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This year’s Young People’s Question Time, hosted by the Hansard Society, was a well-attended and informative meeting. About 200 young folk- ranging from primary school pupils to twenty-something professionals- braved a lengthy queue and the brisk November weather to view the clash of ideas in Portcullis House, situated directly opposite the Palace of Westminster.

This year’s panel consisted of Natascha Engel MP (Labour, North East Derbyshire; Nadhim Zahawi MP (Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon); Julian Huppert MP (Lib Dem, Cambridge); and Professor Baroness Young (Crossbench). It was chaired by the talented Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murphy. Thanks to an eclectic range of questions from the audience, there was a quickly-paced but constructive style of debate between the panel, which was respectful of fellow members and the audience.

The first question asked the panel how the acute lack of female role models in politics should be addressed.

Perhaps inevitably, it was not long before the following question was asked: “Do you think that lowering the voting age to 16 is a good way forward?” But before the politician had their say, Guru-Murthy asked for a show of hands from the 16-18 year olds in the audience (most of the people there!) on the issue. Surprisingly, about half of the group was opposed to giving themselves the vote- whereas all the panel with the exception of Nadhim Zahawi were in favour of the policy. Why would these young, politically engaged folk reject the franchise that the political class, as represented in the room, wants them to have?

Maybe Natascha Engel put her finger on it when she received applause for her claim that votes at 16 should be accompanied by a major expansion of political education in schools- much as ShoutOutUK has been calling for in its Pol4Schools campaign. It seems that Engel didn’t realise the scale of the task: upon mentioning Citizenship studies, she expressed surprise when told that it was no longer a mandatory part of the National Curriculum: “We need to change that for a start.”

From there discussion moved to the broader issue of political engagement. Professor Young earned murmurs of approval when she declared “There’s a very good reason why I’m not in a party. None of them matches all of my views… We’ve made a real mess of [Britain’s] political culture”. If the representatives of the three-party system felt attacked, they didn’t show it. Julian Huppert proceeded to blame partisanship for poor political engagement. Voters were turned off, he said, by a politics of point-scoring over substance.

“When you turn the camera off, most MPs can talk to each other sensibly. [Politicians] need to talk about values more.”

 To his credit, Mr Huppert did not try to place the Liberal Democrats above the partisan squabbling that he talked of! His point was backed by Nadhim Zahawi, who highlighted the benefits of cross party co-operation in parliamentary Select Committees. Zahawi suggested that these increasingly influential institutions should be given greater prominence in the media and political debate, as they represented the constructive side of politics. Alas, one suspects that such an increase in media attention would encourage the spread of hyper partisanship, but the principle was- rightly- widely supported in the room.

Then, talk moved at a tangent towards education and democracy in schools. On this matter, Natascha Engel and Julian Huppert spoke with one voice (figuratively). The latter talked of the “huge problem” of “education being done to” students, whilst both argued that school councils, though all too often “tokenistic”, have a role to play in enhancing student-school relations. But sadly, the clock was ticking and so the panel moved onto the penultimate topic, that of cycling, which is particularly topical given the recent spate of fatal cycling accidents in London.

On this, the panel were unanimous: “I can see anything but segregated cycle lanes working”. “We need proper segregation… and a 20 mph speed limit”. Engel revealed that she was only just taking up cycling once more having been knocked off of her bike by a vehicle two years previously, and pointed out that people would be reluctant to take up cycling until it was much, much safer. All three panel members also cited European cities (such as Berlin and Copenhagen) as examples that Britain should follow.

Finally, a few minutes were spent discussing one audience member’s question regarding the rights of prisoners. Perhaps the early departure of Mr Zahawi was responsible for the left-wing tilt in the answers. Baroness Young stressed the important of rehabilitation and that, of the prisons that she had visited, none had seemed like a hotel. She was supported by Julian Huppert, who added that there were “far too many” prisoners with mental health issues or were on the autistic spectrum. On the topic of luxuries in prison, he recounted a visit to a prison in which he had asked about claims that prisoners have Sky access. The prison official apparently informed Mr Huppert that prisoners do have sky access: they simply had to look up out of the window!

And to the disappointment of the audience, Young People’s Question Time had come to an end in what seemed like all too short a time. As these young citizens filtered out of the room, they talked excitedly of the issues that had been debated, how eager they were to find out more about them and how inspired they were by the constructive discussion between politicians with such diverse views. If political participation needs enhancing, then this is what will do it.

BY: JACK DARRANT