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10 Jul 2002 : Column 300WH

Counselling Young People

1.29 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): I thank the participants in the previous debate for giving me one extra minute to speak.

My reasons for initiating the debate are: first, to welcome the Government's recognition that children and young people have a legitimate right to be consulted on policy and public services; secondly, to highlight the position of children and young people in relation to citizenship; and thirdly, to ensure that the Government systematically review their methods of consulting children and young people so that all Departments improve and refine their consultation methods.

I strongly welcome the commitment from the Government, which has been led by the children and young persons unit, to involve young people in the design, provision and evaluation of policies and services that affect them. Young people are clearly users of public services and should be consulted as service users just as adults are. It has become accepted good practice in local government and central Government that public services should not be designed top down by service providers, but should try to respond to the actual needs, as opposed to the perceived needs, of the users. Consulting users is not just a public relations exercise; it actively contributes to the improvement of services, allows the expertise of service users to be incorporated into the design of services, and helps to identify which services should be prioritised.

An interesting example of that happening arose from an experience in my constituency. Milton Keynes council recently ran for children of primary and secondary school age a consultation day about the provision of local services. I was extremely surprised by the issue that those children, who were aged 7 and upwards, identified as their highest priority for extra spending. They wanted more police and more money spent on the police. They perceived that major problems were the bullying of younger children by older children, not just in schools where it can be dealt with but on the streets out of school hours, and harassment by adults—I do not think that they were referring to serious forms of abuse, but to adults who might speak to them in a way that they did not think was entirely appropriate. They also mentioned the problem of theft from children and focused, not exclusively, on mobile phones. They felt that they would feel safer if more police were about to whom they could appeal to protect them from those problems.

Children are clearly service users, but in a democracy children and young people are not just service users or consumers, they are citizens. I am pleased that from September, citizenship will be compulsory in British schools. Perhaps I should declare an interest: my husband has devised and has been running a course at the university of Leicester for training teachers of citizenship. I am pleased to say that all his students have found jobs in state schools starting in September. Some people are therefore trained and ready to teach citizenship.

The citizenship curriculum encourages young people to develop the knowledge and skills to enable them to be active participants in a democratic society. It also

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encourages schools to be more democratic environments; it is important that young people are not just taught democracy as if it were a theoretical skill, but that they feel part of democratic institutions. Despite the apparent lack of interest from young people in conventional political activity, which we politicians are constantly bemoaning, a huge amount of data shows that young people are interested and often passionate about politics in its widest sense, and particularly in environmental issues. They are just not terribly interested in politics as it is put before them by politicians in the political process.

From their interest in environmental issues, young people are often clear about the fact that personal behaviour can link into policy commitment and that personal decisions about consuming less or recycling more are a demonstration of commitment to more environmentally friendly policies that speak more loudly than writing letters or nobbling politicians. Young people understand that political change can be influenced by personal action, and that it does not just start or end with voting.

That brings me to young people and voting, as voting is a key right in a democracy. Many argue that the fact that the 18-to-20-year-old age group has the vote but does not use it at the same rate as older adults is a strong argument for not reducing the voting age to 16. I think that that is wrong and reject the argument absolutely. The absence of voting rights for 16-year-olds contributes to lower participation rates among young people who have the vote.

As the under-18s cannot vote, none of the political parties have programmes that address the needs of young people. I hope that hon. Members agree. I went around knocking on doors before the last general election and when I spoke to young people I was struck that there was not much that I could say about our programme—or what they should be opposing in the programmes of other parties—that was relevant to them. We were all addressing older people in our political programmes.

It is not surprising that not many young people voted because for young people there was not much difference between the parties. We had nothing to say that was very relevant to them. If 16-year-olds had the vote, we politicians would have to develop policies that addressed their needs. That would give younger people a stronger reason to vote.

I have become interested in affordable travel for young people. Transport is an example of how young people's needs are undervalued because they are essentially disfranchised. Affordable travel is a key issue for pensioners and young people. There are great similarities between those two groups. A large proportion of both groups are heavy users of public transport. Many in both groups have relatively little access to the private car, and they both have low incomes. Everyone knows that free bus passes for pensioners is a huge political issue, because pensioners have the vote and a high participation rate, so we try to court them and respond to their needs. At the other end of the scale, affordable transport for young people is not on the political agenda because young people do not

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have the vote, so the political parties do not address the issue. I am pleased that reducing the voting age is now on the agenda and I shall be supporting it.

