Youth Parliaments

The primary focus of this chapter is youth political participation at the local level. Given that some of the interviewees were, or had been, members of the UK Youth Parliament, it is pertinent to assess what it is and how it operates. The UK Youth Parliament was set up in July 1999. Its first sitting was held in February 2001 in London, and there are now around 300 elected members of the UKYP, which double including Deputy MYPs (Members of the Youth Parliament). Elections are held each year and any young person aged between 11 and 18 can vote and stand. The elected MYPs work with various bodies including School and Youth councils, MPs and local councillors to press for issues of concern to them to be taken on board. As their manifesto claims it is ‘Run by young people, for young people, UKYP provides opportunities for 11-18 year-olds to use their voice in creative ways to bring about social change’. Issues concerning the UKYP include the following: the way the young people are portrayed in the media, they have an emphasis on multi-culturalism, citizenship education, an equal minimum wage, accessible transport, sexual health education, challenge to gang culture and opposition to the ‘Mosquito’ noise-emitting device used to disperse young people who congregate in groups, and so forth.

Youth is not one great amorphous mass; young people are as heterogeneous as the rest of society. There are as many divisions amongst young people as there are unifying aspects. Questions must be asked, however, when we see such low levels of political participation amongst a particular sector of society. The debate in the House of Commons in October 2009 (the first time the Commons was used as a debating chamber by non-MPs, whereby 300 members of the UKYP graced the seats) can surely only be seen as a positive move. Indeed, the seventh annual Youth Parliament debate in the Commons Chamber took place on Friday, 13 November 2015.22 ‘Chaired by the Speaker, John Bercow, the debates over each of the seven years have been dynamic and topics have included youth crime, whether the voting age should be lowered to 16 years of age, and free university education. The 2015 debates covered: the living wage; a curriculum to prepare young people for life; mental health; transport; and tackling racism and religious discrimination. The debates are notoriously dynamic. The 2012 debate, for example, was attended by the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson MP, who said ‘We’ve had energy, eloquence and passion in abundance. You’ve tested and challenged my views and values and those of all around you. I would challenge anyone here today or watching elsewhere to leave without feeling seriously impressed’.2 3 Gerry Stoker seeks to harness the dynamism and potential of the various youth assemblies when he advocates giving ‘the UK Youth Parliament, the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales the right to call a people’s ballot or citizen’s initiative referendum on a topic of their choosing’ (Stoker 2014: 26; see also Qvortrup 2015, re-the referendum). This could mean that they have the power to effect real political change.

As Shephard and Patrikios (2012) point out, one remedy for low levels of youth involvement has been the setting up of youth parliaments. The Scottish Youth Parliament, for example, came into being on 30 June 1999. Youth parliaments can be seen as rectifying an ‘institutional lacuna’ by providing young people with an arena in which to ‘practice civic and social skills’ and a place where young people ‘are listened to by politicians’ (2012: 1). As Shephard and Patrikios explain, decreasing levels of ‘voting, membership of traditional organisations and civic trust can also be linked to the prominence of young participants in the worldwide wave of social unrest that marked 2011 (for example in the “Arab Spring”, in the “indignados” movements in Spain and Greece and in various “Occupy” or “99 %” movements)’ (Ibid: 2).24 As they go on to say, these ‘developments add a tone of urgency to the need for effective institutional mechanisms that reconnect young citizens with formal politics’ (Ibid.). They also attest how through being closely engaged with the roles of national parliamentarians, young people expand their skill sets. They accentuate the Scottish Youth Parliament where, for example, young people have become ‘increasingly active participants in agenda setting and policy influence (for example, the “Mosquito” petition and the “Love Equally” campaign)’ (Ibid: 17). The Mosquito is a device which emits a high-frequency, penetrating sound designed only to be heard by younger people and which has been used in certain areas to disperse groups of young people on the streets. The Love Equally Campaign was aimed at promoting marriage equality between homosexual and heterosexual couples, where the Scottish Youth Parliament was said to have been instrumental in getting it brought forward. For Shephard and Patrikios, it is imperative that best practice is shared on a pan-European basis in relation to youth parliaments. As they say, ‘particularly in the midst of the recent global wave of protest movements and social unrest’ (Ibid.). Certainly, youth political participation, as this study of Lincolnshire Youth Cabinet illustrates, helps young people to build up their skill sets and feed into the policy-making process.

As Alan Turkie affirms, however, young people need to ensure that their views, and a representative sample of views, are aired. He points out, in his study of the UKYP that ‘concerns about tackling racism, sexism or homophobia have not been raised as campaign choices within the UKYP, in spite of strong representation by Black young people, young women and young gay men’ (2010: 268) and he, therefore, warns them against mimicking ‘flawed adult structures’ (Ibid.). This is as issue of which young people should be wary. Perpetuating existing inequalities should not be seen as the way forward. Likewise, McGinley and Grieve, in their study of youth councils in Scotland, believe that the voices of many young people are not being heard. As they contend, ‘Youth councils allow limited involvement in decision making, usually at the level of consultation rather than of encouraging young people to drive their own agenda’ (2010: 260). This resonates with Chap. 2 and the theoretical ladder of participation, with the debate centring on different rungs or ‘degrees’ of participation. It could be that, whilst youth councils, parliaments and cabinets do provide an opportunity and a vehicle for political participation, and enable young people to build up their confidence whilst acquiring skills such as public-speaking and committee techniques, they are not the sole approach. Other mechanisms, such as, the ‘rights-based approach’ (Ibid: 259) advocated by McGinley and Grieve require a more concerted effort to involve and include young people at many levels of the decision-making process. The model that they propose ‘recognises and celebrates current capacities and encourages levels of involvement that are meaningful and aspirational’ (Ibid.). It will be interesting to see whether these new ways of working and engaging politically, as advocated by McGinley and Grieve, do ever come to fruition or is it the case that existing structures are so ingrained that it would be difficult for the power-brokers to give up some of their stranglehold to actively empower young people in a meaningful and genuine way?

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