On Friday the 23rd of November 2012, the UK Youth Parliament held their annual debate at the House of Commons chamber. 307 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 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 early that morning with my fellow journalist from the 99% campaign, 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 although each of us would report on the whole debate and focus on points we believe are remarkable, Ruth would focus on the ‘against’ views and I would focus on the positive arguments in each debate.
‘Make public transport cheaper, better and accessible for all’
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.
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.
‘Getting ready for work’
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’.
‘Marriage for All’
The next controversial, lively and to 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 that a passionate, vigorous speech. Her name is 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 has to be accepted by society and 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.
‘An equal national minimum wage for all’
The next debate, after the big lunch break was about the need for an equal national minimum wage for all. The defenders of an equal national minimum wage for all raised issues 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.
‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’
The last and certainly one of the most powerful and significant debates was ‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’, 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.
The winning debate
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 bebate, 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.
*this article, slighlty altered to be a joint article (with the coverage of the ‘against’arguments) was written for the needs of the IARS 99% campaign blog. I went to the House of Commons and reported on the event as part of the IARS 99% campaign blog team of journalists and for the needs of the blog. The whole joint article, along with my fellow journalist’s coverage can be read above.