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Youth workers' outlook bleak

Drug abuse, street violence and inter-racial gang warfare are playing an increasing part in the lives of young people in the London area, while the money available for the youth service continues to diminish, according to the capital's youth workers.

Interviews with principal youth officers in all 33 London boroughs conducted by London Youth Matters (a Greater London umbrella body) reveal a worsening picture across the capital, with the suburban boroughs often reporting as many problems as the inner city.

While drug abuse was the problem most frequently mentioned, officers in at least four boroughs talked of an increase in racially-motivated violence and the continuing influence of extreme right-wing and nationalist groups. One youth officer said that racism was "alive and well" and regarded as acceptable, suggesting that anti-racist policies are having little impact on teenagers in deprived and increasingly polarised communities.

The report, which is published to coincide with National Youth Work Week, highlights the traditional role of the youth service as a means of diverting young people from criminal or anti-social activity. But it also draws attention to the fact that while young people are frequently perceived as the perpetrators of crime, many are increasingly worried about becoming victims themselves.

"The threat and fear of street violence and gang warfare, particularly but not exclusively of a racist nature, is a major concern among young people," writes the report's author, Martin Howie, London Youth Matters' development officer. This anxiety, he says, is expressed as often in suburbs as in the inner city.

Unemployment, the absence of state benefit for school-leavers, homelessness and other accommodation difficulties were the second most frequently-mentioned group of problems, coupled with "the often hostile and punitive attitudes displayed by some adults towards young people".

The report reveals that there has been a decrease of 6.49 per cent in real terms in youth service budgets in 31 boroughs for 1995-6, and a reduction of 14.87 per cent over the past four years for 28 boroughs. The increasing reliance on alternative sources of money is changing the nature of the service: the trend is away from locally-determined activities and towards precisely-targeted projects whose aims are decided by the funder.

"The traditional form of the youth service, with open centres or clubs that respond to the needs of the young people who come in is being replaced by projects directed from above by people with definite political or financial agendas," said Martin Howie.

The problem with this, he suggested, was that some issues are more politically attractive than others: "Money is going into crime-prevention and health projects, but less so into projects around race."

A spokesman for the National Youth Agency confirmed that this trend can be seen across the country, and argued that it was not necessarily a negative development. "It's a fashion rather than a distortion of the service,' he said.

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