With equality and empowerment central to participatory budgeting, David Reilly (@SCDC_David) asks: why we would exclude anyone because of their age?
I love meeting and listening to people. It takes a lot to work through my natural shyness to start talking to someone I don’t know but I never regret it.
I was recently lucky enough to be at Leith Chooses participatory budgeting event. Despite catching the end of snowmaggedon, 1,000 local people walked, slid, trudged and sledged (seriously) through the snow to be active citizens in their community by learning about 67 projects, organisations and people with ideas before voting on where public money should best be invested. Another 2,000 people voted online. Designed and delivered by what looked like a genuine partnership between community members, community councils and the City of Edinburgh Council, the purpose was to engage with the community and for the community to engage with itself.
At the event I met Sylvie Farquhar and was struck by how articulate she was, thoughtfully talking about the things that matter to her and with a gift for answering questions in full paragraphs. Sylvie told me:
“I came to vote because I want my voice to be heard and I think it’s important that the community get to decide and not just the Council. I voted for things that are important to me, less loneliness and homelessness”.
Sylvie was 8 years-old, yet in many participatory budgeting events and in most democratic processes, she wouldn’t have a voice because she wouldn’t have a vote. Even in Leith’s excellent process Sylvie wouldn’t have had a vote last year when she was 7.
Sylvie’s voice was as interesting, important and valuable as the 3,000 other people taking part. She is undeniably impressive and it’s tempting to say that she’s unique. But she’s not, we see young people getting involved at PB events across the country, each offering their ideas and opinions about the way things should be. And their opinion matters. My own 8 year- old daughter would provide full throated and detailed testimony to that.
Elsewhere, I helped support a PB process based in schools, aiming to empower people in a deprived area and lowering the cost of the school day. My role was to link to learning elsewhere and facilitate learning but avoid telling people what to do. The project delivered in spades, but wasn’t all plain sailing. Early in the process I was taken aback to be told that the steering group were debating whether children, the experts in schooling, should have a vote. My hand had rarely been bitten so hard.
How old is old enough?
Our attitude toward children and young people in Scotland sometimes confuses me.
We tell children how important it is that we are all fairly treated yet we can legally discriminate against anyone under the age of 18 for any reason.
We can hold children criminally responsible at 8 years old (although that is hopefully in the process of changing) but they get no say in those laws until they are 18.
We teach children and young people that their right to be heard and listened to in matters that affect them is a foundation of the Rights of the Child. Yet there is a slalom of seemingly arbitrary age limits preventing involvement in community events, local, Scottish and Westminster elections. After their family and home life, what can affect children more than the community and country that they live in?
We trust parents to decide when it’s appropriate and safe for a young person to be left at home or walk to school alone, but not to decide when they can meaningfully contribute to public decision making.
Let’s leave age limits in the past.
I’ve never grappled with a good reason why we can’t vote for our MP until we are 18 simply because there isn’t one not based on a lazy stereotype that our ability to make informed and respectable decisions is defined by our age. It’s only 100 years since the same argument was based on our sex and class.
I agree with UNICEF who say "Through participation at early ages in issues that concern them - far from promoting anarchy or disrespect for authority, or undermining parental authority - we see a generation of young people who are more respectful and concerned about their rights and the rights of others’.
At PB Scotland we work with people holding good participatory budgeting processes and are regularly asked advice on where voting ages should be set. With the most common age seeming to be 12. Yet, if equality is a key value of participatory budgeting, and if we would be rightly appalled at excluding older people because of their age, why would we do the same with younger people?
If participatory budgeting is riding the crest of a world-wide wave why not follow the example of Paris who distribute €100 million per year in a process decided by citizens with no age limit.
Participatory budgeting is about trusting the community to make good decisions. We should trust children, families, parents and carers to decide when a child can meaningfully participate in a vote. Deciding for them is the opposite of empowering.
Because if not 18, then when? If, like the Scottish Independence referendum we decide on 16, why not 15? If 12, why not let Sylvie vote at 8? And if Sylvie can vote about what’s important in her community, then why should there be any limit to what else can she decide on?