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Voting Age (Reduction) Bill

Volume 476: debated on Friday 6 June 2008

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a great pleasure to speak on this important matter. Every day, Members speak in this House on behalf of others who cannot be here—our constituents and those people whose causes we take up. We pride ourselves on being able to speak for our communities as a whole, transcending our political allegiances to represent our electorate as best we can; I am pleased that there is some support from all parties here today.

We are responsible to that electorate because ultimately they can vote us in or out. That is one of the reasons why we try to represent them well. We are all well aware that we are here only because we have been voted in by the public. That is why today I am going to do a strange thing as a politician. I am going to speak on behalf of 1.5 million people who did not and could not vote for me.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the last Division, the No Lobby was not clear so my vote and those of four other Members were not counted.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to my attention. I shall have the matter looked into.

I am going to speak for people aged 16 and 17, who are currently denied the vote.

The purpose of the Voting Age (Reduction) Bill is straightforward: to reduce the legal voting age to 16 for all public elections across the United Kingdom. That is the only way to engage the young people to whom we desperately need to talk as politicians and the only way to send the message that we really care about the issues that affect those people.

The hon. Lady has tabled early-day motion 493 in support of the Bill; I am sure that she will come to it later. I note that 111 colleagues have supported that early-day motion. She says that this is an important issue. Can she tell us why so few of those colleagues have turned up to support her Bill?

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do why there are not many Members in the Chamber today; that is in the nature of private Members’ Bills.

There are many excellent reasons why the voting age should be lowered, all of which are outlined in the pamphlet that I have produced with the “Votes at Sixteen” campaign, entitled “16 for 16: 16 Reasons for Votes at 16”. I want to focus my speech on five key arguments. I will discuss the desire for the voting age to be lowered among young people themselves and among the organisations that work with them. What is more, I will discuss why young people have a right to a vote at 16.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing such a high position in the private Members’ Bills ballot. I am listening carefully to her opening remarks. Would she care to share with the House any opinion polling evidence from young people between the ages of 16 and 18 where they have put voting age reduction as the No. 1 issue of concern above, say, the economy, tax, pensions, the health service or schools?

There is evidence to show that, and I will discuss that later. Polling evidence has been taken in Wales by members of the Funky Dragon organisation, among others.

I will argue that lowering the voting age would have a positive impact on levels of engagement among young people and that votes at 16 would be beneficial for our democracy as a whole. Finally, I want to stress that the time is now right for this measure in a way that it may not have been before. This is a key time to take this decision and to go with the politics of hope.

Does the hon. Lady recognise that one of the big challenges is that it is hard enough to get 18 to 21-year-olds to vote, yet they too, at an earlier stage, called for more representation and wanted a say in politics? Surely we should focus our energies on trying to figure out how we are going to motivate them to get voting instead of continually trying to lower the age limit.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that I have considered carefully. However, I believe that by involving young people at a younger age we are more likely to involve those in older age groups as well, because people can get into the habit of voting when they are still in schools and institutions. One of my reasons for introducing the Bill is the hope that it will get all younger age groups voting.

The popular assumption is that young people are not interested in politics, and engagement in formal politics is certainly a problem. To follow the hon. Gentleman’s point, in the 2005 election only 37 per cent. of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds voted—a sad indictment of the situation. Nevertheless, young people are politically aware and active. We all know how enthusiastically they join campaigning organisations and pressure groups on many issues.

Does my hon. Friend accept that part of the reason turnout among young people has been so low is that it has been low generally, particularly in the last general election? In 1997, the turnout was much higher among 18 to 25-year-olds. Is not the problem essentially that we do not speak the language of young people and therefore fail to engage them in the political process?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we do fail to engage young people. That is why it has been so good being able to campaign on the Bill. I have spoken to many young people and have been so impressed by their enthusiasm. They have attended meetings in the House of Commons and spoken with a passion about their belief that they should have the right to vote, and that has given me great hope for the future. We need to speak the language of young people. Part of my reason for promoting the Bill is to connect with young people, and I have been pleased to be able to do so.

According to a Home Office citizenship survey, 81 per cent. of 12 to 16-year-olds believe that there should be a way to get young people involved in politics,. There is a clear and consistent demand from young people for a lowering of the voting age. Research from organisations such as the British Youth Council, the Children’s Society and Save the Children has found a desire among young people for the vote.

I endorse what the hon. Lady says about young people getting involved in politics, as they do at all ages. We are all on the receiving end of letters from youngsters at school who are encouraged to write to their Members of Parliament or who write to us on their own initiative on a range of issues. They join various groups trying to save the whales or to save the environment. We know that they are passionately involved. Does she agree that this is a great apprenticeship whereby they can get involved in politics without going to the next stage, which is to have a vote? There has to be a dividing line somewhere, and one could argue that it could be 17, 16, 15, 14 or 12, but 18 seems to be the appropriate voting age in the vast majority of places in the world.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for an important contribution to the debate. I accept that many young people are involved in such pressure groups in a very enthusiastic way, and I applaud what they do. However, young people themselves are saying that they want the vote. There is a move towards lowering the voting age in many other countries, and I think that we should be the leader in this and show our respect for young people. They are the hope for the future—let us put some trust in them and give them the vote at 16.

I follow the argument that there should be voting at 16, because that is in line with other rights that people gain at 16, but does my hon. Friend agree that the argument that lowering the voting age to 16 would increase turnout does not hold water, because experience in places where it has been done shows that turnout goes down overall rather than up?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. The Electoral Reform Society has calculated that if young people voted at the same rates as 18 to 24-year-olds, the percentage turnout would stand still, and if none of them voted it would go down by about 2 per cent. However, I am introducing the Bill not to try to increase turnout but because it is a good way of recognising young people’s involvement and what they can do.

Should not the aim be to ensure that the cohort of youngsters coming up to 16 and between 16 and 18 turn out at a higher rate than those who attain the vote at 18?

Absolutely, and I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. One of the reasons I am promoting the Bill is that there is more likelihood that the 16 to 18-year-old group will turn out to vote and will then, we hope, get into the habit of voting, which would boost all turnout rates.

Does the hon. Lady realise that her Bill is not even supported by members of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, who, when they met in the other place in May and were asked to vote on what they regarded as the three most important issues to campaign on this year, declined to vote in favour of this proposal because they thought that there were three other issues of greater importance?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that in the meeting to promote the Bill earlier this week we had very enthusiastic members of the UK Youth Parliament supporting it very strongly. Certainly, it is one of the top priorities for the Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales—Funky Dragon—and it is campaigning on it. His point is not particularly valid.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the UK Youth Parliament does support the Bill, but the fact that it did not necessarily label it as the No. 1 priority just shows the maturity of young people in being interested in a whole range of issues?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution.

In 2004, the Electoral Commission’s public consultation on lowering the voting age found that 72 per cent. of respondents favoured a voting age of 16. That consultation attracted huge levels of participation, including nearly 8,000 young people. More recently, Funky Dragon ran a wide-ranging survey that found that 80 per cent. of young people in Wales wanted votes at 16. Subsequently, the Welsh Assembly passed a motion calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16. This change in the voting system could be achieved only at Westminster, but the support in the Assembly was overwhelming, with 44 Members voting for the motion and only four against, and complete cross-party support. It was quite a surprise that only four Members voted against. That gives a good idea of what cross-party support there is for this measure in Wales.

Young people, their youth councils and youth groups throughout the UK are lobbying their representatives for the right to vote, and I am sure that many Members have been lobbied by young people on the issue. My faith in the ability of young people was strengthened by the event at which I helped to launch the Bill earlier in the week, which I referred to earlier. Young people came from all over the country to attend the meeting and spoke eloquently and enthusiastically. Listening to them, I wondered how we could possibly not give them the vote. These young people were impassioned and determined, firmly making their case, and I was pleased that people came from Wales, particularly from Cardiff, where my constituency is. It was great to hear young people speaking for themselves from the platform, and not being spoken for by us—it was a refreshing change.

I came away thinking about other fights that we have had, such as women’s fight for suffrage. A lot of people argued against that as well, but when we look back it seems ridiculous that women could not vote. I hope that one day, when 16-year-olds can vote, we will look back and think how ridiculous it was that there was a time when they could not vote. That happens with all changes: when they start, they seem extreme or groundbreaking to some people, but then they become normal. That is what will happen with votes at 16.

I think that that argument is rather specious. Women, when they were not able to vote, were never going to become men. All being well, 16-year-olds will become 18-year-olds, and will therefore get the vote. Whatever else 16-year-olds are, they are not the heirs to the suffragettes.

The hon. Gentleman’s first point is obviously accurate, but I am comparing the struggle—the fight for recognition and the fight for votes. There are similarities with the suffragettes, and the young people themselves made that point.

Is my hon. Friend aware that when votes for women were introduced—in 1931, I think—women had to be 30 years and over? It was only subsequently that the age was reduced to 18. Is it not a natural consequence of that movement that the voting age be reduced from 18 to 16?

My hon. Friend makes the important point that women were originally allowed the vote only at 30. It was then brought down, and we now hope that it will be brought down again.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is any real comparison between this case and the case of the suffragettes, it is not in the arguments for lowering for the voting age, but in the arguments against? Those arguing against votes for 16-year-olds are suggesting that they would not be mature enough or wise enough, and that they would not have a sophisticated enough interest in politics—exactly the arguments that were used against votes for women.

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution.

All the leading youth-led organisations support votes at 16, including the British Youth Council, which represents the views of 400 youth councils—I particularly thank it for its support—the UK Youth Parliament, which represents the views of 500 young people elected by 600,000 of their peers, and the National Union of Students, which represents the views of several million students. All those groups spoke at the meeting earlier this week, and they all put their case well.

The hon. Lady keeps referring to the UK Youth Parliament. At its meeting in May, that body decided on a list of six issues, but it decided that the issue of votes at 16 should be the fifth priority, which shows that it does not regard it as a really big issue, as she suggests.

The hon. Gentleman has made that point once already, and we have responded to it.

The organisations that I mentioned work closely with young people, and their opinions of young people are not formed by popular stereotypes but by real involvement. They have no doubt that 16-year-olds have the desire, the capability and the right to vote. I urge this House to pay heed to the voices of young people. I acknowledge that some young people say that they do not want the vote at 16 and 17, but for me that merely demonstrates the point that 16 and 17-year-olds are capable of weighing up options and taking an informed view of such issues—exactly the qualities we want in someone who would vote.

On that point, is not the corollary of what the hon. Lady is saying that we tend to view having a vote to elect Members to the House of Commons as political activity, but overlook the fact that many young people are involved in single-issue groups such as the campaign against ID cards, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others? They are engaged and enthused, but not necessarily in respect of having a vote at the age of 16 or 17. Is it not a bit patronising to assume that young people are interested only in having a vote at the earliest possible age, when they are already campaigning on political issues?

Young people tell me that they want the vote.

The crux of my argument is not simply that young people want the vote, although all the evidence coming to me suggests that. I am sure that there are a lot of things that young people may want that we would not agree with, but in this case there is a strong argument that people aged 16 and 17 have a right to vote. The phrase “no taxation without representation” has been used by many groups struggling for political rights over the years, but it applies no less to 16 and 17-year olds working and paying tax who are denied the vote, because there is no age limit on paying income tax and national insurance. Tax is taken on full or part-time work including tips and bonuses, and the most up-to-date figures show that 548,000 16 and 17-year-olds are in some form or employment.

The fact is that many children, far younger than 16, pay indirect taxes on the money that they spend. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that a 10-year-old who goes to buy a CD on which VAT is payable should get the vote?

I do not think that that is a valid intervention.

This House is currently considering new proposals to ensure that all young people receive training or education to the age of 18. However, even then, many 16 and 17-year-olds will continue to work as tax-paying members of society. Even those studying part-time will be able to work more than 20 hours per week and be taxed on that income. Young people should have some say on how that tax is spent. I have been to schools to speak to young people and hear their views—I know that many hon. Members have done this—and I have found that they have a range of views about what provision there should be in the area, and about how their local authorities are run. I have been amazed at how political their views are—in a way that I had not expected. Although young people are very involved in single-issue politics, they have strong views on more political things.

It was mentioned earlier that many young people get involved in single-issue campaigns, and that it is a matter of translating that involvement into a more direct and general interest in politics. Is not one of the greatest institutional barriers to achieving that transformation the fact that they do not have a vote and cannot, therefore, influence the decisions taken on their behalf?

My hon. Friend makes an important point.

