Petroc ‘Question Time’ Event – Friday 1st December 2023

A report by Cllr Ricky Knight

The four main North Devon political parties from the last General Election were invited to this ‘Question Time’ to answer questions from the student body. North Devon MP Selaine Saxby and Cllr Ian Roome, the parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats agreed to appear. Tamsin Higgs represented the North Devon Labour Party as their Women’s Officer and Cllr Ricky Knight represented the North Devon Green Party. Labour and Greens have yet to select their candidate.

Questions from the student body were submitted to and selected by those students studying A Level Politics. The event was organised by Sarah Samuels, Head of Learner Engagement. The question time format was moderated by Jon Price, Lecturer in Politics. Representatives from both North Devon and Torridge Councils’ Electoral Services attended to further encourage students to engage with the political process and to offer students the opportunity to register to vote.

About 100 students were present and the panel were asked to keep their answers short (one and a half minutes) to enable as many questions as possible to be posed. This expectation did not work within the one-hour allocated time slot – only six questions were aired – but the panel certainly had a lot to say. Unlike the televised version, there was no tension between the panellists and no reaction from the audience, mainly because the questions were benign and the responses from the panellists steered clear in the main from trying to score points and persuade what was basically an a-political audience.

What follows is the writer’s personal commentary: I was surprised by how ‘different’ and unexpected the questions were – I suspect all four of us had boned up on policy and potential contentious issues; I also expected the Conservative MP to get a lot more flak – she didn’t. As such, there was little confrontation and much agreement, which would have suited her – but it surprised the other three! We had all submitted a brief resume, which was read out beforehand but really there was very little time to get stuck into the answers, which was relatively frustrating (but possibly not for the captive audience!).

The first question was potently relevant on mental health issues afflicting young people. Another one of particular concern to female students related to the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. The anticipated question on dentistry arrived but was expertly dealt with by the MP, who is leading a campaign locally to address this systemic problem. There was an attempt to challenge her assertions as being a fault of the government’s own making and a symptom of the creeping privatisation of NHS services but in retrospect I reckon an open goal was missed, especially with regard the situation now facing young people, who simply cannot gain an appointment with a dentist.

As District Councillors, Ian Roome and myself were quite surprised that there was then a question on local government funding and the crisis of more and more councils facing bankruptcy due to mismanagement and unwise investment. Was North Devon Council in trouble? We were able to put minds at rest!

I was glad to be able to get my teeth stuck into a question, possibly chosen with the Green Party in mind, on creating more ‘green’ jobs in North Devon and the pressures on local communities to achieve zero carbon by 2050. A great opportunity to illustrate how Petroc in particular stands to gain so much from the offshore renewable energy schemes from the Celtic Sea and the Moroccan cable connection to Alverdiscott – exciting times in terms of curriculum development and future job prospects to attract youth employment.

However, the blockbuster question right at the end, the one I had prepared for, the one so relevant to Compass: ‘Only 52% of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2019 General Election; what policies would you introduce to increase the amount of votes from students?’ Guess what: we had to answer in one sentence – and quickly. I could have made that one last for half an hour ……

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