USUALLY at this time of year, with an election looming in May – as seems to happen every year – I’m gearing up to help out with local campaigns. However, this week I was asked to do something that is a rare privilege for an MP – I was invited to vote in the elections for the Scottish Youth Parliament.
Only people aged between 12 and 25 can do this, so not too many at Westminster will have had this opportunity – I think my colleague Stuart Donaldson, who represents West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine might be the only other MP who would qualify. Established on June 30, 1999, the day before the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Youth Parliament’s vision for Scotland is of a nation that actively listens to and values the meaningful participation of its children and young people.
Elections take place every two years, with about 150 Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament (MSYPs) voted in to represent constituencies in all 32 local authorities in Scotland.
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Unlike other parliaments, the Scottish Youth Parliament is independent from all political parties, aiming instead to deliver policies that are most important to young people. This has seen the Scottish Youth Parliament and its MSYPs campaign on a range of issues including votes at 16, equal marriage and a fair living wage for all (irrespective of age).
However, one of the biggest benefits of this parliament is that it has engaged young people in politics. It has made them more aware of the world in which they live and given them an opportunity to examine how political campaigning can change policies and change lives. I am sure the existence of the SYP has helped not just those engaged in the parliament or those voting for it, but also their families, to better understand the political structures within Scotland. At times, it can seem confusing when you have an issue that is important to you and you simply want it resolved. Many people just turn to the nearest politician, whether that be their MP or their MSP (or even their local councillor). Most politicians will do their best for their constituent, but they also recognise that sometimes they aren’t the person best placed to directly do that.
An example of this is the issue of benefits. Under their rules, the DWP will only talk to MPs about their own constituents – if any other politician contacts them they would refer them to their local MP.
The roles of politicians can seem confusing. MPs generally deal with issues that are reserved to Westminster – such as benefits, immigration, employment law and so on, while MSPs focus on devolved matters such as health and higher and further education.
There is also some crossover with local councillors, who mainly deal with services delivered by local authorities, including roads, schools and housing.
Although I wouldn’t want to turn away anyone who came to my office looking for help, you sometimes have to recognise that for particular issues a constituent would get a quicker response from another elected member. A good example of this is the role of councillors. In my local authority area, there is a five-day response time on questions asked by councillors, while MPs and MSPs only get the same response time as members of the public, which is often longer than five days.
This is fairly obvious when you think about it, as councillors have a closer working partnership with council staff; they set the policies the staff adhere to; and, generally, they know who is the best person to contact to get an issue resolved. The same applies for devolved matters – although I can write to the Health Minister I have no formal role in the setting of health policies in Scotland.
That is reserved to the Scottish Parliament where MSPs not only set the policy but can have easier access to the Health Minister in Edinburgh than I can from Westminster.
Of course, when it comes to dealing with Westminster issues – benefits, immigration etc – I have a better knowledge of how to get things done in these areas than my MSP or councillor colleagues.
The independence referendum of 2014 led to a political awakening in Scotland as more people than ever before took an interest in the future of our nation. However, the Scottish Youth Parliament has also helped to awaken interest and knowledge of politics and political structures in Scotland.
This can only be viewed as a good thing. It’s far better for everyone to get involved, to stand up and vote for what they believe in, than to be passive and let others make the decisions that affect their lives.
The Scottish Youth Parliament will continue to educate Scotland’s youth about politics and hopefully this will feed through their families to reach others as well.
I have a vote for the Scottish Youth Parliament and I will be using it. I would encourage everyone who has a vote to do the same and would like to wish all the best to all the candidates who have put themselves forward.