Private Members’ Business – Economic Value of Youth Work

Part 1

I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the representatives of the many wonderful youth work organisations and the National Youth Council of Ireland to the Visitors Gallery. Before I begin, it would be remiss of me were I not to congratulate the Minister wholeheartedly on the recent passing of the children’s rights referendum. Other issues are ongoing, but they should not take from that success. Many promised; the Minister delivered. I thank her very much.

I have a long list of issues that I would like to be able to discuss with the Minister, but I will limit myself to the value of youth work. I speak as someone who has benefited from experience as a young person in a youth organisation. I was lucky to have some truly inspirational youth leaders. Indeed, I wonder whether I would have the confidence to stand before the Minister today had I not become involved in the girl guides. I can trace many of my skills to my experience in youth work.

I also had the honour of being president of the National Youth Council of Ireland several years ago. Through that experience, I learned the value of providing young people with a choice of youth activities. Just like us adults, one size does not fit all.

I tabled this motion a number of weeks ago in the hope we could have a debate prior to the budget. As such, I thank my colleagues in the Independent Group for allowing me to use our precious time to have this debate now. We know that youth work makes a real difference in the lives of young people and the communities in which they live. The Indecon report, produced on behalf of the National Youth Council of Ireland, regarding the assessment of the economic value of youth work provides hard evidence to the effect that youth work is value for money and makes economic sense.

Like me, the Minister is undoubtedly alarmed by the fact that, in the EU, Ireland has the fourth highest number of young people who are not in education, employment or training, NEETs, at 18.4%. The EU average is 12.9%. In terms of marginalisation, 29% of people under 25 years of age are unemployed and one third of men between the ages of 20 years and 24 years are unemployed. The youth population is growing, with 18.4% of our population aged between ten and 24 years. Alongside this growth, youth work organisations have reported an increased demand for their services. Perhaps this is due to the recession, in that people are searching for value for money activities. It is in light of the increased demand that my Independent colleagues and I have tabled this motion. I also thank the other Senators who added their signatures to the motion.

The report outlines the evidence, but going through it would use up all of my time. I can provide hard economic evidence as well as many case studies. In one example, young teenagers regularly drank in the fields behind the school where a youth work organisation met. Over a period of two years, they were gradually encouraged to get involved in the organisation’s activities. Through gentle encouragement, they realised the harmful effects of alcohol and ceased hanging out in the fields because they had found a worthwhile activity.

In another example, an eight year old used to turn up to her youth work meeting half an hour early every week just to chat. It transpired that this young person had no active engagement with an adult from one end of the week to the other except for the youth worker. Her parents instructed her in what to do, but no one simply chatted with her.

Another young person had autism and found any group activity painful and frightening. After two years of coming along to meetings with her sister, she started to smile and progressively became more involved. According to her mother, the social skills that the young person developed were remarkable and directly attributable to her youth work experience.

While on a weekend away with a youth group, a teenager began hitting the other participants and using very sexualised language. After careful handling by the youth worker who talked with the girl and her parents, it transpired that she was being abused by someone known to the family. The abuse needed to be reported to the authorities.

I could continue with my list. I have not taken these examples from a report or research. They are my personal experiences as a youth work leader with the Irish Girl Guides. I have no doubt that any youth worker or, indeed, anyone present in the Gallery could share with the Minister a long list of examples where youth work had made a difference. The economic report also shows that. I call them magic moments. Sometimes, one goes to a meeting and does not have a great night, but situations arise that prove that youth work makes a difference.

When I tabled the motion, I tried to put down an evidence-based, factual account. I was tempted to add lines to the effect that, for example, funding should not be cut, but I decided on a wording that was non-confrontational. When I saw the Government’s amendment, it struck me as an attempt to gild the lily. In recent years, most youth work organisations have seen funding cuts amounting to a cumulative 30%. Some, particularly small specialist organisations, will no longer be viable, thereby reducing the selection of organisations that young people can join. Demands on youth work organisations are also increasing because young people do not have resources within their families, which places even greater pressure on local youth work clubs’ resources.