I come to the issue of young people in the military. On 1 April 2007, there were 4,560 16 and 17-year-olds serving in the armed forces. In the last financial year, 30 per cent. of all new recruits to the military were under 18 years of age. People can apply to join the British Army at 15 years and seven months, and to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force at 15 years and nine months. While it is Government policy that personnel under the age of 18 should not be deployed on any operations that would see them engaged in hostilities, the normal practice is for recruits to sign up to a four-year contract, meaning that in deciding to join at 16 they are making a decision that could see them deployed in two years’ time. If they are old enough to join the armed forces, 16 and 17-year-olds deserve the right to vote for the Government who could decide to send them to war. That is a very important point.

Notwithstanding those points, preventing 16 and 17-year-olds from expressing their political views through the ballot box denies them their rights. It gives them and the rest of society the impression that young people’s views are not valid and that they are not real citizens. One of the ways in which we can show young people that we respect them and that their views are valid is by getting them to vote. If the Government gave young people the vote, it would be a huge step in recognising the contribution that they can make.

Those in favour of lowering the voting age cite selectively the point about the armed forces. A 16-year-old cannot join the Army without parental permission. That shows that we do not trust 16-year-olds to decide by themselves to join the armed forces, yet those in favour of the proposal never cite that fact.

Sixteen-year-olds can sign up, however they do it, and can eventually end up in a conflict. That is an important point.

As a parent of a son who is now 18 and another who is 25, I can say that if they had expressed the view at 16 that they wanted to join the armed forces, it would have been difficult to refuse because parents want to do their best for and support their children.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

In the past decade, there has been an explosion of activity to support children and young people to influence decisions that affect their lives. However, the best authority on a young person’s life and experience is that young person. All the bodies that work with young people try endlessly to get them involved in consultation and steering groups to get their opinions. The argument for involving young people in those groups is the same for lowering the voting age.

It is worth noting the 2005 European Court of Human Rights declaration that the restriction in the UK on convicted prisoners voting was incompatible with the European convention on human rights. The judgment was based on the principle that voting is a human right and that any restriction on the right to vote must therefore be legitimate and proportionate. One could say that, on 1 May, when the local elections took place, 90,000 16 and 17-year-olds were denied the opportunity to vote. Large groups of people who are capable of voting are excluded from doing so. Lowering the voting age would send a powerful signal that the Government believe that young people are capable of making decisions that affect their lives. We have a historic opportunity to mark the Government’s commitment to young people.

One of the arguments against the Bill is that young people are not sufficiently engaged in politics to have the vote. I have already said that we have a problem with engaging young people, and that the turnout statistics for the young, especially at general election time, are worrying. However, that is not a reason for rejecting the Bill; it is a challenge, and lowering the voting age is one way in which to meet it.

If we took turnout as the acid test for voting, 18 to 25-year-olds would not get the vote and ethnic minorities and people in poorer communities might not get the vote. Is not it risible to use turnout as an argument against giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote?

It certainly is. Votes at 16 would increase young people’s engagement in politics because it would also increase the engagement that politicians are obliged to have with young people. It stands to reason that those in the political system will be more interested in the opinions of those who can vote and have influence. Our political system is currently skewed too far in favour of those who are older, for simple reasons—there are more of them, they have more power and they tend to vote more. Of course, it is tremendously important to pay regard to, and do all we can for older people, but I believe that we pay less attention to young people’s views because they cannot vote. It is inevitable in such a system that they do not have the power of older people.

The hon. Lady is developing a serious argument, which hon. Members of all parties are taking seriously and considering carefully. However, she is not on the right track with her current point. Like most hon. Members, I recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said, that 14, 15 and 16-year-olds grow up. I therefore pay a lot of attention to what they say—when the next election comes along, they will probably be 18. I do not believe that any hon. Member disregards those under 18 simply because they cannot vote at that precise moment. The hon. Lady’s argument that we do not pay attention to, or consider the views of, young people is flawed. It is patronising to assume that we do not pay attention to young people simply because they do not have the vote until they are 18.

I am sure that hon. Members try to engage with young people, but it is difficult to do that in a system in which 16 and 17-year-olds do not have the vote. It would be much easier to take their views on board if they had the vote. It is inevitable that we pay more attention to those who can vote.

In 2007, the population of those of state pensionable age is projected to exceed the number of children for the first time. Older people represent the vast majority of voters. Political parties draw up policies and manifestos that are close to the opinions of those whom they are trying to attract. It is inevitable that we do not give young people the same attention because they do not have the vote. We would listen much more carefully to what 16 and 17-year-olds wanted if they had the power to vote us out of office.

On the whole, political parties do not attract young supporters. Policies that resonate with young people are not discussed and they therefore sometimes feel that politics is not for them. Lowering the voting age would help to redress the balance and ensure that young people’s views have weight. If 16 and 17-year-olds were given the vote, politicians would have take their views, as citizens, seriously and political parties would be spurred into activity, ensuring young people’s inclusion in policy formulation and in debate and as activists.

I am interested in my hon. Friend’s comments about the age at which people engage with political parties. As she knows, one can join the Labour party at 15, and that does not prevent people from joining. Is not the broader point that people tend to be active, in a political party sense, later in life?

I believe that we need to encourage young people to join political parties—there are many more older people than young people in political parties. Giving them the vote is one way in which to engage them in political parties.

Where the voting age has been lowered, with a sustained public awareness campaign with young people, turnout at elections has been boosted. In Germany, there has been higher turnout among the 16-to-18 age group than among the 18-to-24 age group. There are similar examples in the UK. More than 20,000 young people voted in Essex to elect six members of the Youth Parliament from 92 candidates. That is tremendous.

My hon. Friend rightly cites the German example, but has she considered the Isle of Man, where the voting age was reduced to 16 in 2006? A month before the election, fewer than half the 16-year-olds who could register had done so.

I intend to refer to the Isle of Man later. I shall make progress now, or I shall speak for too long. [Hon. Members: “Take your time.”] Okay.

If increasing young people’s participation and engagement is a shared aim among hon. Members—I am sure that it is—I am convinced that lowering the voting age would help. Sixteen is the ideal age at which to catch young people and inspire them to take part in the political process, which will then, I believe, become a habit for life. Today’s 16-year-olds have had the benefit of systematically studying our democracy and electoral system, and the importance of voting, through compulsory citizenship education, which became part of the national curriculum in 2002. Young people today have had more opportunity to be informed about voting than most current voters, yet they are denied the right to put that knowledge into practice for a further two years at least, and possibly another seven. Lowering the voting age to 16 would allow for a seamless transition from learning about voting, elections and democracy to putting such knowledge into practice.

Importantly, most 16 and 17-year-olds are in education and have the opportunity to discuss issues and to get into the habit of voting. If young people air their views and discuss the process with other members of their class or college, there is much more chance that they will vote. In Wales, the equivalent of citizenship education is the personal and social education framework, which provides an opportunity to learn about active citizenship as part of the curriculum. All that is happening in schools today, so now would seem an ideal time to move towards a younger voting age.

My hon. Friend has made the point that 16 and 17-year-olds, perhaps because they are in education settings, would be in a better position to discuss voting and might be better motivated to vote than some older young people. Is it not also likely that those young people will be living at their home addresses, near the polling station at which they are registered, and will therefore probably be more likely to exercise their vote than many 18 to 21-year-olds, who usually live away from home at the time elections take place?

I was coming to that point. As we all know, 18 to 21-year-olds are difficult to canvass during elections. Often, when we get to a house with lots of different names, we know that student voters are living there, and we do not know whether they are voting in our constituencies or in their home areas. It is quite difficult to engage them and there are limited opportunities to make contact.

Very few 16 or 17-year-olds come to see me at my surgeries. I enjoy meeting them in schools—I know that all hon. Members make big efforts to go to see them in schools—but feel that I see less of them than I should. If 16 and 17-year-olds had the vote, we would have the opportunity to reach them in school—as my hon. Friend said, while they are still at home, they have a stable address and it is easy to reach them—and get them into the habit of voting.

It is a sad fact, but if we do not engage young people early, they rarely pick up the habit of voting later in life. The exclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds is fuelling the disengagement of 18 to 24-year-olds. The longer young people are denied involvement in the formal democratic process, the less chance there is of engaging them ever.

The hon. Lady is making a strong case, although I am slightly cynical about the comparison with the suffragettes. If people cannot be bothered to fill in a form, we are hardly talking about a great campaign or crusade. May I also suggest that the point that she has just made has been made in something of a vacuum? Societal changes mean that young people are probably taking a much more transactional approach to what politics and politicians can do for them. Forty years ago, the No. 1 determinant of whether someone voted and who they voted for was how their father voted. The age of deference is now gone and people are a lot more willing to consider different options. If they do not choose to vote, that is not necessarily a bad thing. The hon. Lady has not really taken into account those changes in society, which are generally for the good.

I think that the changes in society mean that more young people are looking to vote.

One thing that makes the situation more difficult is that young people are sometimes denied democratic participation in a general election until they are 23. Research has shown that the closer to a general election a person’s 18th birthday falls, the more likely they are to vote. People who become 18 in the year leading up to a general election are significantly more likely to vote than those who turn 18 in the year after an election and have to wait another five years. Although lowering the voting age cannot get rid of the lottery of birthdays, it would ensure that a person’s first engagement with parliamentary democracy would happen by the time they were 21.

I would like to make some progress before I give way again.

The ability to vote at 16 would bring a relevance and practical application to citizenship education. It would allow us to catch young people at a time in their lives when voter education could be provided for them. Votes at 16 would give young people the experience of voting by 21. Once familiar with the process, they would be much more likely to continue voting for life. Lowering the voting age would not only be good for young people, but would be good for UK democracy as a whole. It would redress the balance of power towards younger people and would be an investment in the health of democracy and the future, by engaging young people in voting for life.

A bold act such as lowering the voting age would also be an act befitting this Parliament. As one of the oldest and most respected Parliaments in the world, we have set the pace in the delivery of democracy. When the UK lowered the voting age to 18 in 1969, France, Italy, Canada, Australia and the USA quickly followed. Although we would certainly be seen as progressive if we lowered the voting age to 16, we would not be the first country to do it. Last year, Austria became the first EU state to reduce the voting age to 16 for all elections, and that also applies in five of the 16 German Länder.

Closer to home, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey have all adopted a voting age of 16. At that time, the Speaker of the House of Keys of the Isle of Man, Steve Rodan, expressed a view that demonstrates a laudable attitude to the subject. His view was simple:

“It may be that only a few 16 and 17-year-olds will want to vote…But if we can get even a small number engaged at an early age it could lead to a lifetime’s active interest in politics.”

I want to associate myself with his words and to associate the House with such a progressive measure.

We have held debates in the House on the voting age before. I have looked into the numbers, and at one time or another nearly 200 Members have voted for the measure or signed early-day motions in support of it. However, we now have the opportunity to press for serious consideration of votes at 16. Last summer’s Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, set the tone of the debate this year. It spoke of the need to reinvigorate democracy, to put power in the hands of Parliament and the people, and to make a commitment to consider lowering the voting age. The Government are therefore actively considering lowering the voting age.

Since then, a youth citizens commission has been announced, under Professor Jonathan Tonge, to consult widely on the issue. I welcome those measures and have brought my Bill to the House to focus attention on the process. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will give us more details about the youth citizens commission, how young people are involved in it, whether it has begun its consultation and what the timetable for reporting will be. This is therefore a timely debate, because a body has been set up to look into the very issue that we are discussing. I hope that that body will listen to the voices of the many young people who speak so eloquently and strongly about the subject.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the commission. It will also be important that Members of Parliament, as the representatives of young people from the age of 18 onwards, and potentially from the age of 16 onwards, should be involved in the process, so I hope that the Minister will say how we can contribute.

I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us full details about the commission when he responds. It is important that he should be aware that many young people are interested in what the commission will produce. I hope that he is also aware of the hopes and expectations of the many youth organisations that are listening to this debate today and waiting to see what the Government are going to do.

I want to pay tribute to the Electoral Reform Society, which has helped me to organise meetings with young people and to prepare for this debate. The organisations that work with young people are directly informed by what young people feel, and there is therefore great strength in what they say.

