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Young People: Democratic Participation

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 24 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure that young people acquire a practical understanding and awareness of how the United Kingdom is governed, its political systems, and how citizens may actively participate in its democratic systems of government.

My Lords, the new national curriculum for teaching from 2014 includes an improved programme of study for citizenship education at key stages 3 and 4. It is organised around core knowledge about democracy, government and how laws are made and upheld. Citizenship education seeks to equip students with the skills and knowledge to explore political and social issues, and to take their place in society as responsible citizens.

I am grateful for my noble friend’s response. She may be aware that various youth democracy groups such as the British Youth Council, Operation Black Vote and Bite the Ballot are organising for next year’s National Voter Registration Day. How will the Government support and promote this initiative?

I thank my noble friend for his question. We are very supportive of that initiative. Citizenship education, too, should help to underpin students’ interest in how our democracy works.

My Lords, with individual electoral registration rapidly coming down the tracks, what are the Government going to do today to ensure that people as young as 14 and 15 understand that it will be their responsibility, not their parents’, to register to vote in less than two and a half years’ time?

I hope that the noble Lord has had a look at the curriculum for citizenship study. He will, I assume, know that that will be compulsory for the age groups 11 to 14 and 14 to 16. Within that, there will of course be an emphasis on students’ right to register and later to vote in elections.

Is my noble friend aware—I am sure that she is—of the Lord Speaker’s excellent outreach programme, in which I am very pleased to participate, whereby Members of your Lordships’ House go out to schools in order to give them the information pertaining to this question?

Yes, I am well aware of that and I know that a number of noble Lords have taken part. They report back that there is great enthusiasm for discussing politics today. It is notable that the number of students who are then voting in elections thereafter seems to increase.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that one of the traditional ways in which young people get actively interested in political matters is through joining campaigning organisations, not necessarily party political ones, and that the Government should actively encourage and not hinder their operation, particularly in the period leading up to an election, when young people’s interest in political issues will be most easily stimulated?

Yes, I am well aware of the fact that young people often get involved in all sorts of campaigns. One of the things which comes through in citizenship education is how the links can be made between those sorts of issues and how you effect change through voting. For example, if young people are encouraged by Comic Relief to be concerned about the plight of children of their own age in another country, actually voting and trying to ensure that there is a commitment to international development is part of how they take that forward.

Does the noble Baroness agree that however good the curriculum is on citizenship, most young people will be singularly unimpressed by what they witness as the practice of government in Parliament? Yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons was a thorough disgrace, which most people who were watching will disapprove of, in which they saw a Prime Minister personally abusing the leader of the Opposition while trying to change policy half way through PMQs.

I am afraid that I did not see PMQs yesterday. However, when I go and listen in the Commons, I find myself grateful that I was never elected there—even though I tried several times—and that your Lordships’ House is a more tolerant place. There are more women in the House of Lords, and I think that also makes a difference.

My Lords, turning perhaps to safer territory, I return to the issue of the syllabus and the role of citizenship in it. Following concerns from all parts of the House, not least from my noble friend Lord Phillips and the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, on Thursday last week, is it not incredibly important to demonstrate to young people that this is not just theoretical, but that it leads on specifically to active citizenship? Is my noble friend aware that in Northern Ireland, where there was real concern about the transfer to individual electoral registration, it has become the habit in secondary schools to go right through the citizenship course with an end result of registration on the electoral register and for eventual voting?

Indeed, it has had a very positive effect in that regard. As I answered an earlier question, the link between what students will learn in their citizenship classes and their ability then to take that forward to register to vote and to vote is very important. I also note that within citizenship education students will be debating all sorts of political and social issues, and they will be encouraged to debate and make reasoned arguments and so on. I imagine that they are going to be very lively lessons.

My Lords, will the Minister and Secretary of State for Education accept my thanks for having acceded to the lobbying by a number of us to include the United Nations in the citizenship curriculum? Can she say whether the department and local authorities will welcome a non-governmental organisation like the United Nations Association, which promotes model UN debates up and down the country and can help the curriculum a good deal?

I thank the noble Lord and will pass on his tribute to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Indeed, looking at the curriculum, I was struck by how international it was. I am sure that the organisations that he referred to will be encouraged to play their part in trying to inform students; that would be extremely welcome. However, the curriculum reaches in all directions. Internationally, it deals with human rights and international law, and it also looks at the diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities within the United Kingdom. Therefore, it extends and it is deep.

My Lords, when the Minister says to the House that she prefers to be in an unelected House, as against an elected House, does she think that she is sending out the right message to young people?

The noble Lord will be well aware that I belong to a party which is committed to election to the House of Lords, as I think is the case for everybody in this House who is a party member. He will also know that there is cross-party agreement that the effect of an electoral system for the House of Lords should be that no party is in overall control—

—as is the case at the moment, so that you then have negotiation, discussion and the kind of debate in the Lords to which the noble Lord’s colleague referred. Therefore, yes, there should be election but under a system which is proportional and ensures that all voices are heard: women’s as well as men’s.