Government must stand strong on youth provision

By Linda Jack

| 16 March 2012

Tim Loughton recently attended the Liberal Democrat Education Parliamentary Policy Committee. It was before the publication of "Positive for Youth" and as the person who had chaired our youth policy working group that produced Free to be Young, I was particularly interested in incorporating as much of our policy as possible. One of our manifesto commitments was a statutory youth service. Tim explained that there would be a consultation on current guidance and that it was his intention to strengthen it. So, as you might imagine, I was very interested to see what has gone out for consultation.

I welcome the recognition that young people, particularly the most vulnerable, need access to "a wide range of services and activities... that can help improve [their] well-being and life chances" as well as opportunities to "contribute to society, including through volunteering, and have a voice in decisions which affect their lives".

So the requirement that local authorities must take steps to ascertain the views of young people and to take them into account in making decisions about services and activities for them is clearly crucial.

However, the only other "must" in the document refers to determining "which services and facilities can be delivered by third parties so that the local authority delivers directly only where it is clearly best placed to do so" and almost in the same breath claims that government will not prescribe which services and activities for young people local authorities should fund or deliver or to what level!

What this demonstrates is the underlying Tory ideologically driven dislike of publicly delivered public services and determination to adhere to "localism" only when it suits their wider agenda to open up as many public services as possible to their pals in the private sector.

Now don't get me wrong, there is a place for the private sector when it can genuinely add value or offer a specialist service that the local authority is unable to deliver itself, but the idea that local authorities are incapable of delivering their own youth services is patently ridiculous.

Everything else in the document refers to "should" or "consider" and the requirement (in point 7) that "local authorities are responsible for securing, so far as is reasonably practicable, a local offer that is sufficient to improve young people's well-being and personal and social development" is weakened by two things - firstly the catch-all opt-out "so far as is reasonably practicable" and the insertion of the meaningless, unmeasurable "sufficient".

What words like "should", "consider" "sufficient" and "reasonable" do is provide a shield for councils if they were ever subjected to a legal challenge. Oh yes, we considered that and decided against it. And we think a one night a week youth club in the centre of town is perfectly sufficient - and after all, it wasn't reasonably practicable to do any more.

Rather like Positive for Youth, this guidance accurately identifies the issues, but then doesn't come up with anything like an adequate solution.

So, what would, in my view, be a solution?  A commitment to a statutory youth service, recognising it is part of a local authority's legitimate education provision augmenting formal education. Provision of ringfenced funding or a minimum per capita spend per young person and the defining of what the minimum offer is that a young person should expect, in broad, principle based terms.

An expectation that local authorities will provide such services in consultation with young people and taking account of local issues and needs, ensuring that those providing the service are trained and equipped to deliver a high-quality service. Such a commitment has never been more urgent - and the irony is that the cost to society in the future if we don't have such a commitment will be far higher than the cost of getting this right now.

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