Use of the Chamber (Youth Parliament)

Public Accounts – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 12th March 2009.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker 4:31 pm, 12th March 2009

I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of Mr. Chope.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 4:41 pm, 12th March 2009

I beg to move,

That this House
welcomes the work of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament in providing young people with an opportunity to engage with the political process and bring about social change;
notes that many hon. Members from all parts of the House are actively involved in the work of the UK Youth Parliament;
and accordingly resolves that the UK Youth Parliament should be allowed for this year alone to hold its 2009 annual meeting in the Chamber of this House.

I suppose I should start by saying, "Seconds out, round two," as this feels like the second part of a debate that did not really begin yesterday. I will also just say this to Sir Nicholas Winterton, who is the longest-standing member of the Modernisation Committee, and who raised a point of order just now: he called for a matter to be referred to the Modernisation Committee, but last week he called for the Modernisation Committee to be abolished, so consistency is clearly not one of his major features for today.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I will not allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene on me yet, but I am sure he will do so in a few moments.

As I am sure every Member knows, there is a serious issue in terms of the involvement of young people in politics of every kind.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

May I develop my argument just a little before the hon. Gentleman intervenes on me?

We all know that there are problems with young people who are disaffected from society in general—they exist in every constituency in the land—and that antisocial behaviour affects many of our communities, and we also know that the percentage of young people, especially under the age of 24, who turn out for elections has fallen very dramatically, from 60 in the 1990s to the low 30s in the last couple of general elections. In addition, every single political party has found that the number of young people getting involved has fallen. One of the significant innovations in the past decade to try to redress some of these issues is the creation of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament. Those who originally thought of creating it had a brilliant idea, and it has made a significant difference on two levels. First, in terms of youth organisation in every constituency, it has led to the positive development that many young people are now actively involved in discussing the major political issues facing the country, instead of just going along to a youth club and playing ping-pong. It has given a structure for the National Youth Agency.

There have been very significant debates in this building, albeit not in this Chamber. Indeed, there have been meetings in Committee Room 14, which is what the amendment recommends, for the last 10 years. Therefore, it hardly seems like an innovation for hon. Members to be moving that as a halfway-house amendment.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Can the Deputy Leader of the House explain the Government's thinking over the last week in putting this motion at the end of business, when it could not possibly have been debated? This is an important issue. Why was time not provided? Why were the Government forced, by Members objecting every evening, to have to find time?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Clearly, there are priorities, and although making sure that as many young people feel engaged in the political process as possible is a very significant priority for the Government, whether the Chamber should be allocated to the UK Youth Parliament is probably not as important as some of the issues that people were calling on my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to allow time for debate on. However, there would have been debate yesterday if the hon. Gentleman and some other colleagues had not forced debates on issues that they then chose not to vote on.

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Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I will deal with the matter that the Deputy Leader of the House raised as soon as he got to his feet—in respect of my involvement with the Modernisation Committee—when, I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, I catch your eye later. Unless I have been misled by my hon. Friend Alan Duncan, the shadow Leader of the House, the matter has not been discussed with him and he has not been consulted about it, because he told me this only yesterday. If it is so important to the Government and is really a cross-party issue, why have they not had the courtesy to discuss it with my hon. Friend?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I do not think I am breaking any confidences in saying that the shadow Leader of the House and I have had some discussions today, and I am happy to come to those issues; I hope that I can provide some reassurance on the basis of those discussions. At the moment, I have discussions with the shadow Leader of the House nearly every day—I do not want to suggest any cosiness in that arrangement—but this is not a matter on which we think it right that there should be a party Whip; we have not wanted to advance in that way. I say to Mr. Chope, who raised the issue of consultation, that, in the end, the only way the Government have of consulting the whole House is by putting something on the Order Paper and having a vote, and that is what I would dearly like us to be able to do.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I know that there are several hon. Members who would like—

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House does not want to mislead Parliament. It has been suggested on a number of occasions that hon. Members yesterday called for a vote and then did not vote. That is not the case. I called for a vote against the European Union motion and voted against it. That ought to be made clear.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I must refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments made by Mr. Speaker yesterday. He dealt with points of order on this very issue.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

If the hon. Gentleman feels I have slighted him in any way, I do apologise; I would not ever want to do so. I merely note the fact that we had votes yesterday afternoon that seemed to indicate that a lot of people opposed the measures in question, but only four did so on the first, and only six on the second.

