By Jonathan Selby, Head of Government and Politics
On 4 March, Bedales 6.1 students were invited to take part in a livestream Question Time event at Westminster. We combined our visit with a tour of the House of Commons, which we were originally due to undertake in the summer, the House of Lords and the Lobby Hall, where ordinary citizens can go and lobby MPs.
We were fortunate to have the tour at a time when Parliament was in sitting, as usually school tours take place when Parliament is in recess. We saw David Davis, Hilary Benn, Diane Abbott, Dame Patricia Hodge and John Bercow, Speaker of the Commons, controlling the debate. The topic was initially on housing and communities, leading to urgent questions on weapon control.
The House of Lords was rather more a slow-moving affair, with bowing to the empty throne one of the quaint conventions we witnessed. Students may have also been surprised to see on the order paper that the morning and afternoon sessions began with prayers.
After our tour, we went to a lecture room where we and one other school were the student audience assembled to address a panel of MPs on two topics: ‘Are referendums good for democracy?’ and ‘Does the House of Commons exercise enough control over the executive arm of the government?’
The MPs on the panel were Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North who was on the BBC Question Time panel last week; Carol Monaghan, Scottish National Party member for Glasgow North West; Nigel Huddleston, Conservative member for Mid-Worcestershire; and Chris Matheson, Labour MP for Chester.
After a brief explanation of their positions on Brexit (they were all remainers), Bedales student Jonathan Greenfield asked the first question on referendums, which centred on the possibilities of tying referendums to specific constitutional points and making them more legally binding. The panel generally agreed this would be a good idea, with Carol Monaghan explaining that the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014 had been better prepared so issues were well understood by the time of the vote, and there was therefore less argument about the referendum afterwards.
The second question came from another Bedales student, Mack Cowling, who asked a question about the ‘shelf-life’ of referendums – a very good question in which he even cited the correct date of the previous referendum.
On Parliament’s control of the Executive, most argued that there is control, particularly with a minority government as at present, as well as Select Committees and Prime Minister’s Questions, where the incumbent does not know the questions beforehand. Barry Gardiner disagreed, however, seeing the control as limited even in current times. He pointed to the government’s use of ancient means (‘Henry VIII clauses’) to push things through.
The trip was an unparalleled opportunity for the students not only to see Parliament in action but also to be able to debate face-to-face with current politicians. Watch the live debate here.