Young people have had a raw deal from this government. After getting elected they wasted no time in scrapping the Educational Maintenance Allowance that often made it possible to stay on in education and trebled tuition fees. Axing the Future Jobs Fund and rights to careers advice took away further rungs on the ladder into work. It’s no coincidence that those not allowed to vote or least likely to do so were targeted first, with little fear of electoral retribution.
The impact of these decisions has been an increase in those young people not in education, employment or training to 1.09 million, with 600,000 never having found work. The past three months alone has seen another 9,000 young people join the unemployment figures, with three times as many young people now unemployed for over a year compared to when this government came to power. Instead of recognising their own responsibility for this situation, Government Minister Nick Hurd claimed last week that it was a lack of ‘confidence, grit, self control’ that held back young people.
There is another barrier to young people getting on in life, less talked about in the media but just as important. It is the lack of affordable transport which can often put a course, apprenticeship or job beyond reach. A survey by the Association of Colleges found that 72 per cent of students relied on public transport to get to college, with journeys averaging nine miles. Yet over the past three years we have seen bus fares go up by twice the rate of inflation each year, while the Government has allowed the private train companies to impose annual increases in rail fares of as much as nine per cent. At the same time, the Government has cut support for local bus services by more than a quarter, with rural areas suffering most from lost services, particularly in the evening and weekend.
On top of this, young people are priced out of driving thanks to rip-off car insurance quotes, that are often more than the cost of a second hand car, and the costs of fuel, made worse by the Government’s decision to slap an additional 3p of VAT on every litre. So whichever way they turn, young people face a transport affordability nightmare.
I am clear that we need a real alternative to the policies being pursued by this government, which is why Labour is developing plans to take on the vested interests in the private bus, train and car insurance companies to bring down the cost of travel, while making cycling a more practical alternative.
First, we need to give local authorities across the country the same powers that already exist in London to set fares and protect services. The capital is able to award its own contracts to run local rail and bus services and decide on the level of fares each year. Just as importantly, they can insist on a standard ticketing system, with ‘Oyster’ cards that can be used across all bus, tube and rail services regardless of the operator. As a result, the amount you pay for travel on a daily, weekly and monthly basis is capped. Labour would make it easier for the rest of the country to move to this model of local transport, by ripping up the tough rules that make it hard to regulate bus services and devolving responsibility for local rail.
There is one other huge step forward that we can make in a wider regulated bus system. As we re-regulate the buses, we can make it a condition of new contracts that companies offer a concessionary fares scheme for 16-19 year olds in education or training. The biggest five bus companies made combined profits last year of more than half a billion pounds, yet the tax-payer still has to pay nearly £2billion to support bus services. I believe that those companies that benefit from tax-payer subsidies should put something back into society – and helping the next generation is how I believe they should do that.
Second, we need to reform our national rail system. The private train companies walked away with profits of £305million last year, despite receiving more in subsidies from the tax-payer than they paid back in franchise payments. And they don’t contribute a penny to the £3.9 billion of investment in the railways, which is funded through the tax-payer funded Network Rail. When Labour was last in government we banned the train companies from increasing fares by more than one per cent above inflation, but the current government has allowed them to ignore that cap on many routes. We would restore the cap and set a clear target for ending above inflation rail fares. We’d go further by introducing a legal right to the cheapest fare, crack down on the stretching of peak time and regulate parking charges at stations. The young person’s railcard can help cut the costs of travel, but the limits on when it can be used often makes it impossible to get to a course of job on time, so it’s time that those restrictions were looked at again.
Third, we need to do more to support cycling as a real, and much more affordable, alternative to driving and public transport. Two-thirds of all journeys are less than five miles, so there is a real potential for much more widespread cycling if we make it safer and more attractive. Labour would reprioritise funding within the £28 billion that is allocated to road investment over the next few years, shifting resources to cycling infrastructure. It’s time we built proper separated safe cycling routes, not just paint a thin section at the side of the road a different colour. We need to redesign dangerous junctions, where almost two-thirds of cyclist deaths and serious injuries from collisions take place, and use traffic light phasing to give cyclists a head start. All future transport schemes should be subject to a Cycling Safety Assessment prior to approval, while councils should extend 20mph zones and have a clear duty in law to set out plans to support cycling. There needs to be a root and branch review of the sentencing guidelines that are used in cases where there have been deaths and serious injuries caused by collisions with vehicles and tough new restrictions on HGVs.
Finally, we need to do something to ease the cost of driving for young people, because there will always be times and places where public transport is not available and journeys are too far by bike. We know that car insurance for young people puts driving out of the reach of many first time drivers. This is a complex issue, as insurance companies will of course want to protect themselves from groups that statistically are more at risk from collisions. However, we must create a fairer and more affordable system. As a start, every insurance company should be required to offer an insurance product that makes use of so-called ‘black box’ technology which can monitor the safety of your driving. This keeps the premium down if certain conditions are met, for example on speed, numbers of passengers and times of day when the car can be used. Insurance companies should also have to offer ‘work or training only’ insurance. Instead of just talking about it, Ministers should also act on their promise to crack down on profiteering by petrol companies.
In conclusion, I believe that we have a government that is punishing young people for an economic crisis caused by those at the top. By doing nothing to stop inflation-busting fare rises and the loss of vital bus services, they are putting up barriers for young people who want to get on. Labour, by contrast, is on the side of young people and developing a clear alternative. Taking on vested interests, with tough new rules on the train and bus companies and a specific plan to deliver a concessionary bus fares scheme for 16-19 year olds in education and training; a package of measures to support cycling; and plans to reduce the higher driving costs facing young people. Every young person should be able to get on to achieve their true potential, and accessible and affordable transport is vital to make that a reality.
Maria Eagle MP is Shadow Transport Secretary
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