The important issue before us is that the UK Youth Parliament has developed a growing sense of self-confidence as an organisation, and many of the young people involved are from a wide variety of backgrounds, which has been significant in itself. It is interesting to note the breadth of backgrounds of the young people who take part. In the last Youth Parliament, 53 per cent. of its members were women, 47 per cent. were male—obviously—2 per cent. had disabilities and 21 per cent. were from black and ethnic minority groups. That is considerably higher than for the nation at large, and considerably higher than in this Chamber. In some senses, it was great to see when those young people were sitting in the House of Lords the breadth and diversity that was shown in that Parliament. Sometimes, I wish that we could mirror that diversity in this Chamber.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Can my hon. Friend explain to me why there was apparently no opposition when people from the Youth Parliament were able to sit in the House of Lords? Is that giving some primacy to that Chamber, in the sense that it seems to be more representative than this one? That fills me with alarm.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I was about to move on to the fact that last year, the UK Youth Parliament was allowed to use the second Chamber, the House of Lords. It was interesting that there was remarkably little opposition of any kind, in a Chamber that is often considered rather more hidebound by tradition than this one. The young people were really struck by the privilege of being able to do that, and took part with enthusiasm. The Lords Speaker, who chaired the debate herself, said:

"The quality of the debate today has been fantastic. We don't hear the sounds of clapping in this Chamber often. What really impressed me was the courage of people who stood up and took a position which was not the view of the majority—and the respect that you all showed to everyone's viewpoints."

I spoke to a couple of peers last night who described themselves as the crustiest of crusty Members of the House of Lords and who were entirely enthusiastic about the event last May, and they said it was quite extraordinary that there seemed be another level—another dimension—of crustiness that could be found only in this House.

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Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Will the Deputy Leader of the House acknowledge two things? First, one is not elected to the House of Lords; it is wholly different from this Chamber, which is unique. I think I speak for almost all, if not all, my colleagues who have reservations about this proposition. We have nothing but support for the Youth Parliament. We are delighted that it should meet in many places in the Palace of Westminster. Many of the young people involved aspire to come here, and we believe that when they come here to take their seats, it should be the unique experience it was for the Deputy Leader of the House, for me, and for everybody else.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman—or the Great Grand Crust, as we shall now know him—put in my mind for the first time ever the thought of electing the second Chamber. That is a very good idea.

The hon. Gentleman said that we are unique because we are elected. The Scottish Parliament, which is elected, has just gone through exactly the same process, and it was an enormously welcome experience to see many young people, who would never have had any experience of active political engagement before, taking part in that Chamber, and the use of the Chamber made a significant difference to the quality of the opportunity available to those young people.

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Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

I invite my hon. Friend to reflect on his exchange with Sir Patrick Cormack. The last recorded policy of Her Majesty's Opposition on reform of the other place was for a 100 per cent. elected second Chamber. Are we to conclude that should there be a Conservative Government, and should there be a 100 per cent. elected second Chamber, the UK Youth Parliament would be thrown out and not ever have another opportunity to debate in that place?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I do not think that anyone should ever conclude anything about Conservative party policy; it seems to be a rather moveable feast.

In the fascinating debates held in the House of Lords, the young people involved voted on which policies they thought were the most important to advance as part of their manifesto. The first concerned recycling and their environmental campaign, which received 490 votes. The second concerned a national public transport concessionary card for young people under the age of 18, which received 425 votes. The abolition of university tuition fees received 252 votes, and they also considered the matter of fair and accurate representation of young people in the media, lowering the voting age to 16 and having one single age at which young people are deemed to become an adult. These were adult debates.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House because I want to support his cause, and speak for anti-crustiness. It was such an excellent debate in the House of Lords, and as important as the subjects that were discussed was this comment from a delegate who felt that the publicity generated from the House of Lords debate would be a great start:

"This is fantastic press which we've never had before and it's so positive. This is the kind of thing the media really need to focus on."

