I beg to move,
That this House believes that the age of eligibility for voting in all elections and referendums in the United Kingdom should be reduced to 16.
It is a great pleasure to follow the previous business. I certainly support same-sex marriage and look forward to giving the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill a good and safe passage through this House.
Today I am talking about another reform whose time has come—extending the franchise to 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds. There is widespread support for this proposed measure among parliamentarians from all parties. It is also supported by a wide coalition of youth charities, including the British Youth Council, Barnardo’s and the YMCA, as well as youth representation groups, such as the National Union of Students and, as the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) just mentioned, the UK Youth Parliament, which debated this very subject on these Benches under your chairmanship, Mr Speaker.
Those who listened to those young people debating the issue will know that they did not have to deal with all the dusty arguments that were used in the past to oppose votes for most men, any woman and people under 18. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the registration age for voting came down to 16, the average age for those registering to vote in a general election would be 18, because general elections do not come along every year?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Indeed, I will make a similar point later.
This proposed constitutional measure is not in the coalition agreement, because there is a difference of opinion between the leadership of my own party and that of our fellow coalition members, the Conservative party. Because the motion is outside the coalition agreement, the Government will not introduce it. It is down to the rest of us as parliamentarians to deliver this particular change.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that the age of adulthood is a mess in so many areas? It is possible to buy cigarettes at one age, drink alcohol at another and drive at yet another. Surely the answer is not just to look at what the voting age should be, but to tidy up the law and equalise the age of adulthood for everything.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I disagree with him and will explain why later. I do not think there is an absolute age at which young people acquire the rights and responsibilities for every single facet of their young lives. I think that it is appropriate to have different ages, and will come to that later.
Given that the motion is outside the coalition agreement, I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for granting me the opportunity to introduce this debate. I am also grateful to my co-sponsors from all parties in the House, particularly the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who accompanied me on one of the occasions that I made representations to the Committee.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly since I am one of the co-sponsors who, sadly, was not able to attend the bid to the Backbench Business Committee. Does he agree that a strong reason for supporting the motion is the evidence—I am sure he is aware of it—from countries such as Austria, where lowering the voting age has led to increased voter turnout, and that, given that voter turnout is something that we all care about, this proposal would be a very good way of achieving that?
The hon. Lady, whom I am delighted is one of the motion’s co-sponsors, makes a very good point. I will come to international comparisons later.
Just over seven years ago, on 29 November 2005, I was the last Member of Parliament to provoke a Division on this issue, and we lost by just eight votes. I think that the mood of the House and the country has now changed and that it is worth while to make another attempt.
I support this debate, but am passionately against the motion and will make a speech later. The fact of the matter is that too many people on the hon. Gentleman’s side of the argument exaggerate the level of support. Has he seen the recent polls in Scotland, which show there is no support for votes at 16 or 17?
I will leave matters relating to Scotland to other contributors. If you permit it, Mr Speaker, we will hear from that corner of the United Kingdom later.
The case for lowering the voting age is usually made—the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has alluded to this—on the grounds of other rights and responsibilities that young people already have at 16 and 17. I will come to those later, but I would prefer to justify lowering the franchise age to 16 on the principal grounds that I believe that 16 and 17-year-olds have sufficient maturity and knowledge to cast a vote, if they want to do so. We do not have compulsory voting in this country, so we would simply be affording 16 and 17-year-olds the opportunity to vote if they wished to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is setting out his case very well. I spent my whole life working with 16 to 19-year-olds until I came to this place, and my experience suggests that they are as good at making decisions on voting as the people who are assembled here.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who leads me neatly on to my next point.
Although I have not worked in the further education sector, as an MP, and as a candidate and a county councillor before that, I have about two decades of experience of speaking to sixth-formers and those at further education colleges, and I have always been impressed by the depth and range of their knowledge both about matters that are purely about Bristol and about those that have global implications.
When I visit further education establishments, people are intrigued and impressed by the idea of being able to vote, yet somehow when they leave further education they do not take advantage of that. We need to tap into their enthusiasm while it is there and get them into the habit of voting.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way to so many Members so early in his speech.
The hon. Gentleman’s motion refers to
“voting in all elections and referendums in the United Kingdom”.
Does he accept that if there are elections in one particular part of the UK—Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales—there may be a case for saying that the devolved legislatures should consider the matter? In the case of the Scottish referendum, for instance, the Scottish Parliament will decide on the age of the participants, because that decision has been devolved. Is the scope of the motion not too wide, and should not the place of the devolved legislatures be respected?
I and my party colleagues are fundamentally committed to the principle of devolution, not just to the nations of the United Kingdom but, from my perspective, through growing empowerment for local government and city regions. I would like local government to decide its own franchise arrangements. First past the post is a clapped-out, ludicrous system. In Bristol, where we have genuinely competitive four-party politics and all the mainstream English parties compete, Bristol city council ought to have the power to alter its electoral cycle and decide on its franchise. I am therefore fully with the right hon. Gentleman in believing in such subsidiarity in decision making.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on tabling the motion and am delighted to be one of its supporters. Does he agree that registration is another issue that should be considered? Many young people, particularly students living in houses in multiple occupation, do not get themselves on the register and therefore miss the first opportunity to vote. With general elections every five years, it can be a long time before they have another opportunity. Starting at 16 would make it easier for them to get on the register earlier.
Although I am not listed as a supporter of the motion, I would have been delighted to be, because I am fully in sympathy with it.
The hon. Gentleman’s point that the time has come for the change is pertinent, because citizenship is now taught in schools, and in Wales we have the Welsh baccalaureate, which lends itself well to the change. He, I and other Members go into schools and debate pertinent issues of the day on a multi-party basis. I want young people to make their decisions on those issues and go out and mark their cross in the ballot box. It is wrong to deny them that opportunity.
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, except the part about the cross in the box—I would prefer it to be a 1-2-3 arrangement.
The hon. Gentleman leads me on to the curriculum, which has changed markedly over the past decade. History and religious education are taught quite differently from when most of us studied them in school, which enables young people to understand their place in society and weigh up controversial issues. Personal, social, health and economic education has been introduced to the curriculum, as has citizenship. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) presided over an inquiry into the teaching of citizenship when I was a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, and it is now well embedded in schools, particularly in England and Wales, and has transformed young people’s knowledge of our democratic processes.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman was on that Committee with me when we looked at citizenship, and at that time citizenship was up and coming and thriving. Since 2010, however, partly through the policies of the Government of whom his party is part, we have seen a steep decline in citizenship being taken seriously and delivered, and it has been totally marginalised. Is he proud of that?
Tempted as I may be to go into that, this debate is about the franchise. I am trying to be as collegiate as possible, and I hope colleagues will do the same.
The teaching of citizenship, to whatever extent, has transformed the ability of young people to understand and engage with the political system. Indeed, the Hansard Society’s latest audit of political engagement—which I am sure we have all studied in great detail—offers the teaching of citizenship as an explanation for why, over the nine years in which it has studied public engagement in Parliament and politics, the only growth in an understanding of Parliament among the population was in the youngest cohort. When the society started its audit, only 17% of young people aged 18 to 24 felt that they had some knowledge about the workings of Parliament, but that has now grown to 31%. Some improvement is still needed, but that cohort is now broadly in line with the rest of the population.
Extra-curricular activities have also changed enormously over the past decade. The UK Youth Parliament debated in this Chamber and in the other place, as has been mentioned, and I should also mention Parliament’s own education outreach service, of which I am sure we have all had good experience. It has transformed the ability of school visiting parties, and the outreach programme in our constituencies helps schools that are not able to come to Westminster to understand how we make law and run elections.
I fully support the motion and hope to vote on it in the Division. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most offensive argument against this motion is that only some—not all—16 to 18-year-olds would want to vote in elections. Does not that holds true for all ages and demographics across the country? I find that the most offensive of all the arguments, and I know that all 16, 17 and 18-year-olds in my constituency fully support the measure under debate.
It is interesting how colleagues across the Chamber are neatly anticipating in their interventions the next points I will be making. We have never had an electoral competence test in this country, although I have heard people advocate one. We have all, I am sure, been canvassing and been outside the shopping centre or even the school gate, and rolled our eyes or walked down the path in despair after hearing opinions that may not have been that well informed from people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. We would never say that the franchise should be withheld from people just because they are stubborn in their opinions or have got a fact completely wrong. We do not have an electoral competence test for people aged 18 and over, so we should not apply it to those aged 16 and 17. Were we to have such a test, I think 16 and 17-year-olds would pass it with flying colours, but I could not have the same confidence for people who are much older than them.
I have been in command of soldiers aged 16 and 17 who are desperate to go on operations but are not allowed to because this country considers them still to be children. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that a 16-year-old should be able to vote—presumably to send our soldiers to war— but cannot go to war themselves until they are 18. Extraordinary!
I do not think it is extraordinary. As I said earlier to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), I have no problem with having different ages for different rights and responsibilities. Some people disagree with me about that and want 16 to be the common age, but that is not the position I hold.
One of my constituents had not reached his 18th birthday when he was killed in Afghanistan. What direction of travel should the Government be taking? If we are to protect our youngsters from being killed, we should not be forcing extra responsibilities on them when they should be doing their exams at school.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think he should compare giving a person the opportunity to vote—voting takes five or 10 minutes every five years, or every four years for council elections—with sending them to war. The debate is purely on the merits of giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote. Those who support that change believe they have the maturity to exercise that right and responsibility. I make no comment about other rights and responsibilities.
The hon. Gentleman says it is a matter of people having the maturity to make such decisions, but not too long ago, the House, presumably with his support, voted to increase the age at which people are allowed to buy cigarettes from 16 to 18. If he and the House believe that people at age 16 are not capable of making a decision on whether or not to smoke, why does he believe they are capable of deciding which party should be in government?
We have heard four similar interventions from coalition colleagues, and I have the same answer. I do not believe there is an absolute age at which every single right and responsibility accrues. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health, I agree that there are very good health grounds for tobacco control and for making 18 the responsible age for consuming a product that is harmful to health. I would say exactly the same about alcohol.
May I say, through my hon. Friend, to our more doubtful colleagues, that the overwhelming reason is that youngsters at school are, in my experience, educated to be citizens and to play a full part? If we separate the date when they have the education and the interest is aroused from the date when they can register and do something, we lose them—bluntly—potentially for five, 10 or 15 years, or for ever.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He was the first Member to attempt to make this change—in, I believe, 1999, when he was crushed by 400 votes to 36. I hope we will have a markedly different result today. He is right that this generation of young people have had all the educational opportunities to understand the democratic system, yet we continue to withhold from them the opportunity to put that knowledge into practice. We should not continue to withhold the vote from the best-educated generation of young people.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, one important point to make—I want to make it before the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) leaves the Chamber, because it relates to a point he made—is on under-18s dying when they go to war. Surely decisions on who goes to war and when affect 16, 17 and 18-year-olds. If they can die for their country, surely they should be able to participate in making the decision on whether their country, for which they are dying, goes to war in the first place.
I entirely agree with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. Mercifully, very few people die in modern warfare. Interestingly—I have looked at debates on the matter from around the world—the US originally lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 because of the Vietnam draft. The hon. Lady’s point has therefore been well made in other places.
People gave many reasons why women should not have the vote, but for many years, women had the vote and were not allowed to go to war. To argue that certain people are not allowed to go into the theatre of war and therefore should not have the vote is somewhat false. Are hon. Members saying that women should not vote on going to war because they are not able to go into theatre?
The hon. Lady is right. As a student of psephology and political history, I know that all sorts of peculiar characteristics of the franchise have existed in various parts of the country going back hundreds of years. The debate is on removing another undue restriction on the franchise.
