This week Gordon Brown announced plans to give teenagers 'youth opportunity' cards to allow them to take part in sport and leisure activities. Immediately the cards were dubbed 'good behaviour cards', because youngsters who repeatedly misbehave will have their cards withdrawn: 'No more synchronised swimming for you, Darren. Looks like you'll have to keep in shape by being chased by police dogs again.'
Naturally, the cards provoked the usual reactionary protests: it's political correctness gone mad, it's bribing people to be good, it's a poor substitute for national service, etc. (The last suggestion is an actual comment from BBC Online's Have Your Say.) However, before dribbling on like Home Counties Nazis, it's worth taking an unbiased look at what the cards really are.
The cards (they might be vouchers) are rather different to how they've been reported in the media. Basically, they are just one aspect of a broader drive to improve leisure activities for young people. The scheme will give 13 to 19-year-olds up to £12 a month (£25 in deprived areas) to 'spend' on 'constructive' things. There is the suggestion of setting up 'midnight football' and radio stations for teenagers, although there are surely more worthwhile activities than pandering to teenage delusions about careers as garage MCs and name DJs. Gordon Brown also commented that 'the traditional youth club could be a lot better for young people' (fair point), and added that he wanted more youngsters to get involved in volunteering and community service.
Seen one way, the proposals are little more than another way of providing activities that are already paid for out of the public pocket. In most areas you'll find some sort of subsidised leisure activities, whether it's sports centres offering concessions, or youth clubs, or BMX tracks, or whatever. Many of the criticisms of the cards don't really hold water. There is no suggestion of them being state-provided cash cards, enabling youngsters to pursue an interest in Merrydown cider.
However, the proposals do suffer from several fatal flaws. The most basic is the simple practical problem that if there aren't leisure activities in areas in the first place, then it doesn't matter a flying fig whether kids have got 'youth opportunity' cards or Amex Platinums. (In fairness to Brown, he does want to make it compulsory for local authorities to provide certain basic levels of youth activities.) But the main problem with the proposals are that they are yet another cack-handed attempt to deal with... yep, you guessed it: yob behaviour.
The problem with 'constructive' activities is that they only address yobbery in the most tangential way. If the problem is criminal behaviour, then teenagers have to be dealt with by the law. If the problem is low-level twattery then ASBOs need to be enforced. And if they're really fucked up, they need help from social services. In this context, better youth activities are the right answer to the wrong question.
The other big problem is that the proposals manage to be pointlessly universal, while unlikely to appeal to the kids who are doing the anti-social behaviour.
Look back at your own teenage years. What most of us did in our spare time fitted a fairly average distribution curve. At the bottom end were the minority of out-of-control kids who got into genuine trouble. At the other extreme were the kids whose parents signed them up for every worthwhile activity imaginable, regardless of cost. In the middle, and by far the majority, were the more average kids whose spare time was spent on activities that were neither heinously anti-social nor brilliantly worthwhile: endless games of table tennis or pool in the summer holidays, doing sports, aimless hanging around, abortive attempts to learn a musical instrument, various classes like tap and ballet dancing, occasionally getting pissed, forming bands (or at least talking about it), computer clubs, etc.
It's hard to imagine that Brown's proposals are going to result in anything very different. It's unlikely the genuinely wrong 'uns will actually show up to 'constructive' activities (some will, most won't). As for the rest of the Young People, it sounds as though Brown's proposals will just be slightly more of the same, paid for with a significant government subsidy. In fact the only people who seem likely to benefit are parents, who, overall, won't have to shell out as much for leisure activities for their kids while tax-payers as a whole pick up the tab.
Still, it's good to know that when Brown takes over, New Labour will continue to churn out policies that are every bit as well thought-out as anything Blair came up with.