Now is the time to invest in young people. We in this House of Parliament need to think in a bold way, and to think about what we can do that will really change the way in which our democracy works. Now is the time to legislate with our young people, rather than for them, to give them a stake in our community and society, and to equip them with the skills and self-belief that will allow them to take control of their own lives and decisions. Now is the time to ask them to be full citizens and to trust them with the rights that such citizens are owed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on securing such a high place in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, although I am afraid that I cannot be quite so complimentary about her choice of subject. She made several references to sending out messages and signals, but that is not what we are involved in here today. We are involved in considering changing the law and passing legislation, and we need to do that incredibly carefully. When the House changes the law, it needs to be sure that the change will have good consequences and that there is plenty of evidence to support it. Although the hon. Lady’s speech contained lots of assertions, I did not hear a lot of detailed evidence to back them up.

Parliament has already had the opportunity to consider this matter. On 29 November 2005, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams)—he is in his place today and I am sure he will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—introduced his ten-minute Bill, the Representation of the People (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill. He obviously had less time to make his points, but his case was similar to that put forward today by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North. He mentioned the fact that, at 16, people could join the armed forces, leave school and pay taxes. He also mentioned cigarette manufacturing and addictive habits. He said that the manufacturers believed that if they could get people to take up smoking at 16, those people would be addicted for many years. The hon. Lady seems to be advancing a similar argument, in saying that if we can get people hooked on voting at 16, they will carry on doing it. The reason that I mention that is that the Government have decided that 16-year-olds are not old enough to make a decision about buying cigarettes, and that they need to be 18 before they can do so.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs to distinguish between a good habit and a bad habit. That is the point that I was making on 29 November 2005, which was also the day on which we had the Second Reading of the Health Bill that went on to ban smoking in public places and subsequently to raise from 16 to 18 the age at which a person can purchase cigarettes.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Voting is indeed a very good habit, and smoking is a very bad one. The point that I was making was that if the Government—and, I suspect, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North—do not believe that a 16-year-old is capable of deciding whether to purchase a packet of cigarettes, I do not see how they can simultaneously believe that such a person is able to make a decision about who should govern their country.

I am a little worried by the example that the hon. Gentleman has just given. Young people often start smoking illegally at a much earlier age, but I am not aware of anyone voting illegally under the age of 18. I do not think that his analogy was terribly helpful.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point, because sadly there have been many examples of illegal voting by people who are not entitled to vote; they vote early and they vote often. Perhaps that was not the strongest argument that she could have made in favour of the Bill.

I notice with some regret that there is not a Law Officer in the House today, but perhaps my hon. Friend can help me. Is he aware of anything in the Bill that offends or breaches our commitment to that ridiculous, one-size-must-fit-all organisation, the European Union?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. We might not have a Law Officer in the House, but we have the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), and I am sure that he will dwell on these matters later. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, in relation to international matters, I shall be talking later about the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Perhaps he will want to intervene on me again at that point.

Before we leave the subject of the UN convention on the rights of the child, may I point out that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) suggested that the right to vote was among the human rights of 16 to 18-year-olds? She spoke of the pain of those who are unable to vote until they are 23 because a general election has not come along. Does my hon. Friend agree that we all share the pain of the many millions of people who would like to vote in a general election very soon? Does he think that the hon. Lady might join our call to have a general election as soon as possible in order to relieve the pain not only of young people but of many others?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. Indeed, people have started coming to my constituency office to ensure that they are following the correct procedures to get on to the electoral register, because they are so determined to have an opportunity to vote against this appalling, failing Labour Government. An immediate general election would ensure that all those who are 18 at the moment would be able to exercise their right to vote. I am fairly confident—

I am sort of grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he listens to my remarks a little later, he will hear me set out why I do not believe that we should do so. I listen carefully to the views of 16 and 17-year-olds—and, indeed, of much younger children—when I visit schools in my constituency, as I am sure all hon. Members do. However, that does not mean that I think that children should be given the right to vote. I believe that that right should come along when we decide that they are adults.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the weakest arguments for votes for 16-year-olds is that it would somehow increase turnout? The Electoral Commission report states clearly that turnout would actually go down if we were to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The turnout argument is a very weak one; it is not at all convincing. Furthermore, it is not the right argument. The decision to reduce the voting age should be taken on its merits, and arguments in favour of doing it to increase turnout are rather specious. As the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said earlier, if we followed that argument to its logical conclusion, we could go around the electorate picking off groups of people who did not use their vote and taking it away from them. That would clearly be nonsensical. Similarly, the turnout argument is not a powerful one.

I was talking about the case outlined by the hon. Member for Bristol, West. One of his arguments concerned the case being made in the 19th and 20th centuries for the right of women to vote. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North also made that point. I think that I demonstrated in my intervention that that argument was nonsense. It was clearly right to give the vote to women, but that was because, if we had not done so, they would never have had an opportunity to vote. The whole point about children and young people is that, even though they do not have the right to vote now, they will have that right later.

Will the hon. Gentleman therefore tell us how he would have voted 80 years ago in the vote to extend the franchise to women under the age of 30? According to his rationale, there would have been no need to do that, because when those women reached the age of 30, they would have been allowed to vote anyway.

I was not around 80 years ago, and neither was the hon. Lady. Indeed, looking around the Chamber, I cannot see a single Member who would have been around that long ago, thank goodness. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats is not here today; he might be an exception.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue at that time was not just age? Other conditions were attached to women’s votes, including the requirement for them to be married.

That is absolutely true. I would have been very relaxed about reducing the voting age to the age of majority; however, in the past the argument was not merely about the voting age but about the age at which people could do a number of other things. It is broadly accepted, although there are discrepancies, which I shall mention later, that people stop being children and become adults at the age of 18, and I think we should stick to that line; otherwise there will be no logical reason for setting the voting age at 16. Once it ceased to be associated with becoming an adult, there would be no logical argument against giving the vote to 14-year-olds, 12-year-olds or 10-year-olds.

I am sure that if we were to reduce the voting age to 16, the age that has been chosen on this occasion, a campaign would be launched by politically aware 14-year-olds, and there would be no logical reason to say no to them. At present, however, it is clear that we connect voting with becoming an adult, and I think that that is how things should stay.

Does my hon. Friend accept that a cogent argument for allowing 16-year-olds to vote is that that is the school leaving age? Does he also accept that most 16-year-olds have the mental capacity to vote? The problem lies in the fact that many of them have not been educated at school about our democratic system. It is a problem of education, rather than of the mental incapacity or immaturity of a 16-year-old.

That is a good point. One of the arguments advanced by those in favour of this case involves citizenship education. Later in my speech, I shall refer to what the Electoral Commission said about evidence relating to the quality of such education. I shall also give examples from countries such as the United States, where civics has been taught for many years and where reducing the voting age to below 18 is not advocated.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West drew attention to early-day motion 801, tabled in an earlier parliamentary Session and supported by 90 Members. As I said earlier, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North did an even better job by securing 111 signatures to her early-day motion. Those 111 Members expressed the belief that this was an important matter and that lowering the voting age could play a huge role in helping young people to feel more connected, and they explicitly supported the Bill, but I see precious few of them here today. According to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), the Youth Parliament rated the issue as fifth out of six in terms of importance. Of the 111 Members who supported the hon. Lady’s early-day motion, very few thought it worth taking the trouble to come to the House today to support the Bill.

My hon. Friend may have noticed that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) omitted to provide the factual evidence for which I asked in my first intervention. I asked whether any opinion polling of 16 to 18-year-olds had ever produced the finding that voting at 16 was the No. 1 issue of voting-related salience for that cohort, as opposed to other issues that are replicated across the older voting population. I suspect that my hon. Friend will tell me that the answer to that question is no.

Certainly I encountered no such evidence when conducting my research for the debate, but I am sure that if there is any out there, the hon. Lady will intervene.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman remembers that in my speech I mentioned research conducted by a young people’s organisation in Wales called Funky Dragon, and the fact that this emerged as the top campaigning issue for members of the age group that we are discussing.

How could anyone forget the name of an organisation called Funky Dragon? It is certainly doing a great job in terms of name recognition. I think, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) was asking whether there was any evidence across the United Kingdom. The Bill covers England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I do not think that there is any opinion polling evidence from across the United Kingdom.

In the course of his researches, did the hon. Gentleman find any evidence that at the time when reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 was under consideration, that was the No. 1 priority in the age group concerned? That is a silly argument. As he said, we must look at the merits of the argument for reducing the voting age to 16.

Later in my speech I shall indeed look at the merits of the argument, and I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman then if he wishes to intervene.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that young people in Wales are atypical, and not representative of young people in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Representing a border constituency as I do—the Forest of Dean shares a border with the great country of Wales, with which we have some interesting local relationships—I am not sure whether young people in Wales are atypical. I suspect that they are not, but as there has been no opinion polling across the United Kingdom, the question will have to be considered another day.

As the hon. Gentleman and other Members know, nowadays many of our constituents are not shy in coming forward to give us their views on certain subjects. The top issue in my postbag and e-mails this morning was saving the whale, followed by bearskins and clubbing seals to death. How many letters, e-mails or postcards has he received from his constituents on reducing the voting age?

I hope that the people who are writing to the hon. Gentleman about clubbing seals are not expressing support for the practice.

I think I have received two letters on this subject from constituents. I represent 67,000 adults, and 80,000 or 90,000 people altogether. That does not suggest that the issue is at the top of anyone’s list of priorities, whether they are under or over 18.

I assume that, like me, the hon. Gentleman visits secondary schools in his constituency, and speaks to people in the age group that we are discussing. Have any of them ever raised this issue?

I shall mention later what I do in my constituency, but like other Members I visit not just secondary schools but primary schools, as well as youth groups and all manner of organisations involving young people. I do not recall any of them raising this issue. Although young people raise a range of political issues and express views about a number of matters affecting both our country and our planet, this is not the issue with which I am battered by people in any age group, particularly the young.

Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that many 16 to 18-year-olds, like the rest of the population, are at various times cynical or disillusioned about politics and politicians. What if there were a close general election in this country, like the last two elections in the United States? Does he not think that 16 to 18-year-olds would be keen to participate in such circumstances, and perhaps to tilt the government of the country? Far from being disillusioned, would they not feel cheated if they were not able to take part?

I certainly think that the next general election will be very competitive and interesting, and will stir people on all sides of the argument to take part. The turnout in this year’s mayoral election was significantly higher than last time—it was, of course, won by my former hon. Friend the Member for Henley, Boris Johnson—and the turnout in the local elections was reasonably promising. I think that that bodes quite well. As for young people being cynical and disillusioned, that is not my experience. I find that young people are very hopeful about the future and keen to convey their points of view, and that they campaign in a range of ways. What they require from us is that we listen to them. I shall expand a little later on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made about our listening to young people and about that point not necessarily being connected with their having the vote specifically at this time.

I think that some young people do get disillusioned by politicians, but we give them good reason with some of our antics, such as promising people a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and then withdrawing that promise and pretending that the treaty is something different. People are rightly cynical about some of our antics.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) spoke about people who would be interested in politics being cheated. Let us consider the example of somebody who happens to be 17 years, 11 months and three weeks old—almost 18—at the time of a general election. Such a person has clearly failed to reach the relevant age, but they will feel cheated because with another four days they would have been able to vote. The reality is that we need to have a cut-off time. If we used 16 as that point, someone who was one day short of being 16 would rightly feel cheated too. We need a line or a barrier at some stage, and some people will fall past it and others will fall the other way.

My hon. Friend makes a good point; indeed, I drew attention to it earlier when I said that once we separate the voting age from the age at which someone becomes an adult, there is no logical place to stop the process.

I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North said in her excellent speech that changing the voting age would not get rid of the lottery of birthdays, or the birthday lottery, and that is exactly the case. Wherever we set the line, someone will always fall the other side of it and remain disappointed that they were not able to take part in the general election. I do not think that there is any way around that, and I do not think that this argument is taking us any further forward.

I hesitate to say what I am about to say, because I have great respect for my hon. Friend, but would he not accept, on reflection, that the argument he was making before that last intervention about the lack of perceived demand among 16-year-olds was a fairly weak one? Are we here just to follow public opinion, or are we here to give leadership and to make a change where we think it should be made?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I am arguing against this change because I do not think it is the right one to make. It is useful to be aware of what the general public think and what 16 to 18-year-olds think to ensure that we are building that into our thought processes, but we should be arguing this on the merits of the case. Even if the majority of 16 to 18-year-olds or indeed the majority of people in the country thought that the proposal was the right change to make and I felt it was the wrong one, it would be my job to stand up and argue, both in this House and outside, that I felt it was wrong and to try, by the power of argument, to persuade those people to change their minds.

Given that the hon. Gentleman is against this proposal, what is the nub of his belief that young people should not have the vote? What it is about 16 and 17-year-olds that he thinks makes them incapable or not worthy of having the vote?

