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12 Mar 2009 : Column 543

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Martin Salter: I will certainly give way to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned vigorously on the matter for the past eight or nine years.

Michael Jabez Foster: Indeed. Five or six years ago, when I proposed the matter, some Conservative Members suggested that young people sitting on the green Benches might constitute treason. Is my hon. Friend sure that that technicality has been sorted out?

Martin Salter: I have always believed that the definition of treason should be elastic, so I am not in a position to advise my hon. Friend.

One of the pleasures I derived from serving on the Modernisation Committee was seeing how apoplectic the hon. Member for Macclesfield got whenever it was suggested that anything other than an elected posterior should be allowed to grace the leather.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Martin Salter: I am happy to give way, because I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s attitude will not disappoint.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I express my views with conviction—whether that constitutes apoplexy is a matter of individual judgment. If the proposal had come forward as a recommendation for the Modernisation Committee, I would not have supported it. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) said, the then Deputy Leader of the House answered a question in 2007 by saying that the matter would be referred to the Modernisation Committee. That has not happened. I also emphasise that the Modernisation Committee has not met since the summer recess.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already said that there is little time for debate. If Members want to intervene, I remind them again that they must be brief.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If hon. Members who are present and interested in the matter have not spoken, is there any reason for holding a Division rather than carrying over the matter so that further time can be found for a clearly important debate?

Madam Deputy Speaker: The time that the debate concludes is printed on the Order Paper—it is 6 pm.

Martin Salter: I think that we are witnessing the first tremors of apoplexy from the hon. Gentleman. The minutes of the report that I cited clearly show that the membership of the Modernisation Committee in 2003-04 included him. The report includes recommendation 9 about reviewing the case for reserving use of the Chamber for elected Members of Parliament, and the minutes also show that there was no Division. It is therefore disingenuous for members of that Committee to claim that the matter was not discussed and that they sought to oppose the recommendation.

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There are times when I am proud to be a Member of the House and there are times when I am slightly saddened. I am sad when young people are patronised and an organisation as worthy as the UK Youth Parliament is traduced in the way that some hon. Members have tried to do. The UK Youth Parliament is an excellent institution. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when young people were energised by the political process. A lot of us feel despair at the lack of turnout and engagement among young people in the party political process and in the general political process. For us, as a Parliament, to be shutting our doors on a small group of young people who wish to participate and engage in our democratic process is disgraceful.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I agree with the hon. Gentleman, although I counsel him against his serious tendency towards understatement, which he has developed over a period of years. Is it not sad that we have already been beaten to it by the House of Lords, and would it not at least be graceful of us to follow now with due haste?

Martin Salter: I commend the hon. Gentleman on his statesmanlike intervention. I never thought that I would say this as an old lefty, but the longer that I am in this place, the more I look across at the other place and think that there are more lessons to be learned there than I ever envisaged. [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps Members of the House will conduct themselves in the way in which they suggest members of the Youth Parliament conduct themselves.

Martin Salter: I have another problem for Opposition Members who feel that their traditions, their security or even their very being would be threatened by some young people meeting once a year in this place. The records show that the House authorities have identified the fact that asbestos exists in this building. As you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, they have been considering the possibility of relocating us across the road—I think to the Queen Elizabeth centre—while the work takes place. I am afraid that the traditions of this place may yet be subject to health and safety legislation. When we are away and the contractors are in this place removing the asbestos, goodness knows, treason may happen. A building worker—a working-class person—may end up sitting on the green Benches, and what a terrible thing that would be.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Surely the current state of affairs is clear-cut. If someone is an elected Member of Parliament, they are entitled to sit here and if they are not, they are not. All the arguments that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward seem to be equally good arguments in favour of the General Synod, the Muslim Council of Britain or the women’s institute sitting here. I cannot see from the logic of his argument why he would not have a sitting from some exterior group take place every weekend.

