Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to answer this question. I raised it with him at the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration last week. It is very important that we acknowledge the sacrifices the youth have made at this time. The Minister has allocated moneys for youth services, but that does not deal with the many young people who have suffered as a result of the Covid restrictions on their lives. It stands in contrast to other areas that the Government has allocated moneys to. Students were allocated €250. Working people got stay and spend vouchers worth €250. A small token for the youth would allow them to invest in going to the gym, taking up music or the arts or learning a new skill. I am a little disappointed that the Government has left the youth out of supports at this time. I would like the Minister to give me some confidence that he will do something for them.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. We have not left young people out in our response to Covid. Young people have been central in the response not just of the Government but also of my Department. We are aware that Covid has disrupted all elements of life across the country and has had a particular impact on the well-being of young people. Their educational progress has been interrupted and, as the Senator said, their wider social and community life has been affected. Those who are early in their careers have had their lives disrupted over the past number of months.
In order to have a full understanding of this matter, my Department has commissioned research on the impact of Covid-19 on young people. That research aligns with research done internationally showing that lockdown has had an impact on people's mental health and well-being. That impact has been particularly acute in marginalised groups. It is also worth noting that while there has been an impact on young people, they have rallied in response to Covid. This was recognised by the acting CMO recently, and it is important to put that on the record.
Youth organisations around the country have been leading the community response to Covid and I want to express my thanks to them. We should never underestimate the potential for young people in Ireland to show leadership at a time of crisis.
My Department funds a range of organisations in the youth sector, and we have continued funding them. Even during the lockdown, the vast majority of youth organisations continued to stay open and support the young people who are part of their cohort. That has been particularly important in maintaining the mental well-being of young people. That issue arose in the research we undertook. The young people who engaged with youth services during the lockdown had better outcomes than those who did not. I want to recognise those involved in the youth sector and the national organisations which support them.
We supported the youth sector through a number of small grants that were spread across the country, comprising capital and current grants, to help organisations to meet the costs of Covid. More recently, we also provided a grant scheme to allow them to upgrade their ICT, which is particularly important because many other organisations have had to move online in order to facilitate their ongoing engagement with young people.
In 2020, we spent €61.79 million on current funding and €3 million on capital funding. Following my engagement with the youth sector, in particular recognising the great work it did, we added an additional €5 million in current spending in the budget for next year. That is a significant increase in the budget and was more than the sector had lobbied for. I wanted to recognise the significant work the sector does and the tens of thousands of young people across the country it supports.
Broad supports across the sector are the best way for the State to invest money. The Senator has put forward the idea of the voucher scheme. It is difficult to see how that will bring about broad supports, in particular given that many of the sectors she mentioned, such as gyms, the arts and leisure centres, are closed at level 5. At a time when young people most need supports, I do not feel such a scheme would deliver for them. In contrast, youth services are open at level 5. That is why it is the view of my Department that we should provide supports to wider youth services. We look forward to continuing to do so. I thank the Senator for raising this issue and I am happy to hear her comments on what I have said.
I thank the Minister. I am not aware of any youth services that are open at level 5, certainly not in my area. I think the voucher scheme is a really good idea. I honestly believe it is achievable. If the stay and spend initiative is achievable, so too is investment in youth services or recreational vouchers that can be used with certain providers. I am a little bit disappointed to hear that the Minister may not have considered this as being a good investment.
It is really important to invest in our youth, encourage them to get involved in things, keep their minds active and keep their mental health and well-being at their best. If we let that slip, a number of years will be lost in terms of their development in life. A voucher scheme would have been a good idea.
The Department of Transport ran a good scheme for a number of years, the "kids go free" scheme. This year, unfortunately, it did not happen because of Covid. I mentioned this to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who indicated that he might consider it for the month of December.The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, might have a chat with him, given that I have sent him an email on it. It might be something that could be done for the youth. The larger cities would get free transport for children between the ages of 12 and 18. He might consider supporting that and asking the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to support it too.
I ask the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to reconsider what I outlined, although I do not know where he will find the money for it. Not everybody goes to a youth club, plays football or is involved in sport. Those youths who are marginalised, and whom we really want to help, may avail of this voucher. It could be considered on a yearly basis, that is, not just this year but down the line. It may prevent other anti-social behaviour manifesting later in life.
I fully agree that investing in our youth is fundamentally important. I have outlined how my Department has done that and will continue to do that. I am always open to considering all avenues. We changed the public health guidelines to ensure that youth services could open even in level 5, albeit in small groups. I talked to a scout leader yesterday whose cubs had met for the first time in level 5, and that was because my Department had examined the matter and is aware that it is really tough for young people. We want to make it is as easy as possible for them.
The Senator is correct that not everyone goes to youth groups or plays sport - it might shock Senators that I was not sporty at that age - and we are trying to target those services that give the most widespread benefit. Tens of thousands of young people throughout the country use youth services and we have demonstrated that those who use them get better health outcomes. We are happy to engage with the Senator on ideas and I am always open to considering new solutions.