#SluggerSoapbox: The impact of Stormont’s cuts on young people

Cuts being made at Executive level have not been thought through to community level – and the consequences could be significantly worse than Ministers anticipate argues Paul Smyth, Chief Executive of the youth focused charity Public Achievement.

According to DETI, the unemployment figure in Northern Ireland (August to October 2014) was 6.3%. However the youth unemployment figure (18 – 24 year olds) is more than 3 times that level at 21.2% and is likely to continue to rise over the coming months.

With freezes to recruitment in much of the public sector (including the PSNI), and widespread cuts to the voluntary sector, young people’s employment options are becoming increasingly limited, and student places are being reduced.

In applying cuts the Executive has taken a blunt axe rather than a surgeon’s scalpel to budgets. So for example in Education a blanket cut of 8.4% in the Department’s budget has been passed on as a £3 million cut to the Youth Service (the collection of statutory and voluntary organisations that administer and deliver youth work) – which already had a very constrained budget. Similar cuts are being made to schools.

And Minister John O’Dowd has also completely removed the Department’s community relations budget for schools and youth organisations – more on that shortly.

As all youth work funding from Education is administered through the Education and Library Boards (soon to be Education Authority) or the Youth Council for Northern Ireland, those bodies have seen their budgets cut – the former by £2 million and the latter by £1 million. This equates to a 7.7% cut to the youth service in the ELBs, and nearly a 20% cut to the Youth Council budget.

It seems highly unlikely that a significant part of these cuts will not be passed on to front-line youth work. Front-line youth organisations tend to operate with a tiny administrative cost – and they also tend to involve large numbers of volunteers (22 for each work according to Youth Council figures) and even larger numbers of young people.

Many organisations are also involved in bringing in funding from a wide variety of sources. For example – last year for every £1 Public Achievement brought in from the Department of Education, we were able to lever in an additional £8.17 from other sources. Using a crude calculation, if our funding from the Youth Council is cut by 20% (a reduction of £14,400) this could cost us over £117,600 in match funding.

We could employ at least 3 full-time qualified youth workers for that (including overheads), working with over 60 volunteers and well over 600 young people. What looks like a fairly minor cut in the grand scheme of things, could impact on the lives of hundreds of young people and volunteers through just one organisation.

O’Dowd’s predecessor, Catriona Ruane cut the Departments community relations budget by 70%. This was after a widespread consultation responded to by hundreds of groups and thousands of young people that was overwhelmingly telling the Department that the cross-community and inter-school work that was going on was important.

The O’Dowd cut – £1.1 million is the final nail in the coffin of such work sponsored through education, in spite of over 3 decades of development and research. Given the Executive’s supposed commitment to a joint ‘Together Building a United Community” strategy it is staggering that education – where much of the community relations practice was developed in youth groups and schools – is cutting this budget.

However the current budget is so small, and spread so thinly that not many will notice.

It is however very odd that two of the key actions in TBUC – the United Youth programme and the Summer Camps scheme are being administered by DEL and the Councils (via OFMDFM) respectively – when neither department has any track record in supporting youth work.

So here are 5 reasons why I think cutting front-line youth work provision at this time is just plain stupid!

  • Young work is an important – and sometimes the only – support mechanism to many vulnerable young people
  • Youth organisations provide significant added value by training and supporting thousands of volunteers who give a colossal amount of their time to working with young people. A small cut has a huge impact.
  • Youth workers are needed more than ever as youth unemployment is the highest in the UK and set to increase, and families and young people who are already squeezed, get squeezed further.
  • Youth work often provides a compensating effect for other deficits (lack of family support, poor experience of school etc.) in their lives. Young people can become prey to more negative influences in the absence of support. One young person in juvenile detention costs £88,181 per year. Young people being drawn into paramilitary organisations can have much more serious consequences for all of us.
  • It doesn’t make economic sense. The costs of not doing youth work are likely to be vastly more significant than the costs of effective youth work. Youth workers are trusted by young people in ways that most other professionals – teachers, probation officers, social workers and so on – are not.

Paul Smyth is the Chief Executive of youth focused charity Public Achievement. Many readers will know their WIMPS (Where Is My Public Servant?) project and website, and they also work with young people on policing and violence in their communities.

Paul is also helping with the current ‘I Love Youth Work’ campaign on Twitter @iloveyouthworkni and Facebook. Follow the campaign on #iloveyw

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.