Is Yosser Hughes about to make a comeback?

Where there's a will there's a way

Worklessness and unemployment are entirely different beasts, but with the recession purging the ranks of the employed, action to ensure they don't become trapped in a cycle of exclusion is all the more crucial, writes Mark Cantrell 

 First published in a 2009 edition of Northern Housing magazine

IN the words of Yosser Hughes (pictured) - "Gizza job... I can do that."

The character in Alan Bleasedale's hard-hitting drama Boys From The Black Stuff, screened in late 1982, went on to become symbolic of the despair born of mass unemployment. Bernard Hill's portrayal of a man stripped of his job, his prospects, his self-respect, and his hope, provided a vivid demonstration of the toll the recession of that era was taking on ordinary families and individuals the length and breadth of the country.

Fast forward to 2009, and Yosser Hughes' desperate plea becomes symbolic of another generation of recession-hit families. Mass unemployment has returned, and though it remains below the Eighties' peak of three million, at just under 2.5 million it isn't far off.

Here is another emerging generation whose cry echoes that of Hughes, but the painful irony of this 'sequel' is that his fictional grandchildren may not to be among them. Rather, in the final indignity for this once proud and hard-working man, his descendents are more than likely to be among the ranks of the workless - trapped in a cycle of poverty and disadvantage. This is the grim potential lurking within the statistics as the recession munches its way through jobs.

The TUC has called rising unemployment the country's 'Number One Emergency' and urged the Government to do all it can to protect and create jobs as a means of steering both society and the economy out of recession.

"Unemployment is rising relentlessly. It will pass the 2.5 million mark next month and could hit three million by the end of the year. Behind these statistics are millions of people struggling to pay their mortgages and support their families," said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.

"What grates most is that ordinary working people are paying the price for the mistakes of an elite few who have laid the system to waste and still walked away with their millions. Even as unemployment rises at its fastest rate for 30 years, some City players are already talking about recovery in the financial sector, as if the spectre of three million unemployed doesn't matter," Barber added.

"There is only one indicator of economic recovery that matters, and that's when unemployment starts to fall and people can get back to work. Let us be clear, no recovery will be possible while there are millions of people out of work. We saw the price of unemployment in the 1980s - communities devastated, industries destroyed, and widespread social unrest. We cannot afford to go back to those days."

As in the '80s, as now, the lingering after-effects may well boost levels of deprivation, financial and social exclusion, and steadily erode community cohesion. It is feared that today's recession will make the problems of worklessness even worse; with the waves of redundancies, and fresh school leavers facing ever-lengthening dole queues, there is concern that it will promote long-term unemployment, leading in turn to even more workless households, and those 'not in education employment or training' (NEETS). According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), this latter group is four times more likely to occur in households where no adults work, demonstrating how the 'institutionalisation' of unemployment can all to easily transmit down the generations.

Unemployment disproportionately hits the young, which is why the TUC has welcomed the recent Budget's 'war chest' of £2 billion for schemes to help young people unemployed for over a year, though the organisation was concerned about the timing of its implementation. Some 111,000 young people (aged 18-24) have been unemployed for over 12 months, it says, and it fears that number will increase to 250,000 or more by early next year.

"We will not abandon a generation of Britain's young people to the unemployment scrapheap," said James Purnell, work and pensions secretary, announcing the new £1 billion Future Jobs Fund.

This is intended to help social enterprises and local authorities create at least 150,000 new jobs. Set against the sheer numbers of unemployed, however, that target might seem like small beer, but every little helps as it were. A new National Worklessness Forum has also been launched, to help councils spearhead job creation in their areas.

If nothing else, it shows a crucial difference to the hardline attitudes of the 1980s. In that unsympathetic age, mass unemployment was regarded in high office as the necessary price of economic modernisation. Of course, it's always easy to be blasé about the bill when someone else is reaching for the wallet: a truism as applicable to the current MPs' expenses scandal as it is the collateral damage of economic policy.

Given that many of today's problems around worklessness and deprivation had their primordial origins in the 1980s recession, it is perhaps just as well that the Government says it has 'learned its lesson' and eschewed the 'scrapheap' approach to managing mass unemployment, but the challenges - especially for those at the sharp end of implementing real measures - will be immense.

There are already some 4.5 million people living in workless households, according the CIH, even before the impact of the recession is factored into the equation. While the race is on to prevent today's unemployed becoming tomorrow's workless, the hard slog of combating pre-existing worklessness continues.

Late last year the CIH launched its 'Worklessness Toolkit' to assist social housing providers to tackle the problem. Some thought the recession inevitably made a hopeless mockery of the sector's efforts, but the CIH, and the Toolkit's author Helen Cope proved adamant that while the challenges have become so much harder, the recession made it all the more crucial a task.

Unemployment, of course, is not quite the same beast as worklessness, and so requires different strategies, but it is clear that the former - if not addressed - has the danger of nurturing the latter. As Tom Murtha, chief executive for Midland Heart, said: "It is the barriers to work that fuel worklessness, rather than the recession itself, which continues to feed unemployment. Worklessness and unemployment are two very different issues, however, both have a significant impact on people's lives and communities and therefore are of importance to us.

"We and other housing associations are perfectly positioned to provide the catalyst for change through our existing relationships with many of those affected. By coming face to face with worklessness, we are very well placed to assist individuals. It is clear that housing associations have a unique and increasingly important role to play in helping to tackle worklessness at a time when the need to bring about economic and social change has never been higher."

The echoes of Yosser Hughes are carrying across the decades; whether his rage is finally appeased, or drowned beneath the laments of another generation, will all depend on the outcomes of a wide range of agencies and individuals working together.

They may fail, of course; we won't know until long after the recession, but at least this time round there is a will to make a difference.

This article first appeared in Northern Housing magazine, circa April or May 2009. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 12 June 2009

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