The hon. Lady tries to put words into my mouth, and I am not going to allow them to remain there. Her making that comment gives me a good opportunity to dwell for a moment on the language. As I have mentioned once or twice, when we talk about those who are younger than 18 we are actually talking about children; we are not talking about young people. Everyone has been in favour of that approach, apart from one occasion. I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North used the words “young people”. We are actually talking about the difference between being a child and being an adult. Clearly there is a gradation in people’s experience, maturity and ability to make decisions, but the law must set a point. There has to be a point at which we decide that people who are able to take certain decisions will not take those decisions. The law in this country broadly says that someone becomes an adult when they are 18, and with that comes a range of responsibilities. Other age limits are set for things, and I shall go through them later in remarks—if I am ever allowed to get there.

By saying that someone becomes an adult at 18 and someone below that age is a child, we are not, in any sense, disparaging children; we are simply saying that a line has to be drawn. Let us follow the hon. Lady’s argument to its logical conclusion. If we were to move the line for voting to 16, would we not implicitly be saying that there was something not worthy or not appropriate about 14 and 15-year-olds voting? There would be no logical reason not just to drop the voting age all the way down to zero. The fact is that there must be a line somewhere, and wherever it is drawn there will be people on the wrong side of it who have the maturity to take such a decision. The right place for that line to stay is at 18.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that despite the age of majority being 18, a range of things are permitted and possible at 16? All hon. Members have rehearsed the arguments about marriage, sexuality, taxation and so on, so it is specious to say that 18 is finite and that below that age young people are not capable of a certain range of things. Those that are harmful we have a responsibility to prohibit for longer, but those that are non-harmful, such as voting, should be allowed.

That intervention raises two points. Voting, in itself, is a good thing for people to do, but the consequences of the choices that they make could be good or bad. The whole point about setting a voting age is that we want people to be sufficiently confident to take those decisions, so that they are fully aware of the consequences. Voting the wrong way—voting in a way that leads to a bad outcome—could be worrying; someone could vote for a Government who made some very bad decisions, as I would argue is the case with this Government. Voting in itself is a good thing, but its consequences can be very bad. That is why we must ensure that people who vote are of an age at which they are exercise that decision.

Is the hon. Gentleman therefore saying that young people should not be given the vote in case they make a wrong decision? What, in his view, is a wrong decision?

I was simply saying that one must draw a line somewhere, and that does not mean that one is, in any sense, making a negative comment about people who are younger. The hon. Lady made the point that there are a number of age limits for a range of activities in our law, and I shall discuss some of them later. The argument is not a strong one, because we allow people to do some things at much younger ages; indeed, the age of criminal responsibility—the age at which we say people are able to be held criminally responsible for their actions—is 10. If we were to follow her logic, we might reduce the voting age to 10, and not many people in the country would think that a wise idea, although she might.

Is that not simply an argument to say that each thing should be argued on its own merits and that it is horses for courses, and that when we are talking about voting, that is the only thing that we should be discussing in relation to the age of 16?

That argument might hold water if it were not for the fact that part of the main argument of those proposing this change—the hon. Members for Cardiff, North and for Bristol, West—is that one can join the Army, get married or do a bunch of other things at 16. One of the core arguments of their case is that one can do a load of other things at 16, so one should be allowed to vote too. I think that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) shoots down not only her case, but the case of some of her hon. Friends in the arguments that she just made.

My hon. Friend needs to exercise a degree of scepticism about the comments made from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I believe that it is still Liberal Democrat policy to allow 16-year-olds to have unfettered access to pornography. They might want to intervene to discuss that. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that from time to time the House has to make a value judgment—a sanction—about what it is appropriate to allow young people and children to access. We make the value judgments on things such as video certification, access to credit and the purchase of alcohol, and they are enshrined in law. I cannot see why we should suspend that template when we consider making a value judgment on allowing people to exercise their democratic franchise in an election.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, to which I shall return later. I shall deal now with one thing that he said. He has rightly made the point—I think that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green will correct me if I am wrong—that reducing the voting age to 16 is Liberal Democrat party policy.

I am getting some nods, which suggests that I am right. I am therefore astounded that only four Liberal Democrats are in their places—there were not many more in the Lobby earlier—given that we are discussing a Bill that is official Liberal Democrat party policy. Clearly, even they are not very committed to this policy; otherwise the whole party, such as it is, before the next general election, would have been here to support it.

The hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues challenged the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) strongly on some of her evidence, including the opinion poll backing for her arguments. What is his evidence for the claim that 16 and 17-year-olds are likely to vote the “wrong way”?

As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), the opinion poll arguments are not conclusive. I will address later in my remarks some of the work that the Electoral Commission has done and the polling evidence from other organisations. If he is not content with those arguments, I will be happy to give way again.

One of the least convincing arguments for the importance or validity of a Bill is how many people turn up on a Friday to discuss it, and I think that Members on both sides of the House should avoid it.

There are two aspects to this argument and I would question the hon. Gentleman on both. The first is the need to convince those over 18 who already have the vote that it is sensible to extend it to younger people. The second is the changes that have happened to young people. Society has changed, and that has perhaps affected 16 and 17-year-olds more than any other group in society. A reflection of that is the increasing responsibilities, several of which have already been mentioned, that we give them. Does he accept that although we may not have convinced those who already have the vote, societal change suggests that people now take responsibility at a younger age?

I am not sure that I agree. Hon. Members who engage in argument with young people in schools, as I do, would agree that many of them take an interest in the world around them, and tools such as the internet help them to find out easily what is happening. However, it is not so long ago that most young people left school at 16 or, going further back, 15. Now young people stay on in education and do not have the responsibility of going out and getting a job, or running their own household. Indeed, the age at which young people leave home is rising, not falling, so I do not agree that the age at which they take responsibility for themselves is moving in the direction that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

I submit that the reason young people are urged to stay on in education is not related to their ability to be responsible or their maturity, but to their needs as individuals and society’s need for a better educated work force. I do not buy the hon. Gentleman’s other argument. The nub of the argument is whether society is placing greater responsibilities on young people because of their earlier maturity and whether that should be extended to the voting age.

There is much concern at the moment that society is actually placing far too much responsibility on young people and forcing them to grow up at an earlier age. Compressing the length of childhood is not necessarily a good idea for children or for society.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that legislation frequently does not reduce the age at which people can do things, but increases it? Two examples are cigarettes and air rifles.

The hon. Gentleman is spot on. This House, and specifically the party to which the hon. Member for Cardiff, North belongs, has been increasing the age at which young people are able to take decisions, not reducing it. This Bill suggests that we should move in the opposite direction to the trend of much other Government legislation and policy.

Has my hon. Friend done any analysis of the link between the supporters of the Bill and hon. Members who argue that we should raise from 17 to 18 the age at which young people may drive?

That is an interesting point. That increase would be very damaging in my constituency, because many young people there depend on being able to drive to get about, because public transport is so poor. I have not carried out an exhaustive analysis in that area, but if my hon. Friend casts a brief eye over those who signed the early-day motion and those who voted on the ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bristol, West, he will probably find that some are acting inconsistently.

I do not believe that there is any inconsistency in voting to increase the age at which people may drive, which is a public safety issue, or to restrict access to cigarettes, alcohol or firearms. All those things are dangerous. The ballot paper is not. How can Members of Parliament talk about the ballot paper as though it is somehow toxic and people could be a danger to themselves or others by engaging in the most fundamental act of democratic citizenship?

That is not a very powerful argument. If we are to say to young people that we do not think that they are sufficiently responsible or competent to take a decision about driving a motor car, using a firearm, consuming alcohol or buying cigarettes, it would be extraordinary to say at the same time that we think that they are mature enough to make a decision about the future of our country and about people who might deploy our armed forces. We know how the Liberal Democrats feel about the decisions made by the Government about committing our armed forces. Those are important and serious decisions, and I cannot see how it would be wise to say that a young person under 18 could not consume alcohol but could vote for a Government who could authorise the use of force in an armed conflict. That is completely inconsistent.

When it comes to voting, a young person has a fixed, limited number of choices. There is no question of binge voting. It is a simple act, and it is not like the other behaviours that people are worried about. Young people cannot vote to excess or put themselves or others at risk by doing it. Voting is a very controlled act.

The argument comes down to the choices that people make. Young people are capable of deciding to consume alcohol sensibly, but far too many make a poor job of that choice and consume it to excess. That is why the law says that they cannot purchase alcohol until they are 18. I do not follow the hon. Gentleman’s logic.

Does my hon. Friend agree that while the dangers of a vote may not be immediately apparent, they are real? One of the reasons the Labour party reneged on its pledge to offer a referendum on the Lisbon treaty was its fear of the result of that vote. Votes can be dangerous in some cases; otherwise the Government might have honoured the pledge that they made to the British people and allowed that vote.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is indeed the case that Government Members, or at least those of them who take the decisions, clearly feared the outcome of such a vote; otherwise they would have allowed the British people to have the vote that they promised at the last general election. My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on.

I am not sure what experience my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has in binge voting at elections, but does the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) agree that, if we were to reduce the voting age to 16 and increase the number of things that people could do at 16—he refers to driving—a lot of disenchanted 16-year-olds would be voting?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Indeed, Members who support the measure might be making a rod for their own back. If they lowered the voting age, they might find that an enormous number of young people came to batter down their doors to suggest that the age limits for many other things should be lowered. That may be an interesting consequence, which they may not have properly thought through.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the logical conclusion of the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) that civic duty means that people wish to take part in the system is that we should introduce a private Member’s Bill to extend the age at which people can serve on juries. The accumulated wisdom, knowledge and experience of those people is disregarded after the age of 70. Those people wish to exercise that civic duty, but they cannot do so. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, at some stage, we must take an arbitrary decision—a value judgment—on the suitability of those of certain ages to participate in civic duties. In this case, the hon. Lady is disregarding that factor.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about age limits at the other end of the spectrum—he has highlighted an example—where we prohibit older citizens from doing things, when perhaps they are of the age and have the experience to do them.

I do not want to interrupt the flow of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but does he agree that the very nature of our representative democracy lies at the heart of the debate. I wonder whether those hon. Members who talk about the Lisbon treaty and a referendum in a rather blithe and loose way would agree that it is at least an important matter of principle that the referendum mechanism is used extremely sparingly. We have a system of representative democracy in this country, so we should use the referendum mechanism sparingly, and the precise times when it should be applied are very important. Perhaps instead of making such references lightly, I wonder whether he would agree that he should be much more precise about how the decision on the referendum on the Lisbon treaty was actually taken.

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman gets tempted down that route, I would discourage him very strongly from discussing the pros and cons of referendums at any length.

I am very grateful for your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I notice that you said, “at any length”, so may I deal with that point briefly? The Minister would be right, except of course for the fact that the Government promised such a referendum in our parliamentary democracy. Of course, if they had not promised one, it would have been perfectly in order for the House to have taken the decision. However, following your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will move on.

On the point about at which age people can start to do new things, one of the reasons I support the Bill is that 16 to 18-year-olds are naturally interested in trying out new things. Once they do, they often get into the habit of engaging in those things. Voting is a very commendable habit to get into, whereas perhaps smoking and drinking to excess are not such commendable habits.

The hon. Lady will not tempt me down the path of discussing which activities young people get up to they then develop a habit for, which they do not and which are preferable and which are not. I will try to stick more closely to my arguments.

At the other end of the scale, the hon. Gentleman referred to which civic duties older citizens can and cannot do. I do not believe that we take away the vote from those who exceed 60 years.

No. Quite right; we do not and we should not, but my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough referred to at least one civic duty—serving on juries—that we take away from people who have accumulated a lifetime’s experience. I do not want to get drawn into too much detail about that end of the age spectrum, but such examples make the point that the House and Parliament in general make laws about age cut-offs, which are always unfortunate for those who fall on the wrong side of them. That said, we need cut-offs at some point.

Moving on briefly, so that I can at least turn one more page of my speech, when I spoke against the ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bristol, West—to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North about the younger people’s views—I drew attention to the fact that, at Speech house in my constituency, which is the home of debate in Forest of Dean, we had a debate in 2005, during democracy week, when a number of local sixth-formers met in the Verderer’s court, which is an historic home of debate in the forest. The Royal Forest of Dean college, Wyedean school and Newent community schools sent students to debate exactly this issue. It was interesting that, when they took a vote afterwards, even in an audience made up entirely of 16 to 18-year-olds there was a 50:50 split. So even among the target age group, there is not a clear view that they want such a change. Indeed, powerful arguments were advanced by those students to explain that they did not want that change for some of the reasons that have been adduced so far this morning and for those that I am sure will be referred to later. It is interesting that even those who would benefit from the proposal do not think it right that the voting age should be changed.

