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Empowerment to the people

A healthy society is made up of people who care about its future. People who reject the "don't care" culture, who are not always asking: "What's in it for me?" Many of us are lucky. We feel that our community is there to support us. Some are not so lucky. Some, because of lack of resources, education and employment, feel alone and excluded from society.

Fighting social exclusion is at the heart of the Government's policies for social renewal. We cannot afford to waste the talents and energies of those who feel cut off from the community around them.

The social exclusion unit was launched by the Prime Minister on December 8. He has described it as "in many ways the defining difference between ourselves and the previous administration". It will promote co-operation between departments and agencies. There will be new strategies to harness what is being done through Welfare to Work; on educational disadvantage, public health, social housing, youth justice and job creation.

It will contribute to rebuilding communities, revitalising our democracy, and creating a strong society. I see four strands to this project.

First, the promotion of greater understanding of the rights and responsibilities that underpin a civilised, democratic society. Second, education and training in the skills and knowledge needed by active citizens who are both willing and able to participate effectively in their community and in wider social and political debate. Third, genuine opportunities for citizens to gain experience using the skills they need to be real, practising democrats. And finally, modernising our political system so that power is returned to the people.

Our goal is to create a nation of able, informed and empowered citizens who recognise that the path to greatest personal fulfilment lies through active involvement in strengthening their society.

The Government recognises that good citizens are not born, they are made; and that schools have a vital role to play.

Last November, David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, announced the establishment of an advisory group on education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools. The group will give the Government its initial advice in March and its final recommendations by August. Our intention is to improve the status of this area of learning.

Citizenship education should foster respect for law, justice and democracy. It should nurture concern for the common good and encourage independent thought. It should provide people with essential skills: listening, arguing, making a case; and accepting the greater wisdom or force of an alternative view.

One of the best ways of putting the theories of citizenship into practice is through voluntary work in the community. Our hope is that, from the summer, the Millennium Volunteers programme announced by David Blunkett in October will support and encourage young people to make a sustained commitment.

We believe the self-esteem, self-confidence and employability of young people grows as a result of voluntary activities they undertake.

The programme will be a powerful counter-balance to the "don't care" culture. If all goes according to plan, in time tens of thousands will participate each year. Everyone aged 16 to 25 will be eligible, regardless of whether they are employed or unemployed, in education or not.

The programme will need to capture the imagination of young people themselves. Our hope is that the experiences they share will lead them to continue giving to their communities throughout their adult lives.

Alienation from public or political life and ignorance provides fertile ground for apathy and disillusionment. We can have no hope of renewing our society if we fail to overcome the reluctance of our young people to engage in political or public activity.

Lord Irvine of Laird is the Lord Chancellor. This is extracted from a speech made to the Law Society last week

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