I do not wish to divide the House. To be constructive and as a first step, I will ask a number of questions. Perhaps the Minister might help by answering. I will add some of my own commentary so that the record of this debate can stand.

The first point I wish to raise is that of front-line youth work services. There are 382,615 young people participating in and benefiting from youth work, 1,400 full-time employees and more than 40,000 volunteers. My background is in guiding and scouting. For me, when we refer to front-line youth work services, we mean volunteers working on the front line who are being provided with resources and supports by staff. A small group of staff are based in a national office, and they provide and help with programme materials. They do not design those materials. Rather, that is done by the volunteers. Indeed, everything is done by the volunteers, but they need backup. When I hear “front-line youth work services”, I wonder whether the true voluntary nature is understood.

In the Minister’s discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the lead-up to the budget, did she discuss the Indecon report on the assessment of youth work and the benefits that it clearly demonstrated? The documents published by the Department of Public Expenditure and reform on budget 2013 showed that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is proposing a further cut of €3 million in 2014. These cuts are unsustainable. Youth work funding is 14% of the latter Department’s overall budget, yet is being allocated 30% of the overall cut to that budget.

There is talk about cutting 30% of funding, which is disproportionate and should be questioned.

The Government amendment to the motion mentions the provision of significant capital funding for the development of youth facilities, which is welcome. Will the Minister clarify the exact funding? In November last year there was an announcement of capital funding of €1.5 million for 2012 and in November 2012 there was announcement of €500,000 funding for 2012 and €1.5 million in capital funding for 2013. Is the total capital funding for 2012 and 2013, €3.5 million or €2 million? Has the Department carried out an assessment to ensure the sustainability of these services? If a facility can be only opened for a few hours per week I would question the expenditure. There is a great disparity in services being provided.

The third point of the Government amendment mentions, “Prioritising the protection of funding for front-line volunteer-led provision”. I have already mentioned what I believe is front-line provision but will the Minister clarify if this refers to the €1.035 million funding for local services out of a total youth work funding budget of €56.8 million? When I read the amendment at first I was excited but I must make progress.

Who is being consulted on the national youth work advisory committee? I saw a reply to a parliamentary question put down by Deputy Ó Caoláin but what are the terms of reference? The amendment mentions “reforming and rationalising” and I know the Minister is talking about doing a review. Is that the same review promised in the 2011 comprehensive review of expenditure and when can it be expected? What will be the terms of reference? School facilities are a bugbear of mine. The Government has told youth organisations to rationalise but when will schools be opened in the evenings for utilisation by youth work organisations? Too many schools are locked up, with youth organisations being charged for other facilities in the community.

We have had debates in this House on mental health, youth suicide, social inclusion, youth unemployment, bullying and alcohol-related harm. Central to all of these debates was the valuable role played by youth work organisations, which is why I passionately believe we must support these organisations rather than decimating them.


Part 2

I thank the Minister for her input and for having attended the full debate. I also wish to thank each of my colleagues who contributed to the discussion, in particular, the Independent group’s Members who contributed without hesitation. Senator O’Donnell seconded the motion and explained superbly how our group feels about this issue. At the group meeting, Senators Zappone, Mary Ann O’Brien, Mac Conghail, McAleese and others all had stories to tell about the value of youth work and its importance in all our lives.

As regards cuts, I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say about a “sharper focus on quality, outcome and evidence-based practice”. Part of me says that just means cuts, but I take the spirit of what the Minister means. Equally, however, I read in the Indecon report’s summary that “public funding provided by the State for youth work services represents value for money”. It does not say that it will represent value for money, but that it does so now.

In considering the review of funding streams – which is something that youth groups have been seeking for years – it does not suit anybody to crudely cut organisations by the same percentage every year, whether or not they improve. I welcome the review but how will it happen, what are its terms of reference and will it be transparent? Many organisations are wondering about those questions.

I do not want to divide the House, but will the Minister give a commitment to meet with the National Youth Council of Ireland to discuss the funding streams?

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