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Laura Trott MP: A country for young people

By March 18, 2024June 14th, 2024Uncategorized

Thank you. Hello everybody. I’m delighted to say that I fall under the definition of young people announced by Ryan today, so that has made my day before we already started.

It’s a real pleasure to be here today and I’d like to start by saying a huge thank you to each of you for attending, for everyone online for logging in and to Ryan and Bright Blue for the invitation.

Intergenerational inequality is a really important topic and a subject very much close to my heart, and I want to congratulate Bright Blue for the pioneering work that you’ve been doing in the space for years. Ryan is a force for moderate conservatism and I know this is a topic he cares deeply about, so it’s a pleasure to be here this afternoon, share my thoughts and to answer your questions.

As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Conservatives are not merely a pragmatic party responding to situations as they arrive. We have deeply held convictions of the kind of society that we want to see, a real vision of a community in which each individual can fulfil their greatest potential.” It is thus an essential part of our conservative philosophy that we give equal access to opportunities and tackling intergenerational inequality is a central pillar to making this happen.

So, what does this mean? Well, we’ve talked about some of the themes already today: excellent outcomes at school, a world leading university sector, the ability to own your own home, vibrant careers in well-paid jobs and confidence in the prospect of retirement. These are, in fact, some of the hallmarks of this Conservative Government and I want to be clear today that since we entered government in 2010, we have made huge progress often against the odds and in face of adversity, and certainly in circumstances far less benign than those faced by New Labour.

Progress has been made, but is there more to do? Of course there is, but we can be optimistic about the future because of the improvements that we have already made. Since 2010, like all Western governments, we’ve seen the knock on effects of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the most serious global pandemic since 1920, the worst war on the European continent since 1945, the return of inflation and war in the Middle East. Things have been extremely tough recently, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

The economy has turned a corner, inflation – a self tax on us all, especially the young who are less financially resilient – has more than halved. Real wages have grown for the seventh month in a row. Our economic plan is working and forecasts show that things are going to continue to get better.  

The IMF predicts that the economy is expected to grow faster than many of our European neighbours, over ‘24 to ‘28. Why does this growth matter? Growth means more opportunity and prosperity translating directly into higher living standards for everyone across the UK.

It is the youngest who often suffer most in recessions – just look at what happened during the financial crisis. The most important thing we can do to help the next generation is to give them a thriving economy.

But, while an improving economy provides the bedrock, today I want to explore the themes of key areas where I think inequality has surfaced and can most effectively be tackled. As part of that, I want to start telling the real story of the last 14 years.

So let’s start at the beginning. Education: the best shot we get at determining young people’s future. When educational inequalities do emerge in early childhood, they’ve been found to continue throughout a person’s life, affecting entry into higher education, future employment, and lifetime earnings. That’s why the reforms we’ve brought in since 2010 have been so important. When we came into power in 2010, schools in the UK were behind Germany, France and Sweden in the OECDs PISA education rankings for reading and maths, and now we are ahead of them.

Successive conservative governments have driven up education standards, making England now one of the top performing countries for education in the Western World. Schools rated good or outstanding across England have risen to 89% up from 68% under Labour, and children in England are rated some of the best readers in the world. We’re also ensuring our children have the skills of the future by giving T Levels and A Levels parity, supporting over 5.5 million apprenticeship starts since 2010, and we’re home to some of the world’s leading universities. These things have not happened by chance. Since 2010 the reforms that we put in place have been driven by the idea that transmission of rich subject knowledge should be the priority for schools.

We replaced the 2007 national curriculum because it was based on a series of general aptitudes with insufficient subject based content. In its place, we introduced a national curriculum which gives pupils a grounding in the best that has been thought and said. For me the imperative of schools is to deliver a curriculum that is rich in subject knowledge. This is essential in spreading opportunity to children from less advantaged backgrounds. 

I would urge all of you: when you see a party talking about putting a subject into the curriculum that isn’t there at the moment, or spending more time on something else, you must ask them what they are taking out. Because if we’re going to continue to succeed in changing social mobility and driving down intergenerational inequality, this laser-like focus on academic quality in schools must continue. We cannot rest on our laurels and think the job is done. We must continue to ensure that the curriculum does not slide into a skills based approach lacking in subject specific knowledge, which will be regressive – a disservice to disadvantaged children. This by the way is what has caused so many of the problems in Wales and Scotland.

We cannot ignore the evidence to show that pupils from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely than their peers to access this communal knowledge at home, we must never stop the emphasis on English and maths in our schools, and always insist on academic rigour in teaching and qualification. Because, teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum is essential to the task of spreading opportunity, helping young people, and levelling ip. It is the key to ending intergenerational inequality. 

