“I’d like to help you son, but you’re too young to vote”

The UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) held it’s 10th annual sitting at the University of Ulster last weekend.  This was the first time the Parliament had ventured out of Great Britain.  The UKYP is a UK-wide youth organisation that gives a voice to  young people aged 11-18. Through the Parliament those who can’t yet vote have a chance to influence politicians and wider society.

Members of the Youth Parliament (MYPs) are elected in every constituency and region of the UK.  In some areas elections are highly contested with over 600,000 young people voting in this year’s elections.

The sitting this year was my first.  Over 350 MYPs attended the sitting in Jordanstown, including 14 from Northern Ireland.  The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, also attended and spoke to the gathering.  I was lucky enough to be one of six chosen to have lunch with him.

The Parliament was due to hold  a headline  debate on Votes at 16. We had been campaigning on this for sometime, but the formal support of MYPs was needed.  It was during this debate that the drama began.  A girl was invited up to talk about services in her area.

It was soon clear that she had a particular axe to grind.  She began to talk about the “savage cuts” expected in the Youth Sector where she came from.  Shortly into her speech one of her friends came to the podium, uninvited, and began to stir the meeting into debating this issue instead.

The debate was being run by senior MYPs and they were more than slightly surprised by this turn of events.  They told the meeting that this new issue could not be debated at this time.  This was not popular with the Parliament, especially those from one specific region.  The supporters of the new cause became more impassioned with each second.

After about ten minutes of chaos the hall became significantly emptier.  About 30-40 of those who supported the “Peasants’ Revolt” walked out of the meeting!  This fracas was a great example of how passionate young people could be about issues affecting them.

Once the debate on Votes at 16 got going, MYPs said that effective Political Education was essential before the enfranchisement of this age group.  Others argued we could not afford it, with the current budget deficit.  Votes were cast on the issue.  Over 300 MYPs voted on the motion.  It was rejected by more than a 2/3rd majority.  The Parliament better start rewriting its policies.

The “Peasants Revolt” group then returned to the chamber to read their prepared statement.  We were told that it would be debated later, during our free time for those who were interested.  That debate would turn out to be just as interesting the first.

This voluntary debate was well attended and some very strong opinions were expressed.  The group who had walked out were very rowdy when someone spoke against them.  Some of them within were unhappy with the wording of the statement under debate.

They claimed it had been amended by the group, but that one of the leaders had simply ignored their comments.  Whether this was true or not was never revealed to the rest of us, though some kept trying to get hold of the a microphone but never succeeded.

Then at a point this smaller group walked out! Ironic to see them walk out of a meeting discussing a prior walk-out. Youth Politics in action!

In October 2009 the Youth Parliament was the first ever non-parliamentary group to sit and debate in the House of Commons.  This privilege has now been extended to us for the entire life of this Parliament and we’ll be back –  this October.

Critics might say young people have no vote, and don’t need to be listened to. But remember we pay tax in the form of VAT, and in some cases income tax.  Therefore we’re entitled to a voice.

Would you like to get involved?   The UKYP has a good website and the Northern Irish group of MYPs are coordinated by the Northern Ireland Youth Forum.

Alex Huston MYP (Belfast East)

“I’d like to help you son, but you’re too young to vote” Eddie Cochran – Summertime Blues

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