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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:04 pm on 22nd March 2012.

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Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Labour, Wigan 3:04 pm, 22nd March 2012

I take the point that those youth workers should have been working closely with the voluntary sector, but the point I am making is that such things are already happening up and down the country. People are innovative and they are seeking partnerships. In my constituency, people know each other, they work together and they have built relationships over a long period. I am saying not that those charities are not resourceful, energetic and passionate, but that we are stacking the odds against them, and we should give them more support.

Multiple funding streams can be a bureaucratic nightmare, even for large organisations. I say that as someone who, over 10 years in the voluntary sector, suffered the extreme pain of having to report regularly on such things and to demonstrate impacts and outcomes to funders. I filled in the forms, went to the meetings and prioritised that work, because it is important for funders to see what they are getting for their money, but what about smaller organisations with perhaps one member of staff? The Committee came across an organisation with one paid member of staff and 27 funders, which is not unusual, in my experience. What does that mean? It means 27 regular reports.

Such an arrangement also means that people never get the opportunity to catch their breath, because they constantly have to reinvent or repackage the service they offer. In my experience—I think it was shared by a lot of the organisations that gave evidence to us—funders are not keen to fund something that is not new; they generally want to fund something new, not the continuation of a service. As a result, charities are constantly repackaging and reinventing something they already know works. Removing statutory funding at an accelerated rate will therefore have a dramatic impact, which will be felt most by those organisations that are often closest to the ground and that are doing some dynamic and important work with young people.

In the light of all that, I very much welcome the national citizen service, but as an addition to existing youth services, not as an alternative. As we heard during our inquiry, youth services are a lifeline for some young people; they are a source of stability when there is no other source of stability. Many young people talked about the youth service or the youth club they accessed being a family or a home to them, and many had been accessing those services for years. I had a conversation with a young woman who had acted as a National Children’s Bureau mentor for a young man since he was nine years old—he is now 18. She said that, during all that time, she had been the only adult who had remained constant in his life. Everyone else—social workers, of whom there had been many, foster carers and parents—had come and gone, but she had been the one source of stability for that young man. We must not forget how important that is.

A girl called Chloe posted a comment on the inquiry site about her youth centre:

“It’s like a second home to some of us... I’ve been coming to this youth centre for two years now. I’d be lost without it”.

We heard that from so many young people. I am therefore concerned about the cost of the NCS—£37 million this year and £13 million the year before. It cannot be right to prioritise a six-week scheme for young people from different backgrounds, including more affluent ones, when youth services that are a lifeline to young people such as Chloe are disappearing up and down the country.

The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said the Committee was concerned by the cost of NCS, given what it is delivering, and I would associate myself with those remarks. The Committee visited Germany and saw some excellent youth services, but the cost of those services per person for 12 months was the same as the cost of the NCS per person for six weeks. I cannot understand why there is such a huge disparity, and I urge Ministers to look at the issue.

I want to question the Government’s vision on youth services. Over the past few years—this predates the coalition’s coming to power—we have seen the gradual prioritisation of targeted services over open-access services. What I am about to say might sound a little counter-intuitive, given that I have just made a strong case for ensuring that we reach young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and that we prioritise them above all others, but, as I have seen for myself, and as the Committee heard in a lot of evidence, open-access services work with many of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, whom targeted services sometimes find it hard to get through their doors. They work precisely because there is no stigma around open-access services, and because a lot of young people who have been through various systems, including the care system and the criminal justice system, and who often have a deep distrust of services that label them and that are targeted at them, will go to open-access services when they will not go to targeted services. At a time when not enough funding is available, it concerns me that we will prioritise targeted services along with the NCS.