They never focused on the debate in Committee Room 14; they might if we have it here, and replicate the success of the other place.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

That is a very good point. I give way to Mr. Brady—the Young Crust.

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Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

The hon. Gentleman knows I do not agree with him on this point. He advances arguments as to why the proposal for the Youth Parliament to sit in this Chamber might be beneficial to it and to the cause of getting young people involved in Parliament. If he believes it is so beneficial, why does his motion make it possible for that to happen on only one occasion?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I was going to come to some of the restrictions that I think will be important if this sitting were to happen, as we have not put them all in the motion. I have spoken to the shadow Leader of the House and I think it would be fair to put some matters concerning how the event would proceed on the record. For instance, I think it would be inappropriate for anybody other than Mr. Speaker to sit in the Speaker's Chair. Similarly, it would be inappropriate for the Mace to be in place. I think that the session should be chaired by a senior Member of this House as opposed to any other person. The normal rules of the House should apply in terms of parliamentary language, dress code, mobile phones and the one issue that particularly worried the shadow Leader of the House—namely, whether students would be chewing gum or not. It is important, too, that the broadcasting rights would remain with us, as would control over how the session would be broadcast. The fact that the debate in the House of Lords was broadcast on BBC Parliament gave an enormous sense of occasion to the young people, which is something that could never be achieved in Committee Room 14, which is a far clumsier environment and in no sense has the same cachet and significance as this Chamber.

We would, of course, be able to ensure that access to other parts of the House was restricted so that all security issues were covered. As the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West has just said, this would be a one-off. If hon. Members wanted to return to the issue thereafter, it would be for them to do so. The other most important and significant point is that this would happen on a non-sitting day.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

To be entirely consistent, if there is a request from the Muslim Council of Britain, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Catholic Union of Great Britain, Age Concern or any other representative body that was as representative of this country as the Youth Parliament is, should not they be allowed to sit here, too?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

No, because the Youth Parliament is representative of the whole of the United Kingdom. A significant aspect of the Youth Parliament is that it is attempting to bond rather than disunite, and that is why I think that this should be a unique opportunity that is offered to the Youth Parliament.

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At best it is representative of young people, whist at worst it is representative only of the politically active young. If a group has to be representative to sit in the Chamber, then...

Submitted by Ben Hoskin Continue reading

Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I shall give way to Mr. Bacon, but I shall not give way to longest-standing Member of the Modernisation Committee, the hon. Member for Macclesfield, again, because I know that other Members, including him, want to speak.

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Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

The Youth Parliament is representative of the UK, but so is Age Concern. Why, if we were to allow such sittings at all, would one not allow them for pensioners? Where would one stop?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Many of the public, looking at this House, think that we already have Age Concern sitting here. The significant point—

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The shadow Leader of the House is trying to be helpful, but I think that some of the people sitting behind him will attack him just as much as they attack me, so he need not worry about me too much.

I do not want to delay the House too long.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am keen not to give way too often, because I am sure that hon. Members will manage to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, the hon. Gentleman is looking querulously at me and very grumpy, so I shall give way.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for giving way. The reason I am looking querulous is that the Prime Minister said:

"Consultation will take place with...Mr. Speaker, and through the Leader of the House, with this House as to whether the Youth Parliament should be invited here in this Chamber once a year, on a non-sitting day."—[ Hansard, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 819.]

He did not say once, but "once a year". Is that a pledge that the Prime Minister has made on which the Government are now reneging, or should some other meaning be given to those words?

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Is this not a waste of time?, a cover for the lack of true discussion on matters of import to the people of the country?.

Submitted by Douglas White

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

There have been informal consultations around the House and that is why we have tabled a one-off proposal this afternoon. If the hon. Gentleman had wanted to amend it so that it was more in tune with what the Prime Minister originally intended, so that these sittings happened once a year, that course was open to him.

