Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Tom Brake.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and it is a privilege to raise this subject again in Parliament. There are 1.5 million 16 to 17-year-olds in the UK and they are missing out on the vote. I am hugely grateful to all the young people who, in the lead up to the debate, made themselves aware of it, alerted others, provided briefings, tweeted about how the issue affects them, and even turned up today to watch. That commitment is a clear indication of the political will of young people, which currently goes unserved.
There are so many things a person can do when they become 16. They can leave school to enter work, give full consent to medical treatment, consent to sexual relationships and even get married, if they choose to.
I thank the hon. Lady, and I recognise that point. Sixteen-year-olds may also join the armed forces, change their name by deed poll, obtain tax credits and welfare benefits in their own right, become a member of a trade union or co-operative society, and even become the director of a company. On top of all that, 16-year-olds in work are required to pay income tax and national insurance contributions, yet those 16-year-olds paying taxes are not allowed a say in how they are spent.
Everyone, if their income is high enough, has to pay tax and national insurance. A child who has a sufficient level of income—who is, for example, gifted money by relatives—is eligible to pay income tax, but still has no say. To what level is the hon. Lady suggesting that we reduce the voting age?
I am not suggesting reducing the voting age below 16. I am suggesting 16 for the reasons I have already stated—that people may consent to sex, for example, and so are recognised as adults in other areas. Surely 16-year-olds having no say if they pay tax is not right. It reminds me of “no taxation without representation”, an expression, coined 250 years ago, that eventually led to the American revolution. I do not intend to start a full-scale revolution, but I hope that we trigger radical reform.
Moving away from the status quo is difficult, as history recognises. In 1918, votes for women was not a popular cause, but the minority who knew it was right paved the way for millions of British women, who have gone on not only cast to their vote, but regard doing so as the norm. Tracing history further back, much the same could be said of the Chartist movement, which fought for the vote for the working classes. Once again, at the time, that idea was regarded with animosity and was resisted, but society quickly came to see the opening up of the vote as fair and just. The time is right to open the democratic system even further, and to include 16 and 17-year-olds among the group of people who are able to vote. It would be a bold and pioneering move that would really show how far we have come as a country.
Since the debate was announced, I have heard from many 16 and 17-year-olds throughout the country on why securing the vote is so important to them, and particularly from the young people of the Rotherham youth cabinet, who went out of their way to come to my office last week to share their thoughts on voting at 16. At the meeting, Oliver Blake, who was previously our Member of Youth Parliament, said:
“I feel that the major issue preventing people from supporting the Votes at 16 campaign is that people say you’re not mature enough. I don’t feel that argument is valid. You have people at all ages who don’t use their vote wisely; you can see this by the number of people voting for extremist parties or joke candidates, but you don’t exclude them from using their vote. I want to be able to vote because I want a say in my future, and I know I’ll use that vote responsibly.”
Rotherham’s current Member of Youth Parliament, Ashley Gregory, expressed his desire to help choose his future by voting now. He believes that issues of direct relevance to young people, such as university tuition fees and education, demonstrate his case. At our meeting, he said:
“I find it difficult to hear MPs having conversations about what the level of tuition fees will be, how higher education is funded or even what curriculum we study in school without being…a legitimate part of that conversation. These are decisions that affect me, but I’m not allowed a voice on them.”
The arguments in favour of voting at 16 are varied, but each in its own right is strong, from the argument that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote empowers them to engage with the political system, to the argument that young people voting would lead to a fairer and more inclusive youth policy. Furthermore, there is the argument that young people should not be expected to contribute to society through taxation as members of the armed forces, or by parenting children, without having a say in how that society is governed. Another persuasive argument is that the low turnout of younger people at elections might be dealt with by engaging them earlier in the political process. Taken individually, each of those arguments is forceful, but collectively they make a robust case for reform.
Does my hon. Friend agree that schools still have a tremendous role to play in educating young people about using their vote? It troubles me that young people do not generally vote—the 18 to 25-year-olds. There could be much more education in schools to encourage young people to see how important voting is.
I absolutely support my hon. Friend on that point, which I will come to.
