Ken helps lead Debating Matters tournament for prisoners

Inmates go head-to-head in final of the UK’s first debate competition held in a prison

Debating Matters, the national debating competition for sixth form students, for which Manchester Metropolitan has hosted the North West regional final for the last two years and will host again next year, held an inaugural prisoner v prisoner competition at HMP Birmingham in September in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice and G4S.

The competition challenged teams of prisoners to engage each other in debate on a series of contemporary social, political, biomedical and cultural debates, encouraging them to think about the world around them, beyond the prison.

The first six debates saw six teams of debaters tackle the issues of drugs in sport, offensive language and the BBC licence fee. Two teams, HMP Birmingham West Side and HMP Birmingham Library, were victorious in the opening stages and debated ‘No prisoner should have the vote’ in the final for the title of Debating Matters Beyond Bars Champions.

The final debate was preceded by a special one-off ‘Question Time’ style event, allowing competing prisoners, family members, HMP Birmingham staff and guests the chance to put questions to a panel of invited guests, including Dr Ken McLaughlin, senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan; Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party of England & Wales; Edwina Currie, writer, broadcaster and politician; Reverend Father Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation; and Vicky Pryce, chief economic advisor at the Centre for Economic and Business Research. The guest panel was chaired by Institute of Ideas’ director Claire Fox.

The final event marked the culmination of a month-long process of training and debate which has given prisoners a unique opportunity to have their voice heard. The West Side and Library teams had a week to prepare their final debate arguments, and were challenged by judges including: Dame Sally Coates, chair of the Coates Review into Prison Education; Dr Ken McLaughlin and Dr Tim O’Brien, psychologist, author, Inner Story. As well as competing for the trophy, prisoners were also eligible for individual prizes for outstanding contributions from the audience. Following a well-argued and close debate the judges declared the inaugural Debating Matters Beyond Bars winners to be HMP Birmingham Library.

Dr Ken McLaughlin, who has been involved with Debating Matters since its inception said: “I have always enjoyed this competition and have been delighted to see Manchester Metropolitan host the North West Regional Final. This venture was extremely challenging but enjoyable. The feedback from the prison staff and inmates was extremely positive. The event not only gave the prisoners confidence and skills it also engaged them with contemporary political and social issues. I sincerely hope this endeavour takes off in other prisons and given the feedback from all involved on the day I am confident that it will expand.”

Director of the Institute of Ideas, Claire Fox, said: “We hope that this competition will give prisoners the opportunity to really shake their minds up a bit. Prison education is hugely important, it allows people who have lost their freedom, to take the time they have got to use their minds to think about problems and understand the world in new and interesting ways.”

G4S Director of HMP Birmingham, Pete Small, said: “This competition will give prisoners the chance to properly research a subject, think their opinions and voice those opinions in a constructive way. And just as important, if not more so, is the ability to sit and listen to an opposing point of view and form a conclusion based upon all the evidence that they’ve heard. We are determined that prisoners leave HMP Birmingham, with the education and training that will set them up for the transition to life beyond bars.”