Yes to a Minister for Youth

An edited version of this article by the General Secretary was published in The Guardian.

The government is interested in long term economic prosperity through sustainable growth, the inclusion of young people in social processes and joined up governmental thinking. One of the best tests of their commitment to these will be whether they will introduce a Minister for Youth. Most other European countries have already done so. Joined up thinking conveys the idea of doing something more co ordinated and adult than previously; of writing poetry, not limericks; of orchestrating Whitehall, not letting it perpetually warm up. Such an approach has yet to influence youth policies and if it fails to come, could easily scupper some of the excellent initiatives now starting.

A number of high profile youth related plans have poured from the government: millennium volunteers, the new deal, new start, behavioural support units, the anti drugs campaign, homework clubs, the Crime and Disorder Act, citizenship education, community safety, youth offender teams, lifelong learning. Yet there is no central co ordinating body for these initiatives, no obvious coherence between the work of the social exclusion unit and other departments, no link for example with lottery funding priorities directly, or regional policies. Between the government’s departments you can still see the unjoined thoughts as far as young people are concerned. Catching the general drift is not enough.

From the Thatcher period when Minister’s denied in the House that there was any such social category as youth, to the situation now where there appears to be nothing except the social priorities of youth, we have moved from studious neglect, to potentially chaotic over attention. Orphaned youth could get smothered by care, or like the lone children under the one child family policy of China, become bloated unhealthily by dotage. While developing its many youth friendly policies the government, particularly in England, has puzzled the one profession closest to the provision of coherent services for young people, that is youth work, by consistently ignoring its ability to contribute. As a result, there are lots of potentially brilliant bits and pieces for a new social model that values the young, but there’s no glue. Glue can come cheap and have a spectacularly hidden benefit.

In reaching for the glue, the government needs to consider more carefully the role of the Youth Service and the sense that could be made of complementary policies if a Minister for Youth in the DfEE were created and able to act cross departmentally. A Minister could be advised by a consortium from the field and interdepartmental teams. In the pre election period both of these considerations were suggested by a very thorough Youth Policy Task Group set up and managed by Peter Kilfoyle MP. This group considered an integrated approach to youth issues, took advice from a range of providing agencies and experts and made some important recommendations for the future cost effectiveness and cohesion of government policies for young people.

The closest we have at the moment is a Junior Minister for Lifelong Learning in the DfEE who, as in previous administrations, has a responsibility for the Youth Service, within a massive portfolio. Ministers in this position have traditionally had a remarkably short shelf life on their way elsewhere and the 16 or so strong Youth Service Unit within the DfEE’s preparation for adulthood division has never had the full brief it could.

The government is also lagging behind best professional and local authority thinking in this regard. Progressive councils have adopted youth affairs models ensuring that one pivotal Youth Service role is to link different departmental plans and involve young people and youth agencies in decision making and service delivery from housing to education. Many have active youth committees of professionals advising on policy and young peoples’ forums to develop this.

Similarly within the profession, the last three years have been marked by increasing collaboration between the erstwhile disparate and often competing quangoes and support agencies. UK wide representative meetings are now common, joint working and shared projects are seen as being essential. As a result the government has a tangible network of supporters for a Minister for Youth. At last there are also closer working relationships between academic and vocational research into the plight of youth and models of practice. Within training for youth work there is now greater collaboration and commonality of purpose, including qualifications for part time staff and volunteers.

None of this interagency collaboration and pooling of sovereignties is being matched at government level. There we have different ministers with different degrees of interest in the subject. There is a Youth Service Unit in the DfEE, various task groups, a Voluntary Sector Unit in the Home Office effecting the community development context in which much youth policy is formulated on the ground, sports initiatives in the Department for Culture and Sport including the validation of play work and children’s work, and a plethora of youth related initiatives within the Department for Social Services.

There is no evidence of any thinking through of the interconnectedness of these initiatives. I go to identical meetings in at least four departments ! Furthermore, the Treasury and Department of Environment at the critical moments in budget setting rounds are addressing the bids of different departmental youth initiatives without fully tallying their duplications and costly lack of harmony.

If half the population are women and have a Minister, why not a recognition of the needs of twenty million young people in Britain ? There would be no extra government cost, the government machine would run more sweetly and I would put my life on it that millions of ecus would be saved.

Appointing a Minister for Youth would have the effect of turning on a light across all departments and also of ensuring that someone is monitoring when too many wasteful lights have been left on. It would make Britain really new and include the young not just symbolically, but operationally at the highest level. You reap what you sow long term.

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