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Ignoring Young Voters Is A Gamble Politicians Can No Longer Afford To Take

20/06/2017 16:02
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A few years ago, a government minister visited a Centrepoint hostel. When questioned by a young person about the focus of government policy, he responded honestly by saying that, until young people voted in the same numbers as older people, governments are unlikely to give the two groups parity of priority. While I appreciated his honesty, I thought it a shameful reality. Now, that reality is creaking as young people start engaging in the political process.

Over the past decade, the balance between the reward for capital and the reward for labour has become too skewed towards capital. Thus, young people, often suppliers of labour rather than capital, are concerned about both their employment prospects and whether, having played by the rules, they too would ever be able to have a decent family life. In fact, despite the number of young people out of work and claiming benefits falling since its peak in 2013, there are still more than 11,000 young people who have been claiming for more than 12 months. The government needs to lead in redressing this imbalance to give young people hope and a sense of belonging.

At the same time, we have seen the level of rough sleeping in London double. In some cities there are overnight 'sit-in' centres - there are no beds, literally just a place for young people to sit out the night. The number of young people approaching their local council for help because they are homeless or at risk of homelessness has surged to 150,000 a year. Despite the law prohibiting it, 16 and 17 year olds are still accommodated unlawfully in bed and breakfast accommodation. Many are moving on from care or offender institutions, let down by the system again.

Furthermore, we now have the perversity of the latest regulations that if a young person finds rented accommodation, they have no automatic right to Housing Benefit and a prospective landlord has no way of knowing if they will be exempt. Yet, the government will not consider giving an exemption until the young person has somewhere to live. Many landlords won't hang around to wait or risk giving that young person a home as a result. So, young people lose out again. How can that be right?

In the same way that we need more family homes, at current rates of housing delivery across England we need an additional 140,000 rented homes for under-25s by 2021 to keep pace with demand. Just as we want high quality supported housing for older people, we need high quality hostels for homeless young people. We want to live in a country where a pensioner's income keeps pace with inflation, but at the same time we should aspire that Universal Credit should keep pace with living and rental costs so that young people, especially those who were formerly homeless, can afford to rent a home in those vital months after they move on from a hostel.

We need the government to take up the challenge of persuading more landlords to rent to the young or the low paid. As a country, we need to have a grown-up debate about whether the shackles should be removed from councils to allow them to build more homes for social rents or, if not, how best to stimulate housing associations to do so. But above all we need to simply build more houses, for rent and purchase.

One of the key lessons of the general election is that no political party can now afford to prioritise one generation over another. The time has come for us to accept that our collective interest is best served when the generations have parity of esteem and priority. This must be in a wide sense - it would be an error to narrow the youth vote down to university fees and so-called election bribes. Young and old need faith in politicians and hope for their futures. Remunerating young people fairly for their labour is good economics, as is facilitating their access to relevant health services, especially mental health. Having a home is a most basic need, part of the fabric of our society. Ending youth homelessness in a modern society is not just a good thing to do; it should be non-negotiable. Making it a reality is within our reach - if only we had the will.

Politicians have more to do to earn the trust of young people. Metro-mayors, notably Andy Burnham in Manchester, have placed homelessness squarely at the centre of priorities for the city-region. Given the result of the General Election, will any future government want to gamble its electoral success by ignoring voters who will be around for many elections to come?

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