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We have now spent more time on this debate than is spent on a normal half-day Opposition day debate, so we are giving the subject a good airing. Rather than using this time to discuss whether there should be a Youth Parliament debate in this place, we should be debating the merits of the UK Youth Parliamentwhether it is doing a good job, how we could encourage it to do better, whether it should be better funded, why it is not truly representative of the United Kingdom in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and how we could better engage with it. We could discuss how youth parliamentarians could visit more often to speak to Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers and engage with Select Committees and so on.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He mentioned the length of this debate. It is instructive that this debate is taking a great deal longer and has a much higher participation rate than the debate on the Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill, which spent £12 billion of public money and attracted hardly a handful of colleagues. Perhaps nowadays Members of Parliament do not get out of bed for less than £1 trillion of profligacy.
Tim Loughton: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It makes us look a tad silly when we spend a lot of time on a procedural measure rather than on legislation that will affect a lot of people in the wider world.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that we do not talk this out and that we get the opportunity to vote this evening. He mentioned Scotland, which sends representatives to the UK Youth Parliament. However, we also have the Scottish Youth Parliament, which meets quite regularly in the Scottish Parliament, with no fuss whatevereven the Conservative group there is totally supportive. What is so different about this place?
Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. My point was that this is a UK Youth Parliament that does not receive funding for its activities north or west of the borders of England. We need a debate on how we can make it a truly representative UK Youth Parliament, drawing perhaps on the good practice and examples of the Scottish Youth Parliament, the Funky Dragon and the Northern Ireland Youth Forum.
We should remember how the UK Youth Parliament was formed. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch duly gave recognition to our late lamented colleague Andrew Rowe, who set up the Youth Parliament 10 years ago
The Youth Parliament is not a party political organisation, but an independent national charity. After 10 years, there are flaws in it; that is why we should be debating how to make it better. However, after all those years it has surely come of age and deserves a little more respect than has been implicit in some of the caricatures of its activities that we have heard in this debate. Each local education authority in England represents a UKYP constituency. Elections take place every year, and more than 550,000 young people have participated in those elections in recent years. There have recently been elections to UK youth cabinets and parliaments; in my county in west Sussex there were record turnouts. In one school in my constituency there was a 96.5 per cent. turnout to vote in the west Sussex youth cabinet, which went on to elect UKYP members as well.
In June, I shall host an event in which schools with the highest such turnouts will receive an award. Pupils from them are coming to this place to get recognition of that. [Interruption.] They will not come to the Chamber but to one of the meeting rooms, because it is not a UK-wide event.
We should look at the good work that the UK Youth Parliament has done. It is democratically elected and has annual sittings, some of which I have attended. Far from what some of the caricatures have implied, some really impressive work goes on. Last year there were debates about youth transport, the environment, the age of participation in elections and other matters important not just to young people but to the population as a whole.
Philip Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that the debate should not be caricatured so that those who think that the Youth Parliament does a good job are automatically deemed to be in favour of allowing the Chamber to be used, and those who oppose the Youth Parliaments sitting in this Chamber are deemed to be against the Youth Parliament per se? I am happy to accept that the Youth Parliament is a good thing; I just object to the idea of its using this Chamber.
Tim Loughton: I fear that the debate has been slightly muddied with some caricatures of UK Youth Parliament proceedings in other places. That is unfortunate, unrepresentative and inaccurate. I hope that we will have a debate on the principle of whether its sitting should be held in the Chamber.
I turn now to the UK Youth Parliaments select committees. As a shadow Front Bencher, I have engaged with them, and there is enormous scope for them to engage with our Select Committees. Its select committees draw up manifestos. They have made some important observations on sexual health, for example, which informed the Governments recent decision on the teaching of that subject in schools. They do a very important job.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con):
I declare an interest as a trustee of the UK Youth Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best examples of its doing good work was its sitting in the other place, where we saw an enormous number of young people coming together to talk about very serious issues in an extremely constructive and productive way? Those of us who had
the opportunity to sit in on and watch that debate saw the very best of young peopleit was a very good representation.
