Enthusiasm for New Deal

How is the New Deal shaping up? Barely 2 months into the new Governmentís term of office, the main features were announced in the July Budget. But planning the New Deal did not wait for the Chancellorís announcements and development has been underway almost since the election. During late July and early August, the Employment Service launched a process of consultation - both in public and in private to draw in partners and to test some of their assumptions about the programmeís delivery. The Taskforce, and its Advisory Group, has been formed. Pathway areas will soon be announced and the programme will start to roll out after Christmas.

Enthusiasm for the New Deal is widespread. Local Government, TECs, voluntary organisations, colleges and employers all want to play a part. The Government has made enormous efforts to marshall employer support because, without a decent stock of vacancies for waged work, the New Deal will have to fall back on the Voluntary Sector Option and the Environmental Task Force. This is just what happened in Australia and the Government is alert to the lessons learned there.

Although the Government still speaks of the New Deal as an employment creating programme, it is very clear that training, education and general employability are important goals too. So, the New Deal is more than just a "partnership with business" as David Blunkett has described it. The progamme for under 24 year olds is designed to reach out to excluded and disaffected young people and decisively change their long term chances of entering or re-entering work - before they are lost to the labour market and to society generally. Excluded young people need to improve their employability through a mix of work experience and learning. They also need a head-start in the labour market with a helpful hand taking them from the back of the jobs queue to its front.

This is why the voluntary sectorís role is so important. Not because it might run a standalone sub-programme once described as the option of "working for a charity". Instead the voluntary sector offers the greatest experience of tackling disadvantage and exclusion and it has a track record of forging some very effective partnerships. Similarly the Environmental Task Force was not devised to siphon-off thousands of young men into unskilled general labouring under the guise of canal clearing or land reclamation - too many people remember the worst of the Community Programme and Community Action. Instead it has to build on the values held by many young people and to galvanise their commitment to make the environment cleaner, more sustainable and more rationally used.

What about the unemployed themselves? So far, their voice has not really been heard. This is a weakness to the Governmentís approach because their willing participation is essential. If they feel that quality does not run "like a seam of gold" throughout the New Deal, then it has a credibility problem.

The history of 20 years is littered with failed "schemes" and the New Deal must be distinctively different - as Ministers have painstakingly pointed out. But if jobless young people get too strong a whif of coercion, they will not walk away (their money could depend on it), but they will be reluctant and potentially disruptive recruits that neither employers nor voluntary organisations want. The danger with the regime of "2 weeks first time; 4 weeks for a subsequent offence" is that it is strongly reminiscent of the most unpleasant aspects of the former Governmentís schemes.

Lastly, there is the problem of money. Young people need to feel they will be better off right away - not in 6 months time. Despite the distinctly presbyterian feel to some of the New Deal, the Governmentís offer has to appreciate the immediate needs of people who have been on benefit for some time - the promise of simply "bettering their future" is a bit too abstract. Many unemployed people need a significant improvement in their income to feed themselves and their families or to get some respite from debt. So working for "benefit-plus" holds limited attractions.

Convincing the jobless of the New Dealís inherent value should be a genuine activity undertaken by organisations that believe in it. The Gateway Service is key to this. The young unemployed must view their first point of contact as an independent, friendly and helpful service that will act impartially and in their interests. Benefit sanctions should not apply to the Gateway service or they will discolour the programme from the very start. Indeed the Government would be wise to have a general moratorium on sanctions until the New Deal is bedded-in, teething problems are resolved and it is proving its quality.