I recognise that introducing voting at 16 is a bold and radical proposal, but it is an opportunity to invigorate a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens, and that would create a more open and fair political system. Due to new technologies, young people are more informed than ever before, and more able to seek out information and to campaign on issues that affect them. Recently, my office received a letter from a young woman who wanted to volunteer with me. She wrote about her deep passion for women’s issues and feminism, and her views were profound and well informed. We should not expect any less from our young people.
In the information age, when anyone is able to find out about an issue at the touch of a button, it is not surprising that more young people than ever are expressing a desire to engage with the political system. There is, however, a flipside to that. While we must celebrate the fact that many young people are choosing to engage actively with politics, we must also be cautious, because there are problems in the system that need fixing. Those problems will not be fixed overnight, but voting at 16 might help to address them.
Opening up democracy to young people is an important way of confronting the democratic deficit faced in the UK. Electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since 1950, when 84% of the population turned out to vote; turnout was only 65% in the most recent general election. Membership of our political parties has fallen; the Conservative party, Mr Bone, has gone from being 3 million strong in 1950 to having only 100,000 members today. At the most recent elections, only 44% of those aged between 18 and 24 voted. Rather than turn our backs on the problem, we must confront it.
By offering votes to 16 and 17-year-olds at school and in colleges, and improving citizenship education, we can embrace the important civic duty of voting in our education system. Using citizenship education as a tool to support young people in developing their political understanding is key, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) indicated. When I asked young people in my constituency about citizenship education and what they had learned about politics as part of that, some of them in their final year of school replied that they had only three or four sessions in which they had talked about politics in the entirety of their secondary education. Is it any wonder that we are seeing a decline in voting, and that political apathy has become the norm?
People are too quick to use the system as an excuse for not moving ahead with democratic reform. I hear arguments such as, “Young people aren’t educated well enough about politics to be able to use their vote wisely.” Surely that is a call to give them a well balanced and politically neutral education, in a way that is similar to how we teach religious studies, rather than an argument for suppressing young people’s opportunities for involvement in democracy. To blame the system rather than change the system is a regressive and unhelpful stance.
As Members of Parliament, we should be leading the way by empowering young people, rather than turning them away from the door of democracy. We should recognise the importance of increasing the participation of young people in politics. Allowing 16 and 17-year-olds such empowerment in Scotland, where they are being afforded a vote in the independence referendum, has reignited the issue on a national level, and that is one of the reasons why today’s debate is so timely.
Absolutely; there is flawed logic there. We see in Scotland the impact that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum is having on their political engagement. Young people are often featured on the news or in discussion programmes, debating their opinions on Scottish independence. It inspires me to see those young people discussing the issues and taking a stance. The validity of their position is not for me or anyone else to judge, but their engagement with the debate is brilliant to see, and it can teach us lessons about how an inclusive politics is an attractive and fair politics.
This argument applies more broadly. At the heart of the issue is the notion of civil liberties. The debate is not about whom a 16 or 17-year-old votes for, but about recognising their maturity and providing them with a vote, and about a society building them up to use that vote to the best of their ability. Ultimately, this should not be for anyone except 16 and 17-year-olds themselves to decide on. If they feel that they are mature enough to have a vote, we as politicians and as a society should trust our young people enough to allow them to exercise it. I have read that public opinion is against the votes at 16 campaign, but it is not public opinion that matters so much as the opinion of 16 and 17-year-olds. It is their opinion, rather than those of others, that we should listen to and act on. Young people are rightly calling for the right to vote.
I am sure that the hon. Lady is a great supporter of the Youth Parliament, which has been embraced more and more by this House. However, does she not find the very low turnout surprising? The person who won the nomination to become the Member of Youth Parliament for my constituency secured fewer than 200 votes, which shows that an opportunity for young people across Suffolk Coastal—indeed, the country—to vote for their own Members of Youth Parliament gathered little interest. Why would it be any different for the national Parliament?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Her point is interesting. I will come on to the Youth Parliament; nearly 500,000 people voted in the elections to it. I am sure that, like me, she will work with her Youth Parliament Members to broaden the campaign, so that more young people vote.