Does the hon. Gentleman not take from the evidence that he has presented some reassurance that the risk of young people voting the wrong way is nothing like he suggested earlier?

That may or may not be the point, but it is not really the crux of my argument, which is that voting should be tied to becoming an adult. That age should be set at 18. As soon as that link is shifted and broken, there is no logical age on which to settle. The age of 16 would then just be a staging post. Certainly, the opinion polling evidence that I will quote later shows that most people in this country think that the voting age should stay at 18.

To conclude the first part of my remarks about the debate on the ten-minute Bill, it is worth reminding the House of the decision that Parliament took when that matter was pressed to a Division by the late Eric Forth and me. The House divided Ayes 128, and Noes 136. The House therefore made a decision, albeit not an overwhelming one, but it was a decision reached when rather more Members were present than are today, to make it clear that it did not want to make the change.

Just as an aside, I was grateful on that occasion that my friend the late Eric Forth—he and I were both Tellers—gave me the opportunity at a relatively early stage in my career to be a Conservative Teller who got to read out the winning result in a vote, which is something that, sadly, many Opposition Members have not had the opportunity to do since 1997. Perhaps we may be a little closer to having the opportunity to do so somewhat more frequently in the future.

I was confirmed in the rightness of my decision by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy)—I beg forgiveness from any Scot if I pronounced that constituency slightly incorrectly—who was the then leader of the Liberal Democrats and was sitting in the position now occupied by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman. As I walked past to deliver the vote, I heard him say from a sedentary position that the dark forces of conservatism had struck again. At that moment, I knew that I had done exactly the right thing.

As I have outlined what happened the last time that the House discussed this matter, it is probably worth just going through, to the extent that we have not done so already in the nature of that exchange, some of the arguments that are adduced by those who want to support the Bill and to reduce the age for voting and then summarise some of the arguments that have not yet been mentioned by those who are against doing so. The early-day motion—I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North mentioned it—cited that the most prominent argument for giving the right to vote to 16-year-olds is

“reconnecting the generation of young people with politics and democracy in the UK.”

That was one of the 20 proposals that the Liberal Democrats included in the paper, “Real Democracy in Britain”, which they published in July last year, allegedly to strengthen Britain’s democracy by reducing the voting age. Most of the arguments made in support of that point have been covered briefly this morning; they are about being able to join the armed forces, get married, legally have sex, leave education and pay tax. It was argued that because 16-year-olds could do all those things legally, they were capable of making rational, responsible choices and should therefore be able to vote. A little later, I will consider some of those arguments in detail and demonstrate why those rights, which people gain at 16, are qualified, and why the case is not as the proponents have argued.

The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he thinks that people under 18 are children; he has called them that on a couple of occasions in his speech. Does he think that no one should have sex until the age of 18?

We are being very picky. Let me bring in the UN convention on the rights of the child, which was proposed and drafted by UNICEF and has been ratified by the United Kingdom. It says that

“a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years”.

UNICEF says:

“In 1989, world leaders decided that children”—

that is the word used—

“needed a special convention just for them because people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not.”

When I was talking about language earlier with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, the Liberal Democrat Front Bencher, I said that it is not pejorative to call someone a child, not an adult. We call people below the age of 18 children and give them a different legal status until they become an adult. It is not a pejorative term; it is simply a matter of fact.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the definition to which he referred is also used by those who argue that people should not be allowed to join the armed forces before they are 18, such as the Liberal Democrats?

Yes, absolutely. Later I shall draw attention to the fact that when under-18s join the armed forces, not only is their decision to join qualified, but—the hon. Gentleman will know this well, as he served on the Committee considering the Armed Forces Act 2006—there is a comprehensive set of guidance for military commanders on the special duty of care that they owe to soldiers, and members of the other armed forces, under 18 who are under their command.

We have made it very clear that in our system, although under-18s can join the armed forces, we will not deploy them in armed conflict until they are 18. We have drawn that distinction, and I think that the Government got that policy right; I support it. As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said, it is seems extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats think that a 16-year-old should not be able to join the armed forces, but should be able to vote for people who can authorise the use of armed force around the world. That seems incredibly inconsistent. If one is to allow people to vote—to make the decision to use armed force—surely one should let them join the armed forces. Liberal Democrat policy on that is hopelessly inconsistent.

On the hon. Gentleman’s last remark, young people can take the decision to join the armed forces at 16. Young people who do so today will be aware, at the age of 16, that they may be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq as a consequence of that decision taken at the age of 16, although their going may be delayed until they are 18. I want to come back to the issue of the UN convention that he quoted. Of course, that was written in 1989, and I am the first to accept that the consensus at the time is reflected in that convention, but we have moved on. I come back to the nub of the argument, which I hope that he will address: we must look at those things that only happen at the age of 18 and over, and those that happen at the age of 16. I submit to him that more responsibility is being placed on young people at the age of 16. If that is the way in which society is moving, we have to recognise it, regardless of whether he wishes society to move in that direction or not. The consequence of that is the Bill.

We covered that point earlier. I and other Members gave some examples of ways in which the House is moving in the opposite direction. The hon. Gentleman says that under-18s are being given more responsibility, but I would be grateful if he intervened on me to give examples of what he means. Perhaps he might do so in his speech, if he is lucky enough to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman has quoted the UN convention, which says that everyone under 18 is a child. He is aware that some people use that argument to suggest that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 18. In the debate on whether to have a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, many people have made that point. I do not believe that that age should be raised to 18, and I do not think that he does, either, so why is he relying, in such absolute terms, on that argument?

I am not; I was simply using the UN convention to demonstrate that when I refer to people under 18 as children, I am not in any sense using a pejorative term. I am simply citing a matter of fact. I was told by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead that by calling them children I was in some way being derogatory, and that is just not the case.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour Members are obscuring the fact—not deliberately, I am sure—that the age of consent is not the age of adulthood? There is an interregnum between the age below which society must provide some protection, particularly from sexual exploitation—it has to set an arbitrary age for that, which is 16—and adulthood. In a sense, there is an opaque area between 16 and 18—between the age below which the law protects children, and full adulthood, with its citizenship obligations.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I look forward to his elaborating on that point later, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Another argument has been made by those who support the Bill, which the hon. Member for Cardiff, North dwelt on at some length in her opening speech. She suggested that if we did not give young people, meaning 16 and 17-year-olds, the vote, it meant that we could not engage with them. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire dealt with that argument very well. I am sure that I am typical of Members of Parliament, in that I visit primary and secondary schools in my constituency, and a number of youth projects and other organisations that work with children and young people. I am sure that all Members of the House do that in the course of their work. I started off in this job in 2005; I was well aware that it was likely that those aged 13 and upwards would, at the next general election, whenever that comes—the sooner the better, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire said—vote on whether they wished me to remain their Member of Parliament.

I think that most Members of Parliament take seriously the requirement that we should visit even those who are much younger, and who are at primary school. We should discuss issues not just with the staff, but with the children. If hon. Members present have ever been grilled and put through the wringer by a school council, even of 10-year-olds, they will know that the council members are good at marshalling their facts and can hold a good debate, but I do not think that they should get the vote—and neither do they. However, if we separate the right to vote from the age of adulthood, we have no logical reason not to give them the vote.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has touched on that point. Does he think that there is a danger that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and others might have been overly influenced in their youth by Mr. Eddie Cochran? In his great song, “Summertime Blues”, there is a good line in which a Congressman says,

“I'd like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote”.

That is not a view that would be endorsed by any Member present; we take people extremely seriously at the youngest age, because we know where they are heading, and we know that they have decent views. Perhaps that song has lingered slightly too long in the hon. Lady’s mind, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) could set her mind at rest by telling her that we do not take such an attitude.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have to confess that I am perhaps too young to remember that song, but I will not dwell on that point. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: many of us in this House take very seriously our responsibility as Members of Parliament to engage with young people, and with people of all ages, and to encourage civic responsibility and participation in elections. We also try to conduct ourselves in ways that encourage turnout and participation rather than the opposite. The suggestion that we should not do so because the population is divided into groups of those who can and cannot vote is not one that I would follow. I am sure that most members of the House would not either.

If we followed that argument through, it would mean that we would never listen to constituents who came from groups that were less likely to vote. For example, it would mean that we paid no attention to the views of Jehovah’s Witnesses because we know that they will not ever vote in an election. If I have a constituent who I know will not vote in an election, I will still do my damnedest to help them in whatever casework they bring to me and with whatever problem they have. I will take their views very seriously, even though I know that they will not be voting at the next election. The argument is specious.

To extend it further, that argument would mean that Members of Parliament would not take any notice of any members of the public who were going to vote against them. That is clearly not the case. We know that thousands of people, unbelievably, vote against us at each general election, but once we are MPs we are committed to represent them all equally, whether they voted for us or not, and whether or not they are under the voting age.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. When we are making decisions about legislation, we do not consider only the effect that those laws will have today. It is oft mentioned in this House that Members are making decisions and thinking about future generations when they enact legislation. That shows that MPs from all parties think about those who do not yet have the opportunity to vote when they make decisions.

In the few minutes before I finish my argument, it might be worth reading into the record the views of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair—I do not know how much they will weigh on Labour Members. We know how much they must wish that they had him back. He made it quite clear that he did not support a reduction in the voting age. He was challenged by the then Liberal Democrat Member for Ludlow, Matthew Green, who raised the same specious arguments. He said:

“The Prime Minister will know that at 16 young people are considered old enough to marry”—

although there are qualifications—

“to have children, to pay taxes and to join the armed forces, yet they are not allowed to vote until they are 18. Does he consider that those things are a lesser responsibility than voting? Will he meet me and a group of young people…to discuss reducing the voting age”?

The then Prime Minister replied:

“I am not sure that we would always want 16-year-olds to do all the things they can do. I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on the voting age. I think that it should remain as it is.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 887.]

I hope that that will be a persuasive argument for those Labour Members who think that Tony Blair was a good judge of things, although I do not necessarily share that view.

We have covered most of the issues fairly well.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reading out the words of the former Prime Minister. My question relates to the commission that is being set up by the Government to consider the matter, to take a comprehensive view, to ask young people what they think and to resolve some of the differences of opinion between not parties but different Members. Does he see that as a positive move and will he contribute to it? Most importantly, will he accept the recommendations that it makes?

I am perfectly content with the Government’s proposals to set up a commission, although I would be interested to know how much it will cost taxpayers, hard-pressed as they are at the moment. I am perfectly content if the commission wants to carry out some investigations and I am content to look at its recommendations. I never say that I will take people’s recommendations in advance of their being made. One thing that voters of all ages expect MPs to do is to use their judgment and consider the merits of the case and the arguments and evidence from all sources. To say in advance that one will listen to the views of a certain group and follow them regardless is not very wise. The idea of the commission is perfectly sensible, and I am sure that the Minister will outline the remit of the commission and how it will conduct its work. I know that the chairman has been announced, and it will be interesting to see what conclusions it comes up with after consulting widely.

Is the hon. Gentleman, like me, sometimes cynical about reviews? We had the Electoral Commission review in 2003, which said in the conclusion that another review should be carried out within five to seven years. However, a lot of things that come out of the Electoral Commission do not make a great deal of common sense to anyone who is involved in democratic policies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a decision is needed one way or another? No matter how many reviews we have, we are going to have the diversity of views that we have heard in the debate.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the criticisms of the Government made by me and by the Opposition is that when a difficult question comes up, a review is often set up—

My hon. Friend’s comment is probably right. I deliberately referred at the beginning of my speech to the ten-minute Bill. The House has already had the chance to consider the issue during this Parliament and has made a decision. It will be interesting to see what decision the House makes today, but I do not think that people can keep revisiting things until they get the answer they want. It would be sensible if the House considered the arguments, as they are worth looking at. However, the arguments in favour of the Bill are rather threadbare. The arguments made against change and for sticking with the status quo are, I think, much more compelling.

The review that started in 2003 reported, I think, in 2004. Does the hon. Gentleman think that not enough has changed in those four years to warrant yet another review?

The hon. Gentleman is probably right. The hon. Member for Edmonton referred to the UN convention on the rights of the child’s having been signed and ratified in 1989. That was not that long ago, and I do not think that there has been the tremendous societal change that he has talked about. It will be helpful if the House makes a decision today so that the matter can be left, rather than considered ad infinitum.

