Drum up cash or hit case

May 10, 1996

The Labour party's shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, has caused some ructions in his party by proposing to remove automatic entitlement to child benefit from 16 to 19-year-olds so that the Pounds 700 million involved can be redistributed to give more help to those young people most lacking in support.

This week Labour's shadow social security secretary, Chris Smith, has developed further the party's thinking on the role of welfare and targeting of support particularly, but not only, with respect to that group of young people, now about a third, who drop out of education at the earliest opportunity and too often as a result exclude themselves from the job market.

Labour should not allow itself to be knocked off course on this policy by outraged squeals from opponents within the party and gleeful warnings from Conservatives to those who will lose. Support for 16 to 19-year-olds has been a shocking shambles for decades. Under the last Labour government the then education secretary, Shirley Williams, tried to introduce education maintenance allowances for people in this age group who stayed on beyond compulsory age. But, because no compensating savings were mooted the cost was formidable. The idea fell before the retrenchments ordered by the International Monetary Fund in 1976. It is time to have another go.

There can be no justification in equity for paying child benefit to the mothers of pupils at public schools charging high fees. There is a very real need to find ways of keeping young people from poorer households in education up to the age of 18. Once that point is reached people have genuine choices, to get work, to go to higher education, to mix and match, to come back later. But for those who quit at 16 the haul back on to the escalator is daunting - and is likely to become more so as the loans element builds up for financing higher education.

If Labour is serious about tackling the growing rift between those who can and are increasing their standard of living and those who are dropping into hopelessness and, too often, aggressive violence, they must find ways to help the bottom group at this make or break stage. Financial support is not all, there must also be appropriate courses, qualifications and jobs, but the means to live does help.

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