Criminalise or ‘disappear’ the young? No path to a ‘Great Meritocracy’

Ross Fergusson considers the stark choices that the policy swings of successive governments now present to many 16-17-year-olds

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(Image source: http://discoversociety.org/2016/11/01/great-meritocracies-dont-disappear-their-youngest-casualties-mrs-may/)

Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference elaborated her plans to ‘transform Britain into a Great Meritocracy’.  She stressed the unfair division between ‘a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation’.  A major study has just shown that the 1980s generation are already half as wealthy as their 1970s peers.

A faltering recovery

One of the factors most damaging to young people’s income prospects is an early period of prolonged unemployment. The recessions that followed the Global Financial Crash of 2008 brought unprecedented unemployment levels amongst 16-24 year-olds in the UK. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) data show that the subsequent slow recovery in youth employment may be faltering. About 30 per cent of 16-17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs) have been recorded as unemployed over the last two years, and last month’s figures show a new high of 35 per cent  (which is likely to have risen further since the summer).

But if the law was being adhered to, no-one aged 16-17 should be unemployed or NEET. The Education and Skills Act 2008 requires every 16 and 17-year-old to be in full-time education or training, or in full-time or part-time work that includes release for regular training. The one part of the parliamentary debate about the Act that triggered objections concerned the sanctions that apply to those who contravene its requirements – especially sanctions which would place them in detention centres for persistently refusing to comply. The Labour government rejected these concerns and forced the legislation through, but in 2011 the coalition government suspended the clauses which required Local Authorities and employers to monitor attendance and punish refusal. Participation remains compulsory, but it has never been enforced.

Why? Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs had raised high-minded objections to the Act. They argued that 16 and 17-year-olds, who are legally deemed mature enough to marry, bring up children and serve in the armed forces, should enjoy freedom of choice not to participate in any form of education or training (or work). But the coalition’s reassertion of these principles coincided conveniently with its ‘austerity’ policies: monitoring and enforcement would have been far beyond the capacities of shrunken Local Authority budgets.

The unknown status

The effects of non-enforcement have been predictable. Department for Education figures for 2015 in England show that the numbers of 17-year-olds who were known to be NEET were exceeded by the numbers of ‘not knowns’ who had in effect ‘disappeared’ from Local Authority records. Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated that the ‘participation’ statuses of more than 100,000 16-18-year-olds were unknown.

Prioritising 16 and 17-year-olds’ supposed ‘freedom of choice’ releases the state from some long-established commitments to their welfare. This is troubling when their limited chances of getting a job, earning a genuine living wage and being able to afford somewhere to live are left to ‘the market’: the Low Pay Commission has shown that the real earnings of 16-17-year-olds fell by 17% between 2009 and 2013, and their median hourly pay fell by more than £1 to £5.03.

All in all, the youngest adults’ freedom of choice means that many of those who have gained least by way of skills and qualifications from 11 years of compulsory schooling face stark choices between unemployment, poverty-level wages and extending an unproductive school career. At this point, ‘disappearing from ‘officialdom’s’ view’ is the most rational and appealing option for many of them – one that is lent apparent legitimacy by the government’s indifference to enforcing the law that requires them to ‘participate’.

Tackling inequality justly and fairly

This version of freedom of choice is self-evidently one with tangible consequences for future financial (in)security and prospective poverty.  If the current government is serious about the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling intergenerational inequality, it must break the silent consensus which the coalition allowed to evolve between young people who believe their best option is to ‘disappear’ themselves, government departments that are content to accept their invisibility in official data, and Local Authorities that are forced to ignore it for lack of funding. Policies that veer between the ill-advised and socially unjust extremes of criminalising young people for ‘being NEET’ and colluding with it are no path to any kind meritocracy – least of all a great one.

Ross Fergusson is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at The Open University

An extended version of this article first appeared in the on-line not-for-profit publication Discover Society, with the title: ‘Great Meritocracies Don’t “Disappear” Their Youngest Casualties, Mrs May!’

A number of the themes of the article are developed in: Fergusson, R. (2016), Young people, welfare and crime: governing non-participation, Bristol: Policy Press.

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Rough sleepers in policy and practice: chaotic and off course, or misunderstood?

Dan McCulloch

The Open University

Since 2010 the number of people sleeping rough has increased year-on-year, according to official estimates. Historically, rough sleepers have been the subject of national government policies, which have made distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ individuals. However, more recently, government policies have also employed other terms to describe rough sleepers’ lives. Terms such as ‘chaotic’, ‘off track’, and ‘off course’ have been mobilised in policy framings of rough sleepers’ lives. These policy terms suggest a particular way of understanding the lives of rough sleepers – as disorganised, abnormal and headed in the wrong direction.

But, to what extent to these reflect the experiences and understandings of rough sleepers themselves? One way to consider this question is to explore rough sleepers’ accounts of their own lives, an approach I take here, drawing upon work undertaken for my PhD.

In that research, I spent nine months in homelessness services, talking to people who had slept rough. I also interviewed 17 people who identified as having slept rough or having had no accommodation over a period of nine months.

