'No one asks us what children think'

In the first of a series of reports, Anthony Horowitz meets Britons who are too young to vote to discuss the issues that could shape their futures – from gang culture to Cameron's bicycle
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Indy Politics

Somehow, whenever we hear about children, it's always bad news. Earlier this year, there was the Edlington case, where a 10-year-old and his 12-year-old brother were jailed for an "appalling and terrible" attack on two younger boys. And then, almost on cue, Jon Venables turned up, 27 now but forever aged 10 in the public mind, a blurred figure caught by the cameras at the New Strand shopping centre, leading toddler James Bulger to his death.

The two stories reinforced a growing sense that children – or at least, other people's children – don't quite belong to our world. Feral, evil, out-of-control, they all too quickly become the very definition of "broken Britain". Last year, I chaired a Women in Journalism (WIJ) conference called "Hoodies or Altar Boys?" which explored exactly this. From a sample of 1,000 British teenagers, 85 per cent said that newspapers portrayed them in a bad light. Even when the stories involved sport, only a quarter were positive.

And yet recent government legislation has only added to that sense of isolation. It is now forbidden to touch a child and parents have been threatened with arrest for taking photographs on sports day. Under the much derided Vetting and Barring Scheme, anyone wishing to work with children must now prove they are not latent paedophiles.

It sometimes seems to me that the next generation is growing up in a sort of bubble with its own language and culture (PlayStation, Facebook, MSN, texting, music) quite unconnected from the adult world. And I often wonder what they must make of us and all our preoccupations, particularly as we put them to the test of a general election. Iraq, MPs' expenses, the banking crisis, global warming, civil liberties ... how are these issues filtering down and does it even matter? After all, children don't vote. Why should they have a voice?

So, on the first of three expeditions for The Independent, I make my way to the offices of London Citizens in East London, a not-for-profit organisation which brings together more than 75,000 children under the age of 18, involving them directly in the democratic process with the aim of "social, economic and environmental justice".

Their successful campaigns include City Safe, which turns shops and offices into havens for any children who find themselves in trouble on the street. This originated in Lee, Lewisham, following the tragic and senseless murder of Jimmy Mizen in a baker's shop a day after his 16th birthday. The campaign started with 34 local traders in the same street, but its tentacles have spread all over London, and last November City Hall became the 200th official Safe Haven.

They have also campaigned for a Living Wage, with 40 per cent of London children now estimated to be below the poverty line. In a fine example of kid power, they invaded Whitehall on Halloween, bypassing the law that forbids us protesting anywhere near our politicians by dressing it up as trick-or-treating. In another piece of direct action, their parents took to the streets as unofficial lollipop ladies (and men) to encourage Greenwich council to provide the real thing.

The young people that I meet range from David, a seven-year-old black boy, tiny yet remarkably confident and articulate – to Abbas, 19, who is studying business and law, and is already a youth MP. My immediate impression is that this group has a strong allegiance to each other and to the children around them, but not to any specific political party.

They have given awards to Labour MP Jim Knight and to Ed Balls for their contributions to the Living Wage (although they're annoyed that Balls "couldn't be bothered" to turn up and collect his). But they have also been impressed by meetings with Boris Johnson and Steve Hilton, the Tory's head strategist, who spent six hours with the group ("a lovely guy, really down-to-earth, he was interested in what we do, he listened to us.") Abbas carries a picture of David Miliband, who impressed him at a meeting of the International Muslim Movement, but says he still might consider becoming a Conservative MP.

I play a word association game to gauge their feelings about the political spectrum and the results are instructive. Tony Blair brings the following: "Friend of Bush", "Gone", "Terrible" "Never stood up to George Bush", "Side kick to George Bush", "Rubbish". No mention of Iraq. He really is yesterday's news. They are surprisingly generous to Brown: "Ok", "The boss", "Got a lot on his plate", "He looks tired", "Stressed", "Bully".