Martin Salter: If I am ever elected to the Muslim Council of Britain or the women’s institute, I may make similar arguments, but I am not. I am an elected Member of this place and I want to open it up to the next
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generation of voters, who I hope will form a House of Commons that is more progressive, liberal and open-minded than what we have heard from Members in some parts of the Chamber—I use the word “liberal” advisedly.

The arguments are so clear and overpowering that we do not need to get stuck in process. In the few minutes before I conclude, I want to give those in the UK Youth Parliament a voice. We have been talking at them, rather than about what they might do, what they might get out of the experience or what they might feel. Let me read into the record what the chief executive of the UK Youth Parliament said only a couple of days ago. He is a gentleman called Andy Hamflett and he gave evidence to the Speaker’s Conference in Parliament, highlighting how politicians could be doing more to reach out to young people. Speaking about the Speaker’s Conference, Andy said:

Mr. Chope: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Martin Salter: No, I will not give way. I have been very generous in giving way.

One of my political mentors was a gentleman called Mr. Hogben. He was, I think, a leader writer for The Times, as well as being my British constitution teacher at school—we did not have politics in those days. He spotted in me and in other young people in our class an interest in the world around us, and he sought to develop and inspire it. He ensured that we came to the Chamber of this place, where I was privileged to see Barbara Castle tearing into the industrial relations legislation of the time. My teacher also took me to see Ralph Miliband at the politics society at Kingston; he nurtured my interest and my passion. I have to say that he, as a democrat, would be spinning in his grave if he had to listen to some of the arguments being put forward today to shut young people out of this place. We should be doing everything we can to inspire the next generation of democratic representatives. We should vote in favour of this motion, because it is called progress.

5.40 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): We have just heard a diatribe from the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), which did not add anything at all to the debate. I was particularly taken, however, with the intervention by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), because the matters that he raised have not, in fact, been properly addressed.

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May I say to the House that I have taken legal advice informally, and I am advised that if we set a precedent of enabling people who are not elected to this place to meet in this place, a precedent will be set? A precedent will be set if the House decides to take that decision. The hon. Member for Taunton referred to a number of organisations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the women’s institute—he could have mentioned the National Pensioners Convention. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House why he does not believe that the people in this country who turn out most in elections—namely, the grey vote—should have as equal an opportunity as the Youth Parliament to have a meeting in this place. They are a very important part of this country.

By the way, the UK Youth Parliament represents only a small number of young people in the United Kingdom. I know this because in my own county of Cheshire, I have taken a very active interest in the UK Youth Parliament. Along with my wife— my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) who represents Congleton—and other Members of Parliament representing Cheshire constituencies, I have attended the annual gatherings of the Youth Parliament in county hall in Chester. We have met many of the representatives who have been elected in their particular areas.

Tim Loughton rose—

Andrew Miller rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I give way to my hon. Friend, who caught my eye first.

Tim Loughton: I very much respect the points that my hon. Friend is making, but there is a fundamental difference between the Muslim Council of Britain, Age Concern or the other groups that he has mentioned and the Youth Parliament. People from any one of those groups could stand for Parliament and place themselves on these Benches by election, but the 11 to 17-year-old members of the UK Youth Parliament cannot do so because of their age— [Interruption.]

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Sitting in front of me, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who represents a seat very close to mine in Greater Manchester, has just said from a sedentary position: “What about Polish workers?” They are probably unrepresented and they would like to have a meeting. There is a very large number of Polish workers in this country. I say sincerely to this House that a very dangerous precedent might well be set.

John Bercow rose—

Andrew Miller rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I give way across the House to the hon. Gentleman, who also comes from my own county of Cheshire.

Andrew Miller: I was thinking about some of the meetings of the Youth Parliament that the hon. Gentleman and I have attended. Has any problem occurred due to the fact that when the Youth Parliament meets in Cheshire’s county hall, its members sit on the benches—the seats—that are normally allocated to elected councillors? What on
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earth is the difference? They are seats. The important thing, surely, is the status of the institution. We should be proud of the fact that we are extending the facility of being able to come here to the young people of this country.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I must confess to the hon. Gentleman that when I was present, the members of the Youth Parliament were not sitting on the benches occupied by councillors. They were sitting round tables, drinking and eating. Therefore, to an extent, behaviour that would not be allowed here appears from time to time to be practised by the Youth Parliament, certainly when it meets in county hall in Chester.

