‘Focus on prevention or risk worse public services and higher taxes’

13 June 2024

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A new Institute for Government and UK Youth report says whoever wins the general election will be unable to deliver high-performing public services – and keep taxes and debt at sustainable levels – unless it commits to a prevention strategy that limits the rising tide in demand for acute services like hospitals and prisons.  

The report sets out how the next government can use the opportunity of a new parliament to shift to a preventative approach to public services that seeks to address and manage citizens’ problems before they reach crisis point. This would reap financial and political benefits by helping tackle the crises in the NHS, criminal justice, youth services and beyond – and lead to happier and healthier lives for millions.

The report, which is based on an evidence review,  expert interviews, and a high-level round-table with current and former senior policy makers from the centre of government, departments, local government, the NHS and wider public sector, finds a strong case for prevention.

There is evidence investment in youth work delivers benefits both in improved lives and in monetary terms.

There is good evidence, for example, that investment in benefits, primary care, public health, youth work, and Sure Start children’s centres, among other services and programmes, all deliver benefits both in improved lives and in monetary terms.

However, the report also finds prevention has not been prioritised in recent years. Since 2010, and across a range of services, political attention – and funding – has flowed away from prevention and towards acute services. For example, preventative local authority spending on services like youth clubs and children’s centres was cut by more than three-quarters, 77.9 per cent, between 2009 and 2023, while acute spending on looked after children and safeguarding services rose by more than half, 58.1 per cent, over the same period.

We cannot afford not to invest in preventative services, such as youth work.

Jacob Diggle, UK Youth chief impact officer

With the Conservatives putting prevention at the centre of the public sector productivity plans and Labour calling for “a ‘prevention first’ revolution”, the IfG and UK Youth report shows how a government serious about prevention could overcome historic barriers – short-term priorities, a centralised approach and siloed budgets – and sets out a five-step plan to deliver a more preventative approach:

  1. Make prevention a political priority with ministers and other politicians needing to show leadership if they want to reap the benefits; 
  2. Embed prevention into the spending framework, ringfencing spending on prevention, publishing a cross-government prevention strategy and funding thorough evaluations of preventative spending;
  3. Embed prevention into the government’s performance framework, track progress against those metrics and be honest about successes and failures; 
  4. Support local areas to spend preventative budgets how they see fit and remove central-government imposed barriers – like short-term funding pots – to innovation; 
  5. Create a more effective accountability and learning system for local areas.

Stuart Hoddinott, senior researcher and report author, said: “Despite a rhetorical commitment to prevention, the last 14 years has seen deep cuts to preventative spending. The country is now reaping the consequences of that short-sightedness, with taxpayers left to foot the bill. Any government serious about reversing the increasing reliance on acute services will need to translate the ambition of prevention into a reality. This report sets out how they should do that.”  

Photo of Jacob Diggle, UK Youth chief impact officer.
Jacob Diggle, UK Youth chief impact officer.

Jacob Diggle, UK Youth chief impact officer, said: “We cannot afford not to invest in preventative services, such as youth work. This report sets out a clear roadmap for the next government to transform millions of lives and save billions of pounds.  

“The rapidly rising needs of young people – with threats to their mental health, employment, and even physical safety – are not inevitable. We have clear evidence of what works to change this trend. Now we need policymakers to play their part and make the long-term commitment required.” 

To read the full report, see instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/preventative-approach-public-services

About UK Youth

UK Youth is a leading charity with a vision that all young people are equipped to thrive and empowered to contribute at every stage of their lives. With an open network of more than 8,000 youth organisations and nation partners; UK Youth reaches more than four million young people across the UK and is focused on unlocking youth work as the catalyst of change that is needed now more than ever. To find out more, visit ukyouth.org 

UK Youth is involved in a range of programmes designed to help young people thrive, such as outdoor learning, physical literacy, social action and employability, including Hatch, a youth employability programme run in partnership with KFC. For more on UK Youth’s programmes, see ukyouth.org/what-we-do/programmes

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