This last word gets a round of laughter. They're not actually sure it's true. And if I were David Cameron, I would be worried by the response to his name (this meeting took place a month before the election was called): "I've heard of him but what does he do?" "Is he the guy who rides a bike to work but has someone behind him?", "He always criticises Brown", "He always says Brown is wrong." "A show-off", "Fussy". To be fair, two girls in the room liked him. One said he looked like a Prime Minister.

But in general, it's fair to say that their focus is more on local issues than national politics. Michael, for example, is 15, a handsome and serious black boy from Lewisham. He is driving an ambitious campaign to use the Astroturf pitches at his school to help the local community, renting them out to Millwall FC for training.

Not many of them want to become MPs, but Alexandra, aged nine, expresses the view of many when she says: "I'd like to be a community organiser, because you know the work you're doing is going to help the people around you." Bridy, aged nine, admires Barack Obama "because he started as a community organiser."

The sort of hatred of politicians that seems so popular is largely absent here. George, aged 15, from Lambeth, takes their side. "In the media, there's loads and loads of criticism. There's never any good press about politicians. It doesn't seem a fun environment." David sums up with the gravitas of an elder statesman: "Politicians are OK. They make the country better."

The issue of MPs expenses hasn't permeated through to this group. Although I guess I am talking to the children of middle-to-low income parents, when I mention moats, duck ponds, second homes and bath plugs, I get no reaction. Bankers are invisible.

Only footballers come in for some gentle criticism, not so much because of how much they earn, but how much more they earn than soldiers or nurses. "They've got everything," says Alexandra. "But they still behave badly." There is genuine puzzlement why someone like David Beckham, who earns millions, still has to sell perfume. But the overall view is generous, not envious. "People aren't helping each other enough", "There should still be rich people but we need to change the way money works."

So what are their greatest fears? Gangs, gun crime and knife crime are high on the agenda, perhaps unsurprisingly after the City Safe campaign. "There's no point calling the police; they don't do anything." Maddie, aged 13, mentions terrorism. Next to her, Bridy, aged 13, highlights a wider social awareness: "Every day we throw away so much food. People in Haiti need our help. But we keep throwing stuff away." Bullying, and in particular racial bullying, is clearly an issue. One girl worries most about her head teacher, who claims that London Citizens is a cult and wants to ban her from attending.

Abbas tells me that what he fears most is failing – and this prompts a burst of agreement around the table. "I get the feeling that we are expected to fail", "We hardly ever get any nice press." And suddenly we have come full circle and they are telling me what I had already learned at the WIJ conference. "The newspapers are very harsh," says Eva, 11. "They never ask children what they think. They just think it for them."

Michael runs through a whole list of stereotypes. If you're black, you're poor. If you're North Asian, you're good at computers. If you're South Asian, you're a terrorist. If you're from South London, you're badly behaved. He spits out the different pigeon-holes: chavs, hippies, indies, punks. "We're not part of the problem, we're part of the solution," Alex adds. "Everyone always blames the children. But it's not true."

Of course, it takes a special sort of child to want to give up two hours a month to talk about politics. But actually meeting this group, I find my own prejudices reinforced – which is to say that, as a children's author I have always leaned towards the innate goodness of young people and believed that their true character is much more upbeat and engaged than the media would have us believe.

When I see a photograph of Alexandra, chairing a meeting in front of hundreds of people at the O2 Centre ("It was quite scary but enjoyable") or Abbas addressing a packed auditorium at the Barbican, I recognise that London Citizens have tapped into a special sort of energy. Children even as young as seven have something to offer and we are foolish to ignore it.

Talking to young people reminds you of what you once were and perhaps what you set out to do. It seems to me that the cynical politicians pay lip service to "kids". The smart ones will remember that that's where they began.

About the author: Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz, the acclaimed childrens' author, has been writing since the age of eight, and professionally since the age of 20. In addition to the highly successful Alex Rider books, he has also written episodes of several popular TV crime series, including Poirot, Murder in Mind, Midsomer Murders and Murder Most Horrid. He has written a television series Foyle's War and wrote the libretto of a Broadway musical adapted from Dr. Seuss's book, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. He writes in a shed in his garden.

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