[John Robertson in the Chair] — Services for Young People

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 22nd March 2012.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee 2:30 pm, 22nd March 2012

It is a pleasure to lead the debate under your august chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am delighted to see that four fellow members of the Education Committee have made it to this Thursday afternoon debate. Lisa Nandy is making a ticking movement with her hand, and she is right to imply that we deserve a medal of honour.

The debate is about our report, “Services for young people”. I intend to set out its key conclusions and the policy developments since its publication, and to comment on questions that the Government have still not answered. It is a pleasure to see the Minister present. I am sure that, given his personal commitment, those questions that have not yet been answered will receive answers this afternoon and that we will treasure them when they are duly delivered.

The Committee conducted its inquiry over six months during 2010-11. Our aim was to consider the relationship between universal and targeted services; who accesses services and what they want from them; the roles of the voluntary, statutory and private sectors; and the impact of funding cuts and the scope for commissioning services in future.

The Committee received 158 pieces of written evidence. We heard from young people, both in person and via an online forum, which we ran for several months with the Student Room and through which we received more than 200 responses. Young people were represented on the panels on many occasions when we took oral evidence—I say that for the benefit of anyone who may have ignorantly thought that young people were not involved fully and consistently throughout the process.

We published the report on 15 June 2011 and it was well received by the sector. The Young Men’s Christian Association said that,

“it focuses in on many of the key issues and problems that are being faced by youth service providers across the country.”

Children & Young People Now said that

“at long last there is an attempt from Westminster to address the challenge of serving young people in these austere times”,

and called on the Government to rise to that challenge. On receipt of the Government’s response, we decided to publish a further report commenting on it, because it did not tackle several issues satisfactorily.

Since then, the Government’s cross-departmental strategy on young people, Positive for Youth, was published in December 2011. The Government make a number of welcome commitments and take up some of the Committee’s recommendations. In other areas, however, they do not go far enough. I will return to the merits of that strategy document in a moment, but first I want to set out the Committee’s key conclusions.

Our inquiry found that young people spend more than 80% of their time outside formal education, yet local authorities spend 55 times more on formal education than on services for young people outside the school day. Acknowledging that inequality, we set out to understand which services are most effective at supporting and developing young people outside school.

Witnesses with different perspectives agreed on three key points: first, that public spending cuts had disproportionately affected youth services; secondly, that there was great potential for youth services to help transform young people’s lives; and thirdly, that services had long been poor at proving their impact and, thus, at making their case to Government—a weakness that is all the more pertinent in times of austerity.

On funding, the Committee concluded that the picture looked bleak and was likely to worsen. Funding had been doubly hit, with the removal of ring fences from central Government grants and the 11% overall reduction to the total value of youth service funds that go to local authorities and are redirected into the early intervention grant. We calculated that local authority spending on youth services in 2010-11 equated to only £77.28 per young person a year, which is about 21p a day.

Two surveys in 2011 showed that more than £100 million would be cut from local youth service budgets by March 2012, with average cuts of 28% and up to 100% in some areas. Even the Department for Education agreed, concluding that

“the scale of budget reductions and the pace at which decisions are being made” was

“limiting the scope for… innovation and fundamental reform”.

The Committee was alarmed enough by the apparent extent of the cuts to urge the Government to consider using their powers to direct local authorities to commission adequate services for young people, which they have a statutory duty to do.

On the impact of services, we received strong personal stories from many young people about their value. One young person wrote on an online forum that,

“when young people come to the centre they know they aren’t going to be judged and they can be who they want to be, for some of them it gives a break from stresses outside”,

while another stated that,

“without my youth workers I would now be in a lot of trouble with education, work and drugs. But with their help I have been able to sort myself out and get onto the right path and stop the bad things I was doing over a year ago”.

We received a lot of anecdotal evidence about the efficacy of youth services and their individual impact, but, as I have said, collectively, services struggled to show the impact of their work in an easily defensible and statistically strong way.

The importance of youth services, coupled with the limited public resources available for them, makes it more vital that effective services are identified and funded. That is in line with the work of Mr Allen on early intervention. The most important thing when spending limited public resources is to find those interventions that will make the greatest difference. Early intervention does not need to take place only during pre-school years; it could equally take place during the teenage years by getting involved with people who might be at risk and intervening early to support more positive behaviours.