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Youth Programmes and Girlguiding

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role and future of youth programmes and Girlguiding.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. We are so lucky to live in a country that gives our young residents so many opportunities to learn new skills, have adventures and make lifelong friends. From the guides to the scouts and from the Duke of Edinburgh awards to the cadets, volunteers across our country devote so much of their time and energy to the youth programmes that add so much to the formative experiences of our young people. It has been an incredibly difficult few years for children and young adults. The damage caused by the covid pandemic is impossible to fully ascertain, but NHS figures show that the number of children seeking help for their mental health has risen by almost 50% since the start of the pandemic. Schools were closed and socialising banned, and all of this means a lasting and painful legacy for our young people.

We all know that outdoor activities and spending time with friends in nature are good for people’s mental wellbeing. There are myriad different studies to that effect. Even NHS England has started offering nature prescriptions. So now is the time we need more opportunities for young people to have fun and spend time outdoors, and to socialise and be children. As more and more young people spend longer and longer on the internet or their phones, cooped up indoors, now is the time to provide more opportunities for them to get out and do something fun and adventurous—to build a raft and see if it sinks, go abseiling or learn life skills such as cooking. Now is not the time to be pulling away from providing these opportunities, so I ask the Minister what his Department is doing to provide more opportunities for young people that get them out and about, help them learn new skills and help them build friendships.

The girl guides have a very proud tradition of having this kind of positive impact on the lives of girls not just in the United Kingdom, but across the world. The board of Girlguiding has recently taken two incredibly concerning decisions regarding the future of the organisation: the proposed closure of all five of its outdoor activity centres across the country; and the full shutdown of British Girlguiding Overseas. It goes without saying that Girlguiding has touched the lives of so many thousands of girls across the globe. First and foremost, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the thousands of people across the country and across the world who have given countless hours, evenings and weekends, and much more to the betterment of opportunities for young girls everywhere.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this forward. It is a subject that is very important to us all, which is why we are all here. Does the hon. Lady agree that the positive mental health influence for children of organisations such as the girl guides, as well as the scouts, the Campaigners, the Boys’ Brigade and the Girls’ Brigade—I have them in my constituency in some numbers—cannot be overstated? Does she agree that our thanks should go to those in the voluntary sector and the churches, which are deeply involved in this, who give of their time to teach children skills and practical topics, but also to build self-confidence and self-worth? Their value to society should be highlighted and recognised, and the hon. Lady has done that well today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman so much for making such an excellent point. I did not mention the Girls’ Brigade and the Boys’ Brigade, which, as he says, make such a wonderful contribution. They build the formative skills that young people need to face the challenges of life ahead, and make such a huge difference to individuals’ lives.

That is why this decision to close down every single one of the five Girlguiding activity centres across the United Kingdom is so bizarre. Girlguiding is closing down opportunities for young women and girls who would otherwise struggle to afford them. This decision comes after the body blow to Girlguiding that is the move to end their overseas operation, which serves thousands of girls across the world and has been doing so for decades. Both of these utterly bizarre decisions came after no real warning and no consultation with members.

I have been watching this developing disaster with increasing horror. The reason that may lie behind some of it appears to be a disastrous venture into property investment. Does my hon. Friend know about the headquarters of the girl guides, which spent millions on itself, and millions more on a hotel venture that went bust, owing unpaid rent to the girl guides of nearly £2.8 million? All that is alleged to be completely unconnected to the decision to close the overseas activities and the training and activity centres, one of which, Foxlease, is in my constituency. This reminds me of the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, with the exception that it is cutting its own limbs off and not waiting for other people to do it.

I was not aware of that. My right hon. Friend has been a great friend to Girlguiding in Foxlease in his constituency and a great champion of Girlguiding across the country. What he says is incredibly worrying; there has been very little information at all about the thinking behind these decisions, so his comments about the potential reasons are interesting.

As my right hon. Friend says, one of the centres to be sold is Foxlease in Clay Hill in Hampshire, which is the closest one to my constituency. There is also Waddow Hall in the Ribble Valley, which is very close to the heart of our much-loved Mr Deputy Speaker; Blackland Farm in Mid Sussex; Glenbrook in High Peak, Derbyshire; and Ynysgain in Montgomeryshire on the edge of the Snowdonia national park.