As well as being very well educated, this generation of young people also has the opportunity to be very well informed. For this debate, I reread Hansard from 1968, when the Representation of the People Act 1969 was first debated—I also reread it prior to my debate seven and a half years ago. Members at the time expressed their worry that young people aged 18 were not mature enough to cast independent judgment, and in particular judgment that was independent of their parents or older siblings. As the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) alluded to, those arguments have been advanced every single time the franchise has been altered. Going all the way back to 1832, different excuses have been made why particular sets of the population cannot be trusted with the right to vote. Similar things were said about the rights of women in 1918 and prior to that, and about poor working men.
I partly endorse what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Certainly, what I see when I meet 16 and 17-year-olds in my constituency at various schools and colleges supports the fact that they can make some informed choices. However, if we say, on health grounds and so on, that people have to be over the age of 18 to be able to make an informed choice about alcohol, smoking and pornography, we cannot dissociate the two—we have to be uniform.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend was here earlier when I answered similar points from his Conservative colleagues. I do not believe in a single age of rights and responsibilities. There are ages when rights accrue, but they happen before the age of 16. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is a barrister and will correct me if I am wrong, but the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 12, so we have different ages for a variety of rights and responsibilities. I see no reason why that is an impediment to extending the franchise to 16.
I am going to make a little progress. I have given way to everyone who has intervened for the first time, and I know many other hon. Members wish to speak.
As I was saying, these excuses have been used every time anyone has proposed extending the franchise, but in 2013 young people do not just have a good education, they have information at their fingertips via their phones and iPads. They are able to absorb information from all over the world in a completely different way to that contemplated by anyone back in 1968 when this House last debated and then voted to lower the franchise. Family pressure will always be there. We have all met people who say that they vote Labour or Conservative because their family always voted that way. Now, however, there are plenty of countervailing views not just in school or college, but in the bedroom and living room via the internet, where people can weigh up how they see the world and how they want to play their part in changing it, or indeed keeping it the same, if that is their political persuasion.
The longstanding justification for changing the voting age has been the range of rights and responsibilities that various Members have mentioned. There is a long list, from the right to drive a car, the right to join the Army or a trade union, and the right to receive benefits or pay taxes. The waters have been a little bit muddied in this area, partly because of my party being in the coalition, because young people on the minimum wage no longer pay income tax thanks to the fact that we have raised the income tax threshold. Of course, they still pay national insurance and VAT, so Jefferson’s maxim of no taxation without representation still stands.
On that point, people pay tax based on their income, not their age. Presumably, massively talented child actors who earn an absolute fortune working on films pay tax on their income if it goes above a certain threshold. If an eight-year-old child star earns a fortune and therefore has to pay tax on that income, is the hon. Gentleman putting forward the view that that eight-year-old should be able to vote?
I advise the hon. Gentleman not to pick an argument with somebody who was a tax consultant before he became an MP. Such a person—Daniel Radcliffe or whoever else he was thinking of—would probably have that income held in trust by their parents until they reached the age of 16, or whatever the trust says, and the tax allowance goes with the parents. It used to be a classic bit of tax avoidance.
There are plenty of different ages where there are different rights and responsibilities, from the right to be tried in court for a criminal act performed from the age 12 onwards to receiving different amounts of minimum wage up until the age of 21. I think the most compelling comparison of all is the right to marry, which will be extended when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is introduced, and the age of consent to sex. Surely the act of bringing another human being into the world is much more fundamental than the opportunity to vote. If we think that young people are capable of being good parents at the ages of 16 and 17, surely they can have the right to go and vote.
Giving young people the right to vote would also rebalance the changing demographics of the franchise. We all know the power of the grey vote and the higher tendency of pensioners to turn out and vote. The Inter- generational Foundation has recently published an interesting report—
Order. We are very interested in the output of the Intergenerational Foundation, about which the hon. Gentleman will seek to advise us in a moment. We are listening to his speech with great interest and he has generously taken a large number of interventions, but I hope I can predict with confidence that he is approaching his concluding remarks, as a large number of other Members wish to speak and I am keen to ensure that they do.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. With that advice—not only to me, but to other colleagues perhaps not to seek to intervene on me—I will be able to get through the rest of my speech quite quickly.
The Intergenerational Foundation has published a report on the rise of what it calls the gerontocracy—to summarise, the fact that the will of the old is trumping the needs of the young. We have had all sorts of debates recently—about the winter fuel allowance and so on—that are characteristic of that. It is a statistical fact—there are many statistical facts in that report—that there are more 63-year-olds who are able to vote than 18-year-olds. However, this is not simply about the absolute numbers of older people who are able to vote. We also know that their tendency to turn out and vote is higher, while 18 to 24-year-olds under the current franchise have the lowest tendency to turn out.
That takes me back to an earlier intervention. One of the reasons why that cohort has a low tendency to turn out is that most people in that group miss the opportunity to vote when they turn 18. It happened to me—I was 18 in 1984, and so was not able to vote for the first time until the 1987 general election. Now that we have guaranteed five-year Parliaments, someone who turned 18 in, say, mid-May 2010 will be 23 before they can vote in the next general election. Lowering the franchise from 18 to 16 will bring down slightly the average age at which people first cast their vote, from their early 20s to about 19 perhaps. The idea that swathes of 16 year-olds will be deciding the election is therefore simply not true.
Lowering the voting age to 16 also makes it more likely that people will vote while they are in the stable environment of home and education. Voting is habitual. We know from various studies that if someone votes for the first time when they are just 18, they pick up the pattern of voting for later life. Lowering the voting age also makes it easier to register—a point made earlier. In Northern Ireland, where individual voter registration is ahead of England and Wales, 16 and 17-year-olds are now registered in school. Registering 16-year-olds would be quite easy to do and add 1.5 million to the franchise—about 2,500 voters in each English constituency and different amounts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
If my 2005 Bill had been accepted, the UK would have been a trailblazer, but not now. Austria, which has been mentioned, extended the vote in 2007. In German local elections, the Bürgermeister of Hannover can be elected by 16-year-olds, but those wishing to vote for the mayor of Bristol, which is twinned with Hannover, have to wait until they are 18. Brazil—the fourth largest democracy in the world—gives the right to vote to 16-year-olds and Argentina extended that right just two months ago. However, it is here in the British Isles that the most fundamental change has taken place: 16 and 17-year-olds are now able to vote in the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, but it is in the devolved nations that the most profound change has taken place. On 4 July the Welsh Assembly voted to reduce the voting age to 16, and on 6 November the Northern Ireland Assembly did the same—but the power lies with us. Most profoundly of all, in the Scottish referendum, which I am sure we will hear about shortly, 16 and 17-year-olds will be given the right to cast their votes, in what I think will be a much more important referendum than the one we heard about yesterday—one that decides the future of the United Kingdom. If Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds can vote on the future of the UK, surely it would be untenable to withhold that right from their English, Welsh and Northern Ireland counterparts.
The genie is now out of the bottle. An old political maxim is “Trust the people”. We trust young people to be parents, we trust them to defend our country and we trust them with the future of the United Kingdom. Surely it is now time for us to trust 16 and 17-year-olds with the right to elect us to this House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) on securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place. It is important, at this stage of this Parliament, and after so many years have elapsed since the hon. Gentleman’s original Bill, that we should have the chance to debate—and, I hope, to vote on—this important subject.
Like most Members of Parliament, I spend quite a bit of time visiting sixth forms and meeting members of school councils, and teachers and pupils. Just last Friday, I was at Roundhay high school in my constituency, where I met the politics AS-level group—a group of about 20 16 and 17-year-olds. We had a discussion for about an hour and a half, and it would have been longer if they had not had to go to a different class. The quality of the teaching and, more important, the quality of the opinions and the questions, was absolutely brilliant. That made me realise that I was right to co-sponsor the hon. Gentleman’s debate this afternoon. Listening to those 16 and 17-year-olds, I felt that they were well ready to make a decision about who should represent them in this Parliament, who should be the Government of the day and—something that we have perhaps overlooked—who should run their local authority. Local authorities are still important bodies in the lives of the young people in our towns, cities and regions. I felt reassured, listening to those young people.
I have been to many different schools, as we all have. I have visited Allerton high school, Allerton Grange high school, Carr Manor high school and Cardinal Heenan Catholic high school. I have listened to sixth-form groups in those schools discussing politics. They have asked me deep, searching questions about why I became a politician, what we do in this place and how that affects their lives. I feel that it is really time for them to have a chance to make their judgment, locally and nationally, in our elections.
When the hon. Gentleman was in those schools, telling the young people how well educated, well informed and intelligent they were, and how they should be able to make all those decisions, did he also explain to them why he did not think they were intelligent, informed or educated enough to make a decision on whether or not to smoke?
I share the view of the hon. Member for Bristol West that there is not one age for everything. We allow our young people to drive at the age of 17, but not to vote at that age. Why are they deemed old enough to be in charge of a vehicle that could be a lethal weapon, but not old enough to vote? Why do we allow them to join the Army or get married at the age of 16, but not allow them to vote? There are different ages for different activities in our society. Also, protecting young people from the pervasive influence of the dangerous habit of smoking—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) wish to intervene on me again?
It was the hon. Gentleman who was leading with his chin and telling us how well informed and well educated those young people were. They are either well informed and well educated, or they are not. If they are so well informed and well educated, surely they are more than capable of making a decision on smoking, too. We cannot say that they are well informed in one area but absolutely clueless about everything else.
Could not the question of whether young people are well informed enough to make a decision about smoking be tested by giving them the vote, so that their representatives here could reflect what they thought on a range of issues, including their capacity to get a mortgage, an affordable pension or a job? All the decisions that we take here affect their lives, yet they have no say in those matters at the moment. The decision to smoke is just part of that parcel. The solution lies in giving them the vote.
Our colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) may have helped us a bit. The question essentially comes down to whether giving teenagers the opportunity to register to vote at 16 will do any harm. The answer is clearly no. Can it do any good? The answer is yes. On the point about smoking, only teenagers take it up: it is not an adult thing to do but a childish thing.
Before my hon. Friend moves on from this point, let me say that the issue is also about our behaviour and how we respond to young people’s concerns. We hear a lot about the grey vote, but we do not hear much about what younger people think or are worried about.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is all the more important, now that we have an ageing population—as the hon. Member for Bristol West said, a much higher proportion of older people cast their votes—that we extend the franchise to 16-year-olds as well. As I said earlier, I believe them to be more than capable of making a judgment about who they want to represent them at the local authority level and at the parliamentary and governmental level.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe)—and he is real friend, not just in the formal sense—put forward a ruthless logic, but that logic leads to the question “Why not 14; why not 12?” Adopting his logic, where should we set the age for voting?
I would answer my hon. Friend—and he is a very good friend—by saying that we have to make a judgment, and that young people have to demonstrate whether or not they are able to make the sorts of judgments we expect in their choice of who they want to represent them. In my experience—and, I am sure, in my hon. Friend’s experience—a 14-year-old does not quite have the maturity or ability to make that judgment, whereas most 16-year-olds certainly do. The point was well made by the hon. Member for Bristol West—we will not have loads of 16-year-olds suddenly heading off towards the polling station when they become 16. In fact, the young people are more likely to be 17 or 18 when the election comes about—unless it is in local government, as many of our towns and cities have annual elections three out of four years.
The age may well come down to 14 as young people get more mature, but we are debating votes at 16. In that case, I think, as many hon. Members and most of my party colleagues think, that from 16 onwards young people are mature enough, bright enough and educated enough to make those judgments. [Interruption.] That is my view; I know my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has a different view.
Let me move on to the issue of school councils. I do not know whether many Members have attended elections for school councils or spoken to any school councils, but I have been invited, as I know have many Members, to meet them—including often to primary school councils, too. [Interruption.] I am staggered—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Shipley wants to keep on making comments from a sedentary position, I will allow him to make an intervention. Otherwise,I would be grateful if he stopped.
If the hon. Gentleman is using school councils as an argument for extending the vote, he should remember that he himself said that they take place at primary school level, too. By that ruthless logic, I presume he is now going to advocate giving primary school children the vote.
I answered that point when I responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield. My judgment, as a parent of three children and as someone who regularly meets young people, is that 16-plus is the age at which young people are mature enough to make the sort of decisions we expect when they cast a vote. I do not believe that that is the case for five and six-year-olds are, although they vote in some school council elections.