The debate went rather well in the other place, so why not have it here? The UK Youth Parliament has sat in the Lords, in Berlin, in Dublin and in the European Parliament, and is about to sit in Sweden. It does not frighten the horses in other chambers around the world where it has similar meetings. Its members did not trash the House of Lords; they were not found swinging from the chandeliers or the Throne, or abseiling from the Public Gallery. They behaved rather well and had a very worthwhile meeting. Let us not be afraid of allowing young people into these hallowed Chambers. Parliament is not just a room or a building, fantastic though it may beit is an assemblage of political people coming together to discuss and debate. When one takes away the Mace, the Speaker and the hon. Members, one is left with furniture.
Tim Loughton: It sends a clear message about the importance that we vest in the voices of young people who are interested and have taken the trouble to be elected by their peers and who have something useful to say. We may not agree with it, but they have the right to say it and we should want to hear it.
Mr. Bone: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I was recently with a Youth Parliament member who acts for the Wellingborough constituency, and he did not mention that it wanted to have its annual meeting here. Is there a huge demand for this, or was it a whim of the Prime Ministers to get some publicity?
Tim Loughton: Whether it is a whim of the Prime Minister I do not know. What I do know is that the UK Youth Parliament has proposed that it should meet in this Chamber, having had a similar, and successful, outing in another place. Would we not look odd and regressive compared with the House of Lords if we denied them the opportunity in this elected Chamber that they have had in that unelected Chamber elsewhere in this place?
My hon. Friend says, as others have, that these are just green Benchesthat without the Speaker or the Mace it is just furniture. When he shows his constituents around this Chamber without the Speaker or the Mace in place, do they say, Oh, its just a lot of
green Benches, isnt it? Just a bit of furniture? Is it just my constituents who think that this is a fine institution, the traditions of which should be protected, or do his constituents think that too?
Parliament is not about the building, fixtures and fittingsit is about what we as elected Members choose to do in the name of our constituents in representing them in this place. That is the point. We should not get hung up on a building.
Mr. Binley: My concern does not rest necessarily with the Youth Parliament but with all the other people who may wish to come here thereafter. We have not heard from Government Front Benchers about what restrictions might be imposed on using this place. Does he agree that some such restriction is needed?
Tim Loughton: Of course there needs to be restriction. We are not opening up this Chamber for just anybody to come herewe are specifically debating one motion, the terms of which are to praise the functions of the UK Youth Parliament and to allow it one sitting here. As I said, the details need to be sorted out. As to whether it becomes a regular meeting in future, the House would have to debate that again. This does not give the UK Youth Parliament a blank cheque to turn up here whenever it likes. Clearly, in using this Chamber it must not inconvenience the normal workings of Parliamentof our going about our normal business of passing legislation here. It must not assume that the various symbols of this Parliament should be employed; that is why it is useful that the Minister has clarified that there will not be a mock Mace and so on.
In the debate the other day, some Members said, Arent we opening the floodgatesmight not we have the Muslim Council of Britain, the National Pensioners Convention, or whatever, here? My response was that any of the people in those organisations are entitled to stand in a general election for the privilege of representing constituents and placing their elected posteriors on these green Benches. The 11 to 17-year-olds in the UK Youth Parliament do not have that right at this stage. If we wanted to consider whether an assembly of Scouts should be able to sit here, we would need to have that debate. My own view is that that would not be appropriate. We are talking about a UK Youth Parliament elected along the same lines as those on which we are elected. It is open to all their peers to elect them in a democratic election. That is what is different, and that is why they, exceptionally, should be granted this privilege, initially as a pilot to see whether holding their sitting here would add to their cause of engaging more young people in the political process.
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): The hon. Gentleman refers to people being allowed to sit and debate in this Chamber if they are not eligible to stand at a general election. Does he think that if a group of prisoners were to put themselves forward as wanting to discuss matters of penal reform, they could gather in this Chamber and we would be encouraging a constructive debate on penal reform? After all, they would not be allowed to participate in an election, so would it be a constructive exercise?
Mr. Chope: If my hon. Friend is not in favour of prisoners debating here, how about the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association? People from other Commonwealth countries who cannot stand for election to this Parliament because they are not British citizens could come here to see the items of furniture and fittings that their own Parliaments contributed to this Parliament after the war in a sense of solidarity with democracy. Why not have the CPA or Commonwealth Speakers coming to have their meetings in this Parliament? It is not as simple as he seems to think.
