'We are respecting young people'

At 34, Ivan Lewis is one of the younger MPs. How appropriate, then, that he's the minister for young people. To get the best out of teenagers you must listen to them, he tells Richard Garner
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Whoever thought we might one day get a minister for teenagers in Whitehall? Well, now we have, and his name is Ivan Lewis. Known officially as the minister for young people, he has no hesitation in defining himself as minister for teenagers – the 13-to 19-year-olds.

A key part of his brief is to listen to young people and to find out what they think of the services provided for them and how these services can be improved. That means he is, in some senses, a government flak-catcher.

"It can lead to some fairly robust discussions," Mr Lewis says. "For some young people I think there is a feeling about authority figures generally. Young people think they don't understand their needs and don't care about them. They feel alienated, and that there are not sufficient activities for youngsters. But I can give a robust defence of what we are trying to do."

Mr Lewis is a brave man. His appointment last year is a measure of the worry in government circles about the alienation of today's youngsters from the democratic process. Mr Lewis hopes things are beginning to change; as an indication, he cites the plan to make lessons in citizenship compulsory from next September. This, he hopes, will give young people an insight into the way the country works. Then there is the new "matriculation diploma" for 19-year-olds proposed in the Green Paper on 14-to-19 education. The idea is to include in the diploma a section on young people's contributions towards extracurricular activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme or work done as "Millennium volunteers".

To promote the ideas in the Green Paper, a special young people's version was published earlier this week. "It aims to make the Green Paper relevant to them," Mr Lewis says. "Young people will have more choices as a result of the changes we are introducing. We are respecting young people's intelligence but trying to put the issues before them in a clear way."

There are signs that this listening approach is beginning to alter the way services for young people are delivered. The Connexions service for 13-to 19-year-olds, for example, is more than simply the careers service of old; it provides youngsters with counselling about a range of problems, from relationships to drugs.

So far only 15 of the 47 local area Connexions services are up and running, but the scheme will be fully operational within a year. As a start, the "customers" – the 13-to 19-year-olds – have been given a say in the design of local offices. They have also been given the chance to sit in on the interviewing process for counsellors and to give their views on the qualities needed for the job.

"There are a lot of reasons why young people may not do well in education," Mr Lewis says. "They can struggle, and they have changes in their lives. What is unique about Connexions is that it is there to support young people and help them cope with those changes. Young people may have problems with drugs or alcohol, or their own relationships. There will be trained counsellors to deal with these kind of issues."

Every 13-year-old will be given the opportunity to sit down with their parents and a counsellor and map out a career path. They will decide whether to take the vocational path or academic path.

The new minister for teenagers has a background in voluntary service before he became an MP (for Bury South) in 1997. His pedigree gives him insight into working with young people. Mr Lewis has his own experience of disillusion with the education system, having lost interest in school at the age of 14. He started work at that time as a volunteer, working with youngsters with learning disabilities and later became head of the charity, Jewish Social Services.

Another qualification is that he is young for a minister. At 34, he is the youngest person at the table when Education ministers meet. "I do try to put forward the views of young people," he says, before adding hastily: "Although I wouldn't want it to be thought that other ministers don't consider them."

In another sign that ministers are keen to develop services for young people, the government made an announcement recently giving new ring-fenced money to the youth services in the cash support settlement for local education authorities. "There are one or two excellent examples of what the youth service is trying to do," Mr Lewis says. "But we need to make it more modern and relevant to the needs of today's youngsters. We will be putting more into training and development of the youth service because there is a feeling that it has been devalued. We want people to have a clearer idea of what the youth service is there to do."

A recent Mori poll asked people to name their number-one concern. The answer was teenagers, according to Mr Lewis; they meant that they were concerned about youngsters hanging around with nothing constructive to do. One of the ways services for young people can be improved is by offering them the chance to use school facilities during the evenings and at weekends and holidays – particularly for sport.

"We won't force any schools to do this," he says. "But it is ludicrous at the moment that you have such prime facilities closed and lying idle for so much of the year. Some people won't want to go to a school building in the evening, and we have to have alternative facilities available for them. There are some excellent youth facilities out there for some of them, but it is patchy at the moment."

Ivan Lewis hopes that, by involving young people more in the decision-making process, he will give them more respect for the way the United Kingdom's democracy works.

The minister has two children, aged seven and five. "They understand that I'm an MP but I think they're a bit young to take it all in yet," he says. And they are a little confused about who he works with; one told a friend: "My dad works in London with Tony Bear."