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Government grants to sports and leisure schemes for troubled youth are 'a dog's breakfast', says spending watchdog

It costs four times as much to put a young person through the criminal justice system as it does to keep them out of it, but sport and leisure projects designed to help keep teens on the straight and narrow struggle with a funding system that is wasteful, inefficient and bureaucratic.

Michael O'Higgins, chairman of the Audit Commission, called the grants system 'a dog's breakfast.' He said: "It's ludicrous that funding schemes for young people in trouble with the law should be so complicated. Major opportunities to save public money are going begging."

A young person in the criminal justice system costs the taxpayer £200,000 by the age of 16, but one needing support to stay out costs less than £50,000. Over £113 million would be saved if just one in ten young offenders was kept out of further trouble.

These findings are published today (Wednesday 28 January) in an Audit Commission report, Tired of Hanging Around. It shows that sport and leisure activities can help stop young people aged between eight and 19 from drifting into anti-social behaviour and highlights the problems that threaten the success of projects.

Youth workers, who should be devoting their attention to young people, can spend a third of their time (the equivalent of £8,000) managing budgets and chasing new funding. On average, projects are funded from three different sources, each with its own application system and monitoring criteria. In some cases, the administrative cost of bidding for grants exceeds the amount of funding applicants are hoping to receive.

One youth leader explained: "I have 19 cost centres . . .I'm required to respond to a range of different funders with budget material. And I have the day job."

Even when funding is secured, it is often fixed and short term with no guarantee of renewal. As a result, successful projects with a proven track record of reducing anti-social behaviour by young people can face closure. Relationships that have been established with young people are broken, staff attention is diverted to looking for alternative employment and redundancy payments waste money that should be spent on working with young people.

More than half the funding for sports and leisure projects comes from central government and can be traced back across seven different departments. More funding streams should be pooled to reduce administration costs which could be spent on young people's services instead.

Councils and their partners such as the police or schools, may not co-ordinate their applications for funding and can find themselves competing for the same pots of money.

Michael O'Higgins said: 'Prevention is better than cure, but project leaders are thwarted in their attempts to keep young people out of trouble by wasteful, inefficient and bureaucratic funding arrangements for diversionary projects.

"Young people deserve our respect as well as our support - councils must really listen to them if they want to provide activities that will give them something more productive to do than hanging around on street corners."

The report acknowledges that young people alone are not responsible for all anti-social behaviour and that the majority of teenagers do not get involved in trouble at all.

There is strong evidence that activities like music, film-making or football are able to attract those most likely to behave anti-socially and prevent them from seeking excitement by joining a gang, drinking in the street or fighting. Young people who are drawn to preventative schemes are then encouraged to take part in structured sessions on topics like healthy eating, drugs misuse, sexual health and careers advice.

Funding arrangements are not the only issue affecting the success of youth projects designed to reduce anti-social behaviour.

Young people want activities that are cheap, cool and easy to get to but they are rarely asked for their input - projects might be held at the wrong place at the wrong time or targeted at the wrong age group. Activities are often unimaginatively advertised so young people do not even know what's going on in their neighbourhood.

One of the young people surveyed as part of the Audit Commission's report said: "It costs £8 to hire a football pitch... you might as well get pissed, it's cheaper."

Projects should be age-specific with appropriate activities for young women as well as young men and take into account cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Projects must balance activities that bring different groups together with those that meet the needs of individual groups.

Notes to editors

  1. A copy of the Audit Commission report: Tired of Hanging Around - using sport and leisure activities to prevent anti-social behaviour by young people is attached.
  2. Among the projects highlighted in the report as examples of good practice are: a golf club in Gateshead that stopped vandalism and intimidation by inviting young people into the club to have a go at golf. Nearly 100 young people are now involved and some are good enough to become future professionals; a double decker bus in Burnley that goes wherever trouble spots are. On board, kids can play computer games, surf the net and watch DVDs as well as learn about issues like healthy eating, careers and drugs misuse. Reports of criminal damage and anti-social behaviour have dropped since the scheme was launched; the Sandwell Kickz Project is run by West Bromwich Albion Football Club and provides diversionary activities for young people in areas of high deprivation and anti-social behaviour, and the London Fire Brigade runs an intensive week-long course for young people aged between 13 and 17 who are at risk of social exclusion. The LIFE project teaches young people how to work in teams and achieve goals as well as building confidence and self esteem.
  3. For footage, contact details or filming opportunities please contact the Audit Commission press office.
  4. Government agencies in England and Wales spend an estimated £3.4 billion a year dealing with anti-social behaviour by adults and young people. The government spends £1.6 billion on the youth service and programmes to engage young people in activities designed to prevent them from becoming involved in crime or anti-social behaviour.
  5. In 2004, the Audit Commission published its report Youth Justice 2004: a review of the reformed youth justice system. It made a comparison between the cost of putting a young person through the justice system and preventing them from getting into further trouble.
  6. The Audit Commission is an independent watchdog, driving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in local public services to deliver better outcomes for everyone.
  7. Our work across local government, health, housing, community safety and fire and rescue services means that we have a unique perspective. We promote value for money for taxpayers, auditing the £200 billion spent by 11,000 local public bodies.
  8. As a force for improvement, we work in partnership to assess local public services and make practical recommendations for promoting a better quality of life for local people.
Kirsty Keogh, Media Relations Manager
Tel: 020 7166 2111, Mob: 07970 245 721, Out of hours: 020 7166 2128
Email: k-keogh@audit-commission.gov.uk 
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