I was pleased to see the Tukituki MP, Lawrence Yule, talking about the level of "NEET's" in Hawke's Bay.

For those of us who are acronym-averse, NEET is shorthand for those who are Not in Employment Education or Training and refers to the disproportionately young Māori and Pacifica kids who spend their lives on the dole.

This problem got out of hand during the nine years rule of Lawrence Yule's National Party so it's ironic that Lawrence should now tell us that the National Party has the answer to what is a personal and community calamity and is the cause of New Zealand's shamefully high rate of incarceration.

If National now has the answer, the obvious question is why they didn't solve the problem when they were running the place.


To be fair to Lawrence, I heard a speech he made five or six years ago which focused on the NEET problem, so he does have a track record of concern in this area even if his party was unwilling or unable to make much of a difference when it had the chance.

The "solution" to the NEET problem that Lawrence Yule offers is a policy identified with Sir Bill English which became known as "social investment" and was pushed into the limelight by Sir Bill in his brief tour of duty as our prime minister.

Taken at its simplest, social investment means isolating the origin(s) of a social problem and focusing government expenditure on an attack on the root cause.

I wrote in support of the concept when Bill English began promoting it and I even approached the man himself in an airport lounge to tell him in person that I liked the idea.

Bill English was a rare example of the "caring conservative" breed of politician and within the constraints of his National Party, this policy amounts to a brave departure from National's traditional punitive approach to problems like welfare dependency, solo parenthood and youth unemployment.

We can all bring to mind obvious examples of underinvestment or misguided investment leading to serious social problems.

My personal bug is allowing kids to leave school without the ability to read and write.

You'd think with 10 expensive years of compulsory education in this country, this just wouldn't happen.


In many countries, this outcome is simply not acceptable and much greater efforts are made to make certain the literacy is as close to universal as is humanly possible.

Many of these illiterate kids unsurprisingly can't get jobs, go on to the expand the numbers of NEETs and then fetch up in our jails costing us now $110,000 per annum.

Yule is correct in identifying driver's licences as one of the keys to reducing the volume of NEETs and he should drive policy development in his own party in support of programmes to greatly increase the uptake of driver's licence programmes amongst NEETs.

As I have repeatedly written, Judith Collins - when Minister of Corrections - oversaw valuable research that showed that at least eight out of 10 entry-level jobs specify at least a restricted licence, so National Party people knew the importance of driver's licences for getting jobs but as a government repeatedly made them more difficult to get!

My own Howard League developed programmes to help offenders on probation - who are almost entirely classifiable as NEETs – with notable success.

These programmes, funded in an unstable hand-to-mouth fashion over four years under the National Government, have attracted three-year government funding and are being hugely expanded under the coalition Government's regional investment policies.

In addition, the new Government's policy is to move towards offering driver's licensing in high schools as appropriate staff becomes available.

This will hopefully underline literacy problems amongst those near to leaving school and is likely to prove a very effective example of "social investment".

I'll look forward to Yule recognising and endorsing this policy when launch time arrives.

His press statement perhaps unwittingly underlines the fact that the new Labour/NZ First/Green Government has already had a positive impact in this area.

The September quarter statistics showed NEET rates for Hawke's Bay and Gisborne combined decreasing from 18.4 per cent to 14.9 per cent.

Over the years I have observed that the initiatives with real effect on the lives of lost souls like NEETs and prisoners have in common the fact that they are based on one-on-one human attention.

Whether it's getting young offenders licences or teaching illiterate prisoners to read, to look after bees or to knit beanies for babies it's the face to face attention of supportive helper that counts most.

In te reo Māori, this is "kanohi ki te kanohi" which means face to face, or in the flesh.

This is the real social investment a government can foster, and it beats docking benefits as a strategy every time.

*Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.