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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 9 January 2001

[ Mrs. Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Government Youth Policy

Motion made and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Mike Hall.]

9.30 am

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Good morning, Madam Deputy Speaker. I begin this particularly important debate by thanking Save the Children and its UK advocacy officer, Rebecca Hickman, for helping with policy detail and the drafting of this speech.

The debate is important because the young people of this country are our future, and we need to reflect on our policies in respect of the many challenges that they face. May I also take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) on his recent appointment as Minister for Young People? Given his enthusiasm for a number of Home Office matters relating to my constituency, I am sure that he will prove a keen advocate of young people and the co-ordination of Government policies.

The problems and challenges that confront young people today constitute a chilling and compelling list. As we sit in this beautiful building, we must remember that the statistics that I shall read out this morning relate to real people who live in real communities, some of which are not very far from here. Each year, one in 16 young people leave school with no qualifications, and one in five have special educational needs. Some 30,000 children in year 11 truant for days or weeks at a time; in England alone, about 60,000 truant at least once a week. Although the numbers are declining, exclusions from school remain significant. It is estimated that 100,000 to 130,000 young people are given fixed-term exclusions each year. One in five 16 to 24-year-olds experience homelessness at some time and at least three quarters of the 11,500 15 to 21-year-olds who are in custody will be re-convicted within two years.

It is important to understand the links between the various problems, and the chain reaction that often occurs in young people's lives. Seventy-five per cent. of males aged 16 to 17 who are charged with a crime and appear before a youth court are not engaged in formal full-time work or training. One in two prisoners aged under 18 were looked after children. One study found that 40 per cent. of homeless young women have experienced sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence. Nearly half of all school-age offenders have been excluded from school.

Each year, 8,000 girls aged 16 or under become pregnant. As a male hon. Member, let me point out that teenage pregnancy is the responsibility not just of girls, but of young males. In discussing what should be done, the matter should be treated not just as a girl problem, but as one that affects society as a whole. Both girls and boys have a responsibility in respect of their relationships. As I have said, we are discussing real people with real problems.

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How will the responses to these challenges be co-ordinated? How can we meet those challenges and monitor the progress of our policies? In our youth policy, we should discuss not only the important challenges that confront us in dealing with disaffected young people, but youth poverty and social exclusion. We face the challenge of ensuring that all children everywhere have the opportunities, facilities and life chances that they deserve. Of course, available resources must be targeted: nobody would suggest that we should not provide additional resources and help for our most deprived communities. However, all children have a right to benefit from Government resources, facilities and policies, so we must ensure that their needs are adequately resourced.

Later in my speech, I shall give examples from my constituency of problems that young people confront every day. People who try to provide youth services and facilities also confront those problems while attempting to meet the needs of youth. My examples concern matter of fact, bread and butter issues, but, in considering their own constituencies, hon. Members will realise that such issues have a significant impact on provision, support and help for young people.

Another important issue concerns the distribution of funding across local council and local authority boundaries. Among the many tasks that hon. Members and I shall debate, the co-ordination of funding policy is especially important. For example, my constituency is adjacent to Nottingham city centre, but it is not covered by Nottingham city council. Although my constituency is one mile from the city centre, it is excluded from funding streams that would be available were it 200 yd down the road. Young people in my constituency need additional resources and we must ensure that funding streams recognise that young people's needs may cross local authority boundaries.

One night a week, more than 100 young people attend Carlton Pentecostal youth club, which is an excellent example of voluntary faith provision. Pastor Darrell Holt does a fantastic job with those young people, but he struggles to raise money to fund trips, to obtain specialist help or to purchase new equipment such as badminton nets or basketballs. That is an issue that we must examine. The Arnold Forum has been trying for more than a year to obtain funding for a drop-in centre for young people. It cannot hire premises because it cannot raise a few pounds. The willingness, voluntary help and young people's need are there, yet we cannot put together a funding package to provide a drop-in centre.

