This is the basic text of a speech in the House of Lords today.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: QSD on the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail Engaging the Next Generation: Young People and Heritage Railways.

My Lords, while congratulating the noble lord, Lord Faulkner, on securing this debate, I must confess to some surprise at standing to speak in it. I have little knowledge or experience of Heritage Railways despite having had such a beast going through the village where I was for eight years a vicar in Rothley, Leicestershire, and now having several in the Diocese of Leeds. I am not proud of my ignorance, but engineering never quite got me… And I fully accept that this probably makes me a rarity among clergy in the Church of England.

But, I do see the import of this report and fully endorse what this debate seeks to achieve.

Heritage Railways seem to hit two nails on the head in a changing Britain where social capital and the development of skills in young people need some investment at all levels: the two nails are volunteering and skills development in team contexts. We know from history and experience that if you want to get commitment out of children and young people that will shape their adult engagement in the wider world, start them young. Volunteering in a selfish age has to become part of the DNA of people from a young age.

So, raising the lower limit for young people to develop as volunteers, learning skills in basic civil engineering, team work, track-laying, and so on, is not something to be celebrated. We know that teenage volunteers often train for roles such as Assistant Guards, Station Assistants, and Locomotive Cleaners – gaining skills and experience that will shape them for the future. The culture of safety is essential, but also beneficial to those growing up in it. These young people get to work with the public, learn timekeeping, craft skills (including woodwork, painting, metalwork, hedging, land management, and so on). In a school system that wants to measure results in a limited way, surely these learnings have to be gained outside formal education, and such railway environments offer something unique. And young people need to start before they get into GCSEs and exams and the pressures that we all know about.

Under-16s have an opportunity here to gain practical and human skills through volunteering in a safety-conscious environment that has purpose and gives satisfaction. Working in teams, across all age groups, teaches responsibility and helps maturity.

My Lords, the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act of 1920 was surely once useful and necessary. But, it is not the right instrument for today’s world. Our young people do not now need to be protected from industrial exploitation as they did in the past. Surely it is time to lift the current uncertainty over the implementation of this law in order that young people can continue to access and benefit from the kind of life experience that Heritage Railways are uniquely placed to offer.

In Thomas Comes to Breakfast Thomas the Tank Engine came out of the repair shop and was not happy. He said: “It’s nice to feel mended again, but they took so many of my old parts away and put new ones in, that I’m not sure whether I’m really me or another engine.” Imagine being the teenager who has the opportunity to cause Thomas such serious existential angst! My Lords, we need to encourage our young people.