At the core of this argument is how hon. Members consider their ownership of the Chamber. I believe that it is of course a great privilege to be a Member of Parliament, but we should not stand on ceremony. The old politics of MPs' surrounding themselves in special favours and anything that makes this place seem like a gentlemen's club put off not just young people but the vast majority of voters.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

On a number of occasions, my children, like many other children, have been in this place with me, their father. They have asked me whether they can sit on the green Benches and I have said no, because it is not in my gift to give them that permission. I have said no to my children, whose ages range between four and 12, on two occasions. The right to sit here is conferred on me by licence by my constituents in Broxbourne. It is not a gift for me to give to others.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

But it is not only the hon. Gentleman's children who should be allowed to come into the Chamber. All the children of this country should be able to do so, because the Chamber— [ Interruption. ]

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The Deputy Leader of the House is responding to the point made by Mr. Walker. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a further intervention, that will be a matter for the Deputy Leader of the House to decide.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Numerous children from my primary and secondary schools have visited this Chamber. I have gone to speak to them subsequently and they have told me that they have had a wonderful time here. The idea that Charles Walker's children have a privilege that other children in my constituency do not have is nonsense. Charles Walker's children have no more and no less in the way of privilege than any other children in my constituency.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am sorry if I have offended the hon. Gentleman, who I think has misunderstood the point that I was trying to make. Quite simply, the decision about who can and cannot sit on these Benches is for the whole House, not any individual Member. Personally, I would like those elected to the Youth Parliament to be able to sit in this Chamber, on one occasion in the coming year.

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Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

Does the Deputy Leader of the House think it might be helpful to conduct some referendums in random constituencies—Reading, West and Broxbourne, perhaps—to see what people think of Members of Parliament who want to deny young people the fantastic opportunity to debate in this place? If such referendums were conducted—and they may well be—does he agree that hon. Members who take that position might be honour bound to listen to the views of their constituents?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I do not think that this is a party-political issue. This should be something that unites all those who want to ensure that young people have an opportunity to take an active part in modern British politics and to value the British parliamentary tradition. All too often, the young people who do get involved in politics have nothing to do with that tradition because they are engaged only with single-issue campaigns. I think that allowing them to use the Chamber has a significant value, and I am certain that any referendum of young people in my constituency of Rhondda—or in that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House—would show them to be surprised to hear Members of Parliament say that only they can ever be allowed to sit in this Chamber. For that matter, I expect that I would find the same were I to ask pensioner groups in my area the same question.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

No, if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me—

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have a genuine point that I hope he will clarify before he concludes his remarks. He said that he wanted the Youth Parliament to sit here for one day, yet the motion before us refers not to one day but to its "annual meeting". Last year, the Youth Parliament's annual meeting ran over four days, from 19 to 22 July. Is he seeking to allow four days or one day of debate in the Chamber?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The right hon. Gentleman—my right hon. Friend, indeed—who chairs the Procedure Committee makes a helpful contribution. The truth is that we are talking about only one day. [ Interruption. ] I hear Opposition Members ask why, and the answer is that we believe this should be a one-off, unique opportunity.

I believe that this Chamber is not ours but is merely on loan from the people whom we represent. The young people of the UK Youth Parliament do not just own this country's future—they are also a vital part of our present, and we should not exclude them. We should definitely welcome them in, and I very much hope that the House will allow a vote to be held and the UK Youth Parliament to use this Chamber.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 5:04 pm, 12th March 2009

I will speak as briefly as I possibly can to allow as many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members as possible also to speak in the debate.

I have a few observations to start with, one of which is that the inspiration for much of the Youth Parliament came from the late Andrew Rowe—a former Conservative Member of Parliament known to many if not all of us—so its origins lie in a colleague who sat on this side of the House.

At its best, the Youth Parliament is something that we all ought to applaud. In an age when too many young people think, "Oh, politicians are all the same, and we don't want anything to do with politics", to see enthusiastic youngsters acting in a replica of the House, having been elected in their schools and elsewhere, is something that we ought to applaud. To encourage young people to enjoy the idea of Parliament and to participate in its concepts and merits is something that we should all do if we possibly can.

I came to the issue very much in the middle, after the reshuffle, and quite a lot of water had gone under the bridge before I understood quite what was going on, even though I raised it on 12 February in the second of my encounters with the Leader of the House. It is a pity that this has been mishandled. The trouble is that the motion on the Order Paper is very broad and no terms and conditions are attached, and there has been no consultation with Front Benchers or, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight has said, with any of the relevant Committees, despite assurances that that would happen.