We must consider the provision and availability of youth clubs to ensure that our young people have access to such facilities. There is a huge number of youth sports teams, and I pay tribute to the people who organise them both in my constituency and beyond. However, such teams often find it difficult to obtain adequate facilities. That point was brought home to me yesterday morning, when I visited sixth formers at the Wheldon school in Carlton, who said that facilities for young people were often poor. How can we ensure that such problems do not occur and that young people's activities are sufficiently funded so that they are not forced to abandon them for want of a few pounds?

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The Government are introducing a huge range of initiatives to meet the challenges involved in doing our best to meet young people's needs--for example, sure start, Connexions, youth offending teams, drug action teams, increasing support for voluntary and statutory provision and ensuring that lottery bodies recognise the needs of youth. But who will co-ordinate those policies to ensure that they provide the most effective, coherent, complementary and co-ordinated package for the benefit of all our children and young people?

One of the Government's key new initiatives is the establishment of the children and young people's unit. The Government are often accused of being insufficiently radical, but that should be seen as a radical move. I welcome it and the creation of the children's fund to support such initiatives.

I have some specific questions about the children and young people's unit. Save the Children and other organisations welcomed the unit as an opportunity for the Government to take a more creative and energetic approach towards their work with children and young people. Specifically, it should take the lead in bringing about a cultural shift in local and national Government, involving children and young people in decision making and in playing a key role in co-ordinating policies.

Does the unit's remit extend to all children and young people or focus only on the socially excluded or vulnerable? If it deals only with the socially excluded, who is responsible for co-ordinating policies to ensure that there is a coherent overall package for all children? What age range does the unit cover?

The children and young people's unit will explore ways of increasing the involvement of children and young people in decision making. One option that the Minister is considering is an advisory group of young people to meet directly with him to talk about policy, which is a tremendous step forward. Beyond that, however, there should be a new culture across Government to provide clear mechanisms for consulting children and young people. The principle of consultation with and participation by young people should be followed not only by the Minister responsible for youth, but by all Ministers in all Departments across Whitehall. That culture should be made real by an overarching strategy that is about not only words, but the delivery of policies. What methods is the children and young people's unit considering for consulting children and young people, and how will it ensure that the process is co-ordinated across all Departments, including the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions?

The Government's children's strategy should ensure that all Departments consider the impact of new policies on children and young people and a children's commissioner for England should be created. Save the Children is one of a number of organisations that believe that a children's commissioner would be beneficial as an independent watchdog, arbiter and champion of children's rights, operating regardless of changes in political administration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is promoting a private Member's Bill to appoint a children's commissioner for England and I

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hope that the Government will support it. Perhaps the Minister will explain the Government's policy on a children's commissioner for England when that important reform has been made in Wales. We need mechanisms to ensure that the children's strategy is part of joined-up government and covers all policies and practices affecting children.

Before concluding, I want to refer to citizenship and partnership. We have had fantastic reports on social exclusion and we need more of them, but it is important that the Government talk to young people about their problems. That is a challenge for all of us. When I am bombarded with suggestions from children in schools and sixth forms, I often find myself saying, "It's not as easy as that," and, when asked why, "You don't understand how complex such matters are." I find myself meandering and almost dismissing their opinions instead of saying, "You are making a good point, which we must consider." Hon. Members expect any points they make to be treated with respect and young people deserve more than being told, "It's not as easy as you think."

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that personal advisers have a key role under the Connexions initiative that we have launched? It behoves us all to encourage the appointment of young person's advisers or there will be no dialogue between young people and adults.

Mr. Coaker : I thank my hon. Friend. He drew attention to the key role of young person's advisers in the Connexions service, the success of which will depend not only on the number of personal advisers, but their quality.

We must talk to young people who are excluded from school about how we can improve our policies. We must talk to young asylum seekers about the impact of Government policies on them. We should discuss our policies with all young people and I am pleased that experiments are taking place in many areas to expand consultation. Nottinghamshire county council has a two-year plan to set up seven district youth forums with one county youth assembly. It is an impressive programme and I am sure that other local authorities will do the same.

