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Hilary Armstrong on tackling the big challenges facing today’s generation of children and teenagers

We’ve all been young – even if some of us have almost forgotten what it was like! And sometimes, this means we think we know what life is like for young people growing up in the UK today.

The reality is different. Some stories are good. Far fewer young people smoke, and they spend more money on mobile phones than on drink. Many more than before will get qualifications at school and go onto university, and there are fewer teenage pregnancies.

At the same time however, there are significant challenges. Social media has opened up incredible opportunities for young people, allowing them to self-publish poems and books, stream music, and communicate with friends around the world. But they can also get bullied, be subject to grooming and exploitation, and suffer a different form of loneliness – one laced with insecurity and lack of self-worth.

The latest ‘Macquarie Youth Index’ from The Princes’ Trust reveals happiness and confidence among young people are at their lowest since measurements began nine years ago. And the number who do not feel in control of their lives has increased by a third in the past year alone. 

We know from a range of evidence that mental health challenges have really increased in recent years. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health reports that, of 5 to 19 year olds in 2017, one in eight had a diagnosed mental health disorder, and one in twenty had more than one. We also know that half of adult mental health problems start before the age of 14, and 75% before they turn 24.

In addition to such diagnosed problems, many organisations working with young people tell stories of the additional challenges young people face. Sometimes from academic pressure or social media, but also where they come from impoverished families or have experienced trauma from domestic abuse. And there are many other greater challenges too.

The number of children and young people ending up in care has risen to very difficult levels. We also know that too many of them face difficulties in the care system experience. Too many end up in the criminal justice system, or in exploitative relationships when they try to move on.

The rise in knife crime meanwhile, has shown how vulnerable some young people are – particularly in poorer neighbourhoods – to gang leaders and drug traffickers, with the perpetrators often having been victims themselves.

And increased homelessness is having severe consequences for some young people, who – with their families – are being moved miles away from where they were living. This more often than not involves working out a new school, new sets of friends, and getting to know a new area. All of that adds to those youngsters’ vulnerability.

All of this is happening within a context of diminishing opportunities to find support, and to work things out for yourself. Since 2010, youth service spending has declined by 64%. Having been a youth and community worker, and trained others in those roles, I know the opportunities that can be opened up for young people. I also know the safe spaces needed to work things out and challenge yourself.

Young people have ambitions and want a better world, decent homes and jobs. Yet we build so many barriers rather than listen, understand new ways of communicating, and enable them to make a contribution. They also need to be safe.

Government is not the whole answer but its sets the context and can close down or help set up opportunities. As things stands, there seems little chance of ministers recognising this – let alone engaging effectively with young people in ways that will ultimately benefit us all. 

Baroness Hilary Armstrong of Hill Top is a Labour Peer 

Published 12th December 2018

Young ones

Hilary Armstrong on tackling the big challenges facing today’s generation of children and teenagers

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Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Monday 10th December 2018

Having had an unexpected opportunity to watch the Prime Minister delivering her statement, I listened with great care and have also read through.

I was hoping that there would be some greater clarity about the PM’s and Government’s intentions.

Yet, the statement we have just heard provided less clarity rather than more. The only reason the PM has given for denying MPs the opportunity to vote on the deal “it would be rejected by a significant margin”.

So what next?

The statement says the Cabinet will step up preparations for no deal. Yet, the so-called preparations to date aren’t going too well – the Government is already behind on legislation and Statutory Instruments. 

This is not strong nor stable government. Despite the chaos unfolding around her, the Prime Minister is in denial. She has said that she has “absolutely no doubt that this is the right deal”.

The Prime Minister seems to be saying to Brexit supporters that unless they support her deal, they could get another referendum and lose – and it would be divisive. Does the Prime Minister not realise the country is divided already?

Then to those against Brexit, that unless they support her deal, we’ll crash out with no deal. And how catastrophic would that be.

The Prime Minister is trying to alarm and frighten MPs in into backing her. Hardly a great strategy and not a great advert for the deal.

The Noble Lady, as Leader, will understand her responsibilities and duty to this House, in answering for the Prime Minister in such unprecedented circumstances, and I know she will want to be helpful.

