Seanad debates

Tuesday, 26 September 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Youth Work Supports

1:00 pm

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. What I raise today is a passion for youth work and clubs, and it is something I am interested in. I volunteer at Cooley Youth Club, and I am looking forward to that starting up in the coming weeks. I have learned about funding from engaging with Youth Work Ireland and with Caroline Flanagan, who does incredible work in Dundalk and all around County Louth. It is about getting dedicated and earmarked funding for youth work and youth workers. We need to celebrate that as a career and profession and we need to see how that should be rolled out in a more frameworked manner.

My Commencement matter is fairly open and it is about youth clubs but I want to dig down into it. We look at a gap in youth workers and of youth clubs and we see the opportunity that is lost when we have that gap. We are lucky that we have a youth club in our area but for many years we did not have one and then it was volunteer-led. There is no UBU worker to go out to us and support us as volunteers in our local community who are trying to support our young people. That means there is a gap in skills and expertise. I am asking for a real and dedicated fund for youth workers. We must look at the needs and gaps. We have the up-to-date population data and we can see where the volunteer youth clubs are where the youth cafés are popping up. We can also see where the UBU youth cafés are. We know where they are but we also know and see where the gaps are.

I was speaking to Caroline Flanagan in Dundalk recently. When I spoke to her this morning she said that she was glad that I was highlighting this. One thing she wanted me to highlight is that it is not a down on the youth work sector; it is an up. It is doing incredible work and she wanted me to highlight the incredible work it is doing, including its fundraising. However, the sector is spending an awful lot of time chasing grant applications and funding, and then providing a project base. When that project and funding are over, those children are left out on a limb. I saw it in Carlingford with Erin Finnegan. She worked day and night for children as a detached youth worker. She walked around the streets to pick up kids, bring them in and feed them pizza of an evening. That project and its funding ended and then we had a gap. Community workers are opening up a brand new facility in the Foy Centre in Carlingford but it requires volunteers as there is no funding for it. They are afraid they will not be able to open the doors next year as a result. They have a beautiful facility and there is a huge young population in Carlingford, and that is only one place. It is the same in Dundalk, Ardee and Dunleer. There is nothing set up in Dunleer, although Drogheda has more resources. All around County Louth we need these wee hubs. In rural areas there are huge gaps, right across the country. I know that for a fact.

I ask that every county would have a dedicated youth work officer who would go around and support and increase the youth clubs around the country. They would make sure we have safe spaces and activities. Volunteers like myself are standing there talking to young people but I am not a bouncer. I want to be able to support them, to know what is best to do, to have those activities, to celebrate the young people and to encourage them to do positive things in their communities. We need multi-annual support and a dedicated worker to be able to do that.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. Like the Senator, I am a great fan of youth clubs and organisations. They provide young people with a chance to develop and grow, particularly in self-confidence and empathy. They give young people an opportunity to succeed on their own merits and they provide supports for all young people, particularly for those who are disadvantaged. Especially from my brief, for those who might suffer from anxiety or emotional distress, they are fantastic.

As Members are aware, budget 2024 is being finalised by Government and Members will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any specific details of future investment until the budget announcement. I did not mention it at the start but I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, who is at a Cabinet meeting. That said, the Government provides significant funding to support the delivery of a range of youth work programmes and services.In 2023, this funding exceeded €75 million in current and capital funding.

During the time in office of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, there has been a significant increase in the level of investment for the youth sector. From 2021 to 2023, current funding for youth services and programmes increased from €61.7 million to €72.9 million – an 18% increase overall. The majority of the funding goes to UBU Your Place Your Space, as the Senator referred to, a youth service funding scheme that targets disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable young people. The national allocation for UBU is more than €46 million for this.

UBU was launched in 2021, with funding provided for 260 youth services that are administered on a local level by the national network of education and training boards, ETBs. ETBs carry out area needs assessments to enable them to prioritise the youth services most needed in their operational area. These services are provided by third-party organisations with expertise in designing and delivering youth services. These organisations are predominantly charities and provide an essential service to these young people and their communities. These organisations provide youth work services for traditional youth clubs to outreach services to disengaged young people and online services for young people who are unable to access the premises in person.

I also wish to talk about the volunteers. I note the Senator said she is a volunteer. I give a big bualadh bos to the volunteers who give an awful lot of their time to support young people in these youth centres. I always ask where we would be as a society without the spirit of volunteerism that we see the length and breadth of the country.

UBU funding has increased year on year since its introduction, which has created 16 new services and allowed smaller organisations to increase their staffing levels.

The Minister's Department also provides funding to universal youth services, which are open to all young people. Funding of more than €13 million was made available in 2023 to the 30 national youth organisations through the youth services grant scheme. The services of these youth organisations are predominantly delivered by volunteers, which I just spoke about, and encourage their young members to take part in a wide range of activities, including scouting, drama and music.

Universal youth services are also provided by the local volunteer lead youth clubs, which are supported by the local youth club grant scheme. This scheme supports 1,400 clubs nationwide, with a budget of €2.5 million.

We are also aware that young people face a mass of information and misinformation online. To help young people to access accurate and reliable information about the issues that matter to them, the Department provides funding of just over €1.5 million to youth information centres nationally. The purpose of these centres staffed by youth workers is to provide young people with access to accurate information on rights, opportunities, benefits, health and welfare.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I cannot disagree with anything the Minister of State said in her speech. I want to highlight that there is a level of bureaucracy that comes from the ETB and someone has to be picked to deal with this.

I want a national framework for clarity. Each ETB deals with things differently. I know it is a localised base, but really the people on the ground know. There is not a uniformity across the country. There has to be a flexibility within that but there is no uniformity across the country. Each youth work organisation deals with different things in different ways and it can be very difficult.

The fact is that those UBUs are only in small areas; they are not everywhere. Prevention is far cheaper and better than cure. We should start looking at the youth work officers, many of whom have not had an increment in about ten years – I must throw that in. Youth work is a very valuable career and important profession in the framework of society.

I ask for a dedicated youth work officer who will go around supporting youth clubs and young people.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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As the Senator said, the benefits to young people of engagement with youth clubs and youth work are many, from making friends and trying new activities to meeting a youth worker or volunteer - the one good adult - who can make a huge difference in a young person’s life. Youth workers support young people to stay in school, engage in pro-social behaviour and become contributing members of their communities.

Officials in the Minister’s Department are currently reviewing the delivery of youth services and are developing a new youth service action plan.The action plan will give strategic direction to improving young people's access to quality youth service and spaces over the next five years. The development of the action plan has featured intensive consultation with the youth sector and young people. The action plan is scheduled to be completed in the first quarter of 2024. As I said, the Government remains committed to supporting this important sector, which has enormous value for the many young people involved and to society as a whole.