Elaine Bagshaw of Nottingham youth council sent me an e-mail with a list of items that the council had discussed and which she thought were important. There is a desire that young people should become involved in our policies, so what powers and responsibilities does the Minister believe that those bodies should have? If youth assemblies and youth councils do not have real power, they will not be considered to be as important a part of the process as they need to be.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the United Kingdom Youth Parliament will be an important element in the dialogue that he describes, and would he welcome the Minister's willingness to participate in that? Does he welcome the money--£200,000, I think--announced by the Department for Education and Employment to make that Parliament a reality in a few weeks' time?

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Mr. Coaker : The £200,000 announced yesterday for the UK Youth Parliament is welcome and another example of an exciting Government initiative. I believe that this morning's debate should be about how we can improve policy initiatives and ensure that they are all brought together.

On consultation, citizenship and participation, I feel strongly that we should consider whether young people should have the vote at 16. We give young people the right to choose their sexuality at 16. They can get married with parental permission, join the armed forces, smoke, play the national lottery and do a range of different things. We need to debate extending the suffrage to 16-year-olds. If they are mature enough to determine their sexuality, they are mature enough to determine how to vote.

People may say that 16-year-olds do not know enough about the political system and do not understand what the different parties stand for, but that is a challenge for us all, not a reason to refuse them the suffrage. We should help our young people to understand what we offer them. We have enough trouble trying to persuade older people that we are worth voting for, but trying to persuade 16-year-olds that we deserve their votes would be an exciting challenge for us all. My local paper, the Nottingham Evening Post, said that extending the suffrage might increase the turnout of voters. We should certainly debate that, along with all the other issues.

When I read policy action report No. 12 from the social exclusion unit, I was slightly concerned. It compared the UK with other European countries, and I think that only our country and Denmark had no ticks in any of the various boxes for a co-ordinated youth policy, a Minister for Young People, a parliamentary committee and so on. The Government have taken a considerable number of steps to address many of those issues. We now have a Minister for Young People, although my view is that he should be a stand-alone Minister, with his own Department, but that can be debated.

This is a fundamental debate, because young people are our country's future and their opinions deserve to be heard on the policies that are supposed to be for their benefit. If we listened to what young people had to say and took on board their comments, we could improve those policies. As many people know, I believe that we should be hard on young people who cause problems in our communities, but not all our young people are delinquents. A small minority cause problems and we need to deal with them, but it is also incumbent on us to reflect on our policies for young people to ensure that they are better co-ordinated, that we have better government and that we deliver better results for young people in all our communities.

9.53 am

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) on securing it. Talking about issues relating to young people is an auspicious start to the new year, but we should discuss those issues every day, every week and every month. I share my hon. Friend's interest in the development of a Ministry for children to ensure that

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their issues receive the proper scrutiny and attention that they deserve. If a fraction of the time wasted on the dome and other matters had been spent talking about children's issues, we could speak more positively about our society. I shall be extremely brief because I know that several hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.

The Government came to office facing a great mess in respect of children's services and youth policy. Frankly, some of the achievements over the past three and a half years have been superb. It would take all day to go through them, but the most obvious are the new deal, the promise of Connexions, the principles of restorative justice, the magnificent work done for children in care, equalising the age of consent and improving educational standards. Those are truly superb achievements, which promise much for the future. Greatest of all is the inspirational aim of ending child poverty, and everything that we discuss about children should be approached in that context.

There remains a long way to go, not just in the co-ordination, but in the consistency of Government policy. We must stop the remand of young people to adult prisons. We must ensure that restorative justice is properly funded so that we can reduce the number of young people in custody. Frankly, the Government's willingness to maintain a parent's defence of reasonable chastisement seems entirely inappropriate, wrong and out of kilter with everything else that they are trying to achieve. It is also inappropriate to maintain reservations about the UN convention on children's rights, asylum and immigration issues, which has knock-on effects for unaccompanied asylum seekers.