These decisions do not merely affect Girlguiding members, but many others across the country. The closing activity centres do not just serve young girls in Girlguiding; they run courses and activities and provide opportunities for all sorts of groups of young people, including scouts, schools and many others. If the activity centres are sold off, there is no bringing them back—that’s it. They will be gone and will not be providing opportunities for young women and countless other young people. They will simply be turned into another relic of a wonderful past where children could be children.

My hon. Friend makes a very important argument about the centres being lost forever. When I visited the fifth Romsey girl guides over the summer, the girls there made the point that they had all enjoyed Foxlease in the constituency of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), but they were concerned that future generations of brownies, rainbows and guides would not have the same opportunities that they had had, so it is the girls themselves who are concerned about future generations. They feel that they have missed out on an opportunity to be consulted and listened to, and to perhaps change the decision.

My right hon. Friend puts it perfectly. I could not have put it better myself. The girls are concerned about the future—for their peers and those who come up behind them, who deserve the same opportunities and life chances they have had. We only have to look as far as Scotland to see what is likely to happen here in England.

Back in summer 2020, Girlguiding Scotland sold off its wonderful training centre at Netherurd under the guise of covid, and the site has now already been rubber-stamped into holiday lets. It looks as though we might even now be too late to get Girlguiding to change its mind. It confirmed its plan to go ahead with the sale on 14 August. Local communities have been valiant in their fight to save the activity centres. Foxlease has already been declared an asset of community value by New Forest District Council, in the area where my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East resides, in a move that will hopefully enable the new charity, Foxie’s Future, to take up the mantle and save the site; and the Waddow Hall Trust in the Ribble Valley is following suit with similar plans, as are others.

I wish all these groups the very best in acquiring and maintaining their sites should they be sold off by Girlguiding but, importantly, I want to know from the Minister what the Government are going to do to prevent the sites from falling into the hands of property developers to become more holiday lets? What are the Government going to do to ensure that the important capacity for outdoor activities is maintained across the UK and kept available at a low cost for those who could not otherwise afford them?

We live in a digital world. Going out and playing with friends is becoming a rarity for some children, which is why it is so important that we expand organised outdoor activity and so alarming to see plans to take that away from children. It is not just young people in the UK who are being impacted by Girlguiding’s short-sighted decision. The decision to end Girlguiding Overseas will bring a close to well over 100 years of Girlguiding across the world. Up until this month, British Girlguiding Overseas operated in 36 separate countries and territories. Those operations are all now either shut or shutting. That momentous decision has seemingly been taken without any proper consultation. British Girlguiding Overseas has said in a statement that it still does not understand why Girlguiding took the decision and that, despite many requests for further information, no information has been delivered.

It is important to note that the end of British Girlguiding Overseas will not only shut down opportunities for thousands of girls across the world, but take away the important English-speaking girl-only spaces that have for so long provided a lifeline to so many members. British Girlguiding Overseas consists of two main elements: units that run in the middle east, Africa, Asia, Benelux and France, Europe and lone guiding, and the units in British Overseas Territories. Although Girlguiding continues to support the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, the many other territories served by the organisations are set to lose all their support. That will be felt particularly acutely by our overseas territories, which have very special links with the UK. They are often taken for granted, yet in many cases those often remote parts of the world, such as Bermuda or the Falkland Islands, see this country as their big sister—someone who looks out for them. At a time when the world feels particularly unstable, and when the UK needs to be looking out, not in, taking away support and casting branches away to fend for themselves is an incredible retrograde step that will undoubtedly lead to branches collapsing and opportunities for young girls simply melting away. It is also a retrograde step for our global soft power. We hear so much about that, and focus so much energy and attention on it, and yet here we are, taking it away.

British Girlguiding Overseas has not simply rolled over and allowed this step to take place without action, and it should be commended for its efforts in trying to secure alternative solutions, but the shock announcement and rapid deadline set by Girlguiding has left it few options.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; she is being generous with her time. Does she agree that it is almost as if the people at the top of the organisation, who do not seem to be answerable even to their own council, still less their own mass membership, are determined to take steps that are bound to lead to the closure of the organisation? Given that the organisation seems to have a very undemocratic structure, does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to look to the Minister for support for the idea of the Charity Commission investigating what has been going on in the organisation, which appears to have strayed far from its founding objectives?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that sensible suggestion, to which I am sure the excellent Minister will respond. It sounds as if the upper echelons of Girlguiding are standing around with their fingers in their ears, humming loudly; they have rejected applications for an extension to continue discussions, they have rejected the request from British Girlguiding Overseas to become a charity in its own right, and they have rejected British Girlguiding Overseas’ request to set up a separate franchise.

