Vote of confidence;Subject of the week;Social sciences

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Stephen Thomas describes how a sixth-former put her finger on the political pulse when she shadowed her MPat Westminster

Life at Westminster can too often appear remote, staid or plain boring to young people. But pupils at Castle School in Thornbury, Gloucestershire, got the chance to see politics in the raw when Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat MP for Northavon, invited one student a term to work-shadow him for a day.

Mr Webb sees the idea as a "way of clearing away some of the misconceptions. Parliament is such an alien world that it is important that young people see what it is like, that they see that MPs are normal people and that they are inspired to become involved."

Jo Walker, a 17-year-old A-level sociology, history, maths and general studies student who is planning to study law at university, was the first to take up the option last December.

The fact that Steve Webb had been professor of social policy at the University of Bath until the last election and is Lib Dem spokesman on pensions, made him a particularly appropriate choice for a student of sociology to shadow.

Jo's day began with a tour of Parliament taking in both the Lords and Commons. Mr Webb explained how Parliament works and described his job as an MP, citing his attempts to table a question about tax credits to business and the preparation of a press release on winter fuel payments to pensioners.

Sue Peers, Mr Webb's research assistant, showed Jo his office and talked about her own job which ranges from general administration and mail sifting to researching on behalf of a constituent to find out whether a South African driving licence is valid in this country.

After lunch in the House of Commons dining room, Jo watched Betty Boothroyd lead the Speaker's procession into the Commons and sat in the gallery while Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar took questions on health, education, business and elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Geoff Hoon, Minister of State in the Lord Chancellor's Department, was then quizzed on legal matters. This was followed by a sparring match between Health Secretary Frank Dobson and his Tory Shadow, Anne Widdecombe, about his attempts to create a "third way" for mental health patients between institutionalisation and community care.

In the evening, Jo attended a meeting of the Westminster Ethical Policy Forum, a cross-party group which has Steve Webb, former Social Security minister Frank Field and Tory deputy leader Peter Lilley as members.

It gave her a chance to see Right winger Michael Portillo perform at first hand, this time on "The Conservative Paradox: Social Order and Individual Free Choice".

Jo heard him argue the case for giving the poor more control over their lives, using money to create more opportunities for them, rather than giving them hand-outs. The pressures on politicians were illustrated when Mr Webb was called away in the middle of the meeting to vote on a Bill on NHS charges.

Jo's experience at Westminster left her with some strong impressions: "The day gave me an interesting insight and lasting impression of how our democracy works but I was surprised by the obvious limits on the power of individual MPs to change things and the extent to which they are tied to the party line." And while she found Steve Webb to be approachable and unintimidating, she suspected that some of the other MPs might not be.

She also felt there was "too much unnecessary pomp, ritual and ceremony", and found parliamentary procedure more inflexible than she thought it should be. She was also struck by rigid status differences in the dining room where she found different food and eating places for MPs and "strangers".

The day also gave Jo the chance to tackle her MP about issues such as the minimum wage and matters which will directly affect her, such as student fees. She was heartened to hear that Mr Webb is opposed to fees and that his party is working to do something about them.

She said that her work-shadowing experience had been of particular relevance to her as a sociology student, giving an insight into how laws are made and politics works. Many issues she had covered at school came up during the day.

Jo also said that although she had learned a great deal about the work of one MP, it would have been useful to see MPs from other parties.

With 659 MPs there is considerable scope for schools to make contact with their constituency member and set up links. Alternatively, you could approach one of the 759 hereditary peers in the Lords. At least before the Government gets rid of them.


The Parliamentary Education Unit provides a range of materials to help those interested in how Parliament works. These include a series of booklets on the Commons, the Lords, making a law, debates and elections. They also provide a CD-Rom called "People and Parliament". Parliamentary Education Unit, Room L222, 1 Derby Gate, London SW1A 2DG. Tel: 0171 219 4750.

An exhibition and video presentation, "Parliament Past and Present", can be visited in the Jewel Tower. Tel: 0171 222 2219. A video and booklet, "Why Vote" is produced by Team Video. Tel: 0181 960 5536. pound;32 plus VAT.

Stephen Thomas teaches sociology at Castle School, Thornbury, Gloucestershire

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