Children are the most powerless people in society. They have no vote-a debate on the voting age would be useful-no voice and a particular vulnerability. Children are extremely vulnerable to abuse, to having their views set aside or ignored and to being entirely overlooked.

Mr. Öpik : I agree with the implications of what the hon. Gentleman said-that the voting age should be reduced to 16. What is his view of the fact that the minimum wage is differential, so that young people have a lower minimum wage than older people? I have always believed that that inequality is difficult to justify.

Mr. Dawson : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not want to spend too much time on that. I was not making the case for reducing the voting age to 16, although a debate on the subject would be useful. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raised is important to young people and it should be properly debated with, by and for them.

The Government's aspirations are inconsistent with what is happening on the ground. I shall return to my constituency on Thursday, when Lancashire county council will debate the closure of an important resource for young people at Fylde community centre, in the wake of a decision to withdraw from involvement with another important resource for children at Nazareth house, Lancaster. To make progress, we need co-ordination between the aims and aspirations of the Government and the people who deliver the service. If those people know what the Government want them to do and if they have the tools and resources for the job,

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they will be able to provide the high standard of service that young people need and rigorous action should be taken if they do not.

It is essential that we have joined-up government at the top. I welcome the new Cabinet Committee on children and young people's services and I welcome the living embodiment of the co-ordination of children's services who is here today. I would like the Government to place much more emphasis on the United Nations convention on children's rights. It is a document of fundamental importance that is accepted almost universally throughout the world. We do not need to reinvent the wheel in relation to children's rights because the UN convention sets out a seminal statement to which we should constantly refer. We should ensure that it is embodied in the work that is undertaken with children.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need massive cultural change in this country. We do not just need a Government who are committed to children, as this Government palpably are. We need a strong independent voice. We need someone who will stand up for children, who will be known to them and who will take on the Government on their behalf. We must ensure that the complaints mechanisms that protect children are there and that the participation of children is promoted, developed and enhanced. I will therefore introduce another private Member's Bill for a children's rights commissioner for England, which would fit in with everything that the Government are trying to do and would reflect what is happening in Wales. If we do not hear this week that we will have a children's rights commissioner and as the Government are not going to keel over in the face of a private Member's Bill, it would be a fine principle on which to go to the country whenever the general election comes along.

I will not say much more, but I repeat that this is an extremely important subject. Our society can only benefit from the meaningful participation of children and young people in issues that relate to their lives. We must get more resources down to ground level and the communities in which they live. If we do that our society will build itself an ever firmer foundation for the future.

10.2 am

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I apologise in advance to the Minister: I have another commitment that I must get to so I shall keep my comments brief. I have three points to make. First, as I said in my intervention, I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to participate in the UK Youth Parliament. It is a tremendously important initiative and an opportunity for people to feel re-enfranchised. It is one of the great achievements of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). Without it there would be no clear mechanism to try to reintegrate young people's thinking in British politics.

Secondly, and this is another point that has already been alluded to, I believe that we should reduce the age of voting to 16. Some people argue that 16-year-olds are not sufficiently responsible to make the decision, but when one looks at the quality of past decision making--this is an entirely party political point--we should

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certainly trust 16-year-olds to be every bit as competent to decide whom they want to be governed by as those over 18. It is often forgotten that 16-year-olds can pay tax, can get married and can fight and die for this country. Surely they should be able to vote for the Government who send them to war. More to the point, a 16-year-old can get married, but can be prosecuted for buying his bride a drink. That is a ridiculous contradiction. If we regard 16 as the age of adulthood, let us make it consistent and ensure that 16-year-olds can also vote in British parliamentary elections.

My third point is the one that I made in my intervention on the minimum wage. It is iniquitous that we should have two minimum wage levels: one for the young and one for those who are older. The United Nations convention states clearly that people doing the same job should have the same income. It has never been clear to me why a 16-year-old can expect to be paid less than a 24-year-old for the same job. The Minister must consider whether the Government really want to sustain a differential minimum wage.