Let us consider how the Government consult with children and young people. The Government's core principles were published in November 2001, but I tabled a series of written questions in April this year asking Departments when and with whom they had consulted in trying to gauge young people's interests. The answers showed a variable performance between Departments. Most said that they were drawing up an action plan to describe how they would consult with young people, but had not actually consulted with them. Whose responsibility is it to check that all Departments have finalised their action plans and are delivering them?

There were some examples of good practice. I shall cite the Department of Health, but there was good practice elsewhere, too. The Department of Health's "Quality Protects" programme, which relates to social services, has a young person's reference group that meets three times a year and can comment on and feed into the programme. The organisation A National Voice gives young people who are, or were, in care a voice in policy development in relation to children in care. Interestingly, the paediatric cardiac review involved child cardiac patients as well as medical personnel or the parents and carers of patients. They are good examples of good practice. Are the Government ensuring that all Departments follow those examples of actively consulting young people, so that good practice can be spread throughout the Government?

I draw attention to other models of consultation outside the Government. The science museum recently hosted a student review of the science curriculum, which was funded by Science Year. It started with nine regional conferences to identify issues in the science curriculum. A national group developed that into a web questionnaire. More than 350 students aged between 16 and 19 helped in the design of the questionnaire and more than 2,000 students responded to it. Those responses were so useful and mature that the Select Committee on Science and Technology decided to take evidence from students who organised and took part in the review to inform its report on science education. Are the Government encouraging Departments to contract out consultations when appropriate to outside organisations?

The second example to which I want to draw attention is less successful. Earlier this year, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, as it then was, launched a consultation document on the driving licence and driving test, entitled "A More Structured Approach to Learning to Drive". Because that was clearly a subject of interest to young people, I sent copies of the document to each secondary school in my constituency and to the Milton Keynes college and encouraged students to respond directly to the consultation.

Milton Keynes college thought that the document was so opaque that its students would not be able to respond to it. It redesigned it and wrote a shorter, snappier version. That was handed out to students, who then discussed it and responded directly to the consultation. When Departments write public consultation documents, will they do so in a format that

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is more user-friendly, particularly when the subjects are ones in which young people may be expected to have an interest?

Finally, I refer to consultation by bodies other than those in central Government, but on which the Government could give guidance. I thank the Howard League for Penal Reform, which drew my attention to its worries about the lack of consultation with children by local authorities during the formulation of local crime prevention plans. It said that too often children are seen as the problem that crime prevention plans should deal with, rather than the needs of the children themselves being considered. That is especially true of young teenagers, who are often seen as a threat by others in the community. By involving young people in crime prevention plans, the Howard League considers that more cost-effective solutions may often be found. As an example, it said that it may be more sensible to provide a free skateboard area or free swimming for children and young people as a more effective way of reducing the perceived problem of youths wandering about aimlessly than installing expensive closed circuit television, which simply watches them hanging about.

As many people know, Milton Keynes is a young city. The key complaint that I receive from older constituents concerns threatening young persons hanging about. One useful solution that we have found is the provision of youth shelters on local recreation grounds and parks. They give young people a place in which they can sit and chat to each other under cover, but not next door to shops or people's houses where they cause annoyance.

I draw attention to the Howard League citizenship and crime programme of which I am sure the Minister is aware. It has worked with more than 10,000 children in more than 100 schools to consider young people and crime prevention. I hope that the findings are being fed into the Government's thinking. Will the Minister ensure that Government guidance on drawing up crime prevention programmes and other types of community and partnership plans include the need to involve children and young people?

I commend the Government for the work that they have begun in involving young people. That is only the beginning, however, and I urge them to review the consultation continuously, so that we can all learn how to do it better.

1.44 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham) : As the Minister responsible for children and young people, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing this debate. I share her view on the importance of involving young people and I am personally pleased to see that the issue is increasingly being raised in the House. I acknowledge the work of the two all-party groups—on children and on youth affairs—whose members are doing a lot to raise the profile of the issue, finding ways of listening to and involving children and young people and pushing the issue forward.

