In May, the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs published the findings and recommendations of our inquiry into youth services, the culmination of just under a year of investigation in partnership with the National Youth Agency and the support of the British Youth Council and YMCA England and Wales. With the long-lasting and damning effects of austerity being felt throughout society, pressures on public services increasing, and opportunities for children and young people further out of reach than ever before, now is the time to refocus our efforts as a society and Labour movement on the role youth services play. They are an essential part of the fabric of our communities and help young people across the country to flourish personally and professionally.
The reality on the ground, however, is of a government that has ignored the benefits good provision for young people can bring. Funding to youth services has been cut by £1bn since 2010, with the largest cuts coming after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010.
Throughout the Tories’ ‘age of austerity’, youth services have been hit disproportionately hard – between 2012 and 2016 alone, 600 youth centres and 139,000 individual youth service places disappeared. We are now left with highly fragmented and targeted provision. The schemes that do still exist are, of course, hugely worthwhile, but their patchy nature undermines the immense importance these services can have when delivered holistically and universally; all while a shocking 95 per cent of total government expenditure on youth services goes to David Cameron’s National Citizen Service, a project that has failed to live up to its much-publicised promise.
But why are services for children and young people so important, and what would a properly funded and managed system provide? In a Britain where too many young people feel left behind, neglected, and unable to access an ever-dwindling number of opportunities, the radical power of youth services must not be underestimated. They provide the support, foundations, and inspiration to set people up for life and change outcomes for entire communities. Much has been written about the important role of such services especially for young people from troubled backgrounds, including improving mental health, relationships and access to the jobs market and reducing crime and antisocial behaviour, but to think that these are the only benefits to society would be short-sighted. The transformative nature of youth work can allow children and young people from all backgrounds, crucially including those from deprived, maligned, or underrepresented groups, to unleash their full potential both in the present and into the future.
Our APPG report recommends a series of solutions to the current crisis in youth work. Where today we have a lack of focus and prioritisation for youth services, we call for a specific minister responsible for youth policy, accountable to parliament and the country at large. In the place of cuts and a complete lack of clarity on funding, we recommend greater investment in youth work and the reinstatement of national audits of youth services, so we know what is being spent and where. As an antidote to ambiguous and vague standards, we recommend clearly defining what the minimum levels of youth services ought to be, with a clear statutory duty and guidance on their provision.
However simply increasing funding and focus at the highest levels will not be enough. Local authorities must be empowered to enforce this statutory duty, with a lead role responsible in each authority. The evaluation and inspection of youth services must also be standardised, so we can finally put an end to the postcode lottery that leaves some communities neglected, providing a national baseline. In order to be truly effective, however, youth work must be approached as part of a wider ecosystem of services for children and young people – not delivered in isolation, as substitute, or considered an afterthought.
It is high time that we truly considered youth work as the profound influence in the lives of children and young people that it is. When properly funded, sensibly managed, and universally provided, it has the potential to give purpose in the present and hope for the future – for generations that are in desperate need today.