My hon. Friend might be interested to know that in Stockton-on-Tees, hundreds of young people participated, because schools got involved and encouraged young people to use their vote to elect their youth parliamentarians, and it was a great success. The situation can vary across the country, just as it does for national elections.
I completely agree with that. I want to come on to some of the organisations that are helping with the campaign. The votes at 16 coalition, led by the British Youth Council, has been campaigning for votes at 16 for 10 years, backed by 16 and 17-year-olds across the country. As recently as November 2013, the UK Youth Parliament voted to make the issue of votes at 16 its national campaign, after balloting some 478,000 young people nationally. The campaign was then chosen in the Youth Parliament’s annual debate in the House of Commons. Members of the Youth Parliament are democratically elected by young people in their constituency, so the fact that votes at 16 was voted to be their priority campaign shows just how important the issue is for young people nationally.
As an example of the strength of feeling on the issue, I would like to read an extract from Hansard of the debate, from the speech of Shakeel Hajat, who represents the east midlands. He said:
“Votes at 16: what a topic! Through the conversations that take place during annual sittings and conventions, it crops up constantly in the debates of the UKYP, and rightly so. It is the most relevant topic to young people: 49,945 of them voted for ‘Votes at 16’ to be the national campaign for the UK, making it the most popular topic on the agenda today. For too long this issue has lingered in our hearts and minds, and now it is finally time for it to be given long-awaited attention.
Members of the Youth Parliament, I stand before you today as a 17-year-old: a 17-year-old with responsibilities, but without the right that should go with them. For example, at 17 I have the right to have a wife and children. Obviously I have neither. However, the Government say that at 17 I can take the responsibility of having a partner and children, but I cannot influence the society that I would want for my kids because I do not have the right to vote. I am denied that right not for reasons connected with my knowledge or political awareness, but because I am…younger than the required age. That one year has cost me my representation, my political participation and, most important, my voice. Members of the Youth Parliament, we are being robbed.
A common argument against votes at 16 is that many 16 and 17-year-olds do not know enough to vote. Another is that there would be too low a turnout at polling stations. However, those are not sufficient reasons to deny 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. Every age range contains people who may not have enough political knowledge to vote, yet we do not stop certain people voting on the basis of their political awareness, and even if turnout is low, we will have empowered young people. We will finally be represented on councils, in the European Parliament and at general elections, and the Government will have to listen.
You may be interested to know that the same arguments were used against the vote for 18-year-olds and the women’s suffrage movement...In the past the UK has led the world in voting reforms, but now I fear that we are trailing. Giving women the vote was a huge step towards a fair and equal democracy. It was the breaking down of a civil rights barrier, and I assure you, Members of the Youth Parliament, that votes at 16 will be the next step.”
The strength of feeling is clear, and it is represented not only by other young people across the country but by young people’s organisations. London Youth, the National Union of Students, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the British Youth Council are only a small sample of the young people’s organisations that are actively speaking out in support of the campaign. I am grateful to all of them for the support that they have given me for this debate.
Similar debates are happening in schools and colleges. Last year, Newham college held a discussion group on voting at 16, to which students of all ages and backgrounds contributed. That debate found, once again, that the majority of students were in favour of reducing the voting age to 16. I am told that much of the discussion focused on the right level of maturity required to vote. While some students argued that 16 was too young, many argued that people matured at different rates, so having the option to vote younger was important.
It appears that, if you ask 16 and 17-year-olds whether they should be allowed to vote, the majority will consistently reply that they should. Opponents of voting at 16 express concerns about undue influence over a 16-year-old’s vote, especially from parents and peers. That should not be a reason to turn down the opportunity for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, but an argument for improving the information and support available to young people in the lead-up to their first vote. If young people overwhelmingly argue that they want to vote, turning it down due to the impact of their parents seems unfair, unreasonable and, to be quite honest, patronising.
