People of my generation can look back to a time when a complex matrix of formal and informal systems sought to provide appropriate support and interventions to keep teenagers on the straight and narrow.
As well as parents, families and friends, there were many voluntary organisations welcoming and recruiting young people into a wide range of sporting and leisure activities. At that time, most teenagers left school at 16 years and entered work, where older workers, managers and trades unions provided a different sort of development framework. And there were also numerous youth clubs, some full-time, and many part-time based in community and church halls. They provided a safe place for young people to be creative, develop new friendships and learn new skills, all with a trusted adult.
I don’t want to be unrealistically nostalgic nor see that era through rose-tinted glasses. However, looking back, it is clear that it was that big, messy, uncoordinated pattern that helped to successfully deliver young people into the adult world. Of course, it had many failures as youngsters slipped through the net. And, some youngsters – just as today – seemed determined to avoid the net altogether and to pursue a life of anti-social behaviour and crime.
The new Prime Minister has made a big announcement about increasing the number of police officers, but not back up to the number that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats inherited in 2010. But there is absolute silence about the range of other services that seek to divert or deter young people from crime. Prevention seems to be missing from the Boris lexicon.
Youth services were overwhelmingly funded by local authorities. Similarly, many of the voluntary organisations – from uniformed groups like the guides and scouts to sports and leisure groups – were also supported by council grants to underpin the big voluntary contribution.
However, after nine years of austerity, many parts of our country – including Sheffield and other parts of South Yorkshire – now have no recognisable Youth Services at all. As the government has cut local government funding hard, increased spending on adult and children’s social care has squeezed out spending on libraries, parks and youth services.
Over the last decade, spending has fallen by 70%, 14,500 youth and community workers have lost their jobs and 760 full-time youth centres have closed their doors. It’s in that context that youth crime – including ‘county lines’ drug dealing – has begun to thrive again.
Those who argue that council cuts haven’t hurt anyone are living in cloud-cuckoo land. The truth is that those cuts will have damaged some youngsters for life and some families and communities for decades.
We need to build a nation for our young people where they are safe and secure, treated fairly, supported in the present, and ambitious for their future. We need them to be skilled and equipped to learn and earn, pay attention to their health and wellbeing, be active members of their communities, and happy and confident in their futures.
We need to have a non-formal development and education policy for all young people which focuses on their personal, social and civic development. If necessary, we should have a National Charter for Youth Work underpinned in law.
Any such programme will need to be diverse, engaging young people by choice. To be successful, it will need to be owned and shared by other stakeholders, like the police and those concerned with children’s social care. It will also require determined and innovative leadership and a significant investment in a skilled workforce.
Brexit or Remain, Deal or No Deal, are completely irrelevant to a decision to invest in young people, helping them to realise their potential and diverting them from a life of crime.
So, Prime Minister Johnson, what are you going to do about it?