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A case of criminal cuts?

Susan Young reports on funding prospects for the Youth Service. Choosing late November for the public relations jamboree of Youth Work Week is no accident. It means that at a time when councils are considering how best to spend next year's budget - and where the axe should fall - their local papers are filled with positive pictures of teenagers doing constructive things.

Janet Paraskeva, director of the National Youth Agency, believes that the exercise - which starts on Monday this year - is one reason why the devastating funding cuts of the late 1980s and early 1990s have been moderated in the last couple of years. Another may be the growing perception that youth work can help prevent youth crime.

But the situation is still anything but rosy. Cash-strapped councils still find it easiest to cut what is regarded as a Cinderella service for a traditionally unpopular section of the population.

Even the growing assertion that youth work fights crime is open to spirited debate. A report for the Prince's Trust recently suggested that it appeared to be helpful although few projects were specifically targeted in this direction: Home Secretary Michael Howard then said there was no proof of any useful effect.

The Council for Local Education Authorities is expressing particular concern about moves in some areas to transfer the service from education to other departments, and about further spending cuts, following a debate with a letter from new chair Saxon Spence to the leaders of the city and county councils, with copies sent to principal youth officers around the country.

CLEA has also commissioned a Pounds 70,000 survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research to discover just what youth work does and should be doing. "We did this at a time when there were lots of very Draconian cuts being made by some education authorities and that was a point of concern," said administrator Ivor Widdison.

The Community and Youth Workers' Union is even more concerned about the future. It has criticised a recent Office of Population Censuses and Surveys report as underestimating the numbers of young people involved and overestimating the amount of funding available. It suggested 2.7 million young people took part, with Pounds 291.1m spent by local authorities last year.

General secretary Doug Nicholls believes further local authority cuts have only been averted because of a high-profile lobbying campaign run by workers and users of the service. Nevertheless, he believes the service is still under attack from financial cuts and councils which switch responsibility from education to community or leisure departments, thus removing much of its purpose.

In Walsall, a massive reorganisation of the community education and youth programmes to take effect in the new year will axe five youth centres and cut employees' salaries by an average of Pounds 2.50 per hour.

Mr Nicholls points out that when the service was set up as part of the 1944 Education Act, an accompanying report suggested that a sensible ratio would be one worker to 300 young people. At that rate, there should be another 10, 000. Almost half that number was lost in the early part of the decade.

But if local authorities are unconvinced by the educational advantages, the increasingly fashionable concept of crime prevention may be enough to save youth work in many areas.

The National Campaign for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders has been running specifically targeted programmes for the past 27 years, now partly funded by the Department of Health. Bill Walden-Jones, of the Youth Activities Unit, said such crime prevention could be most effective: 67 per cent of young offenders on a motor project in Walsall had committed no further crimes, while the crime rate dropped on a Coventry estate after the opening of a youth club. The essential ingredients are to provide activities which the most disaffected teenagers would want to do - a place to go, and interested, friendly, helpful adults on hand.

Janet Paraskeva of the NYA acknowledges that until a year or so ago there was a reluctance to admit that youth work could serve as a crime prevention measure. It is one of the positive effects which has always been there, she believes - but one which happens to be highlighted at the moment.

But in the long term, young people may decide the issue themselves through the ballot box. Their vote may prove crucial to Labour - and new Shadow Education Secretary David Blunkett this week set up a task group on youth provision and his pet project, citizenship for the young.

In a speech launching the project, he said: " Our task group will not just deal with the need to reinvigorate and reinvest in the youth service in all its forms and in imaginative ways to assist young people to develop activities which help them to improve their own lives. It will also link it to education, citizenship, sport and leisure, job opportunities and policing policies. "

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