John Bercow rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I do give way, but only reluctantly, because my hon. Friend’s intervention will be most unhelpful. He has, like Paul, been transformed on the road to Damascus.

John Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I am not a lawyer, and I say that as a matter of considerable pride, but he has said that he has taken legal advice without disclosing his source. May I politely suggest to him that the idea that this is some sort of slippery slope and that we will tie our hands is, frankly, nonsense on stilts? He cannot say, on the one hand, that he believes in and asserts parliamentary sovereignty and, on the other, that we do not have such sovereignty. He really cannot have it both ways.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Oh but I can. What is more, I say to my hon. Friend that at one time he would have been shoulder to shoulder with me on these matters. When I went to his constituency before he was elected, he indicated that I was not really positively enough centre-right in speaking for him. So, there has been something of—

John Bercow: People are allowed to change.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I know. I am being interrupted, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am seeking to make progress. I say to my hon. Friend that I have been in this place—good or bad, right or wrong, whether people like it or not—for nearly 38 years and I have been utterly consistent.

Chris Bryant rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I give way, because the Deputy Leader of the House is being courteous. He has been slightly rude to me, but I rather like him.

Chris Bryant: I think that the hon. Gentleman rather likes it—being rude, that is. He bemoans the fact that the UK Youth Parliament does not stretch to every community in the country, which is true, but I would have thought that the opportunity to sit in the House would make it far easier for the Youth Parliament to spread across the whole country and to recruit more members, including in his constituency.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I do not share that view. One thing that worries me about the debate is that so far there has been no mention whatever of the amendment, which has been selected by the Chair. The amendment states that the UK Youth Parliament—

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The amendment has been selected, but it is yet to be moved.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I hope that I have your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker—at least tacitly—to refer to the amendment.

Nobody wants to keep young people out of this Palace. Like people in all parts of the House, we want to encourage more and more young people to take an interest in politics and party politics. I spend considerable time in my constituency going round secondary schools in particular, although I also visit junior schools, to meet fifth and sixth-formers, because they are developing an interest in politics. We have a free and encouraging exchange of questions and answers. I believe—

Mr. Kidney: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because of his huge involvement in local government and the aid that he is giving to those counties that have been underfunded in education.

Mr. Kidney: I was shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman on the Modernisation Committee when we wrote the report recommending that we consider using this Chamber for young people to debate, set in the context, if I may remind him, of supporting citizenship education in this country. I know that he is about to say, “Let’s put them Upstairs in a Committee Room,” so let me put the following argument to him. The youngsters of the Youth Parliament debated in Committee Room 14 and performed in an exemplary way. They were rewarded by next being able to debate in the House of Lords, where, as we have heard, they also behaved in an exemplary way. What is wrong with now rewarding them with the pinnacle of our Parliament, being able to debate in this Chamber?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: The hon. Gentleman always expresses his arguments in a most persuasive and constructive way, but he and I differ. I believe that either Committee Room 14 or the Grand Committee Room would be ideal chambers for the Youth Parliament to meet in and to have debates. Let me pick up the moving remarks of the Liberal shadow Leader of the House, who said that nobody is more loyal to this Chamber and believes more strongly in its integrity and that of the House than him. Looking at him eye to eye, let me say that I do not think anyone could fault my support for the Chamber of the House. In recent times, almost my sole raison d’ĂȘtre for remaining in this place has been to restore to the House more authority over the conduct of its business. For that reason and my total commitment to the integrity—and, yes, sovereignty—of the House, I take the position that I do.

I am not against young people in any way. I have eight grandchildren, and seven of them are boys—one girl. In fact, the latest boy— [Interruption.] Does the Deputy Leader of the House want to intervene?

Chris Bryant indicated dissent.

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