Page last updated at 15:16 GMT, Friday, 30 October 2009

Teen MPs put grown-ups to shame

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Polite applause after every speech? A complete absence of party political point-scoring? No juvenile barracking and name-calling?

Jonny Gilchrist
The Commons benches were packed - with Young People

Can this really be the House of Commons?

Any hungover journalists stumbling into the Commons press gallery earlier will have felt even more disorientated than normal.

Not only were the famous green benches packed - the chamber is normally deserted on a Friday - but they were packed with Young People.

That's right, Young People. More than one of whom was wearing a T-shirt.

In place of the normal Friday torpor, there was excited chatter.

In place of the ranks of paunchy, white middle-aged men, there was an appealing mix of sexes and races - and a far higher standard of haircut.

For the first time in its history, the hallowed Commons chamber had thrown open its doors to non-MPs - 300 members of the Youth Parliament from schools and colleges across the UK to be precise - and they were clearly having a whale of a time.

'Men in tights'

The atmosphere beforehand, as the 11 to 18-year-olds gathered in the 800-year-old Westminster Hall was like a cross between a school trip and an X Factor audition.

They chatted about how great it was to be part of a historic event.

They whooped and cheered as they were called into the chamber by regional group.

The Commons staff were pretty excited too - even if they had to put up with a bit of ribbing about their traditional garb.

"A few of them have said 'are you one of the men in tights?' I said I will be wearing my sword as well later, so you'd better watch out!," said Lawrence Ward, the assistant sergeant at arms.

Fumni Abari
There is no such thing, Mr Speaker, as a free lunch
Funmi Abari, Youth Parliament member

"I was one of the people who really thought it was good idea and pushed for it, although a couple of the kids said to me 'we think it is a total waste of money'! But most have been really positive. I think the Youth Parliament is fantastic."

Commons speaker John Bercow, a prime mover behind this experiment, which was far from popular with some of the more traditional-minded members, was also in his element, welcoming the Young People with a speech about the importance of democracy.

Commons leader Harriet Harman, spotted signing autographs, was also enjoying herself, as she welcomed the group to her beautiful home - "this is where Gordon Brown, the prime minister, sits," she explained, before crossing the floor to point out the other highlights of the chamber, ending her tour with: "And here we have got what is called the awkward squad, who give people a hard time when they are speaking."

Scarily confident

Funmi Abari, a member of the Youth Parliament from London, opened the first debate - on scrapping university fees in England and Wales - with an appeal for financial rectitude and self-reliance of a passion rarely seen since Margaret Thatcher stood at the same despatch box, years before Miss Abari was born.

"There is no such thing, Mr Speaker, as a free lunch," she thundered, arguing that free tuition would not widen access and that students should pay their way like everybody else, ending with a flourish: "Lowering fees to what they are actually worth? Hell yes, that's fair."

It was a barnstorming performance - and it was around this point a slight chill went through the press gallery as we wondered how many of the fresh-faced youths seated below us would be members of the Commons for real in 10 or 15 years.

Almost without exception, the teenage MPs, most of whom were not old enough to vote, were articulate, passionate and scarily confident.

Oliver Rawlinson did a pretty good audition for the Tory front bench, with a homily on "Britain's broken society".

In fact, the biggest surprise of the morning session was how many of the youngsters were against free university tuition, particularly as the Parliament has been running a campaign in favour of it.

"You can not get anything for free in life, so why should tuition fees be free?," asked Kirsty Fisher, from Bolton.

Why lock up someone who steals a packet of polos in the same cell as someone who steals a Volkswagen Polo at knife point?
Chris Monk

The language was a lot more colourful and expressive than you would find in a normal Commons debate - one girl asked why students had to "bust their humps for so many years" to get a degree - but the junior politicians also displayed a weakness for soundbites.

"It is time not just to consider Jo Bloggs, but Joanna Bloggs as well," cried one girl, eliciting a few groans from the press gallery.

Others were clearly just enjoying a chance to have their say and enjoy their moment in the spotlight.

Chris Monk, from the West Midlands, earned praise from the speaker for his witty speech in favour of community service for young offenders ("Why lock up someone who steals a packet of polos in the same cell as someone who steals a Volkswagen Polo at knife point?").

And in general the levels of sensible, level-headedness and mature debate on display will have been affront to those - often MPs - who view young people as a gang of knife-wielding hoodies with alcopop habits.

Indeed, by the end of the morning session, quite a few MPs had slipped into the chamber to watch the next generation in action.

John Bercow introduced each one of them as they came in, not unlike a ringside announcer at a boxing match spotting celebrities in the crowd: "And here is the government chief whip, Nick Brown...."

Mr Brown gave an awkward little wave.

Perhaps he, like the other "grown-up" MPs in the chamber, was starting to feel more than little past his sell-by date.

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