This week is Parliament Week, which marks a series of events being run across the country in partnership with schools and community organisations. Now in its ninth year, Parliament Week was created to try and build more awareness about how the institution works. This week the House of Commons has given a demonstration of this by electing a new Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, and then dissolving itself for a general election. To add to the significance of this Parliament Week, the last sitting day for the House of Commons before the election was Tuesday 5th November, the anniversary of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes tried and failed to blow the whole place up.
This is our third general election in just over four years, and some people might, not unreasonably, ask why this is necessary. However, it has become clear that this current House of Commons is unable to reach a position on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Whilst there was a majority in favour of the new Brexit deal that Boris Johnson negotiated with other European leaders, Parliament was unable to agree a timetable to allow this to pass in time for us to leave the EU at the end of October. Our Brexit departure date has now been set for 31st January, although we can leave before that if Parliament approves the withdrawal agreement. On 12th December we have the chance to elect a new House of Commons that will deliver this.
Last Friday I visited the Harvey Grammar school in Folkestone to join year nine students for a ‘Be Internet Citizens’ training session run by a team from Google. This programme not only makes people more aware of how to keep themselves safe online, but also looks at one of the most important issues that affects our democracy today. This is how people can use the internet and social media to campaign on issues that they care about, and to find important news and information. I saw different classes where the boys were split into two teams and asked to argue a case against each other, and another where groups of three or four students were asked to prepare a campaign to change a policy or people’s behaviour. These exercises showed how social media can be used to effect positive change, but also how it can create echo chambers where people largely just hear opinions that reinforce their own views and create the mistaken experience that everyone else thinks the same way. Many people now, and particularly young people, get their news from social media. For people aged between 16 and 34 YouTube is twice as popular a TV channel than BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 put together. It is therefore really important that people take responsibility for what they say online, and also check things that they see there to make sure they are true. I’d like to thank Google for coming to Folkestone to run these sessions, and I was also very impressed with the way the students threw themselves into the process.