We have an open motion, no consultation and basically a vacuum of understanding about what is really proposed. There are no understood terms and conditions, no rules of engagement and no basic details, which we all understand lie behind the motion. It is therefore fully understandable that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have found the whole process objectionable and are fearful of what we are being asked to vote for, and therefore object to it in principle. I fully understand their annoyance, which is felt mostly by hon. Members who have a fervent and long-standing appreciation of the courtesies and proprieties of the House. It may not be sacred, but it is a supremely important place. It is not just any old room. It is a symbolic and working Parliament, looked at across the world as the seat of democracy. It is the pinnacle of democracy in our country, and therefore its use cannot be treated lightly.

The experiment in the Lords worked rather well. It was broadcast on the Parliament channel. As the Deputy Leader of the House has said and even as Members of the House of Lords have said, it really did go extremely well, and it was a credit to the participants who debated and were televised there. When I discovered in the midst of all this that I was very much in the crossfire, I undertook to try to broker at least some understanding of what might be involved. Having asked for some sort of discussion a couple of days ago, so that we could have an exchange of letters or comments about what would be involved, I finally spoke to the hon. Gentleman today, and he has kindly referred to what was basically my checklist of what I thought should be at least explained to the House.

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Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I stated in an earlier intervention that my hon. Friend had told me only yesterday that there had been no consultation with the Leader of the House or, for that matter, the Deputy Leader of the House. However, in response the Deputy Leader of the House indicated that there had been consultation. I made it clear in my intervention that I spoke to my hon. Friend about the matter yesterday. Now, my hon. Friend, whose remarks so far I entirely endorse, has said that, in fact, no consultant took place until today. Has not the Deputy Leader of the House been slightly—how do I put it—disingenuous in replying to my intervention? In fact, yesterday, there had been no consultation.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

No, my hon. Friend may have misheard the Deputy Leader of the House, who used the word "today", and if one were to read the record, he was absolutely accurate in what he said. [ Interruption. ] That is exactly what he said, and his account was fully honest and accurate. His comments certainly reflect my knowledge of what we have and have not discussed. It was indeed today that we discussed a basic checklist. I will rattle through it.

I think that it is inappropriate for anyone to sit in the Speaker's Chair, other than the Speaker.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Indeed. It is as if we were to treat it with the same respect with which the throne of the sovereign might be treated in another place. I do not think that the symbol of the Queen's authority, the Mace, should appear if this place is used by anybody else. People should have to dress properly. They should meet our standards. They should do their best—they will be young—to follow our forms of debate. Obviously, basic rules such as no mobiles and no food should follow. The standards that we are required to meet should be met by them.

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Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

I understand the hon. Gentleman's observation about the Mace, but the parliamentary education service uses a mock Mace. Would its use in the Chamber be acceptable?

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

No. I am negotiating very hard to try to allay the fears of some of my colleagues.

The broadcasting issue is important. The House of Lords event was broadcast on the BBC Parliament channel, but as the Deputy Leader of the House said, if the proposal goes ahead, it is essential that the House retains all editorial control. If anyone misbehaves, that should be expunged from the record. We are not going to allow anyone to carry out a little stunt, and then somehow parade it in their literature, or give it publicity in the years ahead by, say, putting it on YouTube. Nothing like that must be allowed to emanate from the event. [Interruption.] Not like Martin Salter; he has missed many opportunities to do that.

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Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Conservative, Croydon South

My hon. Friend says that he will not allow any stunts to be shown. If the event is broadcast on the BBC Parliament channel, and someone makes a recording, how can he stop that from happening?

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The recording will have been edited for any nonsense, so that it will not be shown.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I agree with certain remarks made by my hon. Friend so far. As the BBC Parliament channel broadcasts live, can he explain how any remarks will be edited out?

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

It need not be broadcast live; I believe that it was not on the last occasion. There are other issues, such as access and the use of any Galleries. My personal view is that only the secure Gallery should be used; parents may want to watch their children perform in the debate. There is the question whether the Division Lobbies should be used. Frankly, if the proposal goes ahead, it would be illogical not to allow the young people to learn how to vote.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

To get the complete experience, should they not be allowed to use all the bars of the House, too?

