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Voting Age

Volume 456: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007

I have received nine letters about the issue in the last six months. The matter has been raised with me by students and young people on an informal basis during engagements and visits that I have undertaken during that time.

In the Scottish parliamentary elections in May, 130,000 people in Scotland will be old enough to marry, to join the Army and even to become company directors, but will be deemed too young to be given a vote on who should govern them. When will the Minister recommend action to correct that injustice and give Scotland’s young people a voice at the ballot box?

This issue divides us in a cross-party sense. I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s argument for voting rights at 16, but I know that many Members feel very differently about it.

This morning I was at Greenford high school in Ealing discussing this very topic with students on their citizens’ jury. They were divided 50:50 on it. I think that before we could implement such a measure we would need more than a 50 per cent. enthusiasm rate from the people to whom we would be extending the franchise.

My hon. Friend says that she is sympathetic, but what has happened to the old-fashioned virtue of leadership? Why does she not put forward a radical idea for once and say, “We will legislate”—as the Isle of Man did in advance of its general election, at which people voted at 16 years of age? The last time I flew over the Isle of Man it was still there; it had not sunk, and it has a better democracy than we have. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

I am interested to hear my hon. Friend, who I always think of as one of the fathers of democracy in this House, suggest that the Isle of Man’s democracy is better than ours. I am disappointed that he takes that view. However, we have to listen to all views, and I have conducted surveys in my constituency—I spoke about the young people I met this morning—and I have to say to my hon. Friend that young people are not as enthusiastic as he or I might be about this subject. We must have further discussions with them before we move forward. My hon. Friend talks about leadership, and in that context we should also talk about the fragility of democracy and the importance of democracy in this country. One way to ensure that we continue to have a proper debate is by ensuring that the democracy of the country is upheld.

There is not much point in lowering the voting age unless we can convince young people who have already reached the age of 18 to vote. Why does the Minister think that there is massive apathy among young people? Is it because young people believe that the main political parties are driven by focus groups and spin, rather than principle?

I speak to young people throughout the country—and to others about the views of young people—and the idea that young people are apathetic about politics is nonsense. They take a keen interest in many of the important political issues of the day. They might not, however, like some of what they see on television with regard to how the political process works, and I have sympathy with them on that. Members of this House must work very hard in engaging with young people on the issues that are important to them and in finding ways in which they can express their opinions and get them heard. In my constituency, the London borough of Lewisham has an elected young mayor who has a budget from the council which is used to involve young people between the ages of 11 and 17 in the electoral process. We might want to extend that example to elsewhere in the country.

Some 15 months ago, my local radio station carried out an opinion poll on this issue, and more than 90 per cent. of those who responded were in favour of reducing the voting age. Would doing that not make a major contribution not only to citizenship, but to Britishness?

It is important that we have a debate on this matter. Having talked to young people around the country, I can say that they are particularly keen on the citizenship classes that now take place in schools thanks to this Government, and they feel that that is one of the ways in which they can develop their own political ideas. There are a variety of ways in which we can continue to involve young people in the political process both locally and nationally, but I am sure that the debate on whether we reduce the voting age to 16 will continue for some time to come.

Does the Minister not agree that there is a wider dimension to this issue, particularly at a time when the Government are suggesting raising the school leaving age to 18, which is to do with what adulthood really means? As she knows, some of those who suggest that the voting age should be 16 also suggest that buying tobacco and alcohol, and even starring in a porn film, should be possible at the age of 16. Does she not agree that all the evidence—and we should look at the evidence—from the Isle of Man shows that only half the young people there bothered to register to vote, and that the Electoral Commission seems to suggest in its report that overall turnout at elections would fall if we made this change?

The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points about the issues associated with reducing the voting age to 16, such as whether young people would participate, but I do not accept that reducing the voting age to 16 would automatically mean that a much smaller number of people would take part in elections; in fact, it might be a way to get young people further engaged. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 reduced the candidacy age from 21 to 18, and we can look to that example to see whether we can properly involve more young people in the democratic process by electing them at local—and, indeed, parliamentary —level.