A day at the Houses of Parliament: the UK Youth Parliament Annual Debate

For 307 Members of the UK Youth Parliament Friday 23 November 2012 will be marked up as a day they will never forget. The UK Youth Parliament held their annual debate at the House of Commons chamber. Members of the UK Youth Parliament aged 11-18 debated five crucial issues chosen by a ballot of 250,000 young people before voting for the campaign they wanted to become the Youth Parliament’s main campaign for 2013. The day was eventful, electric and vibrant. It was an event never to be forgotten and never to be overlooked.

Stefania: The five topics discussed in the five debates were: ‘Making public transport cheaper, better and accessible for all’, ‘Getting ready for work’, ‘Marriage for all’, ‘An equal national minimum wage for all’ and ‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’. For each debate, there were two speakers representing two opposite positions-for and against-. After each speech, young members of the parliament had either the right to defend, support or argue against each issue.

I was there from the early morning with my fellow 99% blogger, Ruth. We were both excited as it was the first time we entered the Houses of Parliament! After having a nice breakfast at the Westminster Hall – choosing from a massive buffet of delicious treats- we made our way to the House of Commons chamber, where the Members of Youth Parliament would debate. After seating at the gallery reserved for the media, we decided that Ruth would cover the ‘against’ views and I would focus on the ‘for’ arguments in each debate.

“Make public transport cheaper, better and accessible for all”

Stefania: The debate started promptly at 11 am, with the first topic discussed being the need for a cheaper and more accessible public transport. The first MYP spoke about the urgent need of lower transport prices. He was very bold, strong and articulate and stressed that accessible public transport for young people should be an ‘absolute priority’, as many students in Britain struggle to afford going to school, being very often obliged to pay full adult fees. The main arguments supporting the motion were the need for a general better, affordable pricing structure of the public transport and the improvement of the treatment of young people on public transport, including those in rural areas.

Volunteer Journalist Ruth

Volunteer Journalist Ruth

Ruth: The second MYP who was against the issue being the priority campaign stressed that the debate of making public transport cheaper and more accessible was a long standing debate that has been campaigned for in previous years and was preventing many other pressing issues that are more attainable and achievable from being presented and solved. Issues such as the educational system and the NHS are concerns that need to be focused on more both of which are in desperate need of transformation and rapid change. He insisted that the issue was more of a regional campaign as many cities had an adequate and inexpensive solution for its young citizens. Amongst the solutions mentioned was a national rail card which is a fantastic scheme already in place.

A very interesting point raised was that helping those who use public transport would be like helping the rich get richer. This comes to me as a startling point of view, not because the statement is outrageous but because this is a view held by a teenager. How insightful or maybe limited is this person’s view point on things!  I say insightful because it is true, how many young people need to get around that much when most things are accommodated within the school grounds?  Nevertheless as a Londoner myself I cannot speak on behalf of the nation and its education system and transport facilities. In London you can get anywhere either via bus, tube and train; this may not be the case for some regions within the UK.

Stefania: The reason why this debate sparked a lot of controversy was because many people argued that public transport system varies between different regions, making the campaign difficult to attract consensus.  For example, some said that London public transport has a great structure and that young people commute with a free pass and others mentioned the ‘ridiculously high transport prices’ in Birmingham.  Some other members focused on the importance of education and the priority to the needs of disadvantaged, homeless and extremely poor people.

Ruth: To conclude the debate we heard from vocal MYP Matthew Wilson stating that this was not a rights and responsibilities pick and mix. This is a regional matter and not a national campaign.

“Getting ready for work”

Stefania: The second topic titled ‘Getting Ready for Work’ was mostly about the imperative need for a better preparation, education and skills development enabling young students to enter smoothly the employment market. The young delegate speaking in favour of the motion being the national campaign emphasized the importance of a good career support , the need of  a valuable and essential work experience for all young pupils: ‘we need to provide stable and sustainable apprenticeships for young people’. Work experience for all was at the centre of his speech and he described it as a ‘vibrant opportunity’.