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Many of them will be under age, so I fear that that may be thoroughly inappropriate. There are of course administrative issues, such as the policing of the event, and what happens to access for the public on the day, but I think that they are fairly obvious and easy to overcome.

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Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

The hon. Gentleman is being extremely constructive about the terms of engagement. Has he spoken to members of last year's Youth Parliament about how things went in the House of Lords, and does he accept that most of the points that he described were properly observed by the debaters last year?

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I have not spoken to any of the individual participants, but I have spoken with a number of people who observed their proceedings, and every single person to whom I spoke said that that the participants behaved in an impeccable and impressive way, and were excited and thrilled. Everything that they did was a credit to them, and indeed to the sort of processes that we would like to see them observe. As an experiment, it was 100 per cent. successful and laudable.

The question remains whether this House would like those young people—youth parliamentarians, as they see themselves—to be able to sit on the leather Benches, which all of us have fought very hard to do. It ends up being a decision on whether we think that what we have done is so fantastic that no one else should be allowed just to get that little tingle of excitement from feeling that they might one day be able to do what all of us have done.

We are not the permanent stewards of this place. We are passing through it, and for democracy to survive, other generations will have to replace us. Why, under the right terms and conditions and following the right rules, do we not allow them that thrill and excitement and hope that perhaps in a few years a genuinely elected Member of Parliament will say that their inspiration for politics derived in part from that day when they were experimenting, sitting here and getting the excitement of this place, and they suddenly realised that politics does matter, that Parliament does matter, and that a senior group of elected parliamentarians gave them the privilege and the permission to do it for just a day?

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

In my closing exciting moments, I give way to my hon. Friend.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

It is not about us. It is not as though we were speaking about some cosy club in St. James's that we want to reserve for ourselves. It is about our constituents. It is their right and no one else's. For more than 1,000 years it has been the right of the entire people of the United Kingdom to send Members here. That is why, in my hon. Friend's words, the Chamber is not any old room. It is a sacred part of the constitution.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Labour, West Ham

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his constituents, like mine, would totally agree with the position that he has just put before the House?

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Some of the greatest moments in history arise from wise people deciding that just occasionally a rule is designed to be broken, and that exceptions should be made in order to allow something special to happen.

This should happen only once. We do not want the Chamber to be taken over, to become a venue for parties or a favoured catering place. This is a one-off, to try to say to young people, "Parliament matters. If you get elected, go for it." We should let them do it, on the right terms and conditions. I shall support the motion tonight, should we get to a vote.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 5:17 pm, 12th March 2009

In this instance, it is a pleasure to follow Alan Duncan, because I agree with the points that he put forward. This is a matter for every individual Member of the House. It is not appropriate for it to be party political, and Members will take their own decision.

We have an opportunity to do something of immense value for an institution which we should respect and for which we should have great ambitions. I have been in contact with people in my constituency who have been seeking election to the Youth Parliament. I have given them assistance and helped with the process of election. I felt that it was a significant addition to our political system. It encourages young people to understand the democratic process, to participate in the democratic process, and to participate in the right way, understanding how our systems work.

The opportunity to give those young people the opportunity, just for one day, to experience this place is precious and in our gift. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton spoke about the tingle of coming into this place for the first time. I admit that I am a romantic about the Chamber. I still feel a buzz and a privilege every time I am permitted to sit here and to say what I believe in the Chamber of the House of Commons.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Why did the hon. Gentleman walk out?

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I did not. The hon. Gentleman is making a silly intervention.

I hope that we all feel that way about the Chamber. When we cease to feel it, that is the time to pack up and find another career.

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Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

So far speakers from both Front Benches have given an indication that, although they believe that allowing young people to come here on one occasion is an important opportunity to inspire them, they believe that it should happen once and once only. Does the hon. Gentleman share that view, or would he like to see it happen every year?

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I shall come to that point in a moment.

