The latest figures for the so-called Neets – young people who are not in employment, education and training – were out today.
Labour launched an immediate broadside, saying the numbers have gone up on David Cameron’s watch.
Coalition policies on young people, such as slashing the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) payment, represent “a failed approach”, a press release from the party claimed.
But the government gave a cautious welcome to the fact that Neet numbers have fallen since a year ago. What’s really going on?
Labour’s Shadow Minister for Young People Karen Buck said: “There are an extra 32,000 18-24 year olds who are out of work, education or training now compared to the same quarter of 2010.”
She added: “Under David Cameron’s watch, we have seen face to face careers advice for young people and the EMA axed while he prioritises a tax cut for millionaires. With so many young people left on the shelf, he can’t be the One Nation Prime Minister this country needs.”
That numerical bit’s quite right: there were 912,000 people aged between 18 and 24 without a job, college place or training contract in the third quarter of this year and only 880,000 in the same three-month period in 2010.
What’s wrong with this comparison?
First, it ignores 16- and 17-year-olds, for no obviously good reason.
Mostly, when we talk about the Neet total, we include them. And if we do that with today’s figures, we see a basically static picture over the last two years: 1,027,000 in quarter three of 2012, 1,163,000 million in the same quarter the year before and 1,022,000 million the year before that.
Second, the period from July to September 2010 began only a couple of months after the coalition came to power, so you could argue that trends in that quarter had far more to do with the legacy of the previous government than the new one, who were yet to make significant policy decisions.
It’s perfectly right to compare the same quarters in different years, since these figures are highly seasonal, but if you want to talk about the current government’s record, a fairer comparison might be with quarter three of 2011, when we were more than a year into the new regime.
And if we compare this year with last year, the number of Neets has fallen, whether you start from 16 or from 18.
Third, we have been talking about raw numbers so far, ignoring underlying population changes. As with unemployment, it’s probably better to look at the rate, or percentage, rather than just the total number.
If we do that we see that the rate of 16-24-year-olds not in work, education or training was 17 per cent in the last quarter, compared to 19.2 per cent in quarter three of 2011 and 17.1 per cent in the same period two years ago.
In truth, there’s little good news for anyone in today’s statistical release. Neets, as a number and a percentage, have fallen very slightly over the last year, although the movement is small whichever way you look at it and figures remain worryingly high, as the government has acknowledged today.
But Labour are probably unwise to try to make too much political capital out of the lack of progress on this problem. To do so only invites comparisons with their own record, which is far from exemplary.
This graph from the latest release shows one long-term trend, unfortunately only available for 16-18-year-olds. The proportion of those teenagers out of work or education is significantly lower than its recent peak under Labour in 2005.
It’s also much lower than it was in the 1980s, and there’s no easy way to say which government, if any, is responsible for the long-term improvement in the figures.
And Labour are failing to give the whole picture when they sum up the current government’s efforts to tackle Neets as the axeing of EMA and careers services.
The coalition has been spending money on projects which it hopes will get more young people into employment or training, chief among them the Work Programme and the drive for more apprenticeships.
These latest figures show that apprenticeships, while on the up since the election, cannot be having the kind of impact on the Neet figures that the government might have hoped to see.
That ties in with what we have already found in a previous FactCheck: that apprenticeships are increasingly going to over-25s rather than young people.
The release of the first comprehensive data on the Work Programme next week will tell us whether the stubborn problem of Neets reflects a failure to get the youngest jobseekers out of the dole queue.
A technical pass for Ms Buck, although a fair bit of spin has been applied to today’s news. She didn’t mention that 16-18-year-old Neets hit a recent high in 2005, long before the recession and on Tony Blair’s watch.
As we’ve found with youth unemployment, Labour have skeletons in their own closet on this issue and run into difficulty when they try to claim the moral high ground.
By Patrick Worrall