I will bring my thoughts to a close so that we can hear from the Minister. The Government are aware of Girlguiding’s plans to end British Girlguiding Overseas, and I would be keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on them. I urge him to do whatever it takes to get Girlguiding around the table to help to stop British Girlguiding Overseas coming to an end. These are two retrograde moves: terrible steps backwards for girl guides, terrible steps backwards for young girls and young people across the UK and across the world, and terrible steps backwards for our global soft power. I am keen to hear how the Government can help to push back against those disastrous moves and safeguard the future of guides in the UK and globally.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing this important debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who have spoken in the debate and collared me on these issues when they can. Others have not been able to contribute but share their passion, including Mr Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies).

A thriving youth sector is a critical part of so much that my Department and the whole of Government are hoping to achieve for young people. Approximately 85% of a young person’s waking hours are spent outside school, and it is during this time that thousands of youth workers and volunteers make a tremendous difference to young people’s lives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport mentioned. They provide early intervention, help to reduce pressures on other public services and build trusted relationships, enabling young people to achieve their ambitions.

I was recently fortunate enough to visit a National Citizen Service residential in Doncaster and see how transformational youth services can be. The impact that such activities and trusted relationships provide cannot be underestimated. The young people told me at first hand that they felt more confident and had overcome some of their personal fears, developed new skills and made new friends, sometimes with people from backgrounds they had never mixed with before. All this gets amplified around the country, and I thank the volunteers involved.

I know that many right hon. and hon. Members present will have been disappointed to learn that Girlguiding has decided to sell its five activity centres in the UK and cease overseas operations. Having seen at first hand the benefits that young people can gain by participating in programmes hosted by organisations such as Girlguiding, I share that disappointment. However, as Members will know, Girlguiding is an independent organisation and its board of trustees has a fiscal responsibility to take decisions in the organisation’s best interests in order to secure its future and the safety of its members. The board tells us that it has not taken the decision lightly. That said, I understand the disappointment about the lack of consultation, which would enable people to make their views known.

I fully recognise that this matter falls outside the Minister’s responsibilities, but does he agree that where millions of pounds appear to have been fire-hosed away from the objectives of the organisation, and where there is clearly a lack of internal democratic accountability, we have to look to the Charity Commission as a last resort to see whether the mismanagement can, even now, be limited in its terrible effects?

My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. Of course, as a registered charity, Girlguiding is obliged to do the usual reporting. Anybody can raise any case with the Charity Commission, and colleagues may feel that they want to take that step.

I will outline a bit more what we have heard from Girlguiding. I understand that its decision to close the five activity centres is due to the significant capital investment required to ensure that they are fit for purpose, but it also reflects the ongoing running costs in the light of low levels of demand from Girlguiding groups. It is anticipated that funds from the sale of the activity centres, valued collectively at around £10 million, will be invested in a range of activities to support the future of Girlguiding and its members, including adventures away from home.

I am sorry for interrupting the Minister, but does he agree that looking at the use of the sites as we come out of a period of a pandemic, when everything has been locked down, is incredibly short-sighted? Anyone with any modicum of business sense would be looking at how the organisation can attract a new audience. In my constituency, the number of youngsters joining scouting organisations is at a higher level than ever before. There is huge appetite among young people to get out there and join these sorts of activities. Should Girlguiding not be looking forward more broadly and more optimistically, rather than judging things based on what has happened over the last couple of years, which has obviously involved a completely unusual series of events?

I will come shortly to what I propose to do after this debate. First, I want to address Girlguiding’s decision to cease overseas operations. Girlguiding says that is due to the complexity of providing Girlguiding’s board of trustees with appropriate reassurances on both the safety of members and the integrity of operations, in line with its legal responsibilities, across 36 countries and territories. Operations in the middle east, Africa, Asia and Europe ended on 1 September, and operations in the British overseas territories will cease at the end of the year.

My officials are in regular contact with Girlguiding, alongside colleagues from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence. They have been exploring Girlguiding’s options for units in the British overseas territories and military bases to continue operating. We remain hopeful that a solution can be found to support this work and to ensure that the guiding experience in these locations continues in a way that is consistent with Girlguiding’s decisions about what is appropriate for the organisation.

