Youth Parliament

– in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 9th June 1998.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 3:34 pm, 9th June 1998

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a parliament of young people in the United Kingdom; to make provisions for the powers and functions of that parliament; and for connected purposes.

The argument for my Bill starts from three main premises. First, law making in a democracy expects that those affected by the laws should be consulted about them. For young people, that is still almost unheard of. Some schools run excellent school councils on which pupils have a chance to shape the regime of the school and influence the staff, but that is still comparatively rare. Some local authorities have established youth councils, but by the time that young people work their way through all the adult rules and procedures, it is scarcely surprising that very few feel inclined to take an enduring share in the enterprise. The problem is exacerbated because very few councils make resources available to back the suggestions of the young.

Secondly, since the young will inherit the mess that we leave behind, they have a right to play some part in defining the shape of that mess. Moreover, many young people are perfectly capable of both inventing sensible projects and of carrying them through with a little help from people who are old enough to have met some of the problems before. My experience with InterAction many years ago, and with Community Service Volunteers to this day, has shown me just how effective, responsible and imaginative young people can be if they are encouraged to be so.

Thirdly, our democracy is threatened by many pressures, but that of voter apathy is certainly important. In the 18 to 24-year-old age group, 32 per cent. are judged not to have voted at the last election. The British Youth Council survey in December 1997 found that 84 per cent. of young people believed that politicians do not listen to their concerns. A huge 81 per cent. said that they did not learn enough about politics at school, and asked for it to be included in the national curriculum.

Just before the general election, I chaired a gathering in Coventry cathedral, entitled "Heirs to the Millennium", which was attended by 750 people, including more than 200 young people. Those young people crafted a youth manifesto, which we presented to the main political parties. One of the most articulate of the young people said: The organisers of the event deserve to be congratulated but I don't believe anything will change. In 20 years' time, our successors will be standing here still saying that nobody pays any attention to what we say. I do not want to be part of that cynicism. I believe that we can and should change the situation.

I draw some encouragement from the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who made clear to the all-party children group yesterday that the Government have begun to realise that the opinions and ideas of young people leaving care are at least as valuable as those of the adults who have made such a mess of looking after them. I understand that about 40 pieces of legislation affecting young people have either been passed already or are in the pipeline. I wonder how much consultation there has been with the beneficiaries of such energetic law making.

If we want to find out how to deal with truants, playground bullies or the spreading drug culture, we should talk to those who are in the thick of it: the victims and, perhaps, even the perpetrators. I have seen enough successful peer-group teaching about sex, drugs, racism and bullying to know just how responsible 17-year-olds are when entrusted with the task of educating their juniors. Even more important, I know how much better they are at it than even young teachers.

It is true that we have a Minister who is responsible for youth affairs, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). The only problem is that he is also responsible for information technology, constitutional reform, legal issues, green issues and public-private partnerships. What sort of message does that send our young people about the priority that they command in government?

We live in a vastly different world from that in which I grew up. For almost half the young population, full-time employment does not begin until well into their 20s, yet we treat most students as if they had no role to play in the running of their country. We neither consult them nor give them tasks to perform. A handful show what they can do by running student unions with huge budgets or by taking a year out to challenge themselves with responsibilities far greater than they can hope to shoulder at home.

There are plenty of reports to back me up. The Advisory Centre for Education has published "Children's Voices in School Matters" and the Gulbenkian Foundation's inquiry into "Effective Government Structures for Children" made a powerful case for a more effective mechanism for gathering young people's views and doing something about them. Bernard Crick's committee on education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy is about its task as I speak, but children and young people have no direct political power, and play no direct part in the political process. Even when report after report shows the value of participation, nothing is done. The cost of that exclusion is recognisably high and will get higher.

I am calling for a national youth parliament, composed of representatives from local youth forums or councils registered by a certain date. I realise that that will exclude many, but we have to start somewhere. If we wait until we find the perfect inclusive mechanism, we shall wait for ever. I suggest that a representative could sit until the day before their 19th birthday. That is an arbitrary cut-off, but at least those over 18 are allowed to vote, even if they are not allowed to stand for Parliament. I hope that the local representatives will include a wide range of young people and will not be confined to school pupils. One group that could usefully be represented is that which includes those who have been in local authority care.

I have drawn heavily on the proposals put to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—of which I am a trustee—by Kate Parish, whose report is an excellent starting point. The Parliament should sit only once a year to start with. I propose that, subject to your approval, Madam Speaker, it might sit here during a recess. It would set its own agenda, centred on what the young wanted to discuss, not issues foisted on them by an older generation. Ministers would be required to respond in proper form to the proposals emanating from the parliament. Whether they should do so from the Dispatch Box or in writing is a matter for consideration.

In common with the youth parliament structures already existing in areas such as British Columbia and Tasmania, I propose that the objectives of our youth parliament should be: to provide a forum for young people to express their views on issues of relevance to them; to produce a UK youth manifesto that would raise concerns to be acted on by the Government and taken into account in party manifestos; to produce local manifestos to develop an interest in the parliamentary system by combining it with practical experience; to assist in the development of the skills and self-esteem of individual participants; and to give youth concerns more visibility.

I am not alone in my ambition. Among the forces ranged on my side are the NSPCC, the National Childrens Bureau, Save the Children Fund, the Citizenship Foundation, the British Youth Council and the YMCA. Setting up such a parliament would meet several objectives. First, we would give a considerable boost to local youth councils, which would see that their voices could truly be heard in Westminster. Secondly, we would create a mechanism that would allow Government proposals to be discussed by those whom they affected. Thirdly, we would create an opportunity for young people to break out of the disenchantment with the political process that will one day put the whole of our democracy at risk.

I am not allowed to discuss finance in such a Bill. I merely observe that, unless proposals have a real budget, they seldom get anywhere. The record of local authorities around the country is not so wonderful that they can properly refuse to risk the relatively tiny sums that local youth councils need. There are many councils that make me feel safer with a 17-year-old in charge of the finances than with the present Treasury team. I hope that the Government will take the Bill seriously and allow it to progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Rowe, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. Peter Luff, Mr. Giles Radice and Mr. Anthony Steen.