I would like to tell my hon. Friend about the young mayor of Newham, who has a £25,000 budget. In the most recent vote for our young mayor, 13,500 young people voted. That shows a thirst for engagement, and I think it is a thirst that we should recognise.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is precisely the point I am trying to make. I was coming on to talk about school councils, because I have been impressed by the enthusiasm for voting, and by the interest, knowledge and understanding of what happens in a primary or a secondary school and of what a school council can achieve. It is on a very small scale, but it is a very good start. As the hon. Member for Bristol West said, if people get into the habit of voting at that young age, perhaps we will see a much higher turnout at elections.
I want to take Members back to what was a low point in this country’s electoral history: the police and crime commissioner elections. I am not going to rehearse the reasons why those elections had such a poor turnout—in west Yorkshire, it was 13.7%—but I venture to suggest that if 16-year-olds had had the right to vote on 15 November, turnout might have been over 15%. That is still an absolutely appalling figure, but it would have made some difference. There was a thirst for and an interest in voting among young people—even in those elections, which were so badly publicised. Indeed, when I visited Roundhay high school last Friday, I was asked about the turnout of those elections and the reasons why they had taken place in November in the first place.
When I was at school—a long, long time ago, in the ’60s and ’70s—we studied a subject called civics. I know that that has since evolved, but I found civics very useful, and its modern counterpart, of course, is far more useful. The point about that subject was to understand the institutions of government, both locally and nationally. How many Members have had e-mails and letters from constituents—many such constituents are pretty mature, certainly well over 16 or 18—saying, “Dear Member of Parliament, I want you to do something about the state of the streets in my area”, or saying that they want them to sort out their council house, their property, or the windows? They believe us to be councillors, too. I even got an e-mail the other day from somebody that began, “Dear Councillor Hamilton”. She wanted me to sort out what was purely a local authority issue, and I had to point out that I have not been a councillor for 15 years.
My point is that if 16-year-olds were able to vote, the education they were receiving at school about our governmental institutions, about how our constitution actually works, would be far more pertinent and relevant, because the next year or the next month—whenever they pass the age of 16—while they were still studying, they could cast their vote in a local authority election that has a direct relevance to them, and now, of course, in the five-yearly police and crime commissioner elections, too.
We have an age of consent of 16. At 16, people can drive a scooter. At 16, people can fight for their country—[Interruption.] Sorry; people can join the Army at 16. At 17, they can drive a car. At 16, they can get married with parental permission.
Yes, with parental permission.
We had a youth Parliament in the city of Leeds, as many cities do. The awards were given in the banqueting suite of our Leeds civic hall, and they were handed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). The turnout was brilliant. The enthusiasm and support from parents and young people were absolutely magnificent. That told me that increasingly our young people are able to make a judgment about who they want in this House; who they want to run their Government, because that affects them; and who they want to run their local authority. I therefore urge this House to vote for votes for 16-year-olds.
I would quite happily have given way to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I really am looking forward to hearing what he has to say—and I suspect that I will disagree with every word of it. It is a shame not to be able to engage more directly before he says what it is I imagine he will say.
I want to thank the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) for an incredibly thorough speech in which I think he mentioned every single aspect of why the voting age should be lowered to 16. I hope I do not simply repeat what he said. I fully endorse every part of his speech, during which he was very generous in giving way.
I want to focus on the constitutional issues that this subject raises. One reason we are having this debate is that two things have changed: the proposal to lower the voting age to 16 for the referendum in Scotland; and the new fixed-term Parliaments, which mean that voting takes place every five years and not before. The important point was made, but it is worth repeating, that that means that if an 18-year-old’s birthday happens to fall the day after the general election day, they will be 23 before they are able to vote. Nobody is proposing that we raise the voting age. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) referred to the things that people gain the right to do overnight, as it were, when they become 16, 17 or 18. The situation is totally different with the voting age, because people do not usually wake up on their 18th birthday to discover there is a general election; usually, the election will occur at some point during the subsequent five-year period. I doubt whether the Members who oppose this motion are making the case for raising the voting age, so we need to look at lowering the voting age to make sure that more young people can participate.
Engagement is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East spoke eloquently about school councils and citizenship classes, which the hon. Member for Bristol West also mentioned. We must be honest—the experience of citizenship classes is patchy. In some places, citizenship is taught excellently by dedicated citizenship teachers; in others, it is not so good. However, if we lowered the voting age to 16, citizenship, the importance of democracy and the role of political parties would be taught better at schools. It would encourage MPs, local councillors and other elected representatives to visit schools and make the case for why politics is important.
The counter-argument, which I hear quite a lot, is that politics should not be taken into schools. I totally disagree. Politics is important to 16-year-olds, just as it is to older young people. Politics decides what kind of schools we go to. Politics has ensured that there is access to free education for all. It is politics that meant that the school sports partnerships were abandoned. It is politics that decides what people learn at school—which classes are compulsory and which are not. In Derbyshire, the youth services have been seriously undermined; it was children and young people who were campaigning to keep their youth services open and active. This is straightforward politics, and it is good for young people to engage in it.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) mentioned the youth mayor in Newham. Let me give an example from my own constituency of young people taking responsibility. A budget was given to the school council at one of my primary schools, and after much discussion with the teachers, the school council decided to spend the entire £50 on rabbits. The teachers recommended that it not do so, pointing out that they would take a lot of looking after, but it decided to go ahead. Sure enough, they did take a lot of looking after, but those children learnt that if they make such a decision, contrary to advice, there are consequences, and that they had a duty of responsibility to those rabbits. I hope those rabbits are still alive—I have not visited them recently. Even though that is a small story, it demonstrates that if we give young people responsibility, they have to learn how to deal with it properly.
I also think that it is a matter of respect. We as parliamentarians should be saying to young people, “We respect you enough to allow you to make your own decisions about matters that affect you.” This is an important issue that concerns the widening of the franchise and human rights.
The United Kingdom is a signatory to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is shaking his head, but the convention states that when decisions are made that affect young people, they should have a say in those decisions. As has been pointed out today, we make decisions in the House about the age at which people are allowed to join the armed forces—as opposed to the age at which they are allowed to go to the front and lose their lives—and the age at which they are allowed to go to work and pay tax and national insurance. They can do those things from the age of 16 onwards. We make decisions that affect young people, but they have no way of voicing their opinions about what we do.
As my hon. Friend knows, I interrupt her speech with deep reluctance, because we are on very good terms. She knows, however, that the UN convention is about the preservation of childhood. It contains nothing about the voting age; it is about preserving childhood as a precious space, a principle that has been entirely absent from the debate so far.
My hon. Friend and I have had long discussions about this issue. I do not disagree with him about the preservation of childhood—in fact, I entirely agree with him about it—but I also think that lowering the voting age to 16 will not encroach on people’s childhoods. What it will do is give them responsibility, which is very different from taking their childhood away. My counter-argument is that, although we make decisions here that affect the day-to-day lives of people aged 16, 17 and 18—and, in my view, those aged up to 23, because many people are knocking on 23 before they are able to vote—we have taken away their right to have a say in issues that affect them. That is what I find so deeply offensive and wrong.
The hon. Member for Bristol West made a strong point about the widening of the franchise. I think that this really is a matter of human rights. It is slightly different from the issue of giving the vote to women, but I agree with the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) that the sky will not fall in if we give 16-year-olds the vote. The sight of a 16-year-old in a polling station putting a cross on a ballot paper—not one, two, three—should not panic people. This will not mean that the entire polling station is full of 16-year-olds; it will merely mean that younger people too will participate in the decisions that we make in the House. It is a shame that people are so fearful, and worry so much about 16-year-olds taking part in a general election.
The Scottish referendum will give us an opportunity to see how giving 16-year-olds the vote could work. Why should we not view it as a pilot? After 16, 17 and 18-year-olds have had their say in the referendum, we can look at how it went. I agree that the genie is out of the bottle once 16-year-olds are able to vote in a referendum, because after that it will be very difficult to say to them that they are to be denied a vote in the general election that will take place in the following year.
I have some sympathy with the view of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who has described this as an important constitutional matter. Issues were raised earlier about the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Each of them has voted overwhelmingly to lower the voting age to 16, but none of them can do so until we in this Parliament have made the decision for them.
I think it important for us to have this debate, and important for all views to be aired. However, I hope that when we go through the Lobbies, all of us—not just Labour and the Liberal Democrat Members—will vote in favour of seeing what happens in Scotland, and then lowering the voting age throughout the United Kingdom.
Order. It may help the House if I explain that the debate is scheduled to end at approximately 2.15 pm, and that the Chair intends the Front-Bench winding-up speeches to begin at approximately 1.45 pm. As the House knows, there is no formal time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but a rough calculation suggests that a six-minute speech by each Member would enable the 12 Members who are seeking to catch my eye to succeed in doing so, and would allow all to contribute.
I will do my best to stick to that time scale, Mr. Speaker, because I am anxious for other Members to have an opportunity to speak.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). As she knows, I admire her greatly. On this particular issue, however, I am afraid that I cannot support her.
It is a topsy-turvy world that we live in, Mr. Speaker. Today I found myself agreeing with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman)—I had thought it very unlikely that I would ever find a subject on which I could agree with him, but I am delighted that we have finally settled on at least one—and also listening to members of the party of the nanny state on the Opposition Benches giving lecture after lecture about the benefits of giving people responsibility for making decisions about their own lives.
I have been in the House for eight years. For eight years I have sat opposite Labour Members who have lectured us on how we cannot let people take responsibility for their own lives. People cannot make decisions for themselves; the state must intervene and make the decisions for them. Yet, today of all days, we have been told that it is absolutely crucial for us to give people responsibility for their own lives and trust them to make decisions. I hope that the same pattern will be followed when it comes to other issues, and that from now on the Labour party will adopt the approach of trusting not just 16 and 17-year-olds but people over the age of 18 to make their own decisions on how they live their lives. If that is the only consequence of today’s debate, it will have been worth while.
I tried to jot down the arguments that I heard today for reducing the voting age to 16. A common theme emerged: Members had visited local schools, had spoken to 16 and 17-year-olds at colleges and in sixth forms, and had been so impressed by the quality of the questions that were asked and the opinions that were formed that they concluded that it was time to give those young people the vote.
I would normally, but I want everyone to have an opportunity to speak.
Let me say from the word go that I spend a lot of time visiting schools in my constituency—primary and secondary schools—and that, in my view, some of the most challenging questions that a Member of Parliament is ever asked are asked by people who are at school. I have thoroughly enjoyed debates with very talented people of all ages in schools, some of whom have been greatly interested in politics and some of whom have had no interest in it at all.
As with so many other issues, the voting age is always a matter of judgment. There will always be exceptions to rules. There will always be 16-year-olds who have the deep interest and maturity that would enable them to make informed decisions when voting, and there will always be 18-year-olds who do not possess the same level of maturity and interest. There will always be anomalies of that kind. This debate is not about individual cases; it is about what we think should be the general principle. That is the judgment that must be made.
In my view, the argument that many 16 and 17-year-olds ask very intelligent, very searching questions and are able to engage in a sensible debate is not a sufficient argument for giving them the vote. In fact, I would contend that the most searching questions that I am asked as a Member of Parliament come from kids at primary school rather than from 16 and 17-year-olds. Primary school children tend to throw questions at us that we would never have expected, and which we have never heard of or thought of before. They catch us totally off guard.
I would like to, but, as I said earlier, I want to give others an opportunity to speak.
The point is that although those young people are capable of asking very intelligent and searching questions, it does not immediately follow that we should give them the vote. If that were the basis on which we were making these decisions, I would have to agree to give seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds the vote because they ask some of the most searching questions. So it is completely spurious to trot that argument out as a way of saying that these people should be able to vote. This is not just about people’s education, intellect or ability to ask searching questions; it is about people’s life experience, too. That is what gives people the basis on which to vote. It seems to me that 18 is a far better cut-off point than 16. I am perfectly happy to concede that these are matters of individual judgment, but I believe that 18 is the right point.
