When Lord Shipley, Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Youth Unemployment, suggested it might be valuable to have a Lord Spiritual involved, I was a very willing volunteer. As Bishop of Derby, this was my first chance to get my teeth into the role since joining the upper house in 2019. My connection with young people through schools, as well as the local contexts in which the Church of England is present and engaged with every community, aligns perfectly with the issue of youth unemployment. I’m also Vice Chair of The Children’s Society and feel a particular commitment within my role to young people from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds.
More broadly, my work on the committee is vocational. Part of what I understand as my role as a Bishop is to see ‘life in all its fullness’, as the Gospel of St John has it. The committee’s goal coincides with this. It’s about helping all young people to flourish. Of course, this means ensuring they have to access the education, training and employment opportunities they need to thrive. That’s an outworking of my faith, yes, but also a social commitment.
Unfortunately, for the most vulnerable, COVID-19 has made matters far worse. Lockdown has reduced access to education and employment opportunities. It's had a particularly pronounced effect on those with poor internet, lack of access to appropriate hardware, space to work, or parental support. Young people who were already vulnerable and marginalised have been even more so as a result of the pandemic. Therefore, from the outset, I and other colleagues on the committee pushed hard to hear from young people themselves. We didn’t just want to hear about young people from those who support them. This has meant devising new ways of working and, in particular, elevating the young voices that are often hardest to hear.
Admittedly, bringing this evidence to the table has been challenges. The mechanisms by which these committees work – especially in light of lockdown and remote working – has made engaging with different youth groups extremely complex. But we’ve done our best and as our work has progressed, I’m so glad we have. Because by hearing from young people living in various situations and places around the country, we’ve learned that context is everything. We’ve had to accept that the places and circumstances in which young people live are extremely particular and that the solutions we suggest must therefore be equally as varied. In short, young people’s experiences cannot be boiled down to pithy statistics.
What’s more, the young people we’ve spoken to have had the courage and conviction to share some hard truths with us. If these were tough to hear, they must have been far harder to share. It’s a huge responsibility for young people to be placed in these positions, expressing themselves genuinely and eloquently in such a way that we hear what they’re trying to tell us. We’ve heard from young refugees and asylum seekers for whom access to support is often very difficult. We’ve heard from those in the care system and those who have been through the criminal justice system. For all of these groups, and more, the transition into employment or training is especially onerous.
As difficult as it’s been, I’m so glad we’ve pushed for the involvement of youth voice. It’s taught us that data doesn’t tell the whole story. While some headlines might suggest that certain solutions are successful, the stories we’ve heard make it clear that there are whole demographics for whom current solutions don’t work. Broad solutions can result in ‘success’ in terms of figures but we’ve learned that, in context, whole groups can slip through the net.