An opportunity missed? The government response to the Youth Citizenship Commission

Labour responds to a report on increasing young people's participation in politics
Andy Mycock
22 March 2010
OK in depth

The Youth Citizenship Commission was set up in 2008 to examine ways of developing young people's understanding of citizenship and increase their participation in politics, as part of the broader review outlined in the 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper. It was also asked to lead a consultation on lowering the voting age to 16. During its lifespan, government ministers and the Prime Minister were keen to draw attention to the work of the YCC and its final report. However, the launch of the final report was markedly low-key, being held at Westminster Hall on a Friday - when MPs were back in their constituencies - with scant publicity or media coverage.

After some delay, Dawn Butler MP was appointed the new Minister for Young Citizens and Youth Engagement in October 2010 to “take forward appropriate action arising from the recommendations of the Youth Citizenship Commission report”. The formal response was launched by the Minister at a Young Citizens' Action Event in Manchester to an eager audience of over 1,000 young people but again with little media coverage or comment from politicians.

The response was encouraging in its tone, acknowledging that government agreed with many of general concerns raised by the YCC. It provides a statement of intent to undertake a review of how government at national and local interacts with young people to encourage responsible and participative citizenship from an early age. In particular, it is rewarding to note government support for electoral registration in schools and the use of schools as polling stations on election days. Moreover, the intention to explore avenues to provide sustainable funding for the UK Youth Parliament was encouraging.

The government response nevertheless raised questions as to its seriousness in addressing many of the issues identified by the YCC. Many of the young people the YCC spoke to during their research suggested one of the main reasons they felt disengaged from mainstream politics was the lack of attention given by politicians to youth issues and younger voters. The belief that politicians did not care about, understand or take notice of them was widespread.

The government response overlooks this important issue, suggesting that “negative associations with politics exist because of its complexity, perceived lack of appeal or relevance or personal negative experiences”. To counter this, young people are encouraged to “use their voice to tell us what they want”. However the YCC report found that politicians were already linked into numerous programmes where young people offered their views on a range of policy areas. But politicians continue to focus on the interests of older voters - a view confirmed by a recent Children's Society survey. Whilst the government response rightly places some responsibility with young people to engage, it neatly sidesteps the idea that politicians need to alter their behaviour to more readily accommodate the concerns and aspirations of young people.

The YCC report acknowledged that government departments had undertaken a considerable amount of work on youth engagement and the government response allocates considerable space in drawing attention to these existing programmes and schemes. However, the response overlooks a key point raised by the YCC that various programmes were often introduced in isolation and in some cases overlapped in remit and intent but lacked effective inter-departmental coordination. The plethora of initiatives launched by different departments and also third-sector partners often left young people and youth workers within local authorities confused. This limited impact and raised important questions as to the reach and effectiveness of such initiatives and whether they constituted efficient use of public money.

This lack of coordination at a national and local level is not substantively addressed in the response. The creation of a new Directgov website, Join, collates details about some of the government and NGO programmes together with information about government and volunteering opportunities. This, together with new social networking projects on Twitter and Facebook, indicates some attempt to improve communication with young people. However, there is little to suggest that different departments will work in a more connected and collaborative manner to ensure that opportunities for youth engagement are coordinated effectively.

The YCC report also highlighted the scepticism that many young people felt about youth initiatives in schools and local communities, drawing attention to a widespread belief in their lack of efficacy. Young people suggested that although school and local youth councils offered opportunities to participate they lacked power to influence decision-making. For example, although school councils are found in 95% of schools, their influence was often limited and they had little opportunity to contribute to the running of schools or developing strategic policy. The YCC recommendation for universal school councils and pupil representation on school governing bodies was not considered.

The YCC report drew attention to the need for greater local authority coordination and promotion of youth citizenship opportunities as young people suggested such information was often lacking. The government response fails to address this issue substantively, arguing that third sector volunteering groups should be afforded a greater role without establishing who has overall responsibility to manage and develop youth citizenship in local communities. Similarly, they fail to acknowledge that not all young people have opportunities to join a local authority youth council or that cuts in local government funding could see some existing youth councils scrapped.

The government response overlooks some recommendations completely - unlike the response from the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments. There is no direct engagement with the issue of the introduction of equality impact assessment criteria which would scrutinise the impact of new policies on young people. It is also ambiguous on the issue of national civic service. The response mentions the Prime Minister's proposals for a community service programme but this pilot has a number of shortcomings which I have identified elsewhere in OurKingdom. Emphasis is placed on the potential career benefits of such a programme but the point that such volunteering is not necessarily civic in its focus is overlooked.

It seems that the government was unimpressed by the failure of the YCC to support Labour policy on votes at 16. The government response to the report suggested the Commission “was equivocal on the issue of lowering voting age” whilst Gordon Brown went as far as suggesting the YCC “couldn't make up its mind”. Such criticism is unfounded; the purpose of the Commission was to lead “a consultation with young people on whether the voting age should be lowered to 16”.

The Commission were not equivocal on this issue and they did not fail come to a decision - they supported the retention of the voting age at 18 as there was no clinching evidence as to why a reduction would be a good idea at the present time. There was some division on this issue but, as with broader public opinion data, there was a lack of a majority in support of such moves. YCC research undertaken suggested only a small majority of 11-25 year-olds polled (3%) supported lowering the voting age. Indeed, a recent (and larger) public survey of young people saw nearly two-thirds oppose lowering the voting age.

There is much to be welcomed in the response but it is hoped that the government will in time encourage the development of youth citizenship that fully realises the ambition of the YCC. In particular, concerns raised by the YCC regarding citizenship education and political literacy need to be addressed. Although a recent Ofsted report confirmed that citizenship education is embedding itself within the National Curriculum, it supported the recommendation of the YCC that more must be done to develop teacher training and build supportive school environments.

A National Foundation for Educational Research report published in October 2009 noted that “participation levels in and outside school have remained relatively low”. Students were provided few opportunities to engage in real decision-making in or outside schools and many lacked awareness they had been taught citizenship education. A focus on lowering the voting age is at present misguided - the wrong priority - and overlooks the need for a coherent and universal framework of youth engagement in schools and local communities.

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