The main point I want to make relates to this idea about people’s education and intellect, and how well-informed they are. Hon. Members have been telling us that that level is higher than ever. If this was a matter of principle, I would have more respect for their opinion. If they held a deep-seated principle that 16-year-olds have the education and information to make these informed decisions, I would have more respect for it, even though I might not agree with it. But that is not the case, because all the people who have so far advocated reducing the voting age to 16 are exactly the same people who voted to increase the age at which people could decide to smoke from 16 to 18. The point is that people are either informed or they are not—they are either educated or they are not. They are not educated on one matter of voting but completely clueless on everything else. They can either make an informed decision or they cannot. I agreed with increasing the age at which people could buy cigarettes to 18, because I believe that 18 is the right age at which to trust people to make such decisions. It is entirely logical to have the voting age and the age at which people can buy cigarettes at 18, because 18 is the age at which people should be able to make those decisions.
I cannot give way because of the time pressures. It is completely illogical to say that people are so well-informed that they should be able to vote but they have no idea about whether or not they should smoke. People say, “Well, smoking is harmful for you”; the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) says that it is a matter of public health. But that is an argument for banning smoking altogether. If people wish to say that they want to ban smoking altogether, let them say that—but they do not do so. They say, “We want people to be 18 before they are able to make that kind of informed choice.” People have not been arguing for banning smoking; they have been arguing for raising the age limit to 18. The same should apply to voting as applies to smoking. It cannot be that one is suitable for 16-year-olds and one is suitable for 18-year-olds, as that is simply illogical. Therefore, it is not a matter of principle for people that 16-year-olds are able to make these informed choices; it is a matter of convenience.
There is nothing so nauseating and ridiculous as seeing MPs trying to court the youth vote—trying to appear trendy by wanting to pursue these sorts of youth matters. That is what this is all about; it is about MPs trying to look trendy and youthful in their constituencies. To be perfectly honest, it is rather pathetic. It would be better if they at least had some sound logic behind their views and really did trust 16-year-olds to make decisions—all decisions. What we have heard today is hon. Members saying that they believe that 16-year-olds are capable of voting but are not capable of making other decisions that affect their lives. Voting can be very harmful. I say to hon. Members that if the public ever decided to put the lot on the Labour Benches into government again, that would be very harmful to them. So it is not just smoking that is harmful when people make a bad decision at 16; voting can be a very harmful thing, too.
I believe that people should make a decision at the age of 18 on all these matters, be it whether to smoke, whether to drink alcohol and whether to vote. The people who take an opposite view have not yet persuaded me and they have not come up with any logical reason to support their belief that the smoking age should be increased from 16 to 18 whereas the voting age should be reduced from 18 to 16. It is a nonsensical argument and I do not support it.
I speak in support of lowering the voting age because I start from the perspective that extending the franchise has historically always been a good thing and that in a democracy people should have the right to shape the decisions that affect them, unless there is a really good reason why not. My starting point is not, “Why lower the voting age to 16?” but, “Why not lower the voting age to 16? Why prevent people from voting until they are 18 or even 23, as in the case of some young people voting in a general election for the first time? My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) made that point.
I acknowledge that there are arguments of some merit against such a move, and I will spend a little time discussing them, because some young people themselves make those arguments. Recently, I went to talk to a large group of young scouts who had very mixed views about lowering the voting age. They were marginally in favour as a group, but many of them were against. Some talked about the problem of maturity, but far more of those young people talked about a lack of knowledge and the difficulty of gaining the necessary tools and information to make meaningful choices of political parties. That is why I agree with so many hon. Members that lowering the voting age should go hand in hand with good-quality citizenship education in all our schools. Also, so many young people have made the point to me that citizenship education should not be an afterthought or an add-on; it should be a high priority for schools in enabling young people to make those choices.
I want to go further than that, because I am a huge supporter of the UNICEF rights respecting schools programme, which some hon. Members may have seen in action and which is incredibly important. We have heard the argument, “Why stop at 16? Why not go earlier?” We have debated that, but from a very young age children can and should be involved in shaping the institutions and communities they are part of, thus having an impact on the decisions that affect their lives. I say to hon. Members who say that that somehow does not protect childhood that it is an active part of childhood; children are people—they are citizens—who live in communities and they are not atomistic individuals who should be seen only through the lens of their parents. The UNICEF rights respecting schools programme is incredibly important, because it enables children to learn about politics in an active and not a passive way; surely we want those sorts of adults in the future.
The argument that some people do not want the vote and that some will not use it completely misses the point. The point is that many 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds do want the vote and do want to use it. Hon. Members have referred to evidence from overseas, and, in particular, from Austria and Germany, which suggests that if young people start voting at 16—this is the crucial point—when they are still in formal learning, they continue to do so. The argument that 18 to 24-year-olds are less likely to vote therefore again misses the point. Now is a very opportune time to introduce this measure, because we are raising the participation age so that young people stay in some form of formal learning until 18. That is often advanced as a reason not to give young people the vote, but all the evidence suggests that it is in fact a reason to do so, as they will still be in formal learning and can be given the information and skills they need to make the decisions.
I agree that young people mature at different rates, and that is reflected in the different ages at which we allow people to do different things. I will not rehearse those differences, because we have had a great deal of discussion about them, but I wish to make two points. First, I do not believe that representation should be directly linked to taxation. Lots of people in this country do not pay tax, for whatever reason; unemployed people are one such example. I hope that most hon. Members would not agree with the idea that such people should not have the vote—that idea appals me. The argument that someone has to pay taxes before they are allowed to vote is completely spurious.
Secondly, the fact that young people mature at different rates surely cannot be a reason to say to all 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds that they are simply not allowed to vote. We have not always got right the ages at which we decide that people are mature enough to do things—in my view, the age of criminal responsibility is far, far too low in this country—but the fact that we are even having a debate about whether young people should wait eight years from when we hold them criminally responsible for their actions to when they are allowed to have a say in the criminal justice system that we are catapulting them into is completely wrong.
I argue for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to have the choice about whether to vote, not the responsibility to vote; voting is not compulsory in this country and I do not think anybody is suggesting that it should be. They should have that choice as we all do.
I say to hon. Members who have raised the issue of protecting childhood that I do not see any justification for saying that we somehow keep our children safer by denying them the right to be active members of and citizens in their communities. The idea that teenage girls on the streets of Doncaster would be protected by not being allowed to vote until the age of 18 strikes me as ridiculous.
Over the past few years, we have seen starkly how the decisions we make affect young people from an early age. Young people have taken to the streets to defend the education maintenance allowance, to oppose the rise in tuition fees and to occupy multinational companies that refuse to pay their taxes. Those young people are campaigning on issues that will not affect them—those decisions have largely already been taken—but they are taking to the streets to defend the rights of the young people who come after them and to make a case for the sort of society in which they want to live. They are highly political, optimistic, energetic and ambitious—we know that from the evidence—yet they have little say in the decisions we make.
Every time we delay decisions on issues such as care for the elderly, pensions, the environment and child care, we are storing up trouble for future generations. The decisions we make and those we do not make will have profound repercussions for the generation of young people growing up today. It will fall to them to solve the problems we create and I am appalled that they do not have a say in the decisions that affect them.
I am conscious of the fact that we have only just over an hour before the start of the wind-ups, so I shall keep my comments brief.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and although I disagree with her general argument, she made a very good point about the fact that even among young people there is no single view on the matter. I accept that many statistics show that a majority of 16 and 17-year-olds, when asked, suggest that they would be in favour of having the right to vote. That is not surprising, is it? At that age, young people want to get on in life and to get things quicker than the law allows. I am sure that if we were to ask them whether they would like to be able to go into a pub and buy alcohol, the majority would probably say yes.
It is encouraging that 16 and 17-year-olds are interested in political matters and the political process. I have no doubt that that interest means that many of them would like to vote, but we know from the turnout figures that very few 18 to 21-year-olds vote—often less than half. I do not say that that is a reason for not giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, because, as has been said, people do not have to vote. We do not have compulsory voting in this country.
Let me clear up one point made by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) about young people having to wait five years before they can vote in a general election. That is true for people who turn 18 the day after the last general election now that we have fixed-term Parliaments, but it was equally true in 1992 and 2005, when there were five-year Parliaments. In all areas of the country, there will be opportunities to vote in local elections before the next general election. Of course, millions of young people in metropolitan areas will be able to vote in elections three years out of every four. That is true of my constituency, as it is of the whole of Greater Manchester.
It has been mentioned that some countries have reduced the voting age to 16 or 17, but there are also countries where the voting age is higher. It is 20 in Japan and 21 in Pakistan and Malaysia, so there are international comparators where the age at which young people can vote is higher. There is an argument that making young people wait until they are 18 before they can vote shows how important and serious the act of voting is. The Youth Citizenship Commission examined the question of lowering the voting age in 2009 and found that it was not the main factor affecting engagement in the political process. It stated that
“the issue is not the principal factor in encouraging young people’s interest and involvement in politics and citizenship.”
Back in 2004, the Electoral Commission carried out a full review of the age of electoral majority and concluded that the minimum age for voting should remain at 18.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point and congratulate him on securing the debate. It has given the House the opportunity to give the subject an airing, for which I am sure we are all grateful, whichever side of the debate we are on.
It is not that long ago in the history of this country that the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 and we are now debating whether to reduce it from 18 to 16.
It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to give way. I was one of the first beneficiaries of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government’s decision to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18. I was born in 1952 and voted in my first general election aged 18 in 1970—the first general election in which there were 18-year-old voters. It seems to me that all the arguments being made against reducing the voting age could have been and were made in the 1960s, and it is now many years later. The hon. Gentleman says that it is not very long ago, but I am old enough to have a senior person’s railcard now. It is about time we moved on and allowed younger people, who are better educated now than I was then, to vote.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but he reinforces my point. If a decision was made to reduce the age of majority to 16, in three or four decades’ time this House would be full of people saying, “That was years ago, we ought to consider making it 14. People made that decision long ago and they are far away.”
I apologise for missing the start of the debate, but I was in a Select Committee. My hon. Friend has already stated that if the age were reduced to 16, turnout would be very low. Does he think that adding a whole set of people to the electoral roll when the majority of them will not vote will in any way enhance our democracy? The simple fact that people cannot vote at that age does not stop them from being politically engaged.
Indeed, there is nothing to stop a young person who is politically motivated from going along and joining Conservative Future—or, if they were particularly misguided, the equivalent group in the other parties.
I am conscious that I have used up my unofficial allocation of time, but I think I have made some points that give the other side of the argument. We do not want only to hear young people’s views. Millions of people in this country think that the age at which people can vote should remain at 18 and it is important that those arguments, as well as all the others, are heard today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). As I think he knows, I joined the Labour party in Bury as a 15-year-old, and when I was 16 and 17, I spent my time doing my best to help dislodge his Conservative predecessor, who is of course now the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—although the hon. Member for Bury North may think that that reinforces his argument and detracts from mine.
I shall be brief. I started thinking about this debate a few weeks ago, and came to the issue with a genuinely open mind. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who I think said from a sedentary position earlier that he was worried about the squeeze on childhood. I will have to disagree with him. At 16, people can give consent to medical treatment, leave school and enter work, pay income tax and national insurance, obtain tax credits and welfare benefits, get married, change their name by deed poll, become a company director, join the armed forces, and become a member of a trade union. Given that there is already a long list of things that people can do at 16, it seems reasonable that they should also be able to vote.
I would rather not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because the Deputy Speaker is keen for us all to get in.
In recent days, I have held a survey in my Leicester South constituency. Interestingly, apart from the over-50s, those who have taken part in my survey are overwhelmingly in favour of allowing 16-year-olds to vote.
