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Councillors need to stop cuts to youth services for the sake of democracy

By Leek Post and Times  |  Posted: February 05, 2014

Councillors need to stop cuts to youth services for the sake of democracy
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WITH Youth Services in the balance across Staffordshire, Youth Councillor for Staffordshire Moorlands, Joe Porter, tells us his opinions on the matter.

TODAY we live in a society where our public finances are limited; our priorities are changing and our definition of public services is different to what it once was. To put it simply: the state is inevitably shrinking.

Local authorities up and down the country have already cut their youth services to make much needed savings to both; reduce their own deficits and to fund freezes in council tax rates.

These principles, along with aiming to become more efficient, I agree with because, as a country, we can no longer afford to keep every public service as well funded as it used to be. But, the questions Staffordshire County Council need to ask themselves during the current public consultation of their proposed changes to youth services are: Could these proposed savings be made in other areas?; Could these services be commissioned to the private sector?; And is it moral to cut youth services?

I don’t claim to be a financial expert, but as a young person who has been a youth representative for five years, I know how essential Staffordshire Youth & Community Service has been to myself and other young people across the county.

Without the youth service, I wouldn’t be half as confident and able to give public speeches as I now am or nearly as passionate about politics as I have become. Surely, some of the £4.5 million pounds worth of proposed savings could be made in other areas of the council, rather than put at risk the lives of vulnerable young people?

The classic clique that young people are the future is right, but I also believe that young people are actually the ‘now’. Most politicians are completely missing the fact though, that young people are more politicised and aware of current affairs than ever before. By just looking at the UK Youth Parliament’s record breaking mandate of nearly 250,000 young people’s views for their annual House of Commons debate, it just demonstrates how determined our generation are to get involved in decision making.

However, the ‘Achieving Excellence for Young People’ report, won’t achieve excellence for young people, if every proposal goes ahead, it will actually radically change the future of youth services for the worse. The very reason that I am against most of the proposals is that I not only want my generation to have a brighter, more prosperous future in our society, but I will also want my children to grow up in a Staffordshire that gives them the potential to succeed.

Another point that’s worth mentioning is that not every young person wants to be a Member of the Scouts or Guides Movement or part of their local Army Cadets Force. And nor, would either of them have the capacity to cope with the extra influx of young people, if the youth services are cut. The claims in the county council report are that only 1 in 5 young people use the youth services, but this is completely wrong. For a start it doesn’t take into consideration the 20,257 young people in Staffordshire, who participated in last year’s UKYP ‘Make Your Mark’ ballot – the highest in the country. Plus, the youth services’ activities in schools and communities such as assemblies and ‘Your Staffordshire Card’ promotion days aren’t counted in this total either. So these figures are completely inaccurate.

What’s more, I am bamboozled that the county council wants to play politics, and gamble with young people’s future. This is not a matter of politics. I actually agree with all of the council’s changes so far until this one. It is in fact, as I previously mentioned, a matter of morality and ensuring that every young person has the opportunity to succeed.

Whilst schools provide a vital role in educating local young people and provide extra-curricular activities, they do not necessarily play the same role or cover everything that the youth service provides for future generations. Some young people, for instance, might feel more comfortable approaching a youth worker about a personal private matter, than one of their teachers. From my experiences, I have gained a majority of my political knowledge and entrepreneurial drive from the youth service as a Youth Councillor. This has added so much essential diversity to my education and made me into a more rounded and employable individual, as I’m sure it has with many other young people in Staffordshire which can be very helpful when applying for university, apprenticeships and jobs. One of my friends even recalled getting a job at Alton Towers as a result of them growing so much a person while gaining useful life experiences such as being a Member of YOMAC and participating in the National Citizen Service, which are currently delivered by the youth service.

One other issue is quality. Tackling unemployment is a constant priority for politicians and local authorities. However, if the ‘Achieving Excellence for Young People’ proposals go ahead, jobs will be lost. Youth workers who are fully trained in health & safety and are probably more knowledgeable than anyone, other than parents, about the needs of young people. While volunteers should be highly valued, they do not have the same level of training and experience. Surely, they shouldn’t be expected to always take on the responsibility of young people’s safety such as in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme, with the risk of prosecution if serious issues occur, without even being paid. Also, because volunteers aren’t paid, they don’t have a contractual obligation to turn up and run every youth club session. Therefore, the solution of getting the voluntary section to run a majority of the remaining aspects of the youth service, if the changes go ahead, will lower the quality of services provided for young people. Plus, this would be practical and risks services becoming unreliable and inapt. Although, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with the county council commissioning parts of the youth service to the private or charities sector. Even though, if this happened, the youth service would be smaller, it would still be in existence and more efficient, and I would hope that some of the youth workers would still be taken on, which is ultimately what I want to see happen.

The Staffordshire Youth Action Kouncil, the eight district youth forums, and the UK Youth Parliament reps all form a part of the ‘Speak Out’ network. This is the only democratic mechanism that is in place in Staffordshire that ensures that every young person who lives, works or learns in the county has a local, regional and national voice. If youth workers lose their jobs and the youth centres close, this essential aspect of the youth service will cease to exist as well. According to Article 12 in the UN Convention on the Right of the Child: “When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.” Without the existence of the forums this essential piece of legality simply won’t be conformed in Staffordshire because even though we have school councils and unions, they are not connected by a network where information is shared and young people work cohesively to achieve the best outcome for young people. Conducting a single survey every year, as some suspect they will do to tick this box, won’t be sufficient enough either because there won’t be any accountability from local decision makers to young people. The ‘Your Staffordshire Card’ – probably the youth service’s and YAK’s single biggest achievement – wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the hard work put in by the youth representatives and youth workers who regularly promote the card. Together we’ve achieved over 37,000 cardholders since it was launched in 2011. Yet, the county council want to increase the maximum eligibly age from 19 to 25. Obviously, as a young person I agree with this ambitious proposal, but hang on who’s going to promote the card to this new market of local people? Nobody in the council is currently paid to promote the card. YAK and the youth forums won’t be able to either, if the proposals go ahead and they cease to exist.

Our youth service is an asset to communities across Staffordshire. Whatever the council decide to do, I really urge them to really listen to local people’s views in the public consultation about the proposals, particularly to the young people who will be most affected by the potential changes. Young people are the ‘now’; young people deserve a prosperous future and young people need politicians to listen to them. Therefore, I want to ask every single councillor and Staffordshire MP, no matter what your political allegiance may be, please reconsider the proposed cuts to the youth service. Otherwise, its young people and hardworking youth workers who will pay the cost. And politically, it is going to make young people more disconnected from politics and create an even larger gap between you and your young people constituents. Value for every pound is an idea that a majority of people endorse – but to address this concern, investing money in the future generation will always be value for money if done properly. It will after all, be us who are the parents, business owners, teachers, health professionals, lawyers and decision makers of tomorrow. For the sake of democracy, I urge the county council to at least keep all the youth forums, YAK and UKYP going so that young people still have a functionally active voice in Staffordshire. Finally, I want to ask everyone who’s reading this: no matter who you are, what your role is within the community, whether you have been involved in the youth service or not, please sign the petition or participate in the public consultation by going on www.staffordshire.gov.uk/yourcouncil/consultationandfeedback/ or fill in a paper survey so that this becomes the council’s biggest ever public consultation and they take us seriously.

Joe Porter.

Youth Councillor for Staffordshire Moorlands

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