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

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

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

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

“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
“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

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
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

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
“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

They say subsequent changes to the state benefit system, giving priority to
single mothers, coupled with economic problems, spawned the Neet

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.

PARTIC IPANTS in the chatroom of, 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), w hich 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”

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

   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
    New special turnaround schools for highly-disruptive children and more discipline in
    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
   Increasing taxes to fund a big increase in the education budget
   Offering more personalised tutoring in smaller classes
   Recruiting 10,000 more police officers

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