A lot of this report is about either reinventing the wheel or looking back into the past and seeing what we can learn from the positive things. Always, while going forward we must know our history. I would say that the hon. Gentleman was one of the best children and youth Ministers that we have had in a Conservative Government in recent history. He should be very pleased with the work that he did when he was a Minister, and his departure was a great shame. That is the past, but we can learn from some of the good things that happened.
Our report also says that there needs to be greater investment in youth work and a commitment to support for youth services in the next comprehensive spending review. There is no purpose in talking about nice, positive little programmes here and little grants there that do not scratch the surface unless, as we have heard already, there is a decent strategic commitment to funding as part of a long-term Government funding review. We call for further research to determine what the benefit-cost ratio would need to be to ensure that open access youth services and appropriate long-term funding are provided.
Our next point is that the Government should introduce a clear statutory duty and guidance to define the minimum protected level of service. Councils do have a statutory duty to provide some youth activities, but the guidance on what “some youth activities” means is so weak that a horse and cart can be driven through it. It can effectively mean that we could have a local youth football club playing once a week in the local park and that is it. I welcome the Government’s commitment to review the guidance, but we really need not just a review, but clear directions that outcomes must be significantly better than we have at the moment.
Youth provision is disappearing across the country due to cuts, but the truth is that we do not even know the state of services after all those cuts, because we have not had an audit of local authority provision since the coalition Government. We urgently need a census, an audit or whatever—I am not precious. Such a thing used to happen once a year, but it could happen once every cycle—whatever the cycle is. We need to know where we stand with a census of local authority youth work. There is a mantra: “Unless you measure it, you can’t deliver it.” Until we measure the situation and audit it, we will not be able to assess where we are failing young people. I welcome the Minister’s responsibilities, but they must come with that auditing process.
We also recommended that each local authority should confirm a lead role responsible for the discharge of the statutory duty for youth work. Again, if local councils have a statutory duty but do not appoint a person who is responsible for delivering on that duty, it is almost impossible to hold them to account. Youth work is not a voluntary provision, because it has statutory underpinning. Although it is poorly defined, local authorities must show that they are discharging that duty. We recommended that the position should be probably equivalent to a deputy director of children’s services in the responsible local authority, which are upper-tier authorities, and they should be accountable for the duty, ensuring that council officers fully take charge.
Finally, the inquiry recommended that the Government should develop a youth workforce strategy, including the expectations for the ratio of professional youth workers, trainers and volunteers. We need a standardised national system to evaluate the sufficiency and suitability of youth services and the quality of youth work provision. That, of course, is where the National Youth Agency comes in.
We are currently relying on the NYA to oversee standards, qualifications, access, safeguarding and youth workforce development in the sector. Until last week, it did that without any Government funding. Prior to the coalition Government, the NYA had an annual budget of £10 million. Almost overnight, however, funding disappeared entirely, and it has done a tremendous job in the most difficult circumstances. It has had to limit not only the services that it is able to offer to councils, but voluntary services, too, and it has had to rely on private endowments, fees, and Canada and Australia, which continue to pay the NYA for the accreditation of their youth services. It should be a national scandal that a national institution designed to keep our young people safe was defunded in such a way, and that we have had to rely on the kindness, in effect, of Commonwealth countries to continue funding a service offered here in Britain. Although I am pleased that the Minister has said there will be some commitment to the National Youth Agency in some of the workforce reviews, £800,000 is too little compared with where we were, and it is definitely too late for the young people who have missed out on opportunities.
Part of the NYA’s role was to provide the audit I mentioned of youth services around the country—something that was lost when its funding went. That needs to be urgently reinstated, and I hope the Minister will either find resources from her Department or push the Treasury to sufficiently fund not only blanket audits but the ability to do one-off spot checks—sometimes we can address these issues by picking up where we think there are problems and by delving in. In over five years, Ofsted has not inspected any youth provision in this country; it is entitled to do that, and we could encourage it to do so to make sure that the fulfilment is there.
There can be no question but that youth services improve the lives of young people. They offer young people experiences outside formal education; they support, but do not replace, formal education; and they enhance readiness for learning in the classroom and learning in life. That is why professional qualifications for youth workers are so important. My ten-minute rule Bill early last year aimed to put youth work qualifications on a statutory footing. That, of course, does not devalue the work of current programmes such as the apprenticeship programme, which will hopefully come on stream—the Government have approved it, albeit late, but better late than never—and university programmes such as the fantastic one at the University of Brighton in my constituency, which ensures that our children and young people are supported by the people best qualified to understand their emotional and educational wellbeing.
We should be under no illusion about the dire state of youth work at the moment. I have been in and out of this sector most of my life. As in any sector, there is politics, with the voluntary sector having arguments with the professional sector, and at one point or another everyone falls out. However, what is remarkable now is that the sector—the youth workers, the voluntary organisations, the scouts and the guides—are saying almost with one voice that there is a crisis in many of our young people’s lives and we need to step up to support them. Those organisations are campaigning for the survival of much of the sector.
The Government must be held to account. Multiple youth work programmes have now closed their doors to new applicants across country. We have had the closure of 763 youth centres. Some 4,500 youth workers have lost their jobs, and their posts have been deleted. That has led to 140,000 places providing young people with access to youth services being lost. The sector is on its knees, and Members should not take my word for it. Research from the House of Commons Library shows that funding went from £1.2 billion in 2010 to £358 million in 2017. That is a 68% cut in cash terms, and almost £1 billion in real terms stripped from the sector. Many parts of the country now have no youth services at all provided through statutory provision.
So stark is the sense of bereftness felt by young people that 16 to 24-year-olds are now the largest demographic to feel lonely, with one in 10 saying they always or often feel lonely—far more than among the over-65s, whom we often associate with loneliness. When young people do reach out for help, those in my city alone can face a wait of 12 months to see a professional for their mental health, which then spirals down. In the very worst cases, as in my city in only the last few months, we see young people committing suicide. The Government need to take young people seriously.
In all societies, we have had people in the community who have supported us during transitions in our lives—at different points, we will all go through difficult transitions. Historically, since humanity began, that person may have been the village elder, the local imam or the local vicar. Having someone to help us with that process is vital. Youth workers were there to help young people make that transition. Quite rightly, at the turn of the last century, we moved away from a link between Church and state. We developed a professionalised programme, into which safeguarding was embedded, and we made sure that provision was based on need, not on a person’s religion. However, we have destroyed much of the provision that took the place of the role played by other bodies, and we have not replaced it with anything. We have not replaced it with community endeavour, because communities are facing other huge cuts.
That is not to say that there is no voluntary provision. I visited Wigan OnSide youth zone; we are hoping to get an OnSide centre in Brighton, and some great ones are opening up in London. There, we see qualified youth workers doing good, old-fashioned youth work, and it transforms communities, but this provision is not perfect, because it is city-centre-based. What we need in every community is voluntary engagement with young people, so that they have something to do, somewhere to go, and someone to speak to. Parents might be the best to love young people, but we need professional engagement to support young people through the difficult moments in their life.
I am pleased that the Government will introduce a charter, but will we make sure that every young person has somewhere to go, something to do and someone to speak to? If we do not, it can come as no surprise when knife crime and antisocial behaviour increase, and when county lines ravage our communities—although youth work will not in itself solve those issues. When cuts in social services, policing and youth work all come together, the result is communities bereft of support. There is a phrase in “The Shopkeeper’s Journal”: “You break it, you own it.” The reality is that this Government—not councils—defunded youth services. They broke it; they must fix it.