The case of Paris Brown shows the need for real youth representation

Rather than hand-picked individuals like Brown, we need elected youth panels with genuine legitimacy.

It’s been a tough week for Paris Brown. Britain’s first "youth police and crime commissioner" is hardly the first to be on the receiving end of a Mail on Sunday hatchet job. But at 17, she’s among the youngest.

The "foul mouthed teen crime tsar", so called by the same paper, found square miles of newsprint devoted to her foolish tweets, just days after her appointment was announced. Soon after it emerged that her own Kent police would be investigating her offensive comments, she resigned.
 
What lessons can be learned from this sorry saga? Those cynics who thought young people can’t make a difference might have noticed that this teenager has brought the Mail out in condemnation of racism and homophobia. Brown herself should rightfully have learned that prejudice and community cohesion are incompatible. And teens across the country might learn to think again before broadcasting their innermost urges to make hash brownies, as Dorian Lynskey discussed on these pages on Monday.
 
Yet there’s one lesson we’ll no doubt hear even more about: the folly of letting young people near responsibility. At the Telegraph, Jake Wallis Simons says the saga gives us "a valuable insight into just how stupid it is to let teenagers anywhere near heavy machinery, the wine cellar, or a county police force." Should her role have been offered to adults instead? Brown’s appointment might have seemed unusual, but "youth councils" and national and devolved "youth parliaments" have sprung up over the last decade, shadowing the work of various branches of government.
 
Who better to advise on their concerns than young people themselves? Or so the logic goes. The logic that will now be derided by the commentariat, with the Brown case held up as evidence that teenagers couldn’t keep The Great British Bake Off on the right side of the law, let alone advise the police.
Yet if politicians such as Kent police commissioner Ann Barnes see their visions of intergenerational harmony implode, they only have themselves to blame. Giving £15,000 and a chauffer to one carefully-selected sixth-former might grab headlines, but it is unlikely to reduce discontent at a time of sky-high unemployment. Just as they distracted Brown and her fellow applicants, these boons allowed the newspapers to distract from the inconvenient truth that Brown’s role was purely consultative, and carried no powers of its own.
 
A properly-constituted – or even elected – panel of young people could have a far greater claim to representation and legitimacy than a hand-picked individual. But just as this government has decided that public recognition (although you wouldn’t think it looking at voter turnout in police commissioner elections) is more important than effective policing, so politicians of all ilks have determined that gimmicks outweigh genuine commitment to youth representation. Just look at how many local authorities boast a solitary "young mayor".

What they don’t reckon on, somewhat irresponsibly, is that the culture that affords powered individuals more media coverage than collective bodies can also subject vulnerable young people to a thorough trashing.

If anything can ram the fallacy of tokenism down the throats of its propagators, perhaps this will. I’m still sceptical. Some years ago, while still at school, I was elected to the London borough of Camden’s first youth council. After some angling from members, it seemed the authority were breaking the mould and taking devolution seriously: we were handed control of a six-figure budget.

But when we proposed spending it on capital projects to fill gaps in schools provision, such as replenishing dilapidated school libraries, a parade of self-described "youth participation co-ordinators" came before a meeting to say it was a "waste of money". It later emerged they had thought we would spend the money on ceremonial chains and "wristbands".

At the time, Guardian columnist Marcel Berlins cited the Camden story as evidence that young people "cannot make the kind of informed decisions that grown-ups can". But if it tells us anything, it is that when given the time of day and not just lip-service, our youth can come up with inspiring ideas for public services.

The youth council won control over the budget after threats of resignation and local media pressure. But the scare of young people challenging their adult counterparts was enough to ensure Camden council reverted to tokenism next time round, replacing the 36-strong council with just two individuals.

Paris Brown was not the only victim of the media storm: countless others will think twice before putting themselves up for public service. But far from being a demonstration that politics has been caught in a thoughtless "cult of youth", this episode brings to light just another case of young people being fobbed off with tokenism.

Why not forget the salary and the car and let the young people of Kent decide how to spend the money? But of course, that would run the risk of the kids getting uppity.

Paris Brown resigned as Kent's youth and police crime commissioner after her offensive Tweets were unearthed.

 Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.