We need to invest more in prospects for younger people
Posted by Kate Green, MP for Stretford and Urmston, at 09:28, Fri 27 July 2012:
Last week, I was invited to address the Stretford Deanery synod.
A most interesting discussion took place about the different - and overlapping - concerns and interests of young and older people.
There was a huge amount of anxiety about the prospects for young people. Worries about their chances of getting a good job, buying a house, or affording their student loan.
Everyone agreed that we have to invest much more in the future for our young people. A fascinating debate then broke out about how we should achieve that.
Synod members asked: Is it sensible to expect people to carry on working for longer and longer, extending the retirement age, when young people can't get their first job, and take the first step to building their careers?
How do we find the money to support an ageing population (we're living longer - that's good news). Can we afford to go on paying universal benefits, like winter fuel payment and free TV licences for pensioners?
Should we means-test more benefits? Should we go back to a system of student grants?
These are the really challenging and important questions that I've been thinking about, and writing about, in parliament over the past few months.
Although it might seem to be the fairest and most logical approach, I'm very opposed to more means testing in our benefits system. We know that means tested benefits are in fact the benefits that are least likely to be taken up by the people who most need them.
Pension credit, which is intended to supplement the income of the poorest pensioners, is claimed by only around two thirds of those entitled to it.
We might think it's inefficient to pay winter fuel payments to better off pensioners. But deaths from hypothermia doubled in the UK last year.
Maybe we could spend the money for winter fuel payments more effectively.
But I'd want to be very sure about the impact on the number of deaths from cold before we decided to restrict the benefit.
The government is reducing entitlement to universal child benefit for better off families.
Again, that might seem logical.
But child benefit is there to create fiscal equity between those who have children and those who don't. Children are all our futures. We all share a responsibility to invest in them.
And there is plenty of research to show that child benefit, paid to the main carer, usually the mother, does get spent on children.
Not on fags and booze.
It's a simple benefit, so take-up is really high- including among the poorest families.
And when relationships break down, even among better off families it's often the only money a lone parent can rely on until she gets herself and her children sorted out, with a new place to live, perhaps a new job, and settling the children into new schools.
So universal benefits may seem expensive, but they're very efficient benefits.
But the discussion last Thursday also recognised that people who've paid into the system through tax and their national insurance contributions are entitled to be confident they'll be properly looked after in retirement , or if illness or disaster strikes, and they lose or can't hold down a job.
Our social security system needs to get much better at recognising that.
The discussion moved on to student loans. This was a big issue when I participated in a question time recently at Stretford Grammar too.
And I hear from constituents who tell me their children are ruling out going to university because of worries about having to borrow £9000 a year.
It's great that so many more people are able to go to university now than a generation ago. The most successful economies have much higher rates of participation in higher education than the UK, and I want any young person who wants to go to university and can benefit from it to be able to do so.
The economy needs well qualified people. But graduates themselves benefit from their university education too - not least as they earn more over a working lifetime than non-graduates do. So it's now widely accepted that if we want more people to go to university, we have to expect that the cost of doing so will be shared between the graduate and the state.
But there were real concerns - which I share - that having to borrow £9000 a year is a serious deterrent to poorer children - and we risk wasting talent if they decide university's not for them as a result.
I was very interested in the discussion about a graduate tax that opened up at the meeting. There were some really stimulating views.
The only regret I had was that there weren't more young people there to participate in the discussion.
So I was very pleased to be able to visit the Impact group at St Monica's recently, and to attend the opening of the new Lostock youth club on Tuesday. At both groups, I met plenty of young people who had strong ideas and opinions.
Both groups really make a difference in our community. At Lostock, they told me about the regular quiz that brings younger and older people together.
It's good to see these opportunities for different generations to meet each other and exchange views. I've been delighted to be invited to meetings with all sorts of groups over the summer break while I'm in the constituency. But I especially want to host more discussions with younger constituents over the coming months. If you'd like to participate (or know someone who would), please let me know.