It is great that we are having this discussion and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) on securing the debate. However, we must ensure, when we discuss youth policy, that it is not a separate debate but one that fits into the context of Government policy and thinking. The Minister has a big job to do in focusing the Government's thinking, and he has my party's support in that respect.

10.5 am

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I shall be brief, as other hon. Members are keen to speak. First, I agree that it is important that all Government policy takes youth matters into account and I welcome the Minister's appointment as Minister for Young People, to ensure that the policies for young people are co-ordinated. It is most important to involve young people in the planning of services and to consult them about all aspects of Government policy. It is easy to say that we must involve young people, but it is hard work. It costs money and involves much preparation to include young people in decision making.

I support the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) for a children's commissioner for England. Peter Clarke was appointed as Children's Commissioner for Wales as a result of an amendment to the Care Standards Bill. We hope that there will be a children's commissioner measure in this Session.

We in Wales are pleased to have a children's commissioner. It is important to state how he was appointed because it shows how children can be involved in decision making. Seventeen young people were involved in the appointment and much work and preparation was done. The first day was spent working with the young people, helping them to prepare their method of questioning the prospective candidates and a weekend was spent interviewing the short-listed candidates for the post. The 17 young people were heavily involved in that process.

When the appointment was made, there were two young people with full voting rights on the appointment panel, as well as the political representatives, who voted for their choice as children's commissioner. It is probably the first time that young people have been so

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involved in a public appointment. I worked in the voluntary sector before I became a Member of Parliament and we struggled hard to involve young people in appointments and decision making. However, the appointment of the Children's Commissioner for Wales was a bold step. Those who were involved came from a wide section of young people and some were from disadvantaged communities. They felt very involved in the selection process and said that it had been an historic weekend. I am very pleased that a Children's Commissioner for Wales has been appointed and I support my hon. Friend's calls for a children's commissioner for England.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister's appointment as Minister for Young People. How will he relate to the devolved Assembly? Home Office issues are not devolved to Wales, so it is important to have joined-up Home Office and youth justice policies for all young people. Will the Minister address the matter when he sums up?

It is important--but not easy--to involve young people. In appointing a Children's Commissioner in Wales, we have managed to involve young people in a fairly unique way for a public appointment. How will the Minister work with the devolved Assembly on issues that are not devolved?

10.10 am

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) on securing the debate. I am pleased to say that I agree with--and endorse--almost all that he said, including reducing the age of voting to 16. We are introducing citizenship education in schools, so the accusation that when children reach 16 they do not know about the political process will not be valid. They will be able to enact what they have learnt when they reach the mandatory school leaving age. The Government are on track for pursuing that and the all-party group supports them.

Given the short time that is available, I shall raise only two further matters, which have not been mentioned so far. First, I am delighted that a Minister for Young People and an interdepartmental group have now been appointed. I submitted a paper to the Government entitled "The future of services for young people"--which civil servants have no doubt tucked away in their files--asking for precisely that. A Minister for young people and a ministerial group were achieved three years after the paper was published. Will the two measures that I propose today take another three years to implement?

We may be moving towards joined-up thinking between Government Departments at a national level, but what happens at a local level, between local authorities, social services, health authorities, schools and the police in terms of consulting and involving young people? To underpin national co-ordination of youth policy, we need local co-ordination--local youth development plans. The youth service should be placed at the heart of establishing those plans, by carrying out an audit of local needs and services and by preparing and developing programmes for young people to fill known gaps. At local level, it is easier to involve young people directly in decision making. My first plea therefore is for local enactment of what we are creating through inter-ministerial contacts at national level.