Many young members questioned this need for a short term work experience, stating that what should be at stake is the ‘improvement of the quality of education’, ‘life skills’, and gaining ‘transferable skills at work’.

Ruth:  The MYP against the issue being the winning debate started with the strong argument that the number of employed people being helped is the same figure as those who are unemployed.  He said that there is enough help offered to young people getting ready for work. Statistics were provided showing that 1 billion has been spent in funding to aid those preparing for the work force. There were 2,600 new work experience placements on offer, so enough help was available. The question raised was that ‘What use are more jobs if there are no experiences in life skills?’

I say this is a good question to a large extent because yes it is true, there is only so much one can learn from a week’s work experience. However, that is not to say that life skills cannot be learnt whilst on a week’s placement or work experience. Moreover, as this campaign is meant to represent the nation of 11- 18 years of age then this campaign is not representation of nearly half of the ages these ages. The main argument that was brought forward is that the idea of getting ready for work is not the concern of many young people aged 11-15. They first need to be equipped at the school before you put them in the work life.

To summarize, the fear is that no young people will be employable and is one week really and truly enough experience to benefit you for the rest of your life? There are many activities that can teach young children all the skills needed to benefit them and give them transferable skills to use throughout their lives.  This was a great way to end the debate of this not being the national campaign.

‘Marriage for All’ 

 Stefania: The next controversial, lively and in my opinion, very interesting debate was ‘Marriage for All’. I was impressed by the speech of the young girl supporting the issue. She was firm, decisive, energetic and particularly convincing- although she could be characterized slightly aggressive, I certainly liked that tone of aggression and I would rather call it a passionate, vigorous speech.

Her name was Michaella Philpot and only at the age of 18, she managed to deliver an amazing speech: she held that equal rights to marriage should be at the heart of the youth concerns, as everyone, regardless of sexual orientation should have the same right to marry the person they love. She highlighted that each person’s sexuality had to be accepted by society and that a form of acceptance is the equal right to marriage. She stressed that ‘love is a natural human condition. There is a moral and social obligation to challenge discrimination against gay people’ and defended an ‘accepting society’.

Quite predictably, there was a big opposition to this argument and a deluge of comments. Highlights included that equal marriage does not affect young people so much – someone said that ‘the 11-15 year olds are excluded if equal marriage becomes the national campaign’, others held that love and marriage are totally different concepts, others wholeheartedly supported the argument by drawing on the need of sexual inclusion which has been overlooked when compared to other types of inclusion. Despite the different views, this was a particularly prolific debate and one of the closing statements proved it: ‘it was an honest, frank, dignified debate’. I agree.

Ruth: This campaign was the most striking and alarming for me, I was so surprised at the amount of attention and publicity this campaign received especially in a nation where it would seem that divorce is on the increase and that most couples don’t bother with marriage. Nevertheless, it just showed that most young people have a humanitarian approach in life and believe that we should all have a fair chance in everything.

The debate started by MYP’s being against the issue, declaring marriage was not important for young people. There was no point in making this a national policy as it will be and was being tackled by the Prime Minister. The MYP’s rightly addressed the fact that equality was right but this notion was not, as it is more important for the older generation.

What I did gather from hearing both the against arguments and the opposition was that marriage was not fully understood by the majority of young people. Some of them saw marriage as a symbol of only love and affection, while others just viewed marriage as a piece of paper that says ‘A’ and ‘B’ is married. All in all this debate did not have as many against views or opposing arguments because the main argument was that this was a great campaign but just not the appropriate one for the national campaign for all young people. The focal point of the argument was a statement made ‘are you an MYP of practicality or of virtue’?

‘An equal national minimum wage for all’

Stefania: The next debate, after the big lunch break was about the need for an equal national minimum wage for all. The defenders raised questions of equality and justice, arguing that low pay for young people in comparison with their adult counterparts is a form of discrimination that has to be stopped. The main speaker in favour of the issue urged upon the fact that ‘3.5 million people live in extreme poverty’ and that inequality has to be tackled efficiently.