When young people from the backgrounds I described access open-access services, which do not necessarily have a label attached, staff can also identify the fact that those young people have problems, which goes back to the point about early intervention. The Committee heard strong evidence that such young people often go on a journey: they go to an open-access service, such as a youth club, and get talking to a member of staff. They build a relationship of trust, and it emerges that they have significant barriers to overcome. They are then referred to a targeted service and end up going full circle—coming back to the open-access service, having had the support they desperately needed. We need to be careful about prioritising targeted services, because the evidence that we heard shows that there is a need for open access and for targeted services that work.

The question of what works—the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness referred to it earlier—exercised the Committee. A witness to the inquiry described the measuring of outcomes as the Holy Grail, and I could not agree more. That can be difficult to do, and it is necessary to be incredibly careful, think about what is being measured and avoid setting up perverse incentives. With the increase in payment by results and targets under the previous Government, organisations cherry-picked the easiest cases and left the remainder, so resources were directed precisely where they were needed least. Often, the targets set for us in the voluntary sector, and for others, completely ignored the reality that many young people face.

In the youth justice system at the moment, for example, the Government are rolling out a system of payment by results, which is about trying to get young offenders into work as soon as they leave an institution. I applaud the focus on getting young people into structured work and giving them a reason to carry on, but the way those targets are set will be important. I worked at Centrepoint, the youth homelessness charity, for several years, and there were some young people for whom just getting out of bed and having breakfast every morning was a significant achievement that constituted real progress; it took months of work, support and encouragement from the staff. That is something we need to be careful about.

I am also quite concerned about measuring outcomes and the focus on payment by results. Constructing intelligent frameworks for what is measured and how that is done involves more than skill. When I worked for the Children’s Society, it constructed a well-being index, which took several years to complete, and while such frameworks can usefully be shared with other organisations—the Government have commissioned work on that, which I welcome—I also urge them to pay attention to the fact that it also takes time to collect and record information in a meaningful way. Many of the young people I worked with in the voluntary sector were sick and tired of being part of the system and of being asked questions, quizzed and grilled. It is important to find useful, meaningful, non-harmful ways to engage young people in the framework, and to get the right information from them, so that the process does not turn into a tick-box exercise.

We heard a lot of evidence that measuring soft outcomes was important, and I completely agree with that; confidence and resilience are examples. Often, causal links are too complicated. It is difficult to say, “This young person came to us and has gone on to commit crime. That is because we failed.” That would be to ignore every other thing going on in the young person’s life at the time. There are so many influences on young people, and it is difficult to measure the direct impact. I was encouraged by the focus on positives in the plan that the Government have produced. If outcome measures are constructed in a negative way, the focus on positives, which is so valuable to youth work, and which we should value and prize above all else, is lost.

Having read the Government’s plan for young people, I thought it was long on policy, which I welcomed, but short on vision. It did not seem to consider the future impact on young people of many of the things in question. The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, instead of an education Department, was a significant step forward for children. It meant that, for once, all Departments had to work together to deliver for young people. Things were brought under one umbrella, with a strong Secretary of State who drove through improvements for young people. I saw that for myself, particularly in areas where children had traditionally been left outside the system. For example, refugee and migrant children came under the umbrella of the Children Act 1989 and the UN convention on the rights of the child for the first time as a direct consequence of the fact that the Department brought things together. If the Minister wants to consider the long-term future of young people and what the decisions we take will mean for them, he needs to look at youth work and immediate support and intervention, but he also needs to look closely at what his colleagues are doing in housing, pensions and care for the elderly—a host of things. Our failure, as a country, to tackle those things will affect young people for the rest of their lives.

A generation is growing up who are losing youth services and support, particularly for the most disadvantaged, but who also face the prospect of high unemployment, with a million young people out of work. They face depressed wages for the rest of their lives, and interrupted work patterns. They also face high debt if they manage to get through university, difficulty getting on the housing ladder and having to fund care for their elderly parents while paying hefty funds into their pension schemes and bringing up their children. The Minister needs to consider what he does for young people now, but needs also to look carefully at his colleagues’ failure to act. Otherwise, young people will feel the results for many years to come.