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The Week in Parliament

Westminster is in recess, and there’s nothing significant from Wales or Northern Ireland, but Scotland may just have produced us a little goldmine to discuss today. It came in a debate on education, a topic where we have seen a lot of discussion in the past year or so- mostly over replacement for exams. In this debate however there was an appreciable and welcome discussion of consulting and engaging young people.

Young people are often a forgotten group in consultation and engagement- much to both their detriment and the consultors. We’ve been making a bit of a push in this direction in recent times (we even recently released an e-learning course on it- featuring my own dulcet tones), and we have many associates and colleagues with specialist expertise in the area. At our recent tCI Connect conference, our associate Susan Ritchie discussed it in a presentation available here.

In the debate, it took a starring role- with many members getting up to declare its importance. The incoming minister noted that “The need for young people to have a voice is something that I certainly heard loud and clear”, other members indicated their agreement, and then we came to the incoming member for South Scotland, Martin Whitfield.

I don’t often highlight particular individual contributions, partially because of a (possibly slightly over-) cautious approach to our own political neutrality, and partially because it is unusual for any particular politician to say anything particularly incisive on our topic area- more usually it is the tone of the overall debate that is the important part. In this case though, it is worth quoting directly from Mr Whitfield’s maiden speech:

“When I have chatted to young people, they have said that what they really want is to be listened to. They want to be listened to about what scares them. They ask, “Can I bring the virus home to my family? What is my future going to be? What are you leaving me?” They want to be listened to about their ideas. That is how we can get more state school pupils into university, and it is how the climate emergency can be combated. They want to be listened to about how they feel about exams. They want to be listened to so that they know that we understand their lives. As Stephen Covey, the American educationalist, said: “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”

As politicians, we frequently rush to be photographed with our young people, we meet them at climate rallies and we support their campaigns. However, I believe that our young have the right to be heard and considered. We would do well to remember that in Parliament. As article 12 of the UNCRC says, every child has the right to express their views on matters that affect them, and for those views to be taken into consideration, not just listened to.”

It is, to put it bluntly and in the vernacular, a corker of a statement. It perfectly sums up the need to engage with children on the issues that affect their lives. Mr Whitfield, it may not entirely surprise you to note, was a primary school teacher before his nascent political career, and therefore knows something about interacting with our younger colleagues.

Whilst we often hear from our politicians statements about appreciating the need to consult and engage young people, it is always good to hear someone speak with real passion about the need to do so, demonstrating real understanding and not just a throwaway statement. In light of the general feeling in the Scottish Parliament during that debate, and Mr Whitfield’s clarion call, we hope that we see a significant improvement in Scotland at least, of the sorts of engagement done with children, and a renewed commitment to improvement and listening.

About the Author

Stephen serves as the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer. Before joining the Institute Stephen studied Law at Bangor University and pursued a Masters’ degree in Aviation and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. After this, he returned to London and was called to the bar in 2016 at the Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn, before deciding not to go into practice and move towards public policy work instead. Within the Institute, Stephen provides legal, political and policy analysis of UK and global current affairs of interest to consultors and consultees.

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