There is no harm in a commission considering the matter, but the Government should not feel obligated to bring the issue back to the House every five minutes. This Parliament has had the opportunity to consider the subject once and today’s debate gives us the chance to consider it again. I certainly do not think that it is worth bringing the matter back to this Parliament for a third time. The House will have made its decision quite clearly after the debate today. On that note, I will allow others to engage in the debate.

May I say how pleased I am to follow the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)? He covered a lot of ground and was generous in taking interventions. That was helpful, as it allowed us to prise out some of the arguments that we face today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on promoting this Bill. I steered a private Member’s Bill successfully through the House during the last Parliament, and I know the amount of hard work that goes into the preparation for these debates. Credit has to go to her for the cogent and strong way in which she put her arguments.

I want to concentrate on a few areas. The first is the history of the subject, and where we are today. The second concerns the international comparisons. The third is a broader issue, which is not only about the voting age but about how to engage people in the debate.

Clearly, there are strong views on either side of the argument for reducing the voting age to 16, as there were in 1969 when the Representation of the People Act reduced the age from 21 to 18. One could say that that heralded the change. I do not come at the subject with strong views either way. I feel that if we reduced the age to 16—this point has already been made—we might have another attempt to reduce it to 15 or even lower. We need to be careful that we do not end up with an annual debate.

I have heard that argument repeated several times today. Surely a debate on the essential issue of who has the right to vote and who does not, and the reasons for those decisions, are a critical part of our democracy. It should not be something that we run away from. We come back, year after year, to the second House in Parliament. Is not it essential that we have debates such as this? What do we have to be scared of?

I am not scared of any debates. I think that it is an issue that we should discuss in each Parliament. It should be reviewed. The problem I have is that, if we reduce the age to 16, will we then not settle on 16, but go further down? I agree with my hon. Friend: I would not oppose the debate taking place. However, if we move to 16, would we continue to reduce the age to, for example, as some have suggested, the age of criminal responsibility, which is 10? I do not think that that would be very favourable either.

I am not opposed to debate, but the weakest of the arguments being made is the one about turnout. The idea is that, if we are to engage young people in the electoral process, reducing the age to 16 would mean that they all flocked to the ballot boxes and started voting in local elections. I will refer later to the wider problem, which is not necessarily down to young people. Different sections of society are not voting. We should take certain steps to make it easier for people to vote, irrespective of their age, but I do not think for one minute that age is an issue that will increase turnout. I refer to the example of the Isle of Man that was cited earlier. Young people there were given the opportunity to register, but most of them did not. However, to make voting easier, we must look at systems such as postal voting and others.

Like the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, I visit many schools and enjoy engaging and talking with young people, in both primary and secondary schools. In the seven years I have been in the House, this issue has never come up during one of the school visits that I have taken part in. I have had a host of issues raised about local issues that affect young people in the county of Durham, and those people are quite engaged with some national topics. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman, I think we all keep a tally of the main issues that affect our constituents. As I said, saving the whale was the top issue that people wrote to me about. Then came the campaign against bearskins being used by the Grenadier Guards. As for the third issue, may I put it on the record that I was not suggesting that people write to me to support the clubbing to death of seals? People were voting to oppose the clubbing to death of Canadian seals. However, voting age has never been raised with me by young people in my constituency, either directly or in writing, and most right hon. and hon. Members get not only a daily postbag now but an e-mail box full of our constituents’ opinions.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. From recollection, I have not received one letter on the subject in 16 years. Perhaps there was one; let us play on the safe side. I find it interesting that, when young people met in the House of Lords the other day—it was a great initiative and I would like to see it extended; I do not even see why we cannot use this Chamber for that kind of thing—one of the issues that came above giving the vote to 16-year-olds was the abolition of tuition fees. The interesting thing is that those aged 16 to 18 would be the next cohort to go into full-time education and would be liable to pay the tuition fees, so there would be a lot of unintended consequences if we went down that road.

There would be. I am possibly a bit more reactionary than the hon. Gentleman. I would not want this Chamber to be used by anyone who has not been elected; they should not be able to sit on these Benches if they have not been elected. The Chamber should not be used as some type of Chamber to be hired out to anyone who wants to come and play at being a parliamentarian, although I support the work that the UK Youth Parliament is doing, because it raises awareness of not only the activities of this House but local government and other things.

One argument for reducing the voting age to 16 is consistency: people can do other things at 16 so we should reduce the voting age to 16. Some of those other things have been mentioned: the right to leave home, to join the armed forces or receive social security benefits. However, I should like to clarify the issue about the armed forces. I have been a member of the Select Committee on Defence for seven years. In the previous Parliament, our Committee held an inquiry on the duty of care for 16 and 17-year-olds in the Army. People may be able to join the Army at 16, but their rights and abilities to do things are, rightly, quite tightly controlled. The parental responsibility is with the parent or, for those people who have left care to join the armed forces, with the armed forces. I do not think that it is a strong enough argument to say, “Because you can do these things, you should reduce the voting age to 16.”

We are getting a little schizophrenic in our approach to age. Earlier I mentioned the fact that we are increasing the age at which people can do things. I represent a rural constituency, and I take the point that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean made about raising the driving age, which would create a lot of difficulties in rural communities, although I support not only making provisional licences tougher, but, once people get their licences, imposing more restrictions on them. Therefore, we cannot have it both ways. We cannot argue for a reduction in the age at which people can vote for people to come to this House and then argue that they are not responsible enough to drive, use air weapons and everything else.

One welcome relatively recent change is the move to equalise the age at which one can vote and the age at which one can stand as a candidate for the House. I support that change: it is sensible for those two things to be drawn together. One danger of this move is that, if we were to reduce the voting age, we would again set up that disconnect where we said that people were old enough to choose Members of the House, but not old enough to be Members of the House. We would end up with either that disconnect or pressure building for 16-year-olds to be elected to the House. That would not be welcome, although I support equalising the age at 18.

I agree. I did support, and would again, the reducing of the age at which one can stand for the House to make it the same as the age at which one can vote, because otherwise there would be a disconnect, although I have not noticed a great groundswell of people standing for local office at 18. Having said that, if I remember rightly, the Conservative party now has a couple of 18-year-olds in Durham. I think that an 18-year-old, a very young lady, was elected in Willington. She was certainly under 21, although strangely, her leaflets did not mention the word “Conservative” at all. I do not know whether she got elected as a Conservative or an individual, but credit to her for standing as part of the democratic process.

I will help the hon. Gentleman with his statistics. A 19-year-old woman was elected to Epping Forest district council just a few weeks ago, and she will be an excellent councillor.

I congratulate that individual on her achievement, but I hope that she made it clear to the voters that she is a Conservative. The candidate in Willington in the County Durham local election put out glossy literature that did not mention the fact that she is a Conservative.

It is great that we now discuss citizenship, rights, responsibilities and democracy in schools. We sometimes reinvent things, because those topics were taught when I was at school, and I do not know why they went out of fashion. If people are to be full, rounded citizens, they should be able to understand not only democracy in Westminster but local government, which is important. When I visit schools, I am sometimes asked, “What is an MP? What is Parliament?” I reply that a school council is a mini-Parliament, because it involves people being elected and having the right to raise and argue their views.

The first question in every school that I visit is: how much is a Member of Parliament paid? When that happens, the teachers get very embarrassed and say, “We told them not to ask that question,” which is, of course, why the children asked it. Has my hon. Friend shared my experience of always being pleasantly surprised by the maturity of the children, even those who are much younger than 16, and by the sophisticated questions that they ask their public representatives?

Children are increasingly sophisticated in what they know about civic life, and they are not afraid to put their views forcefully when we meet them. Like the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and others, when I meet young people in not only schools but youth clubs and other places, I find that they are not shy about putting their views forward.

We have discussed whether people will join political parties. Across western Europe, joining political parties is going out of fashion, whether we like it or not. I am not sure whether reducing the age to 16 would lead to huge numbers of new members joining political parties. Many young people whom I have met are very passionate and very involved in a range of issues. They are usually involved in single-issue campaigns, which are part of the civic and democratic life that we want to encourage in this country.

On engaging the energy and enthusiasm of young people, as far as I am aware, there are no plans at county, state or federal level to alter the voting age in the United States, yet we have seen a huge outpouring of enthusiasm for politics from young people who support either the Democrats or the Republicans. Surely that gives the lie to the idea that the voting age is the only important issue in engagement by young people in the political process.

People should be careful before they get too carried away by the primary system in the United States, because a very small percentage of people actually vote in primaries. It is possible that certain candidates in the United States have got carried away and believe that they have a larger block of votes behind them than is actually the case.

The crucial factor in relation to turnout is whether the vote is tight. If there is a closely fought local election between different political parties, turnout goes up. When I was a member of Newcastle city council, the Liberal Democrats tried to unseat me on three separate occasions. On the final occasion, we had the highest turnout in the city of Newcastle, which was about 44 per cent.—the good electors of the Walkergate ward were wise enough to re-elect me rather than electing the Liberal Democrat challenger. [Interruption.] The individual in question is no longer a member of the Liberal Democrats.

I have to ask the question: did my hon. Friend get returned because of his views on whether people should be able to vote at 16?

No. It was a vicious campaign led by the Liberal Democrats, who wanted, for some reason—I cannot understand why—to unseat me from Newcastle city council. They failed.

The recent comparisons in respect of voter turnout are important. It is clear that people thought that the London mayoral election would be a close-run thing, and they turned out to vote. That had nothing at all to do with age. Furthermore, people thought that the Crewe and Nantwich by-election—I should not mention that, but I will—would be a tight-fought contest, and they turned out to vote. Let us explode the myth that lowering the voting age would do anything to increase turnout. It would not.

I suspect that the turnout for the next general election will be greater than those for previous elections because people will perceive—wrongly, I think—that the Conservative party has a chance of forming the next Government of this country. The pressures on people to vote are those that I have listed, and they do not include people’s age. We should not seek to change the voting age on the basis that doing so would somehow affect turnout.

I give credit none the less to the organisations that campaign for votes at 16. The coalition represents some good organisations, although having said that I see that the one at the top of my page of notes is the group Liberal Democrat Youth and Students. However, the coalition also includes the British Youth Council; the UK Youth Parliament; the Electoral Reform Society, although I give less credence to that; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; the Children’s Society; the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for London; the National Children’s Bureau; Barnardo’s; and Children’s Rights. What those organisations do is admirable.

I support children’s rights to protection and a safe and peaceful life, but we have to be careful about the notion that giving people votes at 16 would somehow advance the cause of children. I do not see the two as being connected in any way; I cannot honestly see that giving people votes at 16 will mean that key issues for 16 and 17-year-olds will be any further up the political agenda than they are now.

Again, I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. These days, parliamentarians of any political persuasion ignore any constituents at their peril, whether they agree with them or not. Let us be honest: as was said earlier, we are elected to represent everybody, even those who do not agree with us and vote against us at election time. I do not think that the voice of young people would be greatly enhanced by lowering the voting age.

The other mistake made by the campaign is this: it presumes that all 16-year-olds are necessarily interested in the same thing, and that 16-year-olds in my constituency, in Cardiff and in London necessarily have one thing in common. They do not, and it is a mistake to think of them as a block of people who would turn out and argue for a certain thing. Like the rest of the population, 16-year-olds have different views on different issues. It is important to recognise that, rather than thinking that votes at 16 would mean that another block of people would suddenly come up and argue for a set number of issues.

It is interesting to consider the Electoral Commission’s report, which concluded that the voting age should not be changed. It stated that

“the fundamental issue for young people seems to be that their views are regarded as important and are considered properly by public policy makers,”—

that is, us—

“not that the particular age at which they can vote…should be lowered.”

That indicates that the solution that will engage young people in politics lies not in changing the law, but with us and how we conduct ourselves in our constituencies and elsewhere—listening to young people and taking them seriously, but not necessarily changing the age at which they can vote.

The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me down that road just yet, because I want to return to that important issue later.

It is important that we understand what young people are arguing for and want, but they will not all be arguing for the same thing.

When I go to schools or meet young people, certain themes emerge every time. Concern for third world poverty is very much at the top of their agenda, and they have always cared passionately about the environment. No one is suggesting that they would do other than add to the existing pressures on Government on those issues, but is it not important that they feel that they are making a contribution to a more environmentally friendly future and to dealing with third world poverty? That gives them a voice, involvement and participation, which is vital.