I am sympathetic to those of our colleagues who would like more regular opportunities to debate youth issues and for the relevant Ministers to take part in them. That has been the subject of much discussion, but I welcome today's debate as one opportunity to discuss youth affairs.

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I think that all hon. Members share the vision of children and young people having more opportunities to be involved in the design and development of policies and services that affect them, and to be able to evaluate them and show where they have been successful. We want that partly because young people should genuinely feel that they can influence the services that they receive and, as part of the broader citizenship work that we are doing, because we want young people to feel that they can contribute to and benefit from the life of their local communities.

I share with my hon. Friend the belief that the result of the effective participation of children and young people in the development of policies and services is the improvement of those policies and services. She rightly asked me to set out some of the procedures and structures that the Government are putting in place to encourage greater participation. A hearts-and-minds issue is involved—we must convince those in local as well as central Government that the services that they deliver will improve and the taxpayers money that they spend will be better spent if young people have been involved in helping to shape those services.

To convince those involved would help the Government to achieve our ambitions for children and young people. It would help us to prevent and tackle the social exclusion of a significant minority of children and young people. It would enable young people themselves to build the stronger and more cohesive communities that we know we need to build in the years to come.

I am also clear about our commitment under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child to seek the views of children and young people. This year has been historic—during the UN special session on children, young people were able to address the General Assembly of the UN for the first time. I was pleased to have been a co-leader of the United Kingdom delegation, which included two young delegates, one from Scotland and one from Northern Ireland, who were able to participate in bilateral meetings that I had with Ministers from other countries. I was pleased to be the only Minister who had a youth delegate in those meetings, despite some countries claiming tremendous records in the field. That was a small first for UK representation at the UN.

There is a similar commitment throughout Europe. The UK has been at the forefront of the development with our recent White Paper on youth policy. The participation of young people is a key theme of that work. In the coming year, I hope that we can work with our European partners to share best practice and learn from the successes and problems that we all face in securing the participation of young people.

On the Government's record, as my hon. Friend said, we announced in November that we had agreed to follow and implement an ambitious set of core principles that will guide the approach that individual Departments should take in engaging children and young people. Nine Departments have been in the lead in that work, developing action plans for how they can build capacity within their Departments to involve young people, identify priority areas for working with children and young people and find ways of building the principle of involvement into the way that they communicate the work and the policies of those Departments. We worked with several children's

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organisations to develop the principles and guidance, and they—and the young people that they involved in that work—have warmly welcomed the initiative.

We must be honest. Different Departments approached this work from very different starting points. Some of them had a lengthy history, at least in part of their activity, of involving young people; others had little history of that. Therefore, this represents a cultural challenge to some civil servants in Whitehall, and to some of my colleagues in Government.

We are determined to push this through and my hon. Friend asked how far we had got with it. The action plans from the nine Departments were published in May 2002, shortly after her series of parliamentary questions. That is not completed work; it sets out work in progress, but it shows that each of those Departments have begun, with support from the children and young people's unit, to tackle how they are going to take this forward.

The unit will report progress annually, which will give an opportunity to scrutinise our work. As I am the Minister with responsibility for children and young people, I will oversee the work of the unit. We also expect that young people will be involved in scrutinising our progress. However, I do not want to give the impression that I am in some way taking—or wishing to take—personal responsibility for ensuring that the whole of Government involve young people. This initiative has to become a part of the daily activity of individual Government Departments and Ministers. It would be a mistake to try to centralise all of this—to have, for example, a single unit that tries to carry out consultations on all of the work of each of the Government Departments.

Having recognised that Government Departments have uneven histories with regard to consulting young people, I now wish to point to some significant achievements that they have made in this area. My hon. Friend rightly referred to the work that is being done at the Department of Health. Also, in autumn 2001 we launched a consultation on an overarching children's strategy, which we hope will come to fruition later this year. It is intended to bring together all of the different policies that affect children and young people, so that it can give a single overall picture of what the policies of the Government, the voluntary sector and local authorities are trying to achieve.

Innovative types of consultation material were included in the project: some went out through primary schools, and some were distributed at cinemas, leisure centres and so forth. Therefore, we have gained good experience of which sorts of consultation material work—to refer to another of my hon. Friend's points. She will be interested to learn that one of the matters that came high on the agenda in that consultation was the importance of having safe routes to and from schools. It sounds as if that echoes one of the conclusions of the smaller survey that she conducted in Milton Keynes.