I understand that the respondents are arguably self-selecting, and it is not a scientific survey, but the results are interesting none the less. On the other hand, just for balance, there was a vox pop on Radio Leicester this morning, in which people said that they did not think that 16-year-olds would understand the issues or be interested. I have to say, as many other Opposition Members have done, that when I speak to year 11 groups, or to sixth forms, as I will tomorrow at Madani high school, I find that young people are very much engaged. They may not be interested in the cut and thrust of party political debate in this place, but they are certainly interested in the issues that affect them.
All my life, I have seen Chancellors of the Exchequer of both parties pull rabbits out of hats in the Budget statement in this place, and it is usually some sort of give-away to pensioners. Whatever party the Chancellor is from, the party members behind him cheer and wave their Order Papers. We do it because we know that we can put that give-away on our leaflets and in our direct mail, and we know that pensioners vote. I suspect that if 16-year-olds had the vote, we would be less cavalier about trebling tuition fees to £9,000, abolishing the education maintenance allowance, and levels of youth unemployment, because we would be worried about those young people having their say at the ballot box. It is entirely fair that they should. They do not all have to vote; we are talking about giving them the opportunity to vote.
I hope that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) divides the House; I get the impression that he will. If it is the will of the House that 16-year-olds should have the vote, will the Minister think about allowing them to vote in next year’s European elections? Then we could look at the level of engagement, and at whether that galvanises people. Perhaps she will comment on that when she sums up. The proposal seems entirely fair and right; let us just get on with it.
I am grateful to my hon. and good Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) for introducing the debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it. It is absolutely right that we should debate the subject. Like the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), I, too, was a beneficiary of the change in the voting age from 21 to 18. When I was 18, I could not vote, but by the time I was 21 I had got the vote, because the law had changed, and I cast my first vote in the 1970 election. It was an exciting moment. I went with my dad back to where we had moved from, and I felt the importance of being able to play my small part in that general election.
Ever since then, I have been persuaded that we need to keep asking ourselves whether young people are properly engaged in politics. I chair the governing body of a primary school, and of course there are bright and engaged youngsters in that school, but as some hon. Friends have said, nobody seriously thinks that they are yet sufficiently engaged and interested to be able to vote. I am the trustee of a secondary school; the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and others spoke about going to secondary schools and meeting youngsters, most of whom are really engaged, interested, informed and active. A couple of evenings ago, I was with some friends in my constituency. Their under-18 son was at the dinner table, and nobody could argue that he, doing his A-levels, was not as competent to cast a vote as many other people.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the habit of voting is usually learned young, and that the chance of getting a 30-year-old who has never voted into a polling station is small? If we had voting at 16, large numbers of 16, 17, and 18-year-olds at school or in higher education would feel peer pressure to vote, and might acquire the habit for life.
That, in a way, is my central argument, and I will come back to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West was kind enough to remind the House that I was the first person to introduce this proposition. I have checked; it was in Committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill on 15 December 1999. Mike O’Brien, whom we all remember with affection, was the Under-Secretary of State, and he opposed the proposition on behalf of the Labour Government, although we reported that Paul Waugh of The Independent had written an article on the previous new year’s eve saying that the Labour Government were thinking about whether they should propose changing the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West was right to say that we did not get the measure through; the votes were 36 in favour and 434 against.
One of the then Minister’s strongest arguments was that a person could not stand for election until they were 21. That has changed; people can now stand in local elections when they are 18, and they do—and get elected. The discrepancy has narrowed. My key point is this: if we educate young people to understand the issues, as the House’s education department does, and as we do when we go into schools; if, when children are still at home, parents educate them on the issues; if, as colleagues in all parts of the House have said, we are keen for people to be more competent to make financial decisions when they leave school; if we want to make sure that young people understand how to apply for work, and look for training, a university or college, apprenticeships and so on, and have the information that they need; we should logically link that with the ability to see what the options are in life, and who makes those decisions.
Who decides whether a person can be housed locally? The local council, and therefore it matters who the local councillor is and whether they are likely to be responsive. Who makes the decisions in London about policing? The Mayor of London. A young person might have very strong views on the subject, and might want to do something to influence the decision of who becomes the Mayor. Who makes the decisions about licensing laws and ages, and about drugs? Parliament, and young people might want to influence it if they have very strong views on those issues.
The crucial point is the one that the hon. Member for York Central and I made. If we educate young people—we do it increasingly well with an increasingly bright cohort—and there is a gap of up to five years before they can apply what they have learned, what happens? First, when they can vote, they may not be at home; they may be struggling to find somewhere to live, and be moving around. Relationships are often all over the place. There are uncertainties to do with study, training and work. People then generally do not find that voting is a priority, because they do not have the stability that they had at school, college or home.
In the past, people voted much more often in the way that their family did Now, if young people are at home, it does not necessarily mean that they will vote the way their parents do, but they are much more likely to be encouraged to go to vote with their parents, and to be shown what to do. Some people do not vote because they do not know what to do, and they are terrified that they will be embarrassed when they go.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that those of us who are parents, whether in the House or outside, have a crucial role in ensuring, well before our children are 16, that they will have the understanding and ability to vote at 16, and that we can therefore play a part in making sure that votes at 16 work?
That is right, and I say to those Conservative colleagues who are nervous about the idea that of course we have different ages for different things; we will never get to a situation in this country where every right comes at 16, 17 or 18; that is unrealistic. However, it is often young people who are the most idealistic in the world—who want to change the world, and live out what they believe. If we start saying, “No, you can’t get involved at this age. I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait. You can’t do anything about it till you’re 19, 20 or 21,” by then the idealism may have gone and we will have dampened their enthusiasm.
We want more people to stand in political elections. All political parties, including the Tories, allow people to join and to vote at well under 18. At 15, I think, one can be a voting member of the Tory party, choosing the party leader. For heaven’s sake, let us realise that although not all the world has yet arrived at this conclusion, we must go on opening up opportunities to young people, not making them do anything, but giving them the opportunity to become the full citizens that they will be if they can exercise the vote in this country.
It is always difficult, knowing that one is going to be pretty much a lone voice on the Opposition Benches opposing the motion. I have to tell my colleagues that I have done it before and it is good for the soul, and I will probably do it again. May I make a confession? I used to be in favour of lowering the voting age. Then I became Chairman of the Education Committee, then Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee. It was my experience as Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee that changed my mind.
From the evidence that we heard across a range of inquiries, it became clear to me that we live in a world where childhood is being truncated and squeezed all the time. We live much longer. We are all going to live to 90 and goodness knows what age—I think it is predicted that children born now will live to 100. As a percentage of the lifespan, childhood is a very brief period. I want to celebrate childhood. I want children to be able to indulge in it and have a wonderful time. Childhood is about so many things—education, experience, learning, fun and being irresponsible in so many ways. I passionately believe that we should not squeeze childhood.
In my lifetime, childhood has been squeezed inexorably. Just look at the commercial pressures on young people today. Take advertising. Look at the pressures on children to conform—to buy the right trainers, to have the right computer and the right mobile phone. The pressure on childhood from the commercial world is tremendous. We as politicians have done pretty little about defending childhood from commercial pressures. Indeed, the one time I deeply fell out with my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) was when, as Minister, he allowed product placement on television. What do we drink? Coca Cola, because there it is on the screen. The commercial pressures on childhood have been extreme over recent years. [Interruption.] It may be hilarious that there is commercial pressure. I do not think it is hilarious. I think it is deeply worrying.
I have increasingly spent time looking at the very vulnerable children in our society. We should all reflect on how many young people were involved in the Jimmy Savile case and other cases, and on the gangs in our towns throughout the country. There is a famous case going through the courts at present and there have been many more over the winter where vulnerable girls—particularly girls, but sometimes boys as well—have been targeted. There are protections in our laws that take childhood through to 18. I know that we cannot apply that to everything, but 18 gives us a standard by which to judge how far childhood goes. Eighteen is the maximum age. Others have argued that people can get married at 16, but that is only with their parents’ consent.
I am in favour of keeping childhood. I am also in favour of keeping the protections of childhood. As we allow these to slip to a younger and younger age—
No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman, who is a great friend of mine, made quite a long speech. I want to carry on making my case.
I believe that pushing childhood back makes many young children vulnerable at a crucial age. Those of us who have spent time with children—I have four children and oodles of grandchildren—know that they are very vulnerable between the ages of 14 and 18. We can wish that away or pretend it is not the case, but my experience as Chairman of the Education Committee and then of the Children, Schools and Families Committee has taught me that that is a very sensitive age for young people.
I understand where the motion is coming from. It is a fashionable cause at present. When the president of the Liberal party back in those days, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), made that speech and moved that motion, I remember that people said, “Oh, it’s only those trendy Liberal Democrats looking for young votes,” and I said, “No, no, he is a man of honour and he believes this for very good reasons.” My own party has been won over. The deputy leader of my party and others have become passionate about it. I opposed lowering the voting age being in our manifesto and believed it was wrong—again, because I believed it made the protection of children a lesser issue than it might otherwise be.
May I put that point in context? I believe that part of the demand and the fashion of votes at 16 comes from the fact that our parliamentary democracy is in deep trouble. We know that only 65% voted at the last election and that 6 million people did not bother to register. We all know that the three main parties represented in this place have hardly any members in their constituencies—tiny numbers of people active in politics. I know that the Liberal Democrats have believed in proportional representation to do something about that, but we are all floundering around because there is something deeply wrong with the engagement in democracy in our country today.
The demand for votes at 16 is clutching at straws. I understand it and I do not deny that there are arguments for it, but I worry that it is a pretext for not looking at the deeply worrying decay of parliamentary democracy in our country. I hope this does not come to a vote. Everyone on the Labour Benches knows that I am a reasonable man. At the very least, I would like the Government to set up a commission on an all-party basis to look into the matter. If my concerns and worries about the protection of children are ill-founded, an independent commission looking at that might give me cause not to worry any longer, but I believe that the voice that has been silent in the House today has been one arguing for childhood, the protection of childhood and the value of childhood.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). I know what it feels like to be a lone voice, on the nationalist Benches. I totally and fundamentally disagree that allowing the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds has any impact whatsoever on childhood. The voice that we do not hear in the House is that of young people. If we give young people the vote, we will get to hear that voice, and it is a voice that I will welcome.
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman as we do not have much time.
I am immensely proud that it is Scotland that is leading the way in delivering the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, and that the Scottish National party Scottish Government are the first Government in the United Kingdom ever to allow our youngest people the vote. In our independence referendum 16 and 17-year-olds will be able to decide the future of our country, and that is absolutely right. This is an immensely exciting and transformative event and it is the right thing to do.
The Scottish National party has supported votes for 16 and 17-year-olds for decades. Winnie Ewing, who was our first Member of Parliament, spoke about the franchise for 16 and 17-year-olds in her maiden speech in 1967. We believe that 16 and 17-year-olds have the biggest stake in our future and it is right that they have a say. I will not go over the reasons why 16 and 17-year-olds should get the vote, as those reasons have been eloquently put by several hon. Members. If people of that age can marry, pay tax and join the Army, they should be given the opportunity to decide the future of the country, and it is what the people of Scotland want, too.
Of the 26,000 people who responded to the Scottish Government’s consultation “Your Scotland, Your Referendum”, the vast majority agreed that 16 and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in a referendum. In fact, 56% agreed and 41% disagreed. Children 1st, Children in Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the Electoral Reform Society, the National Union of Students in Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Unison and Unite—all bodies that have an interest in young people and their welfare and rights—responded positively to the proposal to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in Scotland’s referendum.
We can allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum because of the Edinburgh agreement, reached between the UK Government and the Scottish Government, which passed responsibility on all issues related to our referendum to the Scottish Parliament. It is the first time we have had the opportunity to be responsible for a franchise for a national election—and, by God, we are going to use it.
The Scottish Parliament has already legislated to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in health board elections and in the crofting commission elections. Where we have legislative responsibility, we will allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. Unfortunately, we do not have responsibility for UK elections. We are not responsible for the franchise for elections to the Scottish Parliament. We are not even responsible for the franchise for local government elections.