May I say yes and no to my hon. Friend? When I was at a secondary school a couple of weeks ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), we spoke to a group of youngsters about developing world issues and about Burma, which had recently been in the news, and they were very passionate and forceful in what they said. I come across such young people all the time who see their role, in arguing and making their presence felt to Government on issues such as climate change, not necessarily in terms of the voting system but of getting involved in campaigning groups and activities, where they think that they can make a bigger contribution. If that then sparks their interest in party politics or in getting involved in the political process, that is great. I am sure there are examples on both sides of the House of people who have joined political parties because of the campaigning organisations that they got involved in.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean referred to the Electoral Commission report. I have to say that I do not hold the Electoral Commission in high esteem; I think that it was one of the mistakes that we have made as a Government. The intention was right—to have an independent body to scrutinise elections—but it has lost its focus on what it should be doing. Given that it spends £30 million a year, I am not sure that the taxpayer gets good value for money. In 2003, the commission conducted a review of voting age. The consultation, which took place that summer, was addressed to a whole host of groups, and the questions that it asked were very relevant. For example:

“Do you think that lowering the voting age, or allowing young candidates to stand for election, might encourage people to take part in elections?”

That goes back to the question of voter turnout. It continues:

“Do you think that lowering the voting age, or the age of standing as a candidate, would increase the level of trust which young people have in politicians?...If you are a young person, teacher or parent—in your experience, is citizenship education changing young people’s knowledge and interest in elections and democracy?”

That tries to determine whether young people are being engaged in the process through citizenship in schools. Then the commission asked:

“Do you want to see a change in the current minimum age for voting (18)?...Do you want to see a change in the current minimum age for standing as a candidate (21)?”

We should remember that this was prior to the decision to reduce the age to 18. Finally:

“Would you advocate the same minimum age for all levels of elections in the UK?...If the minimum age for standing as an election candidate at UK elections were to be reduced, what age do you think it should be reduced to? Why?”

There is a legitimate debate to be had. Today’s debate is about whether to reduce the age to 16 and there are some international comparisons. For instance, people can vote aged 15 in Iran, and if we are to carry out a consultation, as the Electoral Commission did, we need to take into account the views of people who argue that the age should be lower than 16. The survey asked whether people would advocate the same minimum age for all levels of elections in the UK. That review engaged the views of not just young people but a whole host of organisations and groups. The commission’s findings were published in April 2004. The Government have now embarked on another consultation, and I shall come to that in a minute, but it is worth looking at the conclusions of the Electoral Commission’s report.

The commission recommended that the minimum age for all levels of voting at public elections in the UK should remain at 18, and adds, as the commission always does, “for the time being”—a bit of a caveat. It went on, as most documents from the commission do, to be vague and woolly without giving precise advice. It qualified further its recommendation, clearly wanting to sit on the fence and not upset individuals, by saying:

“However, circumstances may change the context significantly over the next few years. In particular, citizenship teaching may improve the social awareness and responsibility of young people. There may also (perhaps partly in response to this) be a wider debate about the general age of majority that would better inform consideration of the individual’s age-based rights. We propose further research on social and political awareness of those around 18 with a view to undertaking a further review of the minimum age for electoral participation in future.”

That is another thing that the Electoral Commission is very good at—keeping itself employed by ensuring that it conducts further research in a few years’ time. The document continues:

“The Electoral Commission would therefore expect to undertake a further formal review of the minimum voting age within five to seven years of this report. We would encourage the Government to consider in the meantime initiating a wider review of the age of majority, given the length of time that has passed since the last one.”

That concerns me because the Electoral Commission is getting involved in something that it should not be getting involved in—the age of majority. It deals with issues concerning elections, not other things, and the Government should sometimes be more forceful with the commission and tell it to keep its nose out of things that it should not be involved with.

The review has been initiated. I am not clear why, and I do not see why the Electoral Commission argued that the process should take place in the next five to seven years—do not ask me why it is five. The only reason it gives as evidence for that is the fact that the teaching of citizenship would somehow change the perception that young people in schools have. That process has been going on for quite a long time. I do not know why it went out of fashion in schools—most used to teach issues of citizenship in general studies, and I first learned about this place in such lessons. The commission’s argument, in stating that the arbitrary five to seven years should be the reason for having a review, is pretty weak.

The hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware of the report that preceded the report he is quoting from, which is the July 2002 Electoral Commission report entitled “Voter engagement and young people”. It found that the underlying reasons for low turnout among young people were complex and multi-faceted, such as disillusionment with parties, lack of interest in politics, feeling that they as individual voters had no impact and not knowing enough about politics. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a mature democracy—although it is anathema to say it in the House—some people, particularly the young, will just not be interested in politics?

I hate to say it, but that applies not only to young people but to many others, who have no interest in politics. In this goldfish bowl that we inhabit during the week, we talk, eat and drink politics, but when I go home this weekend and talk to people in my local newsagent’s tomorrow morning, I very much doubt whether they followed my every word on the two occasions that I spoke this week. The hon. Gentleman has touched on a bigger, underlying issue—the need to get not only young people but others re-engaged with the political process. There is no magic bullet for that. People will take part in elections if they feel that they are relevant; otherwise they will not. The days when people voted a certain way because mum or dad did have gone—I think that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that earlier. The Labour party was the biggest beneficiary of that change in 1997, when safe Tory seats, which one would never have expected to fall to the Labour party, did so. That is because voting patterns have changed.

No, not like in Crewe. The swing in Crewe was small compared with those from which my party benefited in 1997 and in some by-elections in the run-up to the 1992 election. My party sadly lost that and the Conservative party, perhaps ultimately to its disappointment, won.

What will change in five or seven years? We can continue holding reviews and commissions about the subject but nothing will change—we will still get divided opinions. The idea that we can get 16 and 17-year-olds to speak with one voice and say, “These are the reasons why we want the vote” will not materialise, no matter how many commissions we set up at whatever expense.

There is powerful evidence to support the hon. Gentleman’s case. Civics has been a compulsory lesson in the United States for generations and there is no evidence that it increases political literacy and turnout. Many books have been written about that. The US education system takes civics and citizenship rather more seriously than we do, and has done so for years. If there is no evidence there to show that that has an effect, it is unlikely to be effective here.

I agree. The United States should be a beacon to us on the matter. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, citizenship lessons begin from the pledge of allegiance to the flag in school in the United States. I do not know whether people were asleep during their civics lessons, but, from my experience, the position is the same in the United States as it is here. There is a huge difference between those who have had a formal education and understand the system and people, for example, in rural parts of the United States, where education is perhaps not as good as it should be. Civics lessons have not led to great turnout, which is poor in presidential elections and even worse in state elections. That also applies to registration.

I support the attempt of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North to bring the matter to a head.

The United States has a history of keeping people off the register through fear that they will vote the wrong way. Various Administrations, racists, Republicans and others who have been in charge have kept people off the register. Surely the position is different here. We want people on the register so that they can participate.

The position varies. I agree with my hon. Friend that getting on to the electoral register is difficult in some parts of the United States, especially in parts of the rural south. However, even here, it is difficult to get people to register to vote, despite best efforts. If the Conservative Government did one thing to decimate electoral registers, it was introducing the poll tax. People simply took themselves off the register. [Interruption.] That might have been dishonest, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) says from a sedentary position, but many people did it to avoid the nonsense of the poll tax. To a large extent, we are still recovering from that.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North because the ultimate decision is not for some commission, based on the notion that if we get enough academics together, we will somehow come up with the Ark of the Covenant or the answer to the problem. At the end of the day, the decision is a political one. The issue certainly needs to be reviewed in every Parliament—I am quite happy for that to happen—but ultimately it will be down to right hon. and hon. Members in this place to make the decision.

Too often these days—I have to say that my Government and my party are a bit too used to this—we think that if we park decisions with independent commissions, they will come up with the right decision that will be easier to make. I am a bit old fashioned, however. I think that politicians should take decisions—sometimes unpopular decisions—and not think that they can hide them behind quangos or people who profess to have great knowledge about a subject. It is clear that some of the people behind the Electoral Commission’s reports and advice have never fought a local election or do not understand local election law.

Reference was made earlier to international comparisons. My hon. Friend mentioned a few examples. Does the situation vary throughout the world? Yes, it does. The country with the lowest voting age is Iran, where it is 15. It would surprise many people to hold Iran up as a wonderful bastion of parliamentary democracy, but people should look at Iranian democracy a little more closely, rather than reading some of the headlines in the newspapers.

I was going to intervene earlier to say that it was a tautology to mention unpopularity and politicians in the same sentence. On international comparisons, does my hon. Friend agree that the thrust in the past five to 10 years has been towards younger age ranges for voting than previously? In a sense, we are perhaps being left behind by international opinion on this issue.

I am sorry, but I do not think that the reason to change the voting age in this country is that some other countries have done so. My hon. Friend should be careful that we do not ape—

Indeed, although some of the more forceful aspects of Iranian law enforcement might be quite popular with some of our constituents. We should be careful not to copy those aspects, given the danger that some of our constituents might thoroughly approve of them.

The other example mentioned earlier was the Isle of Man. In February 2006, the Isle of Man was the first part of the British Isles to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. I have never quite understood the legal status of the Isle of Man—I know that many members of the business community understand very well the financial advantage that it gives them—but I understand that although it is not officially part of the United Kingdom, it recognises the Queen as the Head of State and its citizens are classed as British. I understand from my research that a month before the general election of November 2006, fewer than half of the 1,800 young people who were eligible to register to vote had done so. Although the Isle of Man became the first country in the EU to reduce its voting age to 16, the measure has not proven popular, in terms of young people rushing to vote.

The other example is the Channel Island of Guernsey, which lowered its voting age from 18 to 16 in 2007. Like the Isle of Man, it is not officially part of the United Kingdom, although its citizens are classed as British. The change added some 2,000 names to the electoral register, and anyone over the age of 16 will be able to vote in the elections later this year for the Senate and the Deputy. It will be interesting to see what proportion of the 16 to 18-year-olds who are eligible to vote will take part in the elections. No doubt the Electoral Commission will have to pay a fact-finding visit to Guernsey to find out what actually happened. One of those examples certainly proves that, even if we did reduce the voting age to 16, there would not be a great clamour among people of that age to vote.

I take a consistent interest in electoral registration because at least 10 per cent. of my constituents are not registered to vote, for a whole variety of very complex reasons. As my hon. Friend will know, in this country—and, I assume, in the Isle of Man and Guernsey—it is the head of household who fills in the electoral registration form. The fact that young people are not registering could have more to do with the internal dynamics of family life in these communities, or with the heads of household, either through ignorance or unwillingness, not putting their 16 to 18-year-old children on a voting form, than with the young people themselves not wanting to register.

That is possibly so. Like my hon. Friend, I keep a close eye on electoral registration in my constituency.

The people who are arguing for a reduction of the voting age to 16 suggest that it could rejuvenate democracy, but the evidence shows that turnout would actually go down, because such a move would increase the electorate in most constituencies.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point, on which the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) rightly intervened. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his Government have said, through various Ministers in the Chamber, that they are in favour of the system of individual voter registration that the Conservatives have proposed? That would get around the problem of one person filling in the electoral registration form for the whole household, which the hon. Member for Edmonton rightly pointed out. However, although Ministers have said that they are in favour of that system, the Government have done nothing to bring it into force.

I should like to point out to the hon. Lady that I am not in favour of individual voter registration, and I will tell her why. If we wanted to drive down the electoral rolls, that would be the way to do it. Instead, we should be looking at best practice. Electoral registration is a local responsibility, and it varies from place to place. Let us be honest: the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton is very different from mine in terms of population mobility, which makes it difficult to keep the register up to date.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He has shown his characteristic generosity in so doing, which I hope he will not regret. The Government have in fact introduced individual voter registration, and it has been in operation for several years in one part of the United Kingdom. Would it not be sensible for us to study the experience of Northern Ireland, to see how the system has worked there? It seems to have cured the problem of personation, although it has had no impact whatever on increasing the number of people voting.

Perhaps the reason personation in Northern Ireland is not the issue that it used to be has less to do with individual registration than with the change in politics and the peace process. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) was here earlier, and he has told stories of people in the 1970s and 1980s changing their clothes in order to go into the polling station to vote several times. He described it as “binge voting”.

I think that individual registration would act as a disincentive, and that we should consider best practice. I also think that we should devote the necessary resources to registration, which we do not at present. I know from talking to London colleagues that in constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, the churn and turnover of the population is horrendous in comparison with what happens in more stable communities such as mine.

I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way.

The fall in the number of people registered in Northern Ireland as a result of individual registration cannot be explained by personation. In fact, many people who could and should have been on the register were not registered because of the hurdles placed in their way.

