Funmi Abari, who put the case against tuition fees with force and grace, standing at the dispatch box yesterday
Ann Treneman: Parliamentary Sketch
For a brief moment yesterday the Prime Minister of Britain appeared to be young, black and female. And, you know what, if I shut my eyes and suspended real life, it was almost believable. Her name was Funmi Abari and she is 16 and from Haringey. As I watched her argue the case against free tuition with grace and not a little force, I couldn’t help thinking that she could teach a thing or two to Gordon Brown, 58, from Fife.
“Tuition fees should not be abolished. It’s unrealistic, unsustainable and not for the best interest of all young people and those yet to come,” she cried to shouts of “hear hear”. “But lowering the fees — hell, yes, that is fair.”
“Whooooooo,” cried the chamber of 300 MYPs (Members of the Youth Parliament), who then broke into riotious applause.
What a hoot it was when the MYPs came to Westminster yesterday. And what a shock to see the chamber actually reflecting real life. There was more ethnic diversity in one half of one row on what would be the government benches than in our entire Parliament of 646 MPs. I found it quite moving to just look down and see such tremendous variety.
It is the first time in the history of Parliament that anyone other than MPs have been allowed to use the chamber. Actually I can see why the previous Speaker was so loath to allow this. For the kids were all right yesterday, despite the mad outfits (flip-flops in the chamber — and that was a teacher) and even madder hairdos. (At one point the Leader of the Opposition was a young woman with wild red hair and a pearl tiara headband.) The entire event was a triumph for the current Speaker, John Bercow, who was levitating with happiness in the chair. Sadly, I must also report that he was, at times, patronising in the extreme. At one point he explained democracy by telling them what happens if you don’t like your MP: “You can change your choice. That’s the beauty of our system.” But the kids didn’t even roll their eyes. They are probably used to being told irritating things by adults which they mostly then ignore.
A few MPs came to watch proceedings from the visitors’ gallery. There was Richard Shepherd, who, at 66, has lived four times longer than many below. The Commons official photographer was there, his lenses trained. (There are no photographs allowed in the chamber normally.) Harriet Harman was beetling around. It was amazing how, when surrounded by all that youth, the real politicians quickly began to look rather unreal.
It is the best debate on tuition fees I have heard. “Why should the people who get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to work as a dustman or my father, who didn’t go to university and works as a builder, pay for my education?” said one young man. “I should be the one to incur the debts and the pleasures afterwards.”
But, argued a young woman from Scotland: “Education is the only way out of poverty.” When she was interrupted, she bit right back: “Excuse me, I’m speaking.” This got yet more whoops.
One young woman asked what was the point of “busting your hump” to get good A levels if you couldn’t afford to go on to university? The Hansard scribes, trained by MI5 never to react, didn’t move a facial muscle. Still, I think “busting your hump” is an absolute first here. For one day only this was a chamber with attitude.
The Youth are an important part of every society. They are it's future, the movers and shakers of tomorrow. They stand to benefit from the successes and suffer for the failures of governments for much of their lives and often they will be the ones tasked with fixing the problems.
And do you want to know a secret? They're not as stoopid as some people might like to believe. The youth are too often judged by the actions of the minority and viewed as unsuitable for involvement in the discussion and policy making of government. Thankfully Bermuda has for a good many years offered the youth, in some small way, an opportunity to break down those views of them and make their voices heard through Youth Parliament Bermuda.
There's still a long way to go for the youth and in many ways the youth are let down or let themselves down but, times are changing. Education is one of the major obstacles that even today holds the youth back and threatens their future success. Until that is fixed our Government fails the youth each and every day. I don't have the answers and I'm sure as hell not an expert but, I'd say taking further action as suggested by the Hopkins report is a start and I think implementing the Cambridge curriculum is a good start but, it is just that. A start. I am confident of Elvin James to make the necessary changes if the will power can be found which I hope that it can.