It has been ridiculously suggested that because we cannot allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in UK Parliament elections, we should demonstrate our right to allow young people to vote in our referendum. I am sorry, but we are for votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. We believe that it is right that they should get the vote, and where we have responsibility we will allow our young people the vote. We will not be held back by some of the positions of the Westminster Conservatives. If we were to wait for the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to agree to 16 and 17-year-olds having the vote, we would be waiting a long time.
What are we going to do? The Scottish Government are going to bring forward a Bill to allow all 16 and 17-year-olds to register and vote in our independence referendum. We propose to accelerate the paving Bill, which will allow a canvass of 15 to 17-year-olds as part of the electoral canvass plan for 2013, not just the so-called attainers covered by the existing electoral canvass proposals. We are already working closely with electoral registration officers and other stakeholders to develop the legislation and the practical arrangements to implement it. We will guarantee and ensure that all 16 and 17-year-olds have a vote in the Scottish independence referendum.
What has been disappointing about the debate on votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in the independence referendum is the attitude of parties and politicians who notionally support votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. I respect the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), but his Liberal colleagues in Scotland have been what could only be called prickly, oppositional and generally grudging about trying to secure votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in the independence referendum.
In fact, our consultation showed that 17 Labour Members of Parliament objected to 16 and 17-year-olds getting a vote in the referendum, as did practically all the Liberal Democrats. I find that astonishing, and even shameful. If they believe that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote in all elections, why did they not support their right to vote in the referendum in the Scottish Parliament? It was immensely disappointing to see the Liberals, in particular, opposing and being prickly and difficult about securing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in our referendum.
The fact that 16 and 17-year-olds cannot vote in general elections has been mentioned, but we cannot do anything about that, because we do not have responsibility for extending the franchise in UK elections. Some have tried to suggest that we are proposing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds for narrow party political advantage—what a lot of nonsense. There is no evidence to support that claim. In fact, one opinion poll conducted among 16 and 17-year-olds showed that a majority were in favour of remaining in the Union. To suggest that we are doing this for narrow party political advantage is absolute and utter nonsense. The attitude of some of the parties that notionally support votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in the referendum has been disappointing. They will have to account to 16 and 17-year-olds when the referendum takes place in Scotland next year.
I do not agree with that. This goes back to the debate that has been well rehearsed and which we have heard so much about today. There are different ages of responsibility between the ages of 16 and 18. There are certain things that 16-year-olds can and cannot do, there are certain things that 18-year-olds can do, and there certain things that people cannot do until they are 21. We sometimes have to draw a line when it comes to these issues, but to say that 16 and 17-year-olds should not be able to vote when they have such responsibilities and such a stake in our society and community is utterly perverse, wrong and bizarre. Of course they should get the vote.
I am a sponsor of the motion and so will, of course, support it. I will continue to support every effort in this House to ensure that we get votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. I make a plea to both the Liberal and Labour parties to stop their opposition to votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish referendum and to please help us to deliver it to ensure that we have the first national referendum in the United Kingdom in which 16 and 17-year-olds can vote. Support us, help us, and we will deliver it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), whose motion is supported by Members on both sides of the House, on securing this debate. A number of Members have suggested that it is timely, but I suggest that it is overdue. As we have been reminded, when the Electoral Commission said back in 2004 that the voting age should remain unchanged, it also said that we should look at the issue again in five to seven years, so by any account we are at least two years late.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) sought to diminish the debate by suggesting that those of us who were advocating this cause were simply trying to be trendy. Looking at those Members who have spoken so far, including myself, I do not think there is any chance that any of us will be mistaken for being trendy—[Interruption.]—with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy).
In preparing for the debate, I invited views from constituents. I want to share just one, from Simon Landau who had been out campaigning on the NHS. He said:
“I was very much struck by a young man carrying his baby son in his arms who came up to us on the stall... He was 17, doing his training at Catterick and was due to go to Afghanistan this year. He was interested in our leaflets and the petition on the NHS as he realised its critical importance to his family. He was also aware that he didn’t have a vote, and so he wondered whether he was allowed to sign the petition.”
My constituent’s observation was that the doubt ought to be removed. I thought about that young man. He is old enough to be concerned about the NHS, and rightly so, old enough to join the Army, old enough to have a baby, old enough to be married and old enough to pay tax and receive benefits. If he had chosen a different course, he would also be old enough to be a company director, to join a trade union and, indeed, to vote in trade union elections—another example of the Labour movement setting the progressive path—but he is not judged old enough to vote in other elections. There are currently over 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds exercising those sorts of responsibilities on a daily basis, and they should have a bigger say.
Opponents, including the hon. Member for Shipley and others, say that we restrict many things to 18-year-olds. He cited buying cigarettes, drinking alcohol and gambling. There is a common thread there: we tend to restrict to 18-year-olds the stuff that is bad for people. We do not really want to lump engagement in democracy in that basket.
Although I agree with the hon. Member for Bristol West that there should be varying age limits and thresholds, 16 is a threshold for a significant range of rights and responsibilities. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is not currently in his place, because I do not think that childhood extends to 18.
We should empower 16 and 17-year-olds not only because it aligns their rights with their responsibilities, but because it makes them more likely to participate in politics in the longer term. There is considerable evidence that the younger people are when they start voting, the more likely they are to stick with the habit. If young people do not get the opportunity to vote in a general election until six or seven years after their citizenship education—whatever efforts the Education Secretary is making to undermine that education—that gives the impression that their views are not valid. It gives young people time to feel excluded from politics, even before they have had the chance to express their political views. If people do not vote when they are young, they might never vote again.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) referred to our common experience of being beneficiaries when the voting age was reduced to 18. I am sure that many Members of the House at the time voiced exactly the same arguments that have been raised against today’s proposal: that 18 to 21-year-olds would not be mature enough to vote. I guess that the majority of us who benefited would disagree with that argument because we felt we were mature enough to vote, but I talk to many 16 and 17-year-olds in schools and colleges, and I have to say that they are more impressive than many of us would have been at that age.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that is confirmed by the contacts and engagement I have had with youth parliamentarians in Sheffield.
I can see why many in the Government might not want to extend the right to vote to 16, for very practical reasons from their point of view. Policies are often shaped in recognition of the power of the elderly vote, and rightly so—that is what democracy is about. However, young people have borne the brunt of this Government’s policies, with the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, the increase in tuition fees, the scrapping of the future jobs fund, turning the clock back with GCSE and A-level reforms, and much more besides. How differently those issues might have been viewed if 16 and 17-year-olds had had the vote. Just as with the elderly vote, that is what democracy is about. Because of their responsibilities, because they are affected by so many of the decisions made here and by local councils, and because we can trust their judgment, we should take the bold step of extending the voting age to 16.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) introduced this debate very thoroughly and left almost nothing new for the rest of us to say, with the exception of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) called out at one stage, “But this is not popular—have you seen the surveys?” This is not a matter of popular support; it is a matter of democratic principle. In practice, it can and does work elsewhere.
In this country we have 16-year-olds who can leave school, start work, pay income tax, receive benefits and tax credits, give consent to medical treatment, become company directors, join trade unions, join the armed forces, get married and enter into civil partnerships. We regard 16-year-olds as responsible enough to do all those things, but we do not regard them as responsible enough to vote. All those things are determined in law, decided by us as elected politicians. This means that we have about 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds who are capable of making and able to make decisions on those things, and capable of making yet unable to make decisions on voting. That leaves them without a democratic voice on many of the things that can directly affect them most.
I see this ultimately as a matter of citizenship. The discussion about lowering the voting age has a direct link with the citizenship education in our schools—the citizenship education that I am proud our Labour Government introduced in 2002 and deeply disappointed that this Government have now dropped as a requirement for academies and free schools and look likely to drop as an element of the national curriculum for other schools. I regard that as backward-thinking and a backward step.
I said that it is a matter of principle and practice. In practice, the evidence from elsewhere appears to be that lowering the voting age proves to be a good and not a bad thing. Austria did it five years ago, and the evidence appears to be that interest in politics among its young people has greatly increased. The evidence on their voting is that turnout is similar to that among other age groups, as is the pattern of voting. That should lead us to conclude that 16-year-olds are just as capable as adults of any other age of making such decisions and taking such responsibilities. Within Europe, it is not only Austria that has lowered the voting age; it has been done for some elections in Germany, Hungary, Slovenia and Norway, and of course people are looking to do it in Scotland.
The principled and the practical arguments are all pointing in the same direction—the direction behind this motion, which I regard as a case for change whose time has now come.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) on securing this debate. As a former youth worker, I agree with him on how important it is. I have to say to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that it is not “new and trendy”; we have been having debates about votes at 16 ever since I started to do youth work, which, sadly, I must admit was a considerable number of years ago. Leading youth-led organisations such as the British Youth Council and the UK Youth Parliament are very actively campaigning for votes at 16.
Last week I went to St James primary school in Daisy Hill in my constituency to present prizes for my Christmas card competition. I talked to the young people about Parliament and being an MP, and told them about this debate. I took a vote on whether they thought that 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote. Interestingly, all but a handful of pupils thought that they should be given the vote at 16, but all the staff voted against, which I found quite sad. I told them that I would report their vote to Parliament today, as it is representative of the many young people I have spoken to about this issue.
A few weeks ago, I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs. This APPG is very different from the majority of APPGs in that different organisations bring in young people to debate issues with parliamentarians. I encourage many more of my colleagues to come along to the APPG. At that meeting, we debated votes at 16 and, again, the vast majority of the young people attending believed that the vote should be given to 16-year-olds.
Of course, the young people with whom the hon. Lady is engaging are those who are already engaged in politics. We have a huge problem in this country in that, sadly, the vast majority of young people are not engaged in politics. It would therefore be better to focus on the 18 to 24-year-olds who are not engaged, the majority of whom do not vote at the moment. We should get them voting and then we can extend it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I believe absolutely that if we start to encourage voting at an early age, where that is supported and people are educated about their rights and responsibilities, we can make voting a lifelong activity, and concentrating on 18 to 24-year-olds misses that huge opportunity. I will say a little more about that later.
Let me talk about some of the things that the young people at the APPG said. Yes, they are young people who are engaged. However, an important point about youth organisations and youth workers is that we actively go out to engage not only with those aspiring young people, but with young people from all walks of life to enable them to have their say in civil society. Carly stated that many young people are dissatisfied with local issues but struggle to know how to become properly involved in politics. She argued that there was a need for better education and noted that not all adults made arguments based on solid reasoning. Another young person stated that political apathy from some young people is not a valid reason to exclude those young people who are engaged, and noted that not all adults vote. Steve said that a lot of older people lacked an interest in political engagement and awareness but the same ideas about requiring a level of knowledge for 16 and 17-year-olds was not placed on people over 18. A number of young people argued that politicians are able to ignore their views because they do not have the vote, and compared the loss of education maintenance allowance and the increase in tuition with the protection of benefits given to the grey vote.
Some voices were raised against enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds. One young person felt that they should not be enfranchised because they do not have experience of life outside the home, but she was challenged by someone who argued that many people now do not move out of their home until they are in their thirties, so that is not a valid reason to stop them having the vote.
The main thrust of the arguments against changing the voting age was lack of knowledge, and very strong opinions were voiced, both by those in support of votes at 16 and by those against, for the need for effective citizenship education in schools. They also argued that it should be part of the Ofsted inspection framework to ensure that such education was being carried out in all schools in a good way.
I am sure that we have all knocked on the doors of people who do not vote because they do not know how to do so or who to vote for. I believe that we have a duty in a civilized society to educate people about their civil duties, including voting. If done effectively, that should increase turnout by all future voters.
Many schools already undertake a lot of activities, such as mock elections, at the time of general elections, but, sadly, that rarely happens each year, meaning that four cohorts can miss out altogether.
That encouragement to vote—enabling young people to understand the political process and to vote at 16—should be viewed as positive. Voting at 16 would instil a pattern for lifelong voting. However, whether or not we believe that the voting age should be lowered, we clearly should be doing more to educate young people and, indeed, older people about how and why to vote.