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Secondly, we have discussed political enfranchisement when young people make the transition from childhood to adulthood and Connexions, mentoring support and training as they approach adulthood. Many young people from families on low incomes lack cash. I should like the Government to encourage those young people to develop an asset--a bond or an account with cash. The Government could start by giving every baby £250. In 18 years' time, the amount would have grown, and those young people would have the same as many youngsters from high-income families take for granted: the lump sum they need when they enter the world of work to spend on a house, furniture, a car, training or on building their own business. An asset redistribution policy for young people would give every young person access to a capital sum. That is quite a visionary idea, and I am aware that we are nowhere near considering it yet, but I hope that our new Minister for Young People, in his central role within the Government, will encourage such energetic thinking.

10.13 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): It is right that we should give this subject a wider profile, so in the spirit of the debate, which was helpfully introduced by the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), I shall be brief, to allow the Minister to respond.

As a former Minister with responsibilities for the matter, I recognise many of the constraints under which the Minister operates--such as the different agencies and the interaction of statutory and voluntary services. I considered the Government's Connexions proposals in Standing Committee and, as so often with their claims about joined-up government, I feel that it is a long way from a few aspirations in a press release to effective implementation. I hope that the Minister will not regard that comment as especially partisan, but will take account of the views and concerns of professionals, notably those of the Community and Youth Workers Union, with which we had close contact during the passage of the legislation. I have read the report of what was said about Connexions at its autumn conference, which suggests that it continues to have reservations about, among other considerable matters, the absence of a blueprint and clear purpose for the Connexions service and a proper qualifications framework--and, I would add, a remuneration structure. There is also concern about the fuzzy boundary between professional competence in traditional youth work and in the new service, with its personal advisers.

Those professionals are also concerned, as I am, to probe further the relations between the Connexions unit of the DFEE at Moorfoot in Sheffield--I should explain, for those unfamiliar with the structure, that that is on the employment side--the existing DFEE youth service unit in London, which is based firmly in education, and, of course, the Minister's new children and young people's unit, which reports to him in his interesting translational reassignment as a DFEE Minister for that purpose. As agencies of central Government those need to be joined up, but I should like to put to the Minister a few questions of my own that are primarily geared to Connexions. However, have implications for his new unit and for the continuing delivery of services by local authorities and others.

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Is the Minister satisfied that the complex Connexions proposals are on time and on target? Will he assure us that the six pilots will be properly evaluated and their lessons learned, because the timetable is very compressed? Has the Minister worked out a proper relationship between the continuing activities of local education authorities in relation to youth and community education and those of the Connexions service? For example, does he have in mind a common service framework and standards? More generally, does he accept the importance of making informal education through experienced and dedicated youth workers available to all young people, not just to a section of them--a point to which the hon. Member for Gedling referred in his opening remarks?

Does the Minister accept that the services of a personal adviser should not be mandatory, but that all young people should continue to have access to proper independent careers guidance, regardless of their degree of social exclusion or otherwise? All young people should have the right to what I would call an MOT, which can match their educational attainments with career opportunities, independent of any service provider in the area.

I have no problem with the Minister's wish to help the one in 11 young people who are identified as socially excluded in the "Bridging the Gap" report. That is a useful working assumption, but there would be real dangers in red-lining such people for special treatment, particularly where the claims and voices of authority--including the police force--are involved, instead of trying to blend them back into the mainstream through a variety of informal activities in which all young people can share. In other words, if they are seen to be different, they may well behave, or continue to behave, in as anti-social manner.

I am a strong believer that those whom the present Prime Minister once memorably described as "the forces of Conservatism" should stick together. I make no apology for closing with an admirable paragraph from a Community and Youth Workers Union paper that I saw recently:

10.18 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng ): This is an important debate. This Chamber owes my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) a debt of gratitude. My hon. Friend will recall a visit I paid to Gedling some time ago when I saw at first hand his involvement not only with young people, but with voluntary sector organisations in his constituency and with issues--which were aired this morning--relating to social exclusion and disadvantage among young people. He brings to this discussion his deep and broad experience and wisdom, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the matter to our attention.