I defer to my hon. Friend’s detailed knowledge.

We should also consider the effect that reducing the voting age would have on parliamentary constituencies, and the possibility that a major boundary review would be necessary for demographic reasons. Some constituencies contain many more young people than others; mine, sadly, contains an ageing population.

It is being argued that reducing the voting age would be a way of engaging young people in the electoral process. I have seen no compelling evidence to suggest that that is so. There is, however, a broader issue, which has been raised by both the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson): the engagement in the political process of people in general—not just young people, but older ones.

I think most Members, especially women, would agree that older women would crawl over hot coals to cast their votes, because they recognise that women had to fight for the vote. Indeed, older people of both sexes work hard to ensure that they cast their votes, and feel robbed if they cannot go out to do so. Many younger people, however—not just the 18 to 25-year-olds who were mentioned earlier, but those in their mid-30s—are not voting at all.

I am not making a party political point. I think that part of the challenge for us all as parliamentarians, and also for democracy as a whole, is to make politics relevant. It is not just a case of convincing people that they can change things and make things happen; we must also resist, and keep resisting, the tendency to push decisions away from the democratically elected sphere of influence, whether it involves this place or local councils.

It is important for people to be able to cast their votes, and in doing so to ensure that their local councillors, or we in the House of Commons, can have a direct say in decisions. That is why I have always opposed the nonsense that our Government introduced—the Conservatives never fell for it—of an independent Appointments Commission to put people forward for membership of boards of hospitals and other trusts. Young people who want to know how their health service is delivered locally cannot find out who is making the key decisions, and ultimately those decisions cannot be changed. Such developments have led to the cynicism that we see not only among members of the older generation, but among young people.

I respect everyone who stands for election, whether for a parish council, a town council, a county council, a district council, this place or the European Parliament, because they have had the guts to stand before their peers and say “Vote for me”. I have no problem with people standing as independents, because they have had the guts to do so. That is very much different from what we have now: the quangocracy that the previous Government started and we continued, whereby those representing local people make huge decisions on their lives without any connection to, or in many cases involvement with, their day-to-day lives. Local people cannot change those decisions, and all parties need to recognise that fundamental issue. We need to ensure that local people can not only affect decisions, but if they are ultimately unhappy with those decisions, vote people out of office, as can happen here. That should be possible on a range of issues, and we need to examine that matter.

I am warming to the hon. Gentleman’s theme, and I generally agree with what he is saying, because if power and the capacity to make changes in political policy are moved to the lowest possible level, that engages and enthuses people. I take it from his comments that he will be supporting the Conservative policy, which is likely to be put forward at a general election, to have elected police commissioners who are also responsible for local prosecutions. Again, that is designed to build up people’s faith in the criminal justice system, which is at a low level, and engage people in that particular area of government.

The answer is no, I will not be. On police authorities, the rot set in under the previous Conservative Government, who took away the local authority’s right to have a majority on police authority boards. If we really want democratic control, we need to use local councils or directly elected police boards, not individuals. Let us be honest, if we use individuals, it is likely that some strange individuals will stand. They may be popular on one issue, but they might not really engage with the community or understand what is going on.

The other issue needs to be addressed by Parliament. We have made some movement on engaging young people in the political process. May I pay tribute to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which has been good at producing not only some very good literature, but the new website? I ask people who have not visited the site to do so, because it is a good tool that is being used by many young people in schools in my constituency. Let us be honest and say that this place is a strange institution—

It is pleasing to see another Liberal Democrat here to support this key manifesto promise of theirs; there are now five of them in Chamber to support this policy.

No doubt, the Liberal Democrats will rush in at the end to try to vote for this legislation. Perhaps they are all coming back from Henley or other parts of the country on a Friday to ensure that this key election promise is put through.

I return to the issue of engaging young people. The DCSF is doing a fantastic job, and it needs support. The new website is important, and not only in explaining Parliament; the virtual tour that people can do is interesting. The recent movement—it has had the gestation period of an African elephant, but it is finally getting there—to have a purpose-built education centre in this building is a great step forward. I am passionate about ensuring that we explain to young people not only what we do on a party political basis, but what democracy is and how this place works.

The hon. Member for Peterborough mentioned the cynicism that exists, and trying to explain the important work that this place does should be one of our top priorities. That work will then relate back to some of those single issue campaigns and other things in which we know that young people in our constituencies are very interested. That new education centre will be a focal point for that work and for bringing young people into this building, so that they can understand what is going on.

I would go a step further and expand our outreach work. There are outreach workers who go around the constituencies, and that is important, but young people need to be able to afford to visit this place. I hope that the House will seriously consider subsidising youth groups and schools that wish to visit, as the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament do. My constituency is in Durham, and a visit here is an expensive proposition, but it is important in explaining to young people not only the relevance of voting, but how their lives are affected by what happens in this place.

The hon. Gentleman serves on the Administration Committee, and I had the privilege of doing so for a time. I know that it has discussed subsidies for visits to give young people—especially those from constituencies that are some distance from London, as ours are—a chance to see the House in action and learn about it. If the Committee can put some proposals before the House, it would be a great step forward in equalising the ability of all young people in this country to see what we do here.

Those proposals will be put before the House, and I hope that they will receive support from both sides. When the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Committee, he supported the proposals and I hope that they will come to fruition soon.

If we make this place relevant and enable people to engage in the process, does that mean that we should reduce the voting age to 16? I have a genuinely open mind on this issue, but I am not convinced—[Interruption.] Well, the Liberal Democrats sometimes do not help when it comes to the cynicism in British politics, especially with some of their cheap jibes at the expense of hard-working local councillors of all persuasions. The Liberal Democrats are the wrong people to lecture anyone about engaging in positive democracy or campaigning locally. I am unconvinced that we should reduce the voting age, but it is an issue that should be discussed at least once every Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North has given us that opportunity, and we should thank her for that. However, we should not have endless reviews of the issue.

I would be interested to know what the next review will cost. When we receive the conclusions of the review, what will happen then? Legislation would have to be introduced, but as I have stressed to the Prime Minister the Government should concentrate, in the current climate, on issues that are of direct benefit to our communities, economically and socially, instead of on something that exercises only the minds of a few constitutionalists. We should not waste legislative time on changing the voting age—House of Lords reform is another example—when we could be legislating on issues that would directly benefit the many constituents who are having a tough time economically at the moment.

In conclusion—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) sighs: I can go on, if she would like me to do so—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) has not been here for most of this debate, so he should not start sniping from a sedentary position. If he had been in his place for the entire debate, I would have more respect for him. He should remain silent if he cannot be bothered to turn up for the whole debate, even though, as we were reminded earlier, this matter is a top priority for the Liberal Democrats.

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this Bill and ensuring that this issue is debated today. On this occasion, I cannot support it, but I would be happy for the debate to continue. We should all continue to consider how we can keep people engaged in the political process.

I begin by apologising to the House, to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and to the Minister for the fact that I will be unable to stay until the very end of the debate—a fact about which I am very disappointed, because this has been a fascinating debate. I look forward to reading in Hansard what is said after I have gone—at least, I think that I look forward to reading most of it—especially the Minister’s remarks.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has just said. He has put some very good arguments, many of which disagree with those of the hon. Member for Cardiff, North, whom I warmly congratulate on bringing the debate to the House. I agree with both the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman that this matter ought to be discussed—I do not know quite how frequently—and it is a pity in some ways that it is being debated on a Friday, when many Members have business elsewhere, including in their constituencies. I hope that we will perhaps have an opportunity to revisit the issue when more Members are able to be here. Nevertheless, this is a good opportunity for a debate, and I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady that it is necessary that we should try, as democrats, to engage young people in the political process. It is absolutely vital that we do more to encourage young people to become involved in the political process, but I do not agree that the way to do so is by reducing the voting age.

Young people are interested in politics. They show a great deal of responsibility, interest and involvement in the political and democratic process. I can understand why Labour Members might be concerned about the involvement of the youngest of our adult population in our political process, but I can assure the hon. Lady that Conservative Future—

There most certainly is a Conservative future, but we will come to that at another point.

Conservative Future, for those who are not aware of it, is the name of the youth wing of the Conservative party, and I am happy to tell the House that it is the fastest-growing youth movement in Europe at present. Labour Members might be bothered that young people are not engaging in new Labour politics, but they are engaging in Conservative politics.

Will the Conservative party’s leadership possibly close that organisation, as it did with the Federation of Conservative Students, when it took views that, frankly, were not only embarrassing to the party but diametrically opposed to those of Front Benchers?

The hon. Gentleman is historically correct, but Conservative Future is a very different sort of organisation from the Federation of Conservative Students. I remember that one of my first political acts as a student, having joined the federation in my first year at university, was that I resigned from the federation because I totally disagreed with its incredibly right-wing stance. I was very glad that the leadership of my party followed my lead later on.

I was also a member of the Federation of Conservative Students, which was closed down. My hon. Friend makes the point that, when Norman Tebbit closes an organisation because it is too right wing, we ought to listen.

We ought to; we did, and some of us dealt in our own way with the Federation of Conservative Students.

For many years, I was an active member of the Transport and General Workers Union. For one of its weekend conferences, it tried to book the Royal Agricultural College, but for a long time, the college would not have the union. Then the union discovered why: the Federation of Conservative Students had been there and had doused the place, so the college would not give anyone the privilege of making use of the place. My question relates to the hon. Lady’s point about young people being engaged in politics. She said that Conservative Future was the fastest-growing organisation of politically involved young people, but she did not tell us whether that growth consisted of people in the 16 to 18 age range, or whether the real growth is among people aged 18 and above.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I will develop that argument. I do not know the statistics relating to those aged between 16 and 18, and those aged over 18, but plenty of young people under the age of 18 are getting involved in Conservative Future and other such organisations. My argument is that that is absolutely right. We want to encourage people who are 16, 15, or 14—indeed, people of any age—to be involved, and to take part in the political process. That does not mean that they should have the right to vote; they should serve an apprenticeship on their way to having the right to vote.

On the point that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made, I note that one of the supporters of the Bill is the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who, if memory serves me correctly, was a very active member of the Federation of Conservative Students. That shows that anybody can change over time.

I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. I appreciate that the issue is not relevant to the debate, but I feel that I must jump in and defend the reputation of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who was indeed a leading member of the Federation of Conservative Students. However, he most definitely emerged as one of the most responsible members of that body. When it was disbanded by the then chairman of the Conservative party, he was elected the leader of the new Conservative youth wing. It is important to separate his reputation from that of the part of the Federation of Conservative Students that was disbanded. I apologise for that long explanation, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but we cannot have defamatory remarks made.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we must get on with the argument. I will happily give way to him in a few minutes.

I would not argue that 16-year-olds are not mature, able, or responsible in outlook or intellectual development. Of course they are. Many 16-year-olds are writing essays, doing exams, and taking part in discussions on historical, political or moral issues to a very high intellectual standard, and they have a real understanding of democracy, the political process and issues that matter in our country and in our world today. I take as one example the Epping Forest schools debating competition, which I organise, and which we hold every year in my constituency. Every year, without exception, young people aged 14 to 18 take part in those debates, and every single one of them is well informed and well able to engage in the political process. However, that does not mean that they ought to have the right to vote before they reach the age of majority.

Out of sheer respect for the democratic system, it is right that young people should serve a sort of apprenticeship before they can become a full citizen and have a vote. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said during his excellent, wide-ranging speech, the point about 16 and 17-year-olds is that, barring any tragedy that might occur, they become 18-year-olds in a fairly short time.

The debate does not have parallels with other issues about rights, such as the campaign of the suffragettes or of anyone else for voting rights, despite some Liberal Democrats’ earlier attempts to suggest that it does. The issue is not at all similar—it is quite different. I strongly supported the Equality Act 2006, and spoke from the Front Bench in support of it on many an occasion when it was before the House. I strongly believe in equality in every aspect of our lives in the UK today, but we cannot make people’s age equal. Sadly, by the forward movement of nature and time people become a year older every year. Time flows relentlessly, and so 16 and 17-year-olds become 18-year-olds, who become 25-year-olds, who become 40-year-olds and so it goes on. We cannot hold back time, nor can we equalise people’s ages for the sake of some political gimmick.

I am intrigued by the hon. Lady’s comments. Given that she supported the Equality Bill, does she think that we should have legislation to prohibit ageism? By that I mean, even though we cannot make everybody’s ages equal, people should not be discriminated against on the basis of age, as they are in the minimum wage.