My Department and I absolutely recognise the benefit that Girlguiding brings to girls and young women. That is why, as part of the national youth guarantee’s uniformed youth fund, we have provided Girlguiding with over £2 million to create more opportunities to take part in Girlguiding. Girlguiding has already created over 1,000 new places, recruited hundreds of new volunteers and opened 40 new units, with more to come.

I know that many hon. Members here today will join me in thanking Girlguiding for what it is doing. My Department and I have been in regular contact with Girlguiding, but I will ensure that I write to Girlguiding to highlight this debate today and the contributions of hon. Members. I will then happily send them a copy of the response that we receive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport also asked me to highlight what we as a Government are doing. It is important to do that, because ensuring that all young people have access to youth services is a top priority for both me and the Secretary of State. In 2021, we undertook the youth review to ensure that our spending and programmes were aligned with the needs of young people. In response, we are investing over £500 million in delivering the national youth guarantee, and our commitment is that by 2025 every young person in England will have access to regular out-of-school activities, adventures away from home—we recognise how important they are—and opportunities to volunteer.

To realise the ambitious aims of the national youth guarantee, we are investing in a few key programmes. We are creating or redeveloping up to 300 youth facilities through the youth investment fund. Over £160 million has already gone out of the door, supporting 87 organisations to give thousands more young people access to opportunities in their community.

We have also reformed the National Citizen Service programme into a year-round offer, so that thousands of young people who have signed up to the new programme will be ready for work and ready for the world. We recognise the benefits of greater join-up between formal education and the youth sector, for example. With the Department for Education, we are expanding the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, which my hon. Friendó the Member for Gosport mentioned, in schools and communities. Over 400 new organisations have already started delivering the programme, giving more than 70,000 young people the opportunity to challenge themselves, support their communities and learn vital new skills.

We are also supporting uniformed youth organisations to recruit more volunteers, so that they can sustainably increase their capacity. Almost 3,000 young people already have a new place in an existing group or in one of the 144 new groups that have been established. Alongside that, the National Lottery Community Fund is continuing to invest in the #iwill fund, to help thousands of young people to make a difference in their communities through social action.

We recognise that there is a lot of work to do and that there is a tremendous amount—

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. The subject of my intervention is perhaps not entirely relevant to what he has just been saying, but I feared that he was coming to the end of his remarks.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has spoken about his work with the Department for Education. May I ask what connection there has been between his Department and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities? There is a real concern in the New Forest about holiday lets, which my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East mentioned. With these sites that we have been discussing, I note that at least three of them—Snowdonia, the Peak District and the New Forest—are national parks. There is a real fear that properties in those sites will end up as luxury holiday lodges, thus restricting the ability of young people from disadvantaged communities to get out into our national parks. Has there been any discussion or consultation on issues such as the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which is of particular concern to the New Forest National Park Authority? Is the Minister prepared to discuss with colleagues across Government what can be done specifically to protect those sites from that sort of unwanted development in our national parks?

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot make a commitment to stray into those areas of work, but I will absolutely and happily raise with my colleagues in DLUHC the issue that she brought up. I know that it was a big issue when I held that post for a short time, but I recognise that there will be concerns locally about what will happen to those sites. I will happily address those concerns to my hon. Friends in that Department.

I will take the opportunity to stress that when Girlguiding UK says that only 10% of the movement uses the five centres, we are still talking about tens of thousands of young people. The response to the situation has been not, “We have to close one centre in order to subsidise the others”, but, “We have to close the whole lot while simultaneously losing millions upon millions of pounds on inappropriate investment in property hotel ventures.” That has to be questioned. The reason for donating Foxlease to Girlguiding 101 years ago was not so that it could be used for commercial development; it was donated to be used by young people.

Thank you, Sir George. One of the challenges of trying to answer a debate about a decision made by an independent organisation is that there are limits to what I am able to say. That is why I made a commitment at the beginning to highlight the concerns of hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East raises another valid point, and I will ensure that his question is in the letter that I send. As I promised, he will receive a reply.

Youth services and organisations such as Girlguiding provide an essential service for young people and communities. As a Department, we are committed to ensuring that all young people in England have access to regular clubs and activities, to those important adventures away from home and to opportunities to volunteer. To deliver the services that young people want and deserve, a partnership must happen between central and local government, the private sector, young people themselves—crucially—and the great organisations that have provided so much. I recognise the strength of feeling raised in this debate. I have made the commitment to write to the organisation and highlight those issues, because I recognise that this concerns all the Members I mentioned at the beginning of the debate.

Question put and agreed to.