When and how is it OK to consult with children and young people? 

This may seem like a straightforward question but actually, as these things often are, it is a little more complex than on first sight, as it involves balancing the rights of the child with our responsibilities for safeguarding children. It is also a question that may well be looked at differently from within the youth sector as opposed to by professionals who are outside of the traditional youth sector.

A Local Authority client has recently told us they want us to consult with teenagers as part of a wider community consultation about how money should be spent locally, given that providing support and services to teenagers is a top priority issue for residents. However, because of their guidelines around consulting with young people (in this case the Market Research Society code of practice), this means if we want to speak with under 16’s we either need to get formal (written) parental consent, or it has to take place in a school where a teacher (who has presumed responsibility) can give permission.

For various reasons, neither securing parental consent nor working via schools is feasible in this instance, and so in practice, this means that young people are being excluded from a community consultation where services for teenagers are a top priority theme for enquiry. This is clearly ridiculous and has highlighted this grey area where safeguarding procedures, and traditional research protocols actually go against the rights of the child and the best interests of the community (which would undoubtedly be to include and engage young people).

Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly establishes that every child has the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them, and to have their views taken seriously. This Article is referenced all over in guidance and toolkits around consulting young people, including even in Local Government Association guidance to councillors on engaging young people where they say:

“Elected representatives therefore have a duty to actively consider the views of children and young people in their work, and to create a culture where those views are forthcoming and given due weight.”

And yet, some Local Authorities, and it is likely other groups, clearly still stick to the old approach that to consult with under 16’s you need to first speak to their parents to get permission.

A more balanced approach can be seen in the Health sector where case law (and common sense) has dictated an approach, known as the Gillick Competency, where under 16’s are able to make their own decisions if they are deemed to be capable. Lord Scarman, in his summing up of the famous case of Gillick vs West Norfolk, (which went all the way to the House of Lords), said:

“parental right yields to the child’s right to make his own decisions when he reaches a sufficient understanding and intelligence to be capable of making up his own mind on the matter requiring decision.” Lord Scarman

And in the health sector, the Gillick Competency deals with much more serious issues than whether a young person can give their views in a community consultation – issues such as whether or not a child under age 16 can consent to their own medical treatment without parental consent or involvement.

Youth charities across the board do, of course, routinely consult with young people and it is my belief that most (if not all) would take the view that youth consultation is very important as this quote exemplifies: 

“Children and young people have the right to participate in decisions which affect their lives, the lives of their community and the larger society in which they live. Participation should run alongside decision making at a local and national level.” Save the Children, Consultation Toolkit

In fact, within the youth sector it is generally accepted that you have to consult with young people if you want to design and develop youth provision which meets their needs – it is not only good practice but essential practice and this is echoed by funders such as the Big Lottery:

         “In order to ensure that projects attract and meet the needs of young people that they target, you must take    account of young people’s perspectives at all stages.” Big Lottery Foundation Research – Engaging Young  People in Evaluation and Consultation

But this common practice does not always translate into guidance, as the same toolkit mentioned above nicely illustrates, where under the heading of consent, they advise:

‘Where consultation involves research (e.g. a questionnaire) with persons under sixteen years of age consent should be obtained from parents or from those ‘in loco parentis’ Save the Children, Consultation Toolkit

Clearly there is some confusion on this issue and it concerns me that as a result of this confusion, young people may be commonly excluded from giving their views in public consultations.

But do young people actually want to give their views? Our experience at Kaizen and research from the field suggests without doubt they do….

For example, research by the British Youth Council in 2011 (with over 1000 young people across the UK age 7-25) found that 82% believe it’s important for them to speak up about their local area, and 75% want to have a greater influence in decisions made in local areas, on topics such as how the local community is run, and what happens to local services.

In our work at Kaizen we regularly consult (in the community) with young people as young as 9 – we find young people of all ages ready and willing to engage about topics that concern them and the communities where they live.

Sometimes we do get consent, for example in a recent consultation with young people with disabilities as part of getting their views to shape the Local Offer in Central Bedfordshire. But often this is neither possible or appropriate – for example last year we did a street consultation with young gang members in Peckham and Brixton to get their views on a large gangs programme design which was in the final stages of getting Lottery finding and the funders wanted evidence that the young people thought the new approach could work. In another recent project we were working for a local funder in Islington who wanted to hear from young people about how money should be targeted and again, while we did consult within schools and youth clubs, street outreach was key to hearing from young people who would not have been reached through the other channels, and a need to get parental permission would have meant we could not have engaged the range of young people in giving their views.

We fundamentally believe that it is vital that young people are included in conversations about their community and are treated with respect and shown that their view matters. We often hear the old saying that with rights come responsibilities, but that goes both ways – if we want young people to act with maturity and feel a part of the community, then we have a responsibility to treat them with respect, to include them and listen to their views.

There are obviously times and places where it is wholly appropriate and necessary for parental consent to be sought, but this is surely in the minority of cases and therefore I believe that the starting default should be to get consent from the child themselves (as long as they meet the Gillick competency) and then, in each situation to look and assess if it is also necessary to get consent from the parent. It may be necessary to get parental consent, but the presumption should be that, in most cases, the young person is capable of making this decision for themselves.

I believe it is time that guidance is updated to take into account not only shifting attitudes to young people (thankfully we have moved past the seen and not heard attitudes of yesteryear), but also the shifting dynamics in consultation brought on amongst other things by digital engagement and consultation methodologies which make parental consent impossible. It would be helpful to have a clear framework to set out the circumstances where parental consent ought to be sought that would give clarity on this issue.

Young people are ready to be consulted with and it is our belief at Kaizen that doing so does not put them at risk as long as the purpose of the consultation is clear, the people doing it have been DBS checked, they are given the choice whether to participate and can stop at any point they chose. It is surely their decision whether to give their views and participate, not ours, and Local Authorities and other providers should be strongly encouraged to consult widely with young people rather than be fearful of it.