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The importance of investment in youth work: Party Conferences 2023

Four young people stand on a rooftop looking out at the city.

Following her attendance at the Labour Party Conference this week, Catch22’s Head of Policy and Campaigns, Stella Tsantekidou, discusses the Youth Futures announcement, and how investment in youth work can give young people a better chance in life.

This week, the Catch22 team attended Labour Party Conference and took part in debates, roundtables, and as many receptions as could fit into our schedule, to talk about some of the most important topics for our organisation: restorative justice, tackling youth violence, helping people leaving care, getting people of all ages into careers they love, and more.

The conference was buzzing with activity, and helping young people stay away from trouble, find their feet, and flourish amidst a cost-of-living crisis was one of the most recurring themes across fringe events and the Conference Hall speeches made by the Shadow Cabinet.

In my last blog, about Tory Party Conference, I wrote about the nuance of tackling serious youth violence and how, behind the provocative headlines, there are careful, sensitive conservations taking place across civil society, local authorities and the civil service.

At the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, went one step further by introducing Young Futures, a cross-government national program, that hopes to innovate in that area. Its aim will be to provide young people in Britain with the strongest possible foundation in life. It will include a specialised component aimed at supporting those who are most susceptible to being drawn into violent crime, and providing assistance to young individuals grappling with mental health challenges. Labour have set themselves the ambitious target of halving knife crime and serious youth violence and, so far, this is one of the key policies that is aimed at achieving that.

In her speech, which was broadly welcomed by the youth sector, the Shadow Home Secretary correctly identified that the services that support young people have suffered over the last decade. She did not explicitly identify austerity as a cause, but we know cutting the funding for youth workers is the main culprit for the demise of many such services who have been surviving on the commitment of local staff.

The Commission on Young Lives’ Hidden in Plain Sight report described how:

“The experience of parents [of at-risk children and teenagers] told a consistent tale of missed opportunities, unmet need, and a confused tangle of services. When there is contact with services, families say that they are too-often met with a conveyor belt of assessments, churn of professionals and early closure of cases.”

The Shadow Home Secretary also mentioned some key statistics that paint a grim picture for young people in this country:

  • A record number of children and young people are seeking mental health support from the NHS.
  • Analysis from the think tank, Crest, shows over 200,000 children are vulnerable to serious violence.
  • A record number of children are victims of crime in 2021/2022.
  • Last year saw the highest number of people killed with a knife for over 70 years, with the biggest increase amongst young boys aged 16-17.

These are sobering numbers showing how badly needed more investment into youth work is.

Catch22 welcomes this programme and the recognition of youth mentors and mental health hubs as effective interventions. This is a step in the right direction, towards more prevention and less ‘sticking plaster’ policies that kick in when young people have already reached a crisis point, from which the return is much harder.

It is also optimistic to see the work of many organisations Catch22 works with, such as Redthread, being reflected in some of the promises in her speech, and the echoes of the discussion from other children’s charities in the fringe meetings throughout conference. Some of the reforms introduced were initially mentioned in Labour’s National Policy Forum consultations, which Catch22 fed into. But it is only during this conference that we found out that they are formally Labour policy and will hopefully make their appearance in Labour’s manifesto.

Specifically, the programme promises to deliver the following public sector reforms:

  • A targeted programme in every area to identify the young people most at risk of being drawn into violent crime and build a package of support that responds to the challenges they are facing. This will be achieved through bringing together services at a local level to better coordinate delivery of preventative interventions around the young person, rooted in a strong evidence base.
  • Develop a national network of Young Futures hubs to bring local services together, deliver support for teenagers at risk of being drawn into crime or facing mental health challenges and, where appropriate, deliver universal youth provision.
  • Youth workers in A&E units, custody centres, pupil referral units and communities to target young people who are starting to be drawn into violence.
  • Ensure existing enforcement measures are effectively utilised, including family interventions, the use of curfews, enforcement of penalties, drug and alcohol interventions, community work, and stronger action against the criminal gangs that are drawing young people into crime.

In the next few days, we will digest the learnings from party conferences and regroup with our colleagues and partners to make sure that, whichever party is next in Government, they have useful insight and stirring from frontline organisations that will help give young people the best chances in life. There is a lot more work to be done, but we are on the right path.

– Stella Tsantekidou, Catch22 Head of Policy and Campaigns