So next in the journey comes employment. The best route out of poverty, the best way to improve living standards and a prerequisite to help young people achieve the life they want. Again, unfortunately, when the Conservatives gained power in 2010 the picture was dire. Youth unemployment was at 20%. Unemployment had skyrocketed. But we can proudly say that we have turned this around. Over 4 million more people are in work since 2010 – that’s 800 people more in jobs every single day that we’ve been in office. 

We have more than halved the unemployment rate, and most pertinently for what we’re discussing today, youth unemployment is down by over 40%. Plus, we’ve ensured it pays to work. Since 2010 we’ve nearly doubled the personal allowance, we’re now delivering a cut to National Insurance for 29 million people worth £900 a year to the average worker, and we’re also ending low pay by delivering a record increase in the National Living Wage. This is a legacy to be proud of. You cannot hope to provide parity between the old and the young if young people don’t have decent, well paid jobs. But of course there is always more to do. 

Analysis from the House of Lords shows that 15-24 year-olds are more likely to be in temporary work than other age groups, and therefore to better support young people we’re providing tailored work coaching support to people aged 16 to 24 who are on Universal Credit. By reducing the barriers young people face, the Government can support young people into high skill, high wage, secure jobs. 

We also need to make sure that young people’s jobs are in the industries of the future. The UK is home to many high growth industries: aerospace, film production, artificial intelligence and more – industries that are pushing forward these skilled jobs of the future. The funding and tax breaks that we provided across these sectors, including at last year’s Autumn Statement and in this year’s Budget, are aimed at helping to build a pipeline of future talent. Building these sectors up is not just good for the economy but for individuals, particularly young people who take pride in doing fulfilling, exciting and varied work with the opportunity to progress.

The next piece of the puzzle after quality education and a decent job is housing, and as the Secretary of State, Michael Gove argued, the quality of the homes that we live in, the physical nature of our neighbourhoods, the design of our communities, determines so much. Our health, our happiness, our prosperity, our productivity all depend on where we live, and that is why housing policy, the building of new homes, the stewardship of existing properties, the planning of our towns and the fundamental landscape of our lives requires long-term thinking and a long term plan. However it is here the tensions between generations and tensions between different public policy aims can be acute.

But let’s again reflect on our record of delivery. I don’t actually know if many of you in this room are aware, but we have built more homes over our time in office than Labour did under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In this parliament we’ve delivered the highest number of new homes in a year for three decades, we’ve assured the highest number of first-time buyers in two decades, and we’re on track to meet our manifesto target of delivering one million new homes in this parliament. Not only that, but our £11.5 billion affordable home program is delivering tens of thousands of affordable homes, and we’re scaling up to deliver tens of thousands of new homes, specifically for social rent. But we need to go further than this to create a stronger, fairer housing market.

While some local leaders have set the pace in building homes in urban areas, including the brilliant Conservative Mayor Andy Street in the West Midlands, exceeding the numbers assessed as necessary for his authority, delivery elsewhere is behind where we need to be.

London has a particularly poor record. The London plan identifies capacity for around 52,000 new homes annually, but in recent years London aims were just 17,000 homes a year. That holds back the whole country. As Conservatives, the heart of our approach is making home ownership a reality for more people, reflecting our core principles and values, so we will and must remain focused on first time buyer support. Supply will be boosted through the affordable homes program, and our first homes program will provide discounted homes for first time buyers, because buying a home isn’t just about investing in an asset. It’s investing in your future, it builds community, provides roots and puts us on the path to better equity between generations.

I want to, which might seem a little bit odd, talk a little bit about pensions for a second, because what happened under Labour to your workplace pension is one of the biggest causes of intergenerational inequality. It took away hundreds of thousands of pounds from young people going into the workplace, and let me explain why. In the 1990s, most people who worked had a defined benefit pension – that means a pension that is guaranteed by your employer. Employer contributions were around 20%. During the Labour party’s time in office, the number of people who had any workplace pension at all went down by a lot, but the number of people outside the public sector who had a defined benefit pension literally fell off a cliff. 

They launched a commission to try and do something about this in fairness, but it didn’t really do anything to fix it. It took until 2012 for us to bring in automatic enrollment. I cannot overemphasise how much money this has lost out for young people. We’ve done a lot to fix this, but there are a lot of young people who have missed out due to the lost Labour years.

To conclude, if we are to truly tackle intergenerational inequality, we must work together. Government, industry, civil society and individuals; we must all respond to the challenges of the day in a way that creates opportunity for the future. This is not an easy task. As a government we have a responsibility to deliver for young people, and I would argue that over the last 14 years we’ve done just that in very, very difficult circumstances. Challenges remain, but we have a track record to be proud of. Better schools, more jobs, more homes. That’s what we need to continue to focus on to create a country that is better for all of us.

The keynote speech was followed by a Q&A session.

Laura Trott MP is the Chief  Secretary to the Treasury.