Jim Wallace – 1985 Speech on the Youth Charter

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Wallace, the then Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland, in the House of Commons on 9 January 1985.

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to promote opportunities for young people in International Youth Year 1985 by establishing a youth charter giving rights and representation to young people: and for connected purposes. I am pleased to be able to seek the leave of the House to bring in this Bill on the first sitting day of 1985, which is International Youth Year. At the earliest possible opportunity in the year, the House could, by giving me leave to bring in the Bill, express its concern for the problems faced by our young people, and its faith and confidence in them, by extending to them the rights and opportunities that would be contained in the youth charter that I propose.
I have referred to the problems faced by many young people. Regrettably, for many, this new year is no new dawn of hope. Four unemployed people out of 10 will be under 25 and 350,000 people will be on training schemes without the certainty of a job at the end. With 22,000 fewer university places than five years ago—equivalent to the closure of two universities the size of Cambridge — many young people will have their academic aspirations frustrated and will be denied the opportunities enjoyed by myself and my contemporaries only a decade ago. In 1985 drug abuse by young people will reach unprecedented levels, as will juvenile crime.

It is idle to expect that one Bill could remedy these many wrongs. Other political measures requiring Government initiative will be necessary. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I would welcome the appointment of a Minister to co-ordinate Government policies affecting young people. We are in danger of allowing a generation of young people to grow up many of whom feel totally alienated from the society and community of which they are members. During International Youth Year, my hon. Friends and I will try to bring before the House a series of measures which, if supported, would signal to the young people of our country our awareness of their problems and our willingness to respond to them.

In proposing a youth charter, it would be all too easy for me to fall into the trap of patronising the young or telling them what is best for them. Rather than do that, the charter would seek to establish rights and to create a framework within which young people could participate more fully in the affairs of the community and the decisions that affect or shape their lives. I hope that the charter would reflect the themes of International Youth Year: participation, development and peace.

Under the heading “participation” we would hope for greater involvement by young people in decision-making. We would propose a lower voting age and a lower age for candidature. At a time when the future of the world is in the hands of two super-power leaders in comparison with whom our own Prime Minister is a young chicken, is there any relevance in considering those at the other end of the age scale? The young have an important stake in the future, and what they lack in experience may be more than compensated for by the fresh ideas that they can bring forward. A number of causes now coming to the fore in politics — for example, environmental concern — were espoused by young people long before they gained political respectability.

At local level, we believe that there should be a right of youth representation on a number of local committees, including health councils, school and college boards and local education authority committees. There is a precedent in the case of the churches for the inclusion of representation on local education authorities. It seems reasonable, therefore, to extend the principle to the consumers of the system.

We believe that there should be an input into the local Manpower Services Commission committees from young people on youth training schemes. Those who take part in the schemes could put forward useful proposals for their improvement. We also believe that there should be greater youth representation on the local police authority. That view is in line with the recommendation of Lord Scarman in his report on the Brixton riots. This is yet another example of how involvement, and the responsibility that goes with it, can break down the barriers of hostility and alienation which are often found in relations between young people and the police.

We also recommend democratically elected local youth councils. They would be a forum in which young people could express their anxieties to statutory bodies in their areas. The worries of young people in decaying inner cities are very different from those of young people in rural communities, and it is important that someone should represent and communicate the views of young people.

With regard to development, a young person must be able to develop his personality. He can do that inadequately if he is unemployed, insufficiently trained or educated, or poorly housed. We should establish as a right the opportunity for all teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 to have a real choice between continuing in full-time education, taking a place on a much improved training scheme and finding employment. I admit that that would require resources, but it is not an especially new or radical suggestion. In International Youth Year, we should be prepared to look to the examples set by France and West Germany in the training and education of young people.

When young people want to take the initiative and create their own employment through co-operatives or self-employment, for example, statutory bodies such as the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, the Welsh Development Agency and the Highlands and Islands Development Board should have a remit to provide financial assistance and, more importantly, legal, managerial and marketing advice and expertise.

I am aware that some young people fail to develop their personalities through disadvantage, especially because of race or disability. The charter proposes a youth service which is managed substantially by young people to cater for the needs of such groups.

Development will not be confined to the individual—the wider community would benefit from the greater involvement of young people. A recent opinion poll, which was published in The Times, showed that 78 per cent. of 15 to 24-year-olds support a scheme for all young people to do voluntary community service on leaving school. Some voluntary schemes already exist. With the minimum of bureaucracy, we should like local bodies to be set up to ensure proper co-ordination between community and voluntary efforts.

The measures that I have outlined are by no means exhaustive. The third theme which ties them all together is peace.

It is regrettable that we cannot legislate to create peace. However, we can establish a framework and an environment which fosters and promotes peace. A youth charter would try to do just that. It would try to ensure peace of mind for a person who might be frustrated by inadequate employment, unemployment or because his academic aspirations have been thwarted. It would promote peace in communities by encouraging participation and trying to break down barriers. When the House debates the great issues of world peace we should remember that few have a greater interest in it than the youth of today.

In commending the Bill, I ask the House to support measures that will promote the cause of youth, and allow the voice of youth to be heard. Perhaps more importantly, I ask the House and politicians of the older and not so old generations to listen to the voice of youth and pay heed to their anxieties and ideals in International Youth Year.