Given that the Cabinet has discussed this issue today, and she has spoken with the Prime Minister can she give any indication of the timetable when the Commons meaningful vote will take place?

My information is that the Prime Minister would only tell Cabinet ministers – probably because they leak – that it would have to be before the statutory deadline of 21 January 2019. That’s not an answer – for that to be the case – the Commons would be unable to conduct any substantial business before such a vote.

This attitude is in danger of deepening the constitutional crisis that we are hurtling towards.

So, is there likely to be a vote before Xmas? And can the NL also tell the House: What are the Prime Minister’s intentions at the European Council meeting this week regarding the Northern Ireland backstop?

Is she seeking changes that risk opening up other issues, or merely clarification?  If it’s the latter, why couldn’t she have sought that already without delaying the Parliamentary process?

Finally, having spoken to her today, does the Noble Lady have confidence in the Prime Minister to be able to squeeze concessions out of the EU 27, given they consider the matter closed – without her shifting from her red lines?

Or does she think that is stretching the season of goodwill just a little too far? 

-Ends-

Baroness Angela Smith is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Speech in response to PM's statement on the Brexit meaningful vote

Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Monday 10th December 2018

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George Foulkes on the urgent need to review the UK’s patchwork democracy and power structures

Devolution within the UK is an incoherent hotchpotch which leaves many people feeling more distant than ever from the decision-making processes of government.

The most obvious problem is that the English regions, with many of the same economic and social issues as Scotland and Wales, have no parallel structure of devolved government which allows them to do things differently, according to their distinctive needs.

When we emerge from Brexit there will be a greater need than ever to bring a divided country together. A key to that could be a coherent strategy which gives equal voices to every part of our United Kingdom.

On Thursday, I will lead a debate in the Lords aimed at establishing a Constitutional Convention that listens to people in every part of the UK and seeks to address the existing democratic deficits.

Creating a Convention will be a Labour manifesto pledge with the remit to “examine and advise on the way Britain works at a fundamental level”. But there is no reason why this should be the left to one party – or why we should not get on with the work now.

Existing attempts at devolution within England are patchwork and unsatisfactory. It has given us catchy concepts such as ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Metro Mayors’. At Parliament meanwhile, David Cameron’s ill-conceived ‘English Votes for English Laws’ has been a damp squib.

‘Metro Mayors’ formed part of Cameron’s devolution attempts and led to a new breed of elected Mayors for eight city-regions. Although the lack of transferred powers have caused frustration. Plus much of England is of course, outside this network.

A Constitutional Convention would address the imbalances which this piecemeal approach has created. Unless the picture is considered as a whole, it is unlikely that any other route will lead to a coherent outcome that meets both needs and reasonable expectations.

There is a precedent. I was a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which, between 1989 and 1995, brought together Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and Communist parties, as well as representatives of the Scottish TUC, local government, churches and civic society. Only the Conservatives and SNP stayed away.

The mission was to create a blueprint for Scottish devolution. When Labour was elected in 1997, the work of the Convention provided the foundations for the Scotland Act that created the Scottish Parliament in 1999. While not perfect, the Convention demonstrated what could be done if all areas of society come together early on. Rather than legislation starting from a blank sheet of paper once a government is elected.

A new Constitutional Convention post-Brexit could advise on how decision-making can best be devolved, where appropriate, throughout England as well as the rest of the UK.  It cannot simply be a case – in England, any more than Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland – of powers repatriated from Brussels going straight to Whitehall and staying there.

Such a Convention across party lines could start to make sense of an extremely complex network of powers and responsibilities. It could also make coherent recommendations about how the UK is governed – with proper respect paid to each of its nations and regions.

With the right structures in place, it could also form the basis for the Lords to be replaced by an Upper House which reflects the whole of the UK. The months and years ahead are going to be difficult but they can be used constructively to advance democracy and bring it closer to the people we represent. 

Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock is a Labour Peer and former Scotland Minister 

Published 10th December 2018

Conventional thinking

George Foulkes on the urgent need to review the UK’s patchwork democracy and power structures

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