The Department for Education and Skills held consultation meetings with young people when it was working on the "Schools—achieving success" White Paper that was published in the autumn. It also designed a document, specifically for young people, on the new

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proposals for education plans for 14 to 19 year-olds, and it has had more responses from young people in that age group than from all other respondents put together. For those of us who believe in this, that is an encouraging step forward.

The Home Office has been actively involving young people in consultations. For example, they took part in the consultations that were held after the disturbances in the north of England last summer, which addressed the issues involved in developing cohesive communities. Work that has been done with young people from Oldham and other towns is now being turned into educational material, videos and so forth, and they will be used in further meetings, consultations and discussion events in several towns and cities throughout the country in the summer and into the autumn. That is another encouraging sign: a real social challenge is being tackled in a way that acknowledges that the role of young people is crucial by going out and positively involving them in the work.

I mentioned the role of the children and young people's unit in supporting me and my work. As a result, I have been able to benefit from the expertise of the unit's advisory forum—26 young people aged between 11 and 18 who are from all backgrounds and walks of life and who hold forthright views on where they want to see change. That forum helped us to build the consultation on the Government strategy document that I mentioned earlier.

We also have a particular relationship with the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, which the Government have agreed to support with further funds. It meets next week. I shall attend, as will hon. Members from several different political parties. I look forward to reading the manifesto that the Youth Parliament will produce as a result of its meeting.

My hon. Friend asked several specific questions. I hope that I have set out what we have done with regard to the action plans and how we are ensuring that Departments follow examples of consulting young people. She asked whether Departments are encouraged to contract out consultations to outside organisations, if that is appropriate. That is among the range of possibilities that we suggested that Departments build into their consultation. Obviously, consultation has often been carried out through children and young people's organisations and organisations that work with children and young people. We need to allow for flexibility because there will be times when contracting out is the right approach and times when more direct consultation is important. However, I appreciate the value of the process.

My hon. Friend asked whether Departments could be encouraged to write public consultation documents in a more user-friendly format. Most of us would probably say that that applies to all consultation documents, not only to those aimed at young people. The answer is yes. Through the work of the Department for Education and Skills, work on the children's strategy and work that I shall mention on young people and voting, we have started to develop expertise on which I hope we can build.

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) asked about votes at 16, and the Minister mentioned taxpayers' money. Sixteen and 17-year-olds may be taxpayers, so will he square the circle of no taxation without representation?

Mr. Denham : Let me tell the hon. Gentleman our position. One of the projects in which I have been personally involved is the "Y vote, Y not?" campaign, which was based on consultations with about 70 young people. It reached the end of its first phase of work at a conference last week and examined reasons why young people have not engaged with politics, and changes to processes that might encourage greater future involvement. A clear message that is not always understood is that we are not considering an apathetic or disinterested generation of young people, which is the picture that some people have painted. The generation has strong views on all issues about which hon. Members spend their time talking.

Young people do not think that we are talking about the issues with which they are concerned. That might well be because we spend a lot of our time talking about, or at, but rarely with, young people. That is a key issue on which politicians, political parties and those in the media should work together. We should not blame one group for getting things wrong, but our discussion of issues should be projected in ways that are more relevant

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to young people. We should give young people the opportunity to join with the process and to see others involved in it.

The campaign raised the question of voting age. Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, announced last week that the commission would examine voting age and produce a report for Ministers to consider. That is a result of young people raising the issue through the "Y vote, Y not?" campaign and in other forums. We do not promise always to do what young people say any more than we always do what pensioners, trade unions or businesses say. However, young people have a right to have their views taken seriously and addressed and to receive a proper response to any issues that they raise.

My hon. Friend mentioned young people's involvement in drawing up crime prevention programmes, which is important. I am pleased to tell her that I saw an excellent guide to the involvement of young people in such programmes earlier this year, which had been drawn up by several crime prevention partners in the west midlands. I arranged for the document to be reprinted as national guidance and it has been issued to crime reduction partnerships throughout the country. That is a practical example of putting a principle into action, which I hope is followed throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

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