Rough sleepers’ stories

Within the research, life mapping was a tool employed to assist rough sleepers in creating visual and verbal accounts of their lives. Life mapping allowed rough sleepers to draw their story whilst also describing it. Below are two examples of the life maps created in the research. These maps are visual representations of rough sleepers’ lives.

As is visible from Kelvin’s life map, he did not see his life as ‘chaotic’, but rather, as orderly. Kelvin divided his account this into four main topic areas – schooling (left centre), employment (right), relationships (left) and accommodation (lower centre). Within Kelvin’s account, stories of successes and disappointments were evident. Samantha’s life map also showed order in her life.

Kelvins Life Map

Kelvin’s life map

Like Kelvin’s, Samantha’s map also shows a life which is not ‘off track’ or ‘off course’. This is visible in the line drawn between key points in her life, showing both high points and low points in her story.

Samanthas Life Map

Samantha’s life map

These life maps show visually the order and mixed successes of rough sleepers’ lives, which stand in contrast to the claims of ‘chaotic’ and ‘off track’ lives made in policy.

Being homeless

More generally, rough sleepers also spoke about their experiences of being homeless. Sleeping rough often required management of unusual or new situations, such as deciding where to stay and whether to engage with homelessness services. David spoke about sleeping rough in an area he knew well, and the ways in which that allowed him to deal with the risk to his safety, but also put him at risk of being seen by people he knew, saying:

“I didn’t want to leave the area ’cause I knew it so well. But I didn’t want to be seen, I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone I knew, to see me in that situation, sleeping rough. Why, I don’t know, some part of my dignity hadn’t quite died.”

To manage the difficulties that sleeping rough could bring, individuals often engaged in behaviours which might seem chaotic or unusual to others, but could be seen as rational in the context of their situation. Craig stayed in Patford, a small village over two hours walk from the nearest town. In Patford, Craig was largely unable to access the services such as food, water, and washing facilities that he would’ve been able to access in the nearest town. However, Craig spoke of his reasons for staying in Patford, stating:

“I just know it’s safe. … I can have a fire. Alright, it takes you an hour to get into town, but I’m not gonna sleep in a…doorway over here.”

Similarly, using local homelessness services could provide some facilities for rough sleepers. As Stuart noted, such services could provide vital resources, both physical and mental for rough sleepers:

“I remember coming here in the mornings, like half eight in the mornings when it opens, just like, you know, so relieved to just get in somewhere, and I’d get myself in the shower. Sometimes I’d just stand, you know, I’d stand under that hot shower for about ten minutes just standing there, you know, kind of recharging myself.”

However, homelessness services weren’t always ideal for rough sleepers, as Victor highlighted:

“I’m extremely grateful to having a roof over my head and being able to eat something. Umm, that is what I can be grateful to. I’m not going to say that the umm oh it’s a perfect place to be, it’s lovely, it’s warm, it’s this, it’s that. ‘Cause it isn’t, right. Umm, it’s horrible. It can actually get you quite down”

Planning for the Future

In addition to their accounts of homelessness, rough sleepers also spoke about their plans for the future. In contrast to policy views that saw their lives as ‘off course’ or lacking in order and long-term planning, rough sleepers spoke about the risks of making long-term plans. For many, their situation of homelessness made the future hard to plan, as was the case for Laura:

“I’m not so sure on the future. The future’s uncertain and I hate the feeling of not knowing. If I knew what was going to happen I could plan ahead, get ready for it. And my life at the moment has been for many years, it’s a waiting game.”

Jane also spoke about the dangers of making long-term plans, suggesting that it was more suitable to make short-term plans whilst homeless, as circumstances can change these plans with little or no warning:

“It’s a case of day by day now. That’s literally all it is, is day by day. No-one can predict the future. No-one whatsoever. You can try but something’ll come along and completely pull that all apart within seconds so it’s day by day at the moment.”

As Jane’s and Laura’s accounts both show, making long-term plans when experiencing homelessness can be difficult, due to the possibility of circumstances changing without warning. Thus, short-term, but orderly planning, often provided a more rational way to navigate through the conditions of being homeless.

Implications

So, what does all this tell us? Whilst policy documents talk of rough sleepers in ways which still echo distinctions of deservingness, recently they have also spoken of rough sleepers as having ‘off track’ or ‘off course’ and ‘chaotic’ lives. However, rough sleepers themselves talk of their own lives not as ‘chaotic’ or ‘off track’. Within their accounts, rough sleepers highlighted the difficult conditions and circumstances which being homeless carries. They described attempts to manage these, employing various strategies and attempts to maximise the limited means and resources available to them at the time. These are essentially ‘management tactics’ – and while they may initially appear ‘chaotic’ or ‘illogical’ to outsiders, understood in context they reveal themselves as being rational. As such, whilst policy makes judgements about rough sleepers’ lives as being ‘chaotic’ and ‘off track’, these often misunderstand the lived experience of sleeping rough. Instead, a policy strategy which recognises the importance of individual context and experience, and supports the use of personalised rough sleeper-led approaches, could provide a successful platform for understanding the experiences, strengths, and self-defined needs of rough sleepers, and could be key to reducing repeat homelessness.

*All location, service, and individual names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved in this research.