “Single parenthood is the recruiting sergeant for antisocial behaviour,” he said. “Children need a noble male role model to follow. But no one will say „boo‟ publicly to this issue.” He has some support among the very people who find themselves trapped and impoverished in the margins. They recognise a need for better guidance from parents and schools. In Barking the Reeds spoke of where they thought things had gone wrong for them. “I regret not being able to go into acting. I just wish someone had sat me down at school and given me some options,” Amanda said. “If I had not become pregnant then ma ybe things would had been different, but it happened and then it was too late.” Robert said: “I wish I got more guidance when I left school. Before I realised it, I had a family to support. I left because I wanted to do my own thing but I regret it now. I feel disappointed and want to start afresh.” It‟s never too late: in September Robert hopes to have another crack at that plumbing course. If he sticks with it, Britain will have one less Neet. Additional reporting: Will Iredale THE PARTY POLITICS LABOUR A target to cut the number of Neets by about 20% by 2010 Establishing new vocational qualifications and specialist vocational schools to give Neets practical skills o Restructuring the benefit system to reward those in work, education or training The introduction of anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) and curfews to control Neets who step out of line CONSERVATIVES New special turnaround schools for highly-disruptive children and more discipline in classrooms Scrapping Labour‟s „New Deal‟ employment programme while offering Neet youngsters special vocational grants Zero-tolerance policing, combined with a 25% rise in prison places A greater role for charities and voluntary organisations in helping Neets LIBERAL DEMOCRATS Increasing taxes to fund a big increase in the education budget Offering more personalised tutoring in smaller classes Recruiting 10,000 more police officers
"FOCUS MEET THE NEETS A NEW UNDERCLASS"