We can all bandy polls about and I want to quote an online poll from The Guardian, which found that 53% of people were in favour of lowering the voting age. Of course, if a more right-wing paper conducted a similar poll, it may well come up with a different answer, but one accusation that cannot be levelled against readers of The Guardian is that they are not deep thinkers who will not have considered the pros and cons of lowering the voting age.
I am sure about it. The Votes at 16 coalition says that
“16 and 17 year olds are knowledgeable and passionate about the world in which they live, and are as capable of engaging in the democratic system as any other citizen.”
These are people who are already seen as capable of voting for the leader of their respective political parties.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly has urged the Committee of Ministers
“to reconsider the age-related restrictions placed on voting rights in order to encourage young people’s participation in political life.”
I share those views about the passion, knowledge and ability of young people.
Of course, our three Crown dependencies—Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man—have already given votes to 16-year-olds. Scotland will allow 16-year-olds to vote in the referendum, and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies have both voted in favour of votes at 16.
Some have argued that young people will not be able to make an independent decision and will vote the same way as their parents. Let us be realistic: it does not matter whether someone is 16 or 61, many people still vote the same way as their parents. I must confess that the first time I voted, I voted the same way as my mother, but I also have to say that I have never, ever voted the same way again. Our challenge is to educate and inform, so that people of whatever age can decide for themselves who to vote for and why.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and a passionate defence of young people’s right to participate in the process. Does she agree that it is important for parliamentarians to engage with young people aged 16 to 17? I am sure she would have been proud if she had heard young people from Trinity school talking on Radio Nottingham this morning about their views on votes at 16, and about how important it has been for me to speak to them, listen to what they have had to say, and to encourage them.
I absolutely agree. I do as much as I can to visit schools and I think it is incumbent on us as politicians to be part of that education process. The reality is that young people are passionate, informed and able to mount their arguments and participate.
Finally, given the number of rights and responsibilities that come in at 16, it is a significant age and I believe that voting should be added to that list.
I rise in support of the motion in the name of the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and other hon. Friends and hon. Members. Some of the most passionate debates in the long history of this House have been about the extension of the franchise, including those on the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, the Representation of the People Act 1884, the removal of the requirement to own property in order to be able to vote, the extension of the franchise to women in 1918 and to everyone over the age of 21 in 1928, and, of course, in 1969, the extension of the franchise to everyone over the age of 18. Like those reforms, extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds for all elections is a matter of civil rights. It demonstrates that, when it comes to participating in the democratic process, equality should be our prevailing principle.
Article 25 of the UN covenant on civil and political rights provides that every citizen shall have the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, including the right to vote by universal and equal suffrage. The motion fits squarely in that internationally recognised right.
Indeed, and I will refer later to precisely how much taxation 16 and 17-year-olds have contributed in the past 10 years. Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) that that is not the only criterion for citizenship, it is an important factor that should be put on the record in this debate.
In my view, extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds would boost our democratic institutions across the United Kingdom and help boost political engagement, too. Under the Representation of the People Act 2000, a young person who does not turn 18 until just after a parliamentary election would have to wait until they were nearly 23 years of age before they could cast a vote to choose a Government or elect their constituency Member of this Parliament or the Scottish Parliament. Evidence shows that the longer people wait to cast that first vote in a parliamentary election, the less likely they are to vote at all.
A 2010 Demos study showed that 16 and 17-year-olds in work or training had contributed £550 million in taxes to the UK Exchequer in the previous decade, but had no democratic say on how much tax they paid or on how the revenues they contributed should be spent. As has been said, 16 and 17-year-olds can serve as company directors, get married or enter a civil partnership, be members of our armed forces and contribute to and benefit from our welfare state. As the Power commission report said in 2006, reducing the voting age to 16 would reduce the systematic exclusion from democracy of tens of thousands of our young people and increase the likelihood of their taking part in political debate. The report dismisses the argument that overall turnout would fall as not being an adequate reason to oppose extending the franchise.
In Scotland, the section 30 order, which this House and the other place have debated and which is likely to be approved by the Privy Council within weeks, will permit the Scottish Parliament to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds in the forthcoming referendum, so an important precedent will be set. It is for this House to complete the task and ensure that 16 and 17-year-olds can vote in all local and parliamentary elections and in future referendums that may be legislated for by this Parliament. It is absurd that 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland will not have the right to vote in the European elections next June or the next UK general election in May 2015, on either side of that critical referendum.
I believe that those in favour of extending democratic rights to 1.5 million young people in our country are on the right side of history.
I am afraid that I cannot, because time is running short. Forty-four years ago, this House was among the first to support votes at 18. Today we have the opportunity to join progressive countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Austria in beginning the process of legislating for votes at 16. I urge this House to support the motion, to hasten a long-overdue change in our electoral law and, in doing so, to further the cause of equality.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). I simply point out that his historical list could also have included Catholic emancipation, which was a pretty significant battle in itself and faced many arguments.
The debate on this subject raises a range of arguments, and I do not intend to rehearse all the various things that young people have the right and competence to do at the ages of 16 and 17. We have heard a number of arguments against the proposal to change the voting age, but I support it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) on tabling the motion and on his record of fighting on the issue.
The arguments that we hear against the change seem to range from protecting democracy from childishness to protecting children from democracy. That is essentially what we heard today from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman)—that despite all the things on which we are letting children down, such as product placement and sexualisation, the one point where we can draw the line is by keeping the voting age at 18 to somehow protect their childhood. That is an argument of complete misdirection.
We should consider what reducing the voting age would mean for our democracy and for how people appreciate their status as young citizens. If we want 16 and 17-year-olds to identify themselves increasingly as young citizens, perhaps we should mandate, recognise and equip them as young citizens by giving them the right to vote, which is a basic thing. That is why I support the motion, just as I supported the proposal in the last Parliament.
We have heard a range of arguments as to why we should and should not make the change. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) made the point that the argument for extending the vote to 16-year-olds is not the same as the argument in the past for extending the vote to women. However, the arguments that we hear against it are pretty similar to those that were used against giving votes to women—they do not really want it, they are ill-informed, they would be too frivolous or giddy, they are distracted by other things, and if they do vote they will vote according to what somebody else tells them. Perhaps the danger is really that if they vote, they will not vote according to what somebody else tells them. Those are all the same arguments that were used against extending the franchise to women. The arguments for the change are not the same, but the arguments against are uncannily and disgracefully similar.
We even heard from the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—this is my version, which might not be as good as that in Hansard—that we will have a whole load of people who cannot vote and will not vote. Who is he to say that they cannot and will not vote if we put them on the electoral register? They could have as much competence as he or I. Many political parties allow 16 and 17-year-olds votes within the party. People can become members of my party at 14 and vote in it at 16, and other parties allow young people to vote in internal elections, including for party leaders, at 15. Those elections have a pretty significant impact on the country, so if parties allow that in their own democracy, I do not see why people should not be allowed on the register at that age.
Members have mentioned various places that have already moved to allow, and I would mention that a constitutional convention has been established in Ireland by the current Government. It includes parties and non-party interests, including from Northern Ireland, and is examining the issue of reducing the voting age. It is considering a voting age of 17, because that is the age of consent in the Irish Republic. It is not considering an age of 16, because it does not want to open up another debate that might never be resolved, but I hope that the advance to 17 happens.
It is important to recognise that although extending the franchise will allow people to vote, of course many will not do so. It will mean that people have a chance of exercising their first vote at a better age. We have heard that fixed-term Parliaments will mean that the maximum age at which people could have their first parliamentary vote will be 23. If the change to 16 were made, that would mean that that age would be 21. That does not seem unreasonable or shocking to me. It would not be too radical or drastic, and it seems sensible.
The change would also increase the prospects of people casting their first possible vote, because more of them will be at or near home and able to do so. Having the voting age at 18 means that people are often away from home by the time their first vote comes up, and they have not thought about a postal vote, so they miss out. The change would help the integrity of the franchise by ensuring that it counts, and that is why I support it.
We have had an excellent debate on whether 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds should have the vote. We have had a total of 15 speakers, and Members have made good contributions and put the case well. Of those 15, by my reckoning only three spoke against the change, and 12 made logical cases for the extension of the franchise.
I will not seek to mention all Members who have spoken—I hope they will forgive me—but I will single out one or two contributions. The debate began with an excellent and comprehensive exposition of the case for the extension of the franchise by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams). My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) made a passionate case, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) gave us the benefit of her many years’ experience of working in the youth service. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) talked about his experience of visiting schools, which I am sure many Members can replicate, and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) talked about the centrality of the debate and the fact that the concept of empowering young people is in the UN convention on the rights of the child.
My own view is that a strong case has been made for extending the vote to 16-year-olds. I was influenced by hearing about the Votes at 16 campaign back in January 2003. Since then, my support for the principle has grown stronger and stronger.
That is not what I am saying. This is a Back-Bench debate, of course, and Members are more than able to express their own views. We are not making any broad-brush statements about when adulthood begins, but I am convinced, and I believe the Labour Front-Bench team are convinced, that there is now an overwhelming case for extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.
It is fair to say that the Power report of February 2006 was seminal in our developing that view. It indicated the shift of opinion that has gradually taken place. It considered why so few people, and fewer all the time, were willing to be involved in the democratic process. Among its recommendations was reducing the age of voting and candidacy to 16. It stated:
“Our own experience and evidence suggests that just as with the wider population, when young people are faced with a genuine opportunity to involve themselves in a meaningful process that offers them a real chance of influence, they do so with enthusiasm and with responsibility.”
My hon. Friend has just said again that there is an overwhelming case for the change. I think he is a bit of a betting man on the quiet, so let us have a bet. We will have a poll in Caerphilly and see how overwhelming the majority is for votes and the beginning of adulthood at 16.
I have simply expressed my view and, I believe, that of the majority of colleagues on the Opposition Benches. There is indeed an overwhelming case, and experience has shown that when more people engage with the issue, more become convinced that it is the way forward.
I want to make progress because time is short; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
As well as the important Power report, various other reports have been produced. Since the Power report was published, there has been more active citizenship in our schools, and more young people have become involved in the debate about issues that affect their lives. A number of Members have mentioned the success of the UK Youth Parliament, and I know many Members were genuinely impressed—some, indeed, were surprised —by the maturity and sophistication of its debates.
I am sorry but I must continue in order to be fair to the Minister and her response.
Like many Members I regularly visit schools and youth centres, and I am impressed by how young people want to engage in serious issues that affect their lives. Caerphilly youth forum in my constituency is an excellent example of how young people are being empowered, gaining in confidence and coming forward with strong, well-formulated views. I worked for the youth service for one and a half years and was responsible for helping to develop youth citizenship in Wales. Indeed, I was surprised and impressed by how the more I engaged with young people, the more willing they were to engage with important and complex issues, and by how sophisticated they were.
A number of Members have mentioned that the argument has already been won in the Welsh Assembly, which passed a resolution in July last year; in Northern Ireland; and—significantly—in Scotland, where the independence referendum will be held in 2014 and 16 and 17-year-olds will have a vote. Logically, if 16 and 17-year-olds are able to vote on such an important issue in Scotland in 2014, I suggest they would be equally able to exercise a vote in general elections as a matter of course.
A precedent has been set and I think it should be extended. It is worth noting that this is not merely a Scottish or indeed British debate; it is international. A number of countries throughout the world have embraced this forward measure—Members have referred to Brazil, Argentina, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Norway and many other countries, which are seriously considering how more young people can be given the franchise. A momentum has been established and the time is right for us to give serious consideration to how we can take the matter forward in this country.
If it is possible for 16 and 17-year-olds to consent to medical treatment, leave school and enter work or training, obtain tax credits and welfare benefits, pay income tax and national insurance, consent to sexual relations, change their name by deed poll, get married or enter a civil partnership, become the director of a company and join the armed forces, then logically, and in all fairness, they should have the right to vote.
