Youth Services

Part of Kew Gardens (Leases) (No. 3) Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 4:53 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs 4:53 pm, 24th July 2019

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Last week, I visited a National Citizenship Service programme at Lancaster and Morecambe College and, as he probably did in his constituency, spoke to the young people there about issues of democracy, for example. I think that he will have picked up on similar concerns. Young people are deeply concerned about knife crime. The NCS offers a space where young people from different schools and different areas of the community can mix and, we hope, build lasting friendships—but in itself, of course, it is not youth work because it is just for a period of weeks over the summer.

A major flaw in the current system is the lack of statutory protections for youth work. The previous Labour Government attempted to strengthen the legislation by placing a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient access to positive activities for young people. However, because there is no legal definition of what access to provision should look like, this is open to interpretation and can be ignored by local authorities when faced with significant Tory cuts. As the Minister reminded us, work is finally under way following the Government’s commitment to review the statutory guidance for youth services in last year’s civil society strategy. However, will she go one step further and follow Labour’s policy of introducing new legislation that clearly defines a base level of sufficiency to reflect every young person’s right to access high-quality youth work provision close to where they live?

Youth workers are the unsung heroes of our community, yet they lack any professional status. Social workers, teachers, police officers, nurses and doctors all have agreed standards and thresholds to achieve before they can be given those recognised titles, but anyone can call themselves a youth worker, regardless of their knowledge, skills, attitude or motive. Does the Minister agree that this is putting children and young people at risk and that this important profession deserves recognition?

Workforce numbers have collapsed under this Government. Between 2008 and 2016, 14,500 youth and community workers have lost their jobs, according to the latest Local Government Association workers survey. Many qualified youth workers have migrated into other occupations. In recent years, we have seen significant reductions in the number of Joint Negotiating Committee degree programmes in England and the number of students enrolling on undergraduate courses. In 2007, there were more than 60 courses on offer; today, there are just 39. This has left real challenges for organisations seeking to recruit professional youth workers and increased their dependency on volunteers.

I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to review youth work qualifications and funding. I also welcome the £500,000 of bursaries for students and the level 3 youth work qualification. However, I hope that the Minister realises the scale of the task ahead of her, given the scale of the cuts and the damage that has been done to youth work as a sector. I implore her perhaps to go one step further by adopting Labour’s policy of implementing a workforce development strategy to stimulate and guarantee the recruitment and employment of professional youth workers for the future.

For years, there has been a serious vacuum of leadership coming from Government. In 2016, the Cabinet Office committed to create a new three-year youth policy statement, but that promise was dropped. Now, with youth work sitting within DCMS, we have seen a renewed understanding of the benefits of youth work. We welcome the Government’s commitment to produce a youth charter. However, without significant investment in this area and a clear, compelling and positive vision for young people, this will not be achieved.

Today, youth sector leaders have written to the new Prime Minister calling on the Government to provide a dedicated fund for young people. Will the Minister join their call for proper investment in services for young people ahead of the upcoming spending review, instead of sticking-plaster solutions?

Labour has a strategy to rebuild our communities and guarantee high-quality youth work in every local authority. We will put forward a bold vision that is fit for the modern age—one that brings together fragmented services, celebrates diversity of provision and can respond to the challenges facing young people today. The next Labour Government will deliver properly funded youth services, backed by new legislation. Local authorities will be responsible for setting the strategic vision for what they want to achieve, working alongside local partners and young people to shape provision in the local area and ensure sufficient access to high-quality youth work provision. Local authorities will be required to establish and facilitate the delivery of local youth partnerships, which will bring together stakeholders from across the community, including young people themselves, to map how they can best support young people’s needs. That will be overseen by a strengthened national body for youth work, to ensure that such partnerships and provision is in place.

We must remember that austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. Our nation is the fifth richest in the world, and while axing millions from services for young people, the Tories have handed out billions of pounds in corporation tax giveaways. We will not sit back and allow the Tories to fail our young people. Instead, we must be aspirational in our outlook and recognise that, with the right support and services available, young people can realise their full potential. Ultimately, we want to build a nation for young people where they feel safe and secure and are treated fairly, supported in the present and ambitious for their future.