The other day, I mentioned a comment made by a UK Youth Parliament member after the sitting in the Lords. I will quote it again, because it sums up what this is all about. Robert felt that the publicity generated from the House of Lords debates would be a great start. He said:
This is fantastic press which weve never had before and its so positive. This is the kind of thing the media really need to focus on.
It is the kind of thing that they clearly have not been getting from holding an assembly, meeting or convention of whatever form in Committee Room 14 upstairs. We must face the fact that there is a serious problem with the image and portrayal of young people, given that 71 per cent. of all stories about them in the media are negative, mostly to do with antisocial behaviour and crime. If we can do something to help to reverse that terrible trend towards the demonisation of young people, in which the Government have been culpable in many of the things they have done in recent years, that will be progress.
What are we scared of? Why do we apparently assume that Youth Parliament members will misbehave? Do we seriously think that they will leave gum under the seats and swing from the chandeliers, or that we will have to install jukeboxes and that there will be a major chav riot? Of course that is not going to happen. We are not going to have to install BMX bike ramps here, or revolving glitter balls on the ceiling. We can go about our normal business without having to move the furniture around, and it will be for one day only. It really is no big deal. The disengagement of young people in this country is a major problem. Allowing the Youth Parliament one sitting is not a panacea, but it would send a helpful and hopeful message.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument about recognising the progress that the UK Youth Parliament has made. I was at the memorial service on Friday for Andrew Rowe, the former Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent, who played something of a leading role in its formation. A young woman stood up to talk about how she had been involved in a gang on the streets of Maidstone and had taken part in shoplifting and various other forms of what we would regard as antisocial behaviour. She spoke about how she had been
encouraged to participate in a local youth forum, with the prospect of its leading to her participating in the Youth Parliament, and the transformative effect that it had on her. The last meeting happened in the other place, but we must recognise that the aspiration of all the people involved in the UK Youth Parliament is that the project will develop and gain momentum. Giving it the opportunity to hold a meeting here is an entirely legitimate aspiration, and I support it.
Tim Loughton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sorry that I was unable to make the memorial service of a late friend, but I heard about precisely that contribution. The UK Youth Parliaments achievements over the past 10 years have been important, although it is not perfect and it needs to achieve many more things, gain much more publicity and engage with more young people.
Similarly, there are youth mayors. I shall be hosting an eventbefore Members say that it will be in this Chamber, I add that it will be in Portcullis House on 29 Aprilto which we are inviting every elected youth mayor from around the country. It is to promote the idea of youth mayors, which is another good way of giving young people a voice and showing them that they can engage with people in authority to shape the way in which their world, their nation and their local community work.
By allowing the use of this Chamber, as a one-off opportunity on a non-sitting dayit will not deprive any Member of the opportunity to park their posterior on these privileged green Bencheswe will say to the UK Youth Parliament and to young people in the country at large that their voice is important, too. We will be saying that their views count, and that it is worth our taking a risk and sticking our neck out to invite them to hold their deliberations here. We might find that their contributions are shorter, but just as good or occasionally better, than some that we hear from elected Members. It would be a special occasion and a pilot.
Too often, young people say that politics, Parliament and the ivory tower that is the House of Commons are not for them. They believe that they are populated by people in dark suits who do not understand or engage, and they say, They are not for us. What better way to send a message that they are wrong, that we do value their voice and views and that we want to hear from them than by allowing them to have their deliberations in that citadel of privilege, that ivory tower? It is a risk worth taking, subject to the many details that needed to be ironed out.
The debate that we appear to be having about procedural detail will give rise to accusations that we can, at times, be out of touch with people in the community in general, and particularly with young people. We continue to go down that trail at our peril if we want to improve the engagement of young people in politics and improve on the appalling statistic from the last general election that the percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds who bothered to turn out and vote was 39 per cent., or barely one in three. That is the biggest challenge that faces us all. For goodness sake, let us take a step in the right direction and say, Come here. We want to hear what you say, so lets give it a go.
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