Issues of concern, whether housing, education, the national health service, crime, youth services and so on, are of great concern to young people in this country. I believe that 16 and 17-year-olds are mature and responsible enough to exercise a vote in the country’s democratic system. It is an idea whose time has definitely come, and I sincerely hope that the House will look favourably on the motion.
I am happy to take part in this debate, and I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) on securing it, and all hon. Members who attended the Backbench Business Committee. This important and interesting issue often captures the public’s imagination, and particularly that of young people. I add my support and respect for the UK Youth Parliament which also uses this Chamber and does such important work.
I am glad that the hon. Lady has acknowledged the contribution of the UK Youth Parliament and its debates in this Chamber, and I wonder whether she would care to pay tribute to my constituent, Chante Joseph, who spoke in one of those debates and is in the Public Gallery today.
I am pleased to know that such people are in the Gallery and engaged with this debate, and no doubt watching us on television. While I am at it, I will pay tribute to the Norfolk Members of the Youth Parliament who also came to this place for that debate.
Whether the voting age should be lowered to 16 is a question on which many Members of this House have passionate and strongly held views—indeed, often opposing views—and those have been expressed again during this debate. Some were pro lowering the voting age and some were against, but Members from all sides of the House interacted strongly and respectfully with each other—in particular let me single out the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and his powerful comments about much of the work he does for the protection of children outside of today’s narrow topic.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has made clear on numerous occasions his personal view that there is merit in lowering the voting age, and his views are shared by many in the House. My party tends not to agree, although I am happy to concede that if my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) were in his place, he would show that there is never complete unanimity along party lines on this issue. My political interest began at age 16, when from my comprehensive school in Norfolk I tried to set up a youth forum for Norfolk—I suspect I might have been unusual in that degree of engagement. I accept that there are good arguments from all sides about this issue, although I am not persuaded of the merits of a change to the voting age.
Let me respond to the comments made by the Opposition Front-Bench speakers. I was interested to hear their arguments—as I was to hear those of other hon. Members —and to read comments by the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) on the internet. I note, however, that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) voted on the 2005 ten-minute rule Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West, and nor did the Leader of the Opposition or a single member of today’s shadow Cabinet. Although I hear that the Opposition’s views are growing stronger, I wonder what they did during 13 years of government if they did not find time to make that passion felt. A clear case for change is needed—
I am the first to say that this is an evolving debate. I am now convinced that the time has come for us to make the change, but a number of years ago I was not convinced. I think that the Government ought to move with the times and listen to what sensible people are saying.
Will the Minister address the point that I tried to make in my speech—I was a bit of a lone voice—and my concern about the rights of children and their vulnerability if we take protections away when the beginning of adulthood, as sure as can be, is moved from 18 to 16?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for pressing that point, and I will come on to deal with the fact that we do not have a single age of majority in this country. Hon. Members on all sides have debated whether we ought to have a single age and what it should be, and the debate has covered both axes of the argument. I was taken by the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)—we should not be protecting young people from democracy.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) did indeed name me, but is not the point that although we may be debating the age at which people can vote, whatever our view on that we all want to see young people engaged? Opposing a reduction of the voting age to 16 does not make us any less in favour of wanting to get more young people involved in the political process.
My hon. Friend makes part of my argument for me, for which I am grateful.
As I have said, we ought not to amend something as important as the electoral franchise without a clear case for doing so. I note that there are great divergences of opinion in wider society. Most studies and polls show that a majority of 16 and 17-year-olds favour lowering the voting age—perhaps that is not surprising—but the situation is not always clear. A 2009 YouGov survey of 14 to 25-year-olds conducted for the Citizenship Foundation, another organisation for which I am sure hon. Members have great respect, showed that a majority of that age group—some younger and some older than those in the category we are debating—opposed votes for 16-year-olds: only 31% were in favour, but 54% were against. That provides food for thought and gives hon. Members something to think about on the question of who is likely to say, “Yes, I’d like 16-year-olds to have the franchise,” and who is likely to come to other interesting conclusions.
Hon. Members have raised the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland.
What the right hon. Gentleman says has merit, but we have heard all shades of the argument, including divergent opinions on principle, on great questions of practicality, which I will come to in a second, on what 16-year-olds can currently do in this country, and on how popular or difficult people find those things.
The Scottish Government have proposed that 16 and 17-year-olds vote in the Scottish independence referendum. That has come up repeatedly in debates, including in the debate on the section 30 order last week. The UK Government’s view is that the existing franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections ought to be used for the referendum. It is also our view that the franchise for the rest of the UK should remain unchanged.
I am familiar with arguments of both principle and practicality on the rights and responsibilities of 16-year-olds. Sixteen-year-olds can leave school, get a job and pay tax to differing degrees—I welcome the expert knowledge of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on that point. Sixteen-year-olds can pay tax on their earnings or expenditure, marry and join the armed forces, with parental consent—some hon. Members ensured that they mentioned that vital point.
In short, 16 and 17-year-olds contribute to society in a range of ways. All hon. Members welcome that contribution and would seek for it to be increased in terms of democratic and political engagement when the time is right. It is true that society allows a 16-year-old to do certain things, but society and Parliament believe that there are many things they should not be able to do, including smoking, buying alcohol or fireworks, and placing a bet.
The hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way, which is to her credit. I am not familiar with the constitution of the Conservative party, but I suspect 16-year-olds can join it in the same way as they can join the Labour party. In the Labour party, and, I suspect, in the Conservative party, 16-year-olds can take part in selecting their parliamentary candidate and in leadership elections, in which they are choosing a potential Prime Minister. If they can take part in those elections, why can they not take part in a general election? [Interruption.]
The right hon. Member for Tooting suggests from a sedentary position that we ought to protect 16-year-olds from taking part in democracy—I suspect that argument has been made in the debate. As I said in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), I see the merits of engaging younger people in politics. However, it is my job to answer for the Government, and it will not have escaped the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that we do not have a consensus on this policy within the Government. I make no bones about that—unless Mrs Bone is available.
Hon. Members on both sides of the argument have tried to exhaust the list of what 16 and 17-year-olds can and cannot do. The contents of the list change from time to time, but that is not the key to the debate, because the UK has no standard age of majority at which people move from being a child, with all the protections that entails, to being an adult. Instead, those rights and responsibilities build over time. People gain the right to do some things when they turn 16 and the right to do other things at other ages. They gain the right to vote the day they turn 18, although I note the argument of the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who said that they cannot simply walk out of the door and vote at that point unless they are very lucky with their date of birth.
Hon. Members’ arguments have fallen today on the issue of competence, which is a difficult matter of principle. I will not go into the ins and outs of it because hon. Members have done so, and it is important that the voices of Back Benchers come through in a Backbench Business Committee debate.
As I have said, the Government welcome the involvement in politics of young people who are legally old enough to vote and those who are not. We are seeking to increase the level of political engagement among the youth of this country and to increase registration rates among them to ensure that they exercise the right to vote when they are able to do so.
I will answer the hon. Gentleman but take no further interventions on that because I have little time. He is confusing the concept of activities in schools with the national curriculum, which are two different things.
We need to give young people a say in the issues and decisions that affect them. The Government have made that a key principle in our “Positive for Youth” policy and are engaging young people in the political process in a number of ways. The British Youth Council has received funding from the Department for Education to promote the voice of young people at national and local level. That includes establishing a new national scrutiny group of representative and elected young people to advise Ministers across the UK Government directly. I look forward to my first meeting with the group. The Cabinet Office is working with Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote to pilot different approaches to engaging directly with young people and black and minority ethnic groups in the UK, including in their schools, colleges and communities, to increase their understanding of both the process and relevance of registering to vote.
Hon. Members have argued that 16 and 17-year-olds ought to be able to vote in order to help engage young people at an early age in our democratic and political processes, but they do not yet convince me. I have not seen compelling evidence. The Youth Citizenship Commission, which the previous Government set up in 2008—no doubt it was part of their onward journey—considered ways in which to develop young people’s understanding of citizenship and increase their participation in politics. It also considered whether the voting age ought to be set at 16. In its summer 2009 report, it felt unable to make a recommendation on whether the voting age should be lowered. It suggested that there was a lack of evidence regarding the merits of votes at 16, and noted that there were vigorous views on either side of the debate, which we have heard in the debate. It said that it is
“of the view that the issue is not the principal factor in encouraging young people’s interest and involvement in politics and citizenship.”
That speaks for itself and sums up several strands of the debate.
Those findings were in line with those made five years earlier by the Electoral Commission in its 2004 report on the age of majority. The commission recommended in its report that the minimum age stays at 18 years. It also recommended reducing the minimum candidacy age from 21 to 18 so that voting and candidacy are the same—a number of hon. Members have made that point—and the change was duly introduced.
The evidence is therefore not clear cut. We should certainly continue to consider the question, and I welcome the role of the Backbench Business Committee in that. Perhaps the more pressing question is what we can do to increase registration and turnout in groups who can vote. Registration among young people is lower than among other population groups. Recent Electoral Commission research shows that 55% of 17 and 18-year-olds and 56% of 19 to 24-year-olds were on the register, compared with 94% of over-65s. Those figures are telling.
I also note that the turnout figures for 18 to 24-year-olds have been falling. At successive elections from 1974 to 1992, approximately a quarter of that group did not vote. That is important to know and something we all ought to take seriously and work on. There is clearly an issue about engagement, particularly with younger electors, which goes beyond franchise, and the Government are trying to address it.
We are introducing the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which I know we shall enjoy debating in the House next week. It will go some way towards changing the electoral registration process for the better by introducing individual registration. It will create a legislative framework to allow alternative channels for registration, such as online registration. The move from paper to digital will make registration more convenient and increase accessibility—a significant transition. We want to ensure that during this period we enable as many people as possible of all ages to register to vote. We know we need to go further than those changes alone. I mentioned that the Government are working with a range of organisations to seek to engage individuals and communities from all sections of society into the political process, and specifically to drive up registration rates in under-registered groups.
The Government are fully committed to doing all they can to increase voter registration levels, but, to return to the main theme of today’s debate, there is no silver bullet solution. Increasing democratic engagement is not solely the responsibility of Government. Politicians, political parties, electoral administrators, teachers, young people themselves and others in society all have a role to play in encouraging young people to register to vote, and then to actually use their vote in elections and referendums. We must provide people with compelling reasons to vote.
I pay tribute again to hon. Members and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this compelling debate, one in which evidence and principle have their place, and I hope we have done it justice today.
The Backbench Business Committee wanted me to demonstrate that this topic was interesting and controversial enough to spark a debate. I think that has been proven beyond all doubt today, with more than 30 Members speaking, either through speeches or interventions. There has been huge interest, too, outside the Chamber on Twitter. There are lots of people in the Public Gallery today and I thank the British Youth Council for organising that.
Some hon. Members have said that those of us who are in favour of lowering the voting age are trying to curry favour or be trendy. In the 1968 debate, the word used was “groovy”. No one has ever accused me of being groovy, or even cool, to use the modern term. A serious point was made about consistency—whether certain rights should be granted at 16 or 18. Surely we can all agree that we should protect young people from the things that are bad—going to war or smoking, which will kill people eventually—and give them the opportunity to do something that is good: voting.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who I respect, and indeed am rather fond of, talked about the commercialisation and sexualisation of children. What those of us who want this change are trying to achieve is democratisation for 16 and 17-year-olds. It has been done in many other countries. It currently exists for British citizens in Crown dependencies and will happen next year in Scotland, on the very future of our United Kingdom. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) summed up the views of all of us who want to see this change: there are principled and practical reasons that now all point in the same direction of allowing 16-year-olds to vote.
I have a Bill ready; it is published today. All we want to do now is test the will of the House and demonstrate to the Government that we want the time and the opportunity for the Bill to become an Act, so that 16 and 17-year-olds can vote.
That this House believes that the age of eligibility for voting in all elections and referendums in the United Kingdom should be reduced to 16.