Kevin Curley: The Paris Brown case proved that we still don't respect young people

Others who come forward will be given the same treatment until we regard young people as full citizens, says our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

In March, when Paris Brown, aged 17, was appointed as Britain's first youth commissioner, it seemed to me a real boost for the idea of youth participation.

Here was a teenager being asked to influence police and crime policy in Kent on behalf of young people, whose voices are rarely heard in public policy-making. Barely three weeks later, Paris was forced to resign after the discovery that she had written some offensive tweets a couple of years earlier. Her boss, Ann Barnes, Kent's police and crime commissioner, initially stood by her but then surrendered in the face of a red-top media campaign.

I really felt for Paris. When I was her age, studying for A levels in a Lincolnshire village, the only newspaper I ever read was the Daily Express. I recall going door to door collecting signatures in support of Duncan Sandys MP's campaign to bring back hanging for murder. I think there's a strong chance that, like Paris, I would have been an offensive tweeter. Five years ago, I frequently had to challenge my daughter's use of the word 'gay' to mean 'stupid'. She is now a liberal young woman with a keen commitment to equalities issues.

It's a pity Paris didn't get more support from her employer. Keji Okeowo, who runs the Young Facilitators programme for the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, took a different view of Paris's offences: "I'd have called her in, challenged her language, discussed what her real views were and advised her how to make more sensitive use of social media. She deserved a second chance."

Away from the media spotlight, Sian Ponting runs Rural Youth Voice in south Leicestershire. She is impressed by the group of teenagers who are working with seven parish councils to decide how to use a community benefit fund derived from a wind farm development. "These young people are debating how best to use the new fund for the benefit of the whole community," she says. "Youth participation is not just about meeting the needs of young people." Lee Drake, aged 15, an active member of the group, reinforces Sian's point: "The £44,000 each year is to help any local groups for people of any age. I've been listened to and I feel positive about being involved."

A model of excellence is provided by Leap Confronting Conflict, a charity that deals with conflict between youths. Thomas Lawson, its chief executive, says: "Youth participation is embedded in every aspect of our work at Leap. By listening to young people, we are able to improve our work."

Examples of good practice will continue to be rare, and young people who come forward will be given the Paris Brown treatment until we regard them as full citizens and prepare them for participation in civic life. We need to improve political and citizenship education in schools and make it compulsory for students in years 10 and 11. And we should lower the voting age to 16 for all UK elections.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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