Many arguments against the issue being the national campaign emphasized that the ‘unequal minimum wage is just a symptom of the general problem’ and some others argued that requiring an equal minimum wage for all could be quite unrealistic and that what should be the main focus is a better curriculum that offers real opportunities.

Ruth: Like all the other motions this motion was fought whole-heartedly and the arguments showed that each MYP had done their research and were economically aware.

The argument put forward was that having a few extra pounds won’t help both the employer and employee, because it would cost the employer more to keep the young employee and raise the minimum wage. This would mean that employers would see young people as a liability and that it would not profit them much if they were to employ a young person who they would pay the same as an adult employee.

Another practical example that was raised was that younger employees cannot do as much nor have as much experience as an older employer, such as selling alcohol. In life there is meant to be progression, times change, and people go from living with their parents to moving out and fending for themselves. Most young people that are aged 16 may not have such responsibility and financial commitment and it is only fair if their wages reflect that they may not need as much money as someone who is older and lives on their own.

The argument was that this is a realistic motion as it only relates to 1/3 of the ages representing this campaign (11-18 year olds). It ended with the statement that minimum wage is not the be all and end all, with which I partly agree as most young people get things like travel or other leisure activities at a subsidized rate in comparison to the older employees who pay tax and full price. However, this opinion only reflects the experience I had whilst living in London and earning minimum wage when I was ages 16-18 and it may not be representative of all those living across the country.

‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’

Finally the last motion of the day that received the most passionate speeches and arguments and was reflected in the results was ‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’.

Stefania: It was certainly one of the most powerful and significant debates stressing the need for a sustainable, realistic, inspiring curriculum that provides young people with political knowledge, cultural awareness, practical skills, relationships and sexual education and enables them to make a smooth transition from school life to work life.

That issue seemed to attract a large consensus: after the two speeches, the members of the Parliament talked about real, current challenges in young people’s lives that need to be met at school, world issues, cultural diversity and life skills. They seemed to hold that the school had to prepare them for life-by not focusing on exam results mostly, but by placing attention to the real problems and to a sustainable preparation of young people for a balanced life and career, producing thereby responsible, educated, informed and open minded citizens.

Ruth: It was a very poignant motion because I firmly believed in it and also because of the final topping of the cake that was laid by an MYP who had so desperately wanted to speak for this motion. Nevertheless, like all the other motions I am writing the against argument.

The against debaters started off on this note, that was  no curriculum available that could provide adequate learning for students and young people. This was not a straight cut topic or module like math’s or English, there could at times be no clear or distinct answer because life is full of inevitable events, life is unpredictable. The curriculums taught in school are all based on fact and figures, but with life they are no predictable facts or figures just hypothesis as to what could possibly happen.  One MYP rightly stated that the government could not dictate to them how they perceive to be the right way to think, act and live, which is a fair point because the last thing anyone wants is to be told how to live or what they should do to prepare for life, suggesting that they already know how each individual’s life is going to turn out. Experience of work is more important. The state and government are not the parents.

Stefania: After the end of the debate, the members of the Youth Parliament voted for the campaign they wanted to be the priority campaign for 2013. As expected, the last issue (‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’) received the majority of the votes (154), making it the priority issue for next year. It was followed by the issue of getting ready for work, which gained a significant 43% of the votes and the rest of the debates. The issues that came last in the voting order were the issue of an equal minimum national wage for all and the issue of making the public transport affordable for young people.

Overall, it was a prolific event, with very knowledgeable, smart, strong, articulate young pupils, who had the courage and the ability to analyse, criticize and offer solutions and proposals for a better education, better opportunities for youth and a fair society. I was impressed by the atmosphere of the debate, which sparked constructive discussion, dialogue, and celebrated equal rights to dialogue -the coordinator gave equal chances to girls and boys, people from different ethnic backgrounds and disabled people to speak- as well as mutual respect. There was a high level of toleration and acceptance of different views.  As John Bercow MP, who chaired the debate, highlighted, the day, the speeches and the debates were characterized by ‘honesty, compassion, abundance, explosions and dignity’. He also said that ‘Respect is a two-way street’. It definitely is.