Government plans to cut spending on youth services have come under fire this week from opposition politicians and some charities in East London for their potentially damaging effects.
As part of a wider programme of budget cuts affecting all areas of Government spending, many organisations set up to help young people will find their grants reduced, sometimes drastically – a situation which could lead to some East London charities being forced to scale back their operations, or even close.
Opponents of the funding changes have attacked their relationship to Prime Minister Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ concept, under which centralised social initiatives will be replaced by grass-roots volunteering and the contributions of charities.
The criticism follows concerns raised last week at plans for a ‘non-military national service’ for teenagers, which some local charity groups say could draw attention and resources away from existing youth volunteering
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said: “Small scale community activity is fundamentally important to civil society. It depends on small grants, and if these are wiped out this will remove the very support structures that community groups depend on and undermine the big society.”
In East London, where many charities perform work with disadvantaged young people, those working in the voluntary sector have criticised the plans to cut funding, and highlighted the disparity between wider austerity measures and the promotion of a new government-led ‘volunteering camps’ project.
Bisi Ojuri, Managing Director at the Volunteer Centre in Hackney, told EastLondonLines: “We have cuts in our organisation and a lot of volunteering organisations are closing due to lack of funding; small organisations are having to fold. Where will the young people be placed? It doesn’t make sense to put more young people into the volunteer sector if there are no spaces.”
One local youth-oriented charity concerned about the potential impact of the cuts is Body and Soul, an Islington-based group that helps children, young people and families dealing with HIV.
Louise Gibbs, its fundraising and partnership manager, said: “If they cut funding from Body and Soul then the cost for the NHS will actually go up, as we can provide services those dealing with HIV at a low cost compared to hospitals.”
“Aid support grants that have already been axed haven’t had an impact on us yet, but in terms of funding it’s hard to tell what effect that will have in the long run,” she said, despite noting that other important sources of funding such as Lottery grants and Comic Relief money remain safe.
Vivian Smith, projects and contact manager at Hackney-based Headliners, a charity which offers young people personal development through journalism projects, said that although the immediate future looked difficult, she is confident in the strength of her organisation to withstand wider funding shortages.
“The contracts we have at present are all secure – we’ve had no cuts so far,” she said. “But it is undoubtedly a very difficult time: the winning of new contracts has slowed.”
“We have had to streamline and become more flexible in order to deal with the recession.”
“Anywhere within the Olympic boroughs have an advantage at this time. Being in London at this time is exciting: there are some interesting contracts. We have a contract with the BBC.”
“At present, the government are tightening their purse strings and evaluating where they can save money. But really, everyone is waiting till Autumn when the government will release their Green Paper results.”
“It’s important that young people don’t get despondent- we don’t want people feeling like they’re in an underclass- we want to prevent social unrest and help young people feel like they have something to offer.”
One of the hardest-hit organisations under the new plans will be Connexions, a network of centres set up in 2000 to offer advice and support to 13 to 19-year-olds.
According to professional publication Children and Young People Now, some Connexions partnerships could lose up to half of their budgets – with 75% of centres expecting to make some staff redundant.
According to a survey conducted by the magazine, one in five Connexions heads say their local authority is considering closing its branch completely in favour of merging advice services with other areas of youth provision.
Katharine Horler, chair of the National Connexions Network, criticised the cuts, expressing concern about the capacity of teachers to offer guidance services in place of Connexions officers.
“The scale of these cuts means that councils are prioritising statutory responsibilities and IAG [Information, Advice and Guidance] will suffer as a result,” she said.
Labour MP Kevan Jones also opposed the decision. He said: “It makes no sense in a recession to be cutting an advice service for young people aged 13 to 19, offering support and specialising in education, training and employment.”
“There is a huge risk for some young people in not getting jobs and staying outside education or training. Young people should not be penalised because of the inept economic decisions of others.”
Ian Keating, senior policy officer at the Local Government Association, said: “Connexions is largely funded by the Department for Education area-based grant, which has been reduced by 25 per cent.”
Defending the move and calling on councils to be more flexible in delivering services, he added: “There are bigger additional pressures on local authorities, such as safeguarding children.”
Former Home Secretary David Blunkett has also criticised the new government’s spending plans and their potential effects on youth services. “A big chunk of the area-based grant goes into youth inclusion, youth work, Connexions and beyond,” he said. “It’s disappearing now and in the months ahead without people really understanding what it means.”
Additional reporting by Camilla Brown.
You can read our feature on youth volunteering under new government proposals here.