At the Liberal Democrat conference last weekend, I moved the motion on our new youth policy paper, Free to be Young. Here’s my speech:
When Nick Clegg gave me the Youth portfolio – we agreed that Liberal Democrats would be relentlessly pro-youth – not anti-youth!
Young people often get a raw deal. When they work hard and pass their exams – all they hear is that they only did well because tests are getting easier these days.
And although young people are more likely to be a victim of crime than any other group in society – politicians – Labour and Tory obviously – and the media often treat them as though they are all criminals.
And when there is nothing to do after school, because youth services have been decimated over the last two decades – then they are blamed for hanging around the streets.
The pressure comes at young people from so many angles:
- from the medial who are happy to report on the kids who do cause trouble but never seem to give those same column inches to all the volunteering and good things that young people do; and
- from the fashion, beauty and diet industry – who bombard young people with fake images and we know that issues of low self esteem, anxiety and eating disorders are on the rise – directly correlated to this unremitting diet of over-perfected stereo types.
There are huge challenges ahead, particularly as we climb out of a recession that threatens young hopes and aspirations. If we don’t want a lost generation – then we have to make sure that we deliver a worthwhile future for our young people.
We Liberal Democrats are committed to creating a country where our young people can be free to be themselves, enabling them to be the very best they can be – and enjoy equal life chances with everyone else.
We want our policies to be effective – not vindictive.
That is why our youth policy paper, Free to be Young, sets out what Liberal Democrats would do differently to provide a fresh start for young people in the UK today.
Families and relationships are so important – but we know that sometimes things don’t work out – and children see little of their fathers.
It’s not a tax break for married couples that are needed – it is about engaging both parents with their children regardless of who the child lives with.
We propose a program called Dads and Doughnuts.
And if both parents are not involved – we have to make an effort to facitlitate that involvement. We know that if fathers read with their sons at an early age – that child does much better. Dads and Doughnuts is about encouraging schools to involve both parents in their children’s lives – separately if necessary.
In employment – what message does it send to young people when they do the same job, the same hours – but receive a lower minimum wage?
That isn’t about fairness – that’s about doing it on the cheap.
And young people can get married and have children at sixteen, serve in the armed forces – pay tax. What was that about no taxation without representation? So we believe that young people should be able to vote at 16.
And as I said – the recession focuses our proposals on ensuring that we don’t have a lost generation.
We need to ensure that every young person has a pathway – whether that is work experience, training or education.
We will fund 15,000 more college based foundation degree places in the first year.
Introducing a new ‘paid internship scheme for the first year after the election paying a training allowance of £55 (£5 more than jobseekers) per week.
Because how do you persuade an employer that you can do the job if you have no work experience in that field – and how do you get that experience if you cannot get a job.
And freedom – what freedom is there on being on the DNA database when you are innocent?
I remember a young black mother coming to my surgery almost hysterical with worry because her young son, 11, had been playing hide and seek in the grounds of a local hospital.
A policeman stopped him and asked what he was doing (his mates ran off) and from that his DNA was taken and despite the fact he did nothing really wrong – he was just playing – that DNA record was held.
His mother was hysterical because she knows that one day an employer may ask if he is on the DNA database – and that record albeit for nothing – may add to the already difficult challenge in getting a job. Moreover – it is just wrong to hold records on innocent children.
We would remove them from the DNA database unless there is a conviction for violent or sexual offence.
Homophobic bullying is rife in our schools – we know that 6 out of 10 children are homophobically bullied.
Nick Clegg has spoken out about the need for teachers to talk about being gay – so that young people understand that it is just another way of being – another normal way of being. We will ensure better training and guidance for teachers and youth workers.
Lastly – because I believe there may be a call for a separate vote on the statutory duty – I urge you to support the motion as is. Liberal Democrats are not natural allies of statutory duties –– so whilst we might very well want to remove a whole raft of statutory duties if we could – but we are where we are – and because youth services in many authorities have been decimated over the last two decades we will make Youth Services a statutory responsibility.
We desperately need an army of youth workers with the commitment, energy and experience to work with our young people – and when the media charge young people with hanging around with nothing to do – much of that is to do with their budgets being raided by a cash-strapped authority.
We have to throw a protective ring around them if we are serious about investing in young people.
So – there isn’t time to cover all that is in the motion – let alone the policy paper.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the young people who took part in the consultation stages of this paper – bright, caring, and passionate and involved – nothing like the picture the media paints.
I would also like to thank Laura Willoughby who chaired the initial stages, and the members of the policy working group who were enthusiastic and determined that this would be a paper that enabled young people to breathe again.
And lastly Linda Jack – who chaired the Policy Working Group with experience, energy and commitment and a resolute determination that this paper should be positive and encouraging – and the title ‘Free to be Young’ is a reflection of the Liberal Democrat belief that every young person should feel that there is a decent, happy and fulfilling life ahead of them.