Summit talk starts young

Scotland's first youth summit covered the gamut of topics from drugs and poverty to employment and school buildings. John Cairney was there

THE INFORMALITY which characterised the first Scottish youth summit on Monday did not detract from the significance and importance of the occasion.

The Scottish Executive tried to catch the mood with a press release headed "Scotland's youth have summit to say" - complete with exclamation mark.

The foyer of the Motherwell Civic Centre resembled a cross between a secondary school common room and a pop concert as more than 200 young people aged 11 to 18 from all over Scotland assembled for this Executive-sponsored event.

On the agenda were work, drugs, unemployment and poverty. There were also eight other regional centres from Fort William to Campbeltown linked up to the main event by video-conferencing and e-mail, allowing another 1,000 youngsters to have their voices heard.

The impressive turn-out of 15 members of the Scottish Executive in their formal apparel must have envied the cool, in many senses, gear of the youngsters, on a day when the temperature in downtown Motherwell equalled that of Malaga. A sense of decorum did not prevent the politicos bouncing up and down during the afternoon "Mexican Wave" in the theatre auditorium.

Jim Wallace, the acting First Minister, was in sparkling form, observing that he had seen more of his ministerial colleagues in the previous 15 minutes than he had ever seen in the Parliament - although he did not clarify whether or not that was a complaint.

Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, acknowledged the culture gap in classic self-demeaning fashion by apologising for being"the third boring old fart" to talk to the assembled youngsters. The minister sensibly desisted from talking about how things were when he was a Greenock teenager in the Fifties, to tell his audience that, although he was part of the present and soon would be part of the past, they were part of the future.

The parts of the future readily responded. Steven Jack, a 21-year-old local boy made good, congratulated the Executive on its "drve" in promoting the event to consult young people.

Mr Jack, a former pupil of Dalziel High in Motherwell, is the chair of the first Scottish Youth Parliament, and holds out high hopes for the future. "We hope to build formal links with the Executive rather than the informal links we have at the moment, so that we have a direct channel to speak to ministers.

"When the youth parliament has its policy meetings we will have a raft of issues that young people have taken decisions on, based on grassroots views. We will then take these to the Executive and encourage it to implement them."

Just to prove that the youth parliament will be no push-over, he expressed some concern about the Executive's position on drugs. "I don't think that the Government is putting across the anti-drugs message as well as it could.

"There is a need to concentrate more on education and harm reduction, whereas at the moment there is a big focus on cracking down on trafficking and dealing. This is important, but I think that we must also put a big focus on the ground."

Another Member of the Scottish Youth Parliamen was encouraged by the presence of so many ministers, but warned against tokenism. Sarah Stock from Fife, aged 20, said she hoped that ministers would take forward what young people are saying, and not treat the youth summit as a publicity stunt. "It is important that people here today feel that they are being listened to as this will encourage them to speak more in the future about issues concerning them," she said.

Their concerns were not always what was expected. At the education workshop attended by Sam Galbraith, for example, only one person mentioned school buildings. Who? That's right - the man responsible for the buildings.

The youngsters had more pressing worries such as tuition fees and this year's Higher maths exam. The "warm" reception accorded a mention of the maths furore back in the main auditorium would not have been lost on the Minister and his 14 colleagues. It may well be that an official call to the Scottish Qualifications Authority could be the first concrete outcome of the summit.

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