On Friday 4th November 2011, the United Kingdom Youth Parliament held its third debate in the House of Commons.
UKYP was founded in 2000 with cross-party support and has 600 members aged 11-18 years old who were elected by about 500,000 of their peers to sit in a Youth Parliament, one which is more representative of the general population (along lines of gender and ethnicity at least) than the current House of Commons.
I am one of those representatives, having been elected in March this year by young people in Wolverhampton and subsequently chosen as a Debate Lead by our West Midalnds region, giving me the privilege of speaking at the Despatch Box in November.
In 2008, UKYP held a debate in the House of Lords. However in 2009, MPs agreed to allow us to sit in the House, making us the first group of people apart from MPs to sit in the chamber. This year we debated which one of five topics chosen by 65,000 young people across the country would be our national campaign during 2012.
In order to prepare, a training weekend was held for Debate Leads in London towards the end of October. This involved public speaking workshops, a tour of the Palace of Westminster and of course drafting the speeches. I chose to speak on Public Transport as it is an issue in which the Wolverhampton Youth Council, of which I am also a member, had become interested, going so far as to conduct a survey of young people and meeting with transport companies and local authorities. After the weekend, I spent a lot of time practicing and polishing the speech.
An early start was required on Friday and a lack of sleep didn’t help. Hearing a radio interview I did the previous day helped wake me up, though! Thirty minutes before the start, all Debate Leads met the Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton and he was soon joined by Ed Miliband; we were then rushed off towards Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster. On the way, Ed and I talked about how I was feeling – which was a mixture of nerves and excitement. Once inside, we met the Speaker, John Bercow, and had a photo-shoot with him, Ed and Tim.
We were then taken to the chamber. Proceedings started with John Bercow introducing. This was then followed by speeches by Sir George Young, the Leader of the House and the Shadow Leader, Maria Eagle. Then the MYP’s took to the stage with Jamie Davies opening the Transport debate. My nerves were really building up. After 20 minutes of debating, the Speaker signalled me to speak.
Standing at the Despatch Box is strange, and completely different to how I had imagined it. Nevertheless, I managed to do the correct hand gestures, pauses and emphasises as I had practiced. Once finished, my emotions changed from nerves and excitement to relief and a wanting to do it all again!
The rest of the debates, for the most part went well, the standard of debating being high, both in the morning and afternoon sessions. Once we were all finished Natasha Engel, chair of the Backbench Business Committee, gave a summary speech. We then voted on which of the five topics was to be the basis of our national campaign, Public Transport being the one chosen.
Overall it was the best day of my life. Having watched MPs debate inside that same chamber I feel immensely privileged to have joined the list of people who have spoken at the Dispatch Box. I also feel that the debates answer the scepticism often expressed about young people’s participation in politics and that UKYP does a good job in representing their views. Indeed I feel it is events like this – if properly reported in the media – which can help encourage young people to see that there is a purpose to engaging in the political process in this way. Unfortunately, while most MPs take UKYP seriously, some journalists – like Simon Carr in the Independent – are much more sceptical.
James Potts is a first year studying Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations. James Tweets as @JamesPotts