The promise by Civil Society Minister Mims Davies to develop a Youth Charter is an important early win in the campaign by youth sector organisations seeking to build a case for a more stable funding and support infrastructure for youth work and youth social action. The fact that our parliamentary system is gummed up by Brexit and that we face a series of votes in the months ahead that are likely to keep shifting political priorities shouldn't make us pessimistic about progress. It just means there are more opportunities to demonstrate that the core aims of a charter - a commitment to putting the interests, needs and voices of young people at the heart of joined-up policymaking - are crucial to developing more effective solutions to some of the big issues facing society: developing an economy that can support flexible but fairly paid work; reducing demand on our health and care systems through better prevention; and aligning individual behaviour change with international regulation to tackle global environmental threats.
Of course, fine words butter no parsnips and the proof of the pudding is in the eating..., but there are signs that the tide of political and public opinion is turning favourably. The House of Lords committee on intergenerational fairness recently called on governments to ‘rebalance policy' in favour of young people, recognising the fact that governments have perhaps gone too far in chasing the ‘grey vote'. This coincided with the Electoral Reform Society pushing again for a debate on extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds with the backing of an all-party group of MPs. This political rebalancing, coupled with growing public concern about young people being the victims of violent crime and more prone to isolation and mental health issues, can only bode well for further investment in support if we ever make it to a Spending Review.
Money is not the end of the story, however. There's a wider job to do. We saw recently how many hurdles we need to clear if, as a society, we're going to live up to the promises we might make in a Youth Charter. The treatment meted out by sections of the press and certain political commentators to Greta Thunberg shows how enthusiasm to give young people a platform can turn to patronising disdain when they dare to say something adults disagree with. I also wonder how differently we'd deal with the idea of children going ‘on strike' if the issue galvanising them wasn't the one they've chosen for themselves - the existential threat of climate change - but instead was the scandalous lack of funding for basic equipment and non-teaching support in schools, a campaign most of their parents (and teachers) would wholeheartedly endorse.
One of the goals of the proposed Youth Charter is that it should provide a foundation for helping young people become more active in their communities. For this to succeed we need to get over the same hurdles. We need groups and organisations already active in those communities to understand how to open up their debates and decision-making to the views of young people and how to respond to the challenges that could - and should - bring to traditional ways of thinking. The Youth Charter has opened up the exciting prospect of a renewed focus on the skills and disciplines of youth work. If we're really going to change the way young people contribute to decision-making in their community then we need to think equally hard about how to embed those skills and disciplines in a much wider range of organisations.
Somehow, the language of "empowerment" doesn't feel quite right to reflect this shift. The old adage that "power can't be given, it has to be taken" has been quoted by everybody from Michael Corleone in the Godfather films to Beyonce and in this case suggests an unnecessarily adversarial process. What we're about is recognising that young people have as much of a stake in their community as adults. With that stake comes a responsibility to contribute but also a right for that contribution to be taken seriously. The Youth Charter then becomes a pathway for collaboration and co-creation as we build communities that are more resilient to the political, social, economic and environmental uncertainties that lie ahead.