First, like the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, I deprecate the fact that there was no proper consultation on this issue. That, I am afraid, is so typical of how the Government do these things. [Interruption.] I hear the word "arrogance" spoken from a sedentary position, and it is appropriate. That lack of consultation is so unnecessary; it does not take much to consult properly and make sure that people are happy with arrangements before plonking before the House a motion to which people are expected to agree without debate. That is an unfortunate way of doing business, and it is important to say that. Having said it, I should add that some hon. Members—as I shall explain, I respect their position in some ways—would never agree if they were consulted for the next decade on the subject. There is a point at which we have to stop consulting and start deciding. Perhaps one of the Government's besetting faults is that sometimes they consult for too long and do not decide sufficiently.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Is not the Government's position worse than the hon. Gentleman has indicated? This is not a case of their failing to consult; they promised to consult, and failed to do so.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

That is not unfamiliar when it comes to matters in the House, and as we keep on saying, it is unfortunate. I hope that the day will arrive when there is machinery to allow the various parties to be consulted properly about the business of the House in advance of its being placed before them. We could then organise our affairs efficiently and effectively, people could have time to discuss what needs to be discussed, and time would not be wasted on what does not need to be discussed. That, however, is a matter for another day; what I am talking about now is the opportunity for the UK Youth Parliament to use the Chamber.

I said that I respected the view contrary to mine. I do; Members should not be insulted or assumed to be an irrelevancy because they have strongly held views on this subject. They adduce two arguments—neither of which I agree with, but which are respectable. The first is almost theological: it is about the sacred nature of the Chamber, and the notion that it is consecrated by its history and traditions and that nobody under any circumstances should be allowed to violate the holy of holies and sanctum sanctorum that is the House. I understand that position, but do not agree with it. As far as I am concerned, this chamber becomes the Chamber of the House of Commons when the Mace is in position, the Speaker or Deputy Speakers are in their seat and the House is sitting. I am sorry, but the rest of the time it is a building with great history, but it is just a building. There is a distinction between the House when it is sitting and otherwise.

The point is understood by almost every other legislature in the world. I am a Member of the British Parliament, but I have sat in seats in the Assemblée Nationale, the Bundestag and the Chamber of the House of Commons of Canada, which is similar to this Chamber. I have sat in the Lok Sabha in India and in a whole host of examples of the Sobranije or Majlis across eastern Europe and central Asia. There has been no intrinsic problem with my doing so. I do not believe that any one of those legislatures believes that its sovereignty or traditions were destroyed by my sitting in one of its seats for a few moments.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Possibly apart from this one, as the hon. Gentleman says. I think that we can dispose of that first argument.

The second argument is about precedent, and it was touched on earlier. It is that once we allow one organisation to use the Chamber, the floodgates will open and we will be unable to deny any requests. What a lack of self-confidence in this sovereign House's ability to decide its own affairs! As far as I am concerned, we decide what happens here, and if we decide that the UK Youth Parliament will use the Chamber for one occasion and one occasion only, that will be the decision. If we decide at a future stage that it was a great success in building confidence in and understanding of democracy in this country among the young, as it was in the House of Lords, we may repeat the experience. That is in the hands of this House. I do not have so little confidence in the House's ability to take decisions on this matter that I fear that the slippery slope of precedent will somehow sweep all before it and we will be unable to take any decision in future.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I will give way, but for the last time. I believe that the hon. Gentleman might wish to make a speech himself.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I will hope to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one argument that could be deployed if the motion were accepted is that in future the majority party in the House should be able to have party meetings in this Chamber comprising solely Members of Parliament? That could be pushed through by a majority vote. Does he concede that precedent argument?

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

One could make all sorts of conjecture or imagine all sorts of extraordinary goings-on. In my constituency there is a twinning meeting between the town of Wincanton and Ankh-Morpork, which some Members will know is an imaginary place in the world of science-fiction, in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. The people who attend that meeting sit in the chamber of Wincanton town council once a year. I do not anticipate that the House of Commons will invite the denizens of Ankh-Morpork to come and sit here; nor do I expect the Labour party to use it as its constituency headquarters for the Cities of London and Westminster, although one never knows.

This decision is one that Members of all parties should make. I believe that it is a one-off, and that the precautions that were suggested by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton and agreed by the Deputy Leader of the House make perfect sense. I will support the motion. I invite colleagues to do so, but it will be a free vote.

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