Cat Smith: Youth workers are the unsung heroes of our communities. Let’s support them

Happy Youth Work Week. This is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the achievements and impact of youth work across the country. Youth workers are the unsung heroes of our communities, playing a vital role in the transformation of young people’s lives through personal, social and educational development. By building up relationships of trust, youth workers support young people to develop their confidence and resilience, make decisions about their lives and play positive roles in society.

Youth services cover a range of activities, from helping young people into employment, training or education to preventing alcohol, substance abuse, crime and anti-social behaviour. Unlike school, participation is voluntary. But over the last decade the Tories have failed to recognise these benefits. Instead, they have consciously dismantled the whole infrastructure of youth services to breaking point and damaged the youth work profession.

Research conducted by the YMCA found that overall spending on youth services in England has fallen by £737m (62%) since 2010. Between 2012 and 2016, 600 youth centres closed, 3,500 youth workers lost their jobs and 140,000 places for young people went.

Last week, the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs published early findings from its inquiry into youth services, and found that youth centres and clubs – including street work and mobile units – “have all but disappeared from some communities”. It is testament to our voluntary sector that provision has not completely collapsed under the weight of these cuts.

With not a single extra penny found in the Chancellor’s broken promise budget to address this crisis, we can only expect these cuts to continue and young people across this country will suffer as a result. The Prime Minister pledged the end of austerity and the Chancellor failed to deliver.

We cannot ignore the impact these cuts are having on young people across this country. In 2016, Unison asked youth workers about the impact of youth service cuts: 83% said they were having an effect on crime and antisocial behaviour, and 71% said it was now harder for young people to stay in formal education.

A major flaw in the current system is due to legislation. Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure “sufficient” provision of educational and recreational leisure-time activities for young people. However, this vague wording has led to huge variation in spending and provision across the country. Because councils have seen their budgets cut by 50%, these essential services have been the first to go.

As a result, young people receive a completely different level of service from borough to borough. And because there is no accountability or strategy in place to ensure that this is not the case, central government continues to turn a blind eye.

The Labour Party is committed to rebuilding youth services. 85% of a young person’s waking hours is spent outside of formal education. It should be the responsibility of national and local government to ensure that every young person has somewhere to go, something to do and someone to speak to.

The next Labour government will address this crisis by guaranteeing high quality youth services in every council so that every young person has the opportunity to succeed. We are currently consulting on how this could be achieved and encouraging people to feed into to our policy-making process. Crucially, we will also create a sustainable funding model to support its delivery. As with our last manifesto, we’ll be clear and transparent about where all the funding for our additional spending commitments will come from.

We must not forget that austerity was a political choice not an economic necessity – for 8 years the Tories have chosen giveaways for the few over public services for the many – making life harder for most. And it is young people who have often borne the brunt of these cruel cuts.

We can no longer sit back and allow the Tories to fail our young people. Young people are growing up in a world of rapid technological change and major economic and social challenges. The next Labour government will support young people’s needs and meet their ambitions for the future.

Cat Smith is shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood.


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