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If I may, I shall begin by discussing something that is central to getting right the co-ordination of youth policy: the question, which all hon. Members who have spoken today have raised, of how to involve young people. We are determined to put young people and youth policy at the heart of our plans--not simply in order to combat social exclusion, but to build strong and sustainable communities. If we are to get matters right, I have no doubt that we must find ways to engage young people in the political process and policy development. All too often, young people have been ignored in that respect and policy has been the poorer for that.

Some errors that were made over many years in respect of young people in care would not have occurred had we as a society been willing to listen to their voices and experience. We did not listen, but it was they who paid a terrible price and our society is still living with the consequences of that failure. That is why Quality Protects--the Government's important response to the crisis in care for young people--ensures that, for the first time, young people's voices are heard in the care system. Quality Protects is already beginning to make a difference. I have a central responsibility to ensure that a way is found to involve young people in the work of the children and young people's unit and in the processes of government. If we fail to do that, we will be unlikely to get matters right.

The problem is a difficult one. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) is right to stress that it will require resources. I am here to say that we will find the resources necessary to enable the voices of children and young people to be heard throughout Government. It is a question of capacity building and of getting right the infrastructure by drawing on the relevant experience of the voluntary sector in a way that will enable young people to access government and policy making at various levels. We are drawing together proposals in respect of access at a national level and we shall shortly make them known. Young people must also have access at a regional level, so that they can contribute to the increasing importance and significance of regional activity, and at a local level.

My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) made the important point that we must establish how our central Government initiative, which might not necessarily fit at local government level, can be reflected in an appropriate way. I look forward to discussing with local government representatives how best to do that. Following last year's launch, which was attended by a number of my hon. Friends, we have embarked on a series of regional seminars to introduce to a wider audience the children's fund and the operation of the children and young people's unit. Indeed, I shall address one in London this afternoon. The dialogue with local authorities, the voluntary sector and young people has therefore already begun, so that the project can grow at a local level. That will be especially important in rolling out both the preventive element of the children's fund and the local networks, because the working together of those two aspects will guarantee the success of the project. At the heart of the matter is the capacity of children and young people to make effective input into the partnerships that we want to see develop locally in order to deliver change.

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I shall deal with some of the specific points that hon. Members raised. There is an important job to be done in co-ordinating the work of Connexions, sure start and the children and young people's unit. That will be achieved through the ministerial sub-committee that I chair, which involves departmental Ministers and draws on expertise from the voluntary and statutory sectors and a wider forum of children and young people. At Secretary of State level, the Cabinet Committee upon which the Minister with responsibility for sure start and I sit is designed to ensure effective co-ordination across Government. Moreover, the unit itself is structured so that, although it is housed in the Department for Education and Employment, it includes civil servants from all the relevant Departments, as well as people seconded from the voluntary sector. I want to see people seconded from the statutory and private sectors too, because that will ensure that we build the right kinds of partnerships on the ground.

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West): I should like to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister about the treatment of child asylum seekers. Can he confirm that although the United Nations convention on the rights of the child gives the United Kingdom a reservation in respect of asylum and immigration, we nevertheless satisfy the requirements of the convention? As several Departments share responsibility for that matter, who has overall responsibility for ensuring that our commitments are met?

Mr. Boateng : I am satisfied that we are fulfilling our convention responsibilities. My hon. Friends the Minister of State in the Home Office and the Minister of State in the Department of Health work closely on those issues.

The structures that we develop to ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard must not merely reflect existing patterns of involvement of young people--which too often tend to be biased towards the articulate and privileged--but include children and young people with the experience of being refugees from migrant and disadvantaged families, so that their voices can also be heard at that level. In giving my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks, I stress the importance of ensuring that the exercise is inclusive of all children and young people.

Hon. Members asked about the way in which our proposals link with youth offending. Yes, there are links, but I cannot overstate the importance of ensuring that we do not allow any one Department to feel that it has sole ownership of the exercise. Although I am a Home Office Minister, this is not a Home Office exercise. It is a Government exercise that is designed to put children and young people at the heart--

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair ): Order. We must move to the next debate.

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