Belfast Telegraph

Under-25s face end to jobless pay

Millions of young people could face the removal of a sweeping range of benefits if Conservatives win the 2015 general election, David Cameron signalled today.

As he promised pro-business policies and hinted at tax cuts after the election, the Prime Minister warned that there will be no option of a life on the dole for under-25s, telling the Conservative Party conference that he wanted all of them "earning or learning".

Full details of the reforms are expected to be included in the Tory manifesto for the 2015 poll, but Downing Street aides said that young people who are not in work, education or an apprenticeship and decline to take up training places can be expected to lose their automatic entitlement to benefits including jobseekers' allowance and housing benefit.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has been commissioned to carry out a review of training and education for under-25s, which will feed into the policy. He is considering reforms to offer support to young people while they undertake training programmes.

In his keynote speech concluding the Manchester conference, Mr Cameron appealed for the Conservatives to be given the chance to "finish the job we've started" by being returned as a majority government at the 2015 general election.

The Prime Minister said the UK economy was "beginning to turn the corner" and pledged to build "a land of opportunity for all" by backing business, home-ownership and education as times get better.

And he turned his fire on Labour leader Ed Miliband for "bashing business" and treating enterprise and the profit motive as "dirty words".

But the clearest signal of major new policies for the Tory election campaign came as he stated his determination to do more to intervene at an early stage to prevent young people becoming trapped in a cycle of unemployment and benefit dependency.

"Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits," Mr Cameron told Tory activists.

"It's time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all.

"Instead we should give young people a clear, positive choice. Go to school. Go to college. Do an apprenticeship. Get a job.

"But just choose the dole? We've got to offer them something better than that...

"So this is what we want to see: everyone under 25 - earning or learning."

Plans to withdraw housing benefit from under-25s were first floated at last year's Tory conference, when the measure was estimated to save a possible £2 billion. Aides had no immediate figures for the potential saving from extending the idea to other benefits.

Critics warned that the measures would force more young people into poverty unless there is massive investment in education and training.

The general secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, said: "Educational underachievement costs the UK economy an estimated £22 billion a year. We will not resolve this massive problem by forcing young people into unstable, low-paying employment or inadequate training.

"What we need is a real plan at local and national level which provides sustainable and secure employment opportunities for young people and access to education which is useful and mind-broadening. Cheap headlines about lazy youngsters or cutting their benefits are no substitute for a strategy which is on the side of young people and allows them to realise their potential."

And TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "Given the Government's awful track record of helping young people find jobs, the Prime Minister's threat to ban the dole for under-25s will simply push hundreds of thousands of young people, including those with young families, even deeper into poverty.

"Young people suffered most in the recession. Today the Prime Minister has pledged that they will suffer most during the recovery too."

But Mr Cameron told the conference: "Let no one paint ideas like this as callous.

"Think about it: with your children, would you dream of just leaving them to their own devices, not getting a job, not training, nothing?

"No - you'd nag and push and guide and do anything to get them on their way, and so must we."

Education Secretary Michael Gove - using a Scots word for a heavy blow - told BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "It is important to stress that for lots of young people, they are desperate for work. But it is always going to be the case that there are some people for whom you need not so much a nudge as a dunt towards the workplace.

"It is important also that we all recognise that welfare is there explicitly to help those people through hard times, that it shouldn't become a way of life to which people become habituated."

Mr Cameron used his speech to tell Conservatives that their ambitions should not be limited to "clearing up the mess" left by Labour, but should stretch to creating a "land of opportunity for all" as the recovery sets in.

He made clear his intention to reduce taxes, telling activists: "We're Tories. We believe in low taxes. And believe me - we will keep on cutting the taxes of hard-working people."

But he also warned of further austerity following the election, even if the recent return to growth is sustained, insisting Tories will stick to their economic course "until we've paid off all of Labour's deficit, not just some of it" and will run a surplus - spending less than they take in from tax and other revenues - even after the deficit is eliminated.

The PM promised Conservative support to business, praising entrepreneurs as "national heroes" and recalling the "incredible pride" he felt when his wife Samantha - who was watching in the audience - made her own first steps as a businesswoman.

And he told activists: "Let us pledge today that we will build something better - a land of opportunity. A country built on that enduring principle, seared in our hearts, that if you work hard, save, play by the rules and do your fair share - then nothing should stand in your way."

Mr Cameron's address sought to draw clear dividing lines with Labour, describing Mr Miliband as "Red Ed" and dismissing his promises to cut the cost of living by freezing energy bills as "all sticking plasters and quick fixes".

He denounced Labour's plan to hike corporation tax rates for large businesses as "just about the most damaging, nonsensical, twisted economic policy you could possibly come up with", warning it would drive multinationals away from the UK and cost jobs.

"I know that bashing business might play to a Labour audience," he said. "But it's crazy for our country. So if Labour's plan for jobs is to attack business, ours is to back business."

Labour said it was clear the PM had been forced to abandon his previous efforts to brand their leader "weak".

"David Cameron has clearly given up attacking Ed Miliband as weak," said a senior source. "Labour is now the party setting the political agenda and the Tories obviously have no answer to the energy price freeze."

And Mr Miliband tweeted: "David Cameron's speech shows he does not know where to start in tackling the cost of living crisis facing Britain's hard-working families. The last thing families want is him to 'finish the job' when prices have risen faster than wages and average pay is down by almost £1,500."

In a riposte to shadow chancellor Ed Balls's famous "flatlining" gesture, Mr Cameron pointed upwards as he boasted: "Jobs are up, construction is up, manufacturing is up, inward investment, retail sales, homebuilding, business confidence, consumer confidence - all these things are up.

"Let us never forget the cast-iron law of British politics. Yes - the oceans can rise and empires can fall, but one thing will never, ever change. It's Labour who wreck our economy and it's we Conservatives who clear it up."

But despite telling activists that the UK economy was "beginning to turn a corner", Mr Cameron made clear there would be no let-up in cuts to state spending.

"We are still spending more than we earn," he said. "We still need to earn more and yes, our Government still needs to spend less."

The Conservative leader also sought to claim ownership of territory where his party has traditionally found it difficult to make inroads against Labour - positioning the Tories as the true defenders of the NHS, promising to drive industrial regeneration in the North of England, and even urging activists to applaud the "noble and vital calling" of social work.

In a bold attempt to wrest the mantle of "the party of the many not the few" from Labour, Mr Cameron accused Mr Miliband's party of allowing disadvantaged people to be written off and consigned to a life on benefits.

By contrast, the Conservatives' "land of opportunity" would be "for all", no matter what their family and educational background and whether they are male or female, black or white, from the North or the South, he said.

"It's this party that is fighting for all those who were written off by Labour," said Mr Cameron. "It's this party that's for the many, not the few.

"Yes - the land of despair was Labour, but the land of hope is Tory."

Unlike Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at last month's Liberal Democrat conference, Mr Cameron said that he will not be campaigning for another coalition government in 2015, but will be seeking an absolute majority to allow Tories to rule without the constraints of coalition.

" When the election comes, we won't be campaigning for a coalition, we will be fighting heart and soul for a majority Conservative Government - because that is what our country needs," he said.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said the Government was not claiming there were jobs for all the under-25s not currently working.

He told BBC's Newsnight: "No-one's suggesting that there are jobs available for all of these young people in every part of the country, no one's suggesting that for a second."

He said: "What we are saying is that if there are jobs available then we ought to be making sure that people have the chance to, and do take up, the opportunity to do some training or stay in college, go to college, get more skills and qualifications."

The Prime Minister had "set out a direction" and that the details would be "worked out" in due course, said Mr Maude.