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Red cabinet member - impatient in the long run

Red cabinet member - impatient in the long run

| Text: Berit Kvam Photo: Eivind Griffith Brænde

Audun Lysbakken swears that it is he - and not the media - who will set the agenda for his ministry's work. That means working on long-term, preventative measures to avoid people becoming social outsiders - results of which will not show up on statistics for another 10 to 15 years.

Yet he is not foreign to the idea of this work taking place on more levels than one.

"We need immediate help for those who already have fallen outside, but for this ministry the most important way of fighting social differences and poverty is to employ preventative measures."

Social differences and poverty are linked, he says, and their common denominator is children's social environment.

"There is a link between a society's social differences and the size of that society's social problems.

"I believe inequalities and class divides are far more important to people's quality of life and for a society's sustainability than what many have believed so far."

So what have many believed so far?

"The traditional belief is that as long as you create growth, the rich will pull the poor up with them. But I think it is very important to acknowledge that social differences are very unhealthy for any society, rich or poor. It's to do with trust between people, with solidarity and belonging. We see how class divides manifest themselves through differences in life expectancy, health and how actively people take part in society."

Audun Lysbakken is deputy leader of Norway's Socialist Left party and a cabinet member in the red-green coalition government. 

As he posed for the photographers with the new Stoltenberg 2 government outside the royal palace in October last year, the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten described him as 'younger, taller, poorer, more handsome and more radical than most of his new colleagues.'

Many consider him to be the crown prince to party leader Kristin Halvorsen, but that fight is not yet determined. There are several pretenders to that crown. 

Audun Lysbakken's portfolio covers all of the government's child and youth policies. There has been an increase in the number of young people falling outside of society's norms during the tenure of the red-green coalition. A third of college students leave before their final exams, and the number of young people on incapacity benefits has shot up.

Is there a danger of too much talk and not enough action?

"The figures we have on social outsiders today are the result of many years of social development. When that trend turns, that too will be the result of many years of social development. You cannot turn a social development around in one or two years. The fact is you need to start working with children today to prevent them falling outside when they become youths."  

I can see the ministry is focused on these questions, but what is being done?

"A lot of what we do today is to make sure fewer people end up as outsiders in 10 to 15 years. That's what prevention is all about. Politics is often driven by demands for daily results, which takes the focus off preventative work, long-term plans - things that really do work. I have sworn that we will not work in that way in this ministry, because I am convinced that only long-term work can really rid us of that kind of outsider problem in Norway in the future." 

Schools and nurseries

Audun Lysbakken's goal is to reach children and young people earlier to better help those who need it the most. He lists preventative measures aimed at all ages:

"We want to improve the Norwegian Child Protection Unit by strengthening it economically, improve supervision and change the unit's structure from being a institutionally focused child protection agency to an agency focused on reaching out to homes and foster homes. This spring I have handed out 48 million kroner (€6.1m) to municipalities which need help with vulnerable children and youths. We run a programme called 'New opportunity' aimed at people who have fallen outside the labour market. The government has increased its fight against poverty considerably in recent years, and lately we have intensified our fight to stop people leaving their college education early," he says. 

The government already has several measures in place which should offer alternatives to young people who have already become outsiders, like the so-called qualification programme (which helps people find relevant training or education for the jobs they want) and salary subsidies for employers. But at the core of the ministry's long-term work lies a focus on schools and nurseries. 

"One of our concrete measures is to develop 'free core time' [four free hours a day of nursery care for 4 and 5 year-olds) in selected nurseries in areas with high immigrant density. The aim is for the children to develop language and social skills as early as possible to help them succeed in school."

A need for better vocational training

Audun Lysbakken spends a lot of time listening to the grassroots. I pass on a message from a youth working at the till in a chain store around the corner. He just finished college and had found a job, but only a 40 percent position. "The manager will only employ young people part time". The youth cannot live off his wages, but manages by living at his parents'. What he really wants is to finish his education. He has finished school and only needs to find an apprenticeship to become a qualified electrician, but apprenticeships are hard to come by. 

This is not an unusual story, what do you think about it?

"I think it is very important to look at the kind of vocational training on offer. Also, I believe today's labour market uses young people as temporary labour far too much.

"You often hear the solution to get more people in work is to open up the labour market and include more temporary employment and to soften working environment legislation. I am quite sure that is the wrong medicine. We risk creating a permanent labour market underclass. They will end up in these kind of jobs on a permanent basis. That's why it is so important that we come up with measures aimed at securing a proper labour market for young people where they are not being exploited but looked after by their employers. Measures like 'New Chance', 'Youth in exposed city environments' or the entire 'qualification programme'. 

"Creating enough apprenticeships is a central challenge. We're working to improve the apprenticeship system because many cannot get in."

On a tightrope

Many young people are on a tightrope and can easily go one way or the other. The study 'Socio-economic consequences of marginalised youth' commissioned by Mr Lysbakken shows between two and four percent of under-20s are in the process of being marginalised and are in danger of ending up as permanent outsiders. That means up to 2,000 youths. The number rises to eight percent by the time these people reach 25, because of today's labour market with high youth unemployment. 

But Audun Lysbakken sticks to his belief in preventative measures and the more basic solutions to the challenges before him:

"You can solve a lot of the problem with outsiders by targeting schools and improving nurseries. Today's school system is far too dependent on the input of parents, and what kind of help children can expect to get at home. If we can offer nursery places for all and improve our system of homework help for all, I really believe we'll manage to change the fact that Norwegian schools reproduce social differences. 

"But I also believe it is very important to look at how we run secondary schools, and vocational training in high schools in particular. We need to take into consideration that children and youths learn in different ways. Our present school system is too focused on the idea that theoretical education is the best way forward for spreading knowledge among all. It is not focusing enough on what you can learn from your hands to your head, rather than from your head to your hands. 

"I've visited many schools over the past few years that have managed to prevent pupils falling outside. They all shared one thing, which was to focus on practical learning at an early stage, allowing pupils to spend time in workshops or businesses and for instance allowing those studying plumbing to learn English plumbing terms rather than analysing English poetry. These things make school more engaging and allows more pupils to feel they are managing. This, I believe, is absolutely central and perhaps the most important measure in the fight against people falling outside of society." 

The entire Nordic region is fighting against young people falling outside of society right now - what lessons can we learn from each other?

"You're right. We have a close Nordic cooperation, and in all my areas of responsibility - children, equality and integration - we do learn a lot from each other. But Norway is obviously in a special position because of our low unemployment, and it is important to point out that the low unemployment is crucial right now in our work to prevent young people ending up on the outside. But this is also politics. Our way of tackling the economic crisis was different from countries with conservative governments. We faced the crisis with an active policy of fighting the fluctuations; we poured public money into job creation rather than using tax cuts to stimulate growth. There would be far more people without a job in Norway today if we had not carried this policy through." 


The Socialist Left Party's Nordic sister parties:

Socialist People's Party, Denmark

The Left-Green Movement, Iceland

The Left Alliance, Finland

The Left Party of Sweden


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