The UK government’s Kickstart Scheme is more like another kick in the teeth

Rishi Sunak has avoided talking about an issue with Universal Credit
Aaliyah Harris

In July 2020, the UK government announced a £2bn investment in an employment scheme to support 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit. It seemed like a brilliant solution to help young people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and those struggling to secure opportunities in the job market.

The Kickstart Scheme works by providing new job placements to young people at risk of long term unemployment. Each placement can run up to six months and offers a maximum of 25 hours a week paid at National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage, dependent on age.

But it wasn’t long before chancellor Rishi Sunak’s promise to support those “most at risk of long-term unemployment” – a criteria without clear measurable guidelines – turned into a ‘wait and see’ game.

So, is anyone actually working yet or…?

Officially launched in September last year, placements will continue rolling out until December 2021. The scheme promises to provide “Hundreds of thousands of new fully subsidised jobs for young people in industries right across the country”.

Yet, after successfully creating thousands of jobs within a range of different employment sectors, the majority of placements still stand empty without employees to fill them.

Backlogged applications along with endless candidate and employer eligibility criteria have instead provided an additional problem for young people to tackle.

On 25 January, the BBC reported that most jobs provided on the Kickstart Scheme were yet to be filled and data from the Department of Work Pensions (DWP), shows that just under 2,000 young people had actually started their new roles since its launch five months ago.

Around the same time, Sunak spoke of the government’s commitment to the scheme, sharing an impressive milestone of creating 120,000 jobs so far with its #PlanForJobs blueprint. But questions remain around who’s now employed and who’s actually receiving the scheme’s benefits.

In an interview on BBC Breakfast, Sunak said:

We know that they [young people] are most likely to work in the affected sectors. They’re twice as likely to be furloughed, and the ones that are leaving college, for example, are entering a really difficult labour market.

3 million people excluded

However, there have been numerous problems with the scheme.

Recently, the government was forced to change its policy which only allowed employers to sign up to the scheme if they could create a minimum of 30 vacancies – cutting out a huge chunk of smaller, independent businesses.

But for some, the scheme isn’t just failing to meet expectations. It’s also sparked debate over who is eligible for financial help from the government.

In a tweet replying to the news, Paul Sivers wrote about how government funding excludes around 3 million people in the UK. Using the tag #ExcludedUK, they said:

“It’s a huge PR stunt”

Sam*, a recent graduate, went from working in a bar alongside his studies to losing his job when the Covid-19 outbreak first hit in March. He stated:

10 grand was paid for my masters degree and the university gave us £100 of reimbursement for tuition fees. [with] universal credit, you’re not eligible for it until you graduate so there was a good few months where I was paying rent for a place where I wasn’t living and losing money every single month.

I may be politically bias[ed], but I think the whole scheme is running so slowly. There’s such a backlog of applications it’s taking months for smaller businesses to actually get through and provide meaningful work.

I also think it’s a huge PR stunt. They’re saying, ‘oh look we’re helping younger people’…They’re helping fill [jobs for] big corporations that are probably friends of the government of Rishi Sunak [just] to find employment for six months.

Jem Collins, who works in the employment sector shared her frustrations in a tweet after a rejected employer application for the scheme:

What does ‘at risk of long-term unemployment’ really mean?

Although the Kickstart Scheme is intended to help those most in need, its rules have caused issues. According to Sam, after months of confusion the government has still yet to address the exact guidelines of how candidates are selected and referred to work placements by their ‘work coach’. Coupled with the UK constantly going back and forth with national lockdowns, newly implemented tiers and revamped solutions to face the coronavirus pandemic, it’s only fair to expect that this messy rollout of plans has now heightened the stressful situation.

Sam is just one graduate who’s left his studies with a large financial debt and limited job prospects in uncertain times. He said:

I went to the job centre and was told, ‘You don’t qualify for the kickstart scheme. You’re not at risk of long-term unemployment’, which I think was bullshit because although I do have a degree, I believe that I am at risk of long-term unemployment. I didn’t manage to find a job and I still haven’t.

‘At risk of long-term unemployment’ – how would you even objectify that? I’ve been through multiple career advisors. One said that I wasn’t eligible at all for the scheme because I have a degree and the one that I’m working with now luckily has said ‘oh you are [eligible] just anything to get you into employment’, so there’s a lot of mixed messages from the government.

The Canary contacted the DWP for comment, but it didn’t respond by the time of publication.

“I’m almost punished for being on universal credit”

After writing a letter personally to Rishi Sunak, who was his MP at the time, Sam claims that all he received in response was a “blanket vague answer”. He added that being on the scheme doesn’t always equal a placement best suited to the qualifications and skillset of each individual, as employment is championed over finding ‘meaningful work’.

An owner of a start-up said ‘we’ll take you on this scheme but were waiting for it to be processed by the government’.

I feel like in some ways I’m almost punished for being on universal credit because if I get employed for any other company, say at Tesco stacking shelves, then instantly because I’m earning money, I won’t be eligible for the Kickstart Scheme, which will ultimately be better for my career. You don’t really get a choice but people at the job centre are really understanding.

For now, though, the government seems to be making some progress by finally placing young people on the work placements they applied for. And with another national lockdown due to be lifted after mid-February, there’s hope that the rate of applications transitioning into secured employment will increase. What we’re all still left wondering, though, is what happens after the six-month placements end? And will the support for those struggling with long-term unemployment continue? Who knows… only time will tell.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Featured image via Guardian News / YouTube

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