Though it was wholly unrelated to her role as ‘youth minister’, Tracey Crouch’s recent ministerial resignation has reactivated the demand for a ‘dedicated youth minister’ from what Children and Young People Now calls ‘youth leaders’ – that is, directors and chief executives of some national organisations. In principle this is clearly highly desirable. Who wouldn’t want someone, even low down in the governmental hierarchy, whose sole focus was young people and the development of policies for them?
Yet, even if it existed, the record since 2010 of Crouch and her predecessors suggests that we would still be facing a very tough struggle to get all-the-year-round, community-based youth work facilities recognised by those policies. Over that period the post itself was migrated first from the Department for Education to the Cabinet Office and then, in 2016, to what we now know – take a deep breath! – as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. The latter decision was prompted, it seemed, not by any strategic thinking on where the role might best be located but by the then minister Rob Wilson’s wish to take it with him when he was reshuffled. His reason for opting to do this, he said, was particularly ‘to give young people greater engagement with our sporting and cultural heritage’.
Even if the motives had been more visionary, however, what the post-holder could achieve would still have been severely constrained by those wider ideological and economic priorities which have dominated Tory policy-making throughout the ‘austerity’ years. In 2014, for example, Wilson used the government’s ‘Localism’ strategy – intended, it said, to transfer responsibilities from the centre to ‘local councils, communities and individuals’ – to fend off criticisms that the Youth Service’s statutory requirements were inadequate. Arguing that ‘you have to trust and respect local choices’, he insisted that ‘… effective local youth services are already supported by the existing statutory guidance’. In doing this, he ignored his own department’s evidence that fewer than half of local authorities were at the time always considering their legal duty when making decisions on Youth Service funding. The following year, even as he expressed disappointment at how local authorities were treating their Services, he in effect accused councillors of resorting to cuts as the easy option and advocated as the solution a need ‘to attract even more investment from … local organisations, businesses and philanthropists’.
Nor did Crouch, who took over the post when Wilson lost his seat at the 2017 general election, turn out to be much more of a friend of youth work or the Youth Service. In January 2018, for example, she rejected a Labour Party demand that the effectiveness of the National Citizens Service be assessed against that of ‘traditional youth services’ even though evidence soon emerged that in the previous three years the scheme had attracted only 12 per cent of the eligible age group. More broadly, it was on her watch that, after bringing representatives of the youth sector and young people together in a series of regional consultative workshops, the government dropped a commitment to update the 2011 Positive for Youth paper by publishing a new three-year youth policy statement. Originally promoted in 2016 as aiming to ‘highlight the opportunities that come out of the move to the DCMS, and how we can give young people greater engagement with our sporting and cultural heritage’, this was abandoned a year later in favour of the ‘civil society’ policy statement published last August into which proposals for both youth work and social action were incorporated.
Perhaps the most revealing ‘youth minister’ record, however, is that of Tim Loughton who before becoming an MP was a fund manager in the City of London and held the post of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families from May 2010 to September 2012. Once out of office, he metamorphosed into a vocal critic of government youth policies and particularly of his former boss at the DfE, Michael Gove. Within a month of losing his job, for example, he was talking about having ‘had to battle against various unnamed forces … to keep the youth role of the DfE on the agenda’ and was promising that, when the progress report on Positive for Youth appeared, he would ‘keep (it) on the agenda of government’ by tabling Parliamentary questions and demanding a debate. Currently he is Treasurer of the All Party Parliamentary Group on youth affairs whose summary report on youth work published earlier this month got, at best, a mixed reception at a recent IDYW event.
All this, however, from the same man who January 2010, as the shadow minister, echoed the then familiar New Labour line that the quality of local authority Youth Services ‘leaves a lot to be desired’ as his prompt for posing the question: ‘Why would the world fall in if a local authority contracted out the whole youth services department?’ Speaking at an Association of Directors of Children’s Services conference two months after he took up office, he was again dismissive of the idea that ‘… the monopoly that local authorities have on the delivery and commissioning of youth services is necessarily the way to go’.
Two months before his ministerial release of Positive for Youth, Loughton also made clear his thinking on funding. There was, he stressed, ‘no big cheque attached’ to the new policy which, he said, was ‘about using money better’. In his evidence in 2013 to the Commons Select Committee inquiring into ‘services for young people’, he was even blunter. While in effect admitting that he hadn’t kept up with the extent of three years of cuts to Youth Services, he nonetheless labeled the £350 million a year being spent on them in England as ‘large slugs of public money’ – a response which prompted the Committee to ‘congratulate the sector for its longstanding dexterity in making limited resources go a long way and for continuing to support young people despite reliance on a patchwork of different funds’. For him, too, in what he called the ‘tough economic climate’, the ‘way forward’ was to bring in ‘charities and businesses to help develop and provide youth services…’ When it came to awarding NCS contracts, these subsequently turned out to include multi-national companies such as Serco which had already been accused of unethical practices and which later faced charges of fraud and manipulation of data.
To repeat: none of this is meant to argue against the need for a dedicated youth minister’. It is, rather, to try and inject into the debate the question: so how much difference in itself would this make? After all, if the tide for state funded and provided youth work is really to turn, much wider and indeed more fundamental battles are going to have to be won over purpose, process, funding and infrastructure.
Bernard Davies’s book Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in February 2019.