The chair of the UK Youth Parliament tells Anabel Unity Sale how his upbringing has made him determined to give young people a voice
Oxford is famous for grooming the leaders of the future. So it should come as no surprise that the chair of the UK Youth Parliament is an undergraduate at the university’s Pembroke College.
But don’t think 21-year-old Chris Bennetts (pictured right), the parliament’s chair, is another David Cameron or Tony Blair. Unlike many of his fellow students, many of whom have come from more privileged backgrounds, Bennetts was brought up on a council estate in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, by his single mother, who proved a great influence on him.
“She brought me up to believe in myself and that I could be whatever I wanted,” he says. “She gave me direction and the tools to think for myself.”
In 2004, the history and politics student did just that and stood for election as member of the UK Youth Parliament for Calderdale. “I’d always been interested in the political process, how decisions are made and what people think and why,” he says. “They were looking for candidates and I thought ‘I can do that’.”
His message of listening to and acting upon the views of young people was a popular one and he was elected with one-third of the votes cast. Bennetts faced a steep learning curve in understanding the machinery of local youth services. This was despite a long-standing interest in how young people became involved in their communities – including the founding of T3, the youth wing of the Halifax Thespians, which engages young people with drama and theatre.
Bennetts set about organising meetings with Calderdale Council’s leader, chief executive and lead council member for education. He also sat on the community services scrutiny panel and the children and young people scrutiny panel, and shadowed the detached youth work team to meet young people in Halifax.
One of his proudest achievements was campaigning against the council’s use of its antisocial behaviour dispersal powers (whereby groups of two or more young people can be dispersed). “I spent six months, in every committee I sat in, raising this. I would not shut up about it.” His tactic was successful and the council no longer uses the dispersal power, something Bennetts and his fellow young people are pleased about. “They weren’t yobs they’d just never had anyone really listen to them before.”
This week is National Youth Work Week with the theme: empowering young people. Bennetts is keen for more young people to become involved in their communities and says “the level of disengagement is shocking”. Listening to what young people say about their lives is important for decision-makers and practitioners alike, he adds.
In January 2007 Bennetts became co-chair of UKYP, having joined its board of trustees in November 2005, and he became its first sole chair last January.
Bennetts is eager to help shape how UKYP evolves over the next three years, with particular reference to improving the social diversity of its members. “We are often labelled as being full of white middle class boys but 53% of members are female and 23% are black and minority ethnic people.” He is keen to appoint a head of diversity and wants everyone involved with UKYP to champion inclusion and diversity.
Bennetts would like to see the young people who work with the UKYP’s projects become more involved in what it does. “This stems from my background – I’m aware some young people are voiceless.”
On his own future, Bennetts is less sure. “I don’t know if I want to go into [national] politics but I can see myself going into the political system I’d like to continue working with young people.” A career in social care, then? Perhaps, says Bennetts, adding he is considering applying for citizenship and humanities courses to gain a postgraduate certificate in education.
He adds: “I want to engage young people but I’ve not worked out how to do it yet.”