Policymaking must be informed by the reality of children's lives

By John Freeman

| 05 April 2018

Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, says that teenagers should be encouraged to take up Saturday and after-school jobs to help them develop a work ethic. I'm not against this in principle - both my wife and I had jobs when we were at school, as did our children and, as a long-time advocate of work experience, I'm certain that there is something valuable in the discipline of doing something for pay. There is, though, a serious reality disconnect in the proposal. The truth is that there are just not that many part-time jobs around! Our local newsagent has stopped newspaper deliveries, the retail sector generally is contracting if not collapsing and certainly not seeking more part-time employees, and jobs like supermarket shelf-stacking are already being done by young people on the minimum wage or zero-hours contracts. The only reason for employers to take on school students would be that they are even cheaper, and the effect could be that some older young people would be displaced into unemployment. So, a good idea in theory, but unworkable in practice.

In another area of policy, however, I'm delighted that McVey has reversed the reality disconnect in the last Conservative Manifesto by scrapping the ending of housing benefit for 18-21 year-olds. I really can't imagine what was going through Conservative policymakers' minds - perhaps they thought that the young people claiming housing benefit were all work-shy shirkers who were starting a lifetime of living on benefits. The reality is that these are some of the most vulnerable young people, very often care leavers or having been children in need, and almost always having lived in poverty. They should not have the roof over their heads threatened just as they are starting out in adult life. I can well understand the stress and strain this would have put on mental health and relationships, and indeed the ability to get and hold down a job. So well done to Esther McVey for seeing that £40 million a year is a small price to pay for reducing the scandal of homelessness among young people. That's the evidence-informed reality.

Now, take free school meals. About 1.8 million children have parents who will be on Universal Credit, and the plan is to means-test free school meals to limit this, eventually, to around 650,000. I'm not arguing about the principle of Universal Credit. Rather that children whose families are in relative poverty are already highly vulnerable to a range of poor outcomes, and if they can't access free school meals that can only make things worse. As has been pointed out again and again, hungry children don't learn well, and with limited money, children buy cheap, but unhealthy, food that contributes to the national obesity problem and generally poor nutrition. Again, that's the reality.

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