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10 April 2013

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.

By Conrad Landin

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.

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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.