I am pleased to see that many Members of Parliament have already pledged their support to the campaign. In particular, I am proud to belong to a party that recognises the voices of 16 and 17-year-olds. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has already argued, and I completely agree with him, at our party conference that to change our politics, we have to hear the voices of young people, not only on matters that affect them immediately, such as education, but on matters that interest them or will have an impact on their future. We need to hear from the young people demanding a job, campaigning on mental health, or volunteering to help elderly people in care homes. For the votes of young people to matter, we must recognise that, while it is important for young people to hold the Government to account over youth policy, it is equally important for political parties to wake up and realise the contribution that young people can, and do, make to our society.
We in the Labour party have worked hard to move towards a fair and representative democracy, and I know that changes are starting to happen outside the party as well, but too often that has focused exclusively on the voices of women or of ethnic minorities. It is time that we realised that young people, too, have little representation in our political system, and that giving 16-year-olds the vote is one way to rectify that imbalance. There is potential for politicians to gain much deeper relevance to young people by implementing a reduced voting age. Pushing that change through would win considerable respect from a potentially lost and disenchanted generation.
Voting at 16 will also open up policy making to become fairer and more accountable. By being accountable to 16 and 17-year-olds, the system will become skewed such that politicians, policy makers and the Government naturally gravitate towards a greater consideration of youth issues in policy formation. That is especially important in a system where young people feel so disengaged.
I completely agree; it echoes what I have been saying. If young people were able to have a much stronger voice, we would listen to them and make our policies fairer.
We are at a point in history when the statistics tell the story of declining trust in party politics and its ability to effect change, not specifically among young people but across the board. There is a feeling of being disfranchised in all our communities and among all age groups, and a real and urgent need to reverse that feeling before it continues into future generations. Engaging young people will help to build up a politically interested society and will bring change not just now but for future generations.
Toni Paxford, a member of Rotherham’s youth cabinet, told me that, for her, the issue was not necessarily the signal that getting the vote would send, but the signal sent by not being given it. She told me of a friend who spends most of her spare time volunteering for charity, as well as of her own experiences raising £3,000 independently for local charities. She argued that by not giving 16-year-olds the vote, society fails to recognise the important contributions that young people can make, and that the failure to recognise those contributions would bring about a culture of apathy among young people.
That point brings me to the contributions made to our society by 16 and 17-year-olds. Toni’s example is one of an incredible volunteering commitment, but such contributions to society come via other routes as well. Sixteen-year-olds can legally become parents, but they raise their children in a society in which they cannot have a say. They can legally go to work and contribute to our economy but are not allowed a say in what our economic policy should be. Perhaps most starkly of all, we let 16-year-olds join our armed forces and thus represent our country, but do not respect them enough to give them a say in our defence policy.
It is not fair or right to allow that set of conflicting messages to continue. We cannot expect 16 and 17-year-olds to contribute to our society through various means—economically, physically, intellectually or socially—in a capacity where we recognise them as an adult, but then give them the democratic rights of a child. That conflict is already being recognised in a number of countries, such as Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Argentina. We must not allow ourselves to fall behind: we have been pioneers of voting reform in the UK in the past, and I hope that we are open-minded enough now to continue that trend. It is high time that we recognised the clash within our expectations of 16-year-olds. We trust our young people to contribute to society in many ways, so we should start to give them their democratic rights.
If people counter the campaign for votes at 16 with arguments that 16 and 17-year-olds are not mature or responsible enough to vote, I will argue that they should look to the many mature and responsible ways in which 16 and 17-year-olds are already legally entitled and expected to contribute to our society. Allowing voting at 16 would send so many positive signals to our young people. It would say, “We value your voice. We value your contribution. We believe you are responsible.”
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and apologise that, owing to problems with my train, I was not here at the beginning. I may have missed her saying this at the start of her speech, but does she agree that if her argument is taken forward, at the very least the idea should be piloted in a small, designated area rather than rolled out nationwide?
I would argue that it is already being piloted in Scotland and Wales, where the responses are positive. However, if the only way the Government will take the idea forward is by piloting, let us pilot.
Positive messages are crucial to creating a new generation of politically engaged and inspired people who will go on to teach their future families such values, and are exactly why voting at 16 is important. The onus is on us to show young people that they count too.
The votes at 16 campaign is not a new one—it goes back approximately 10 years—but public interest in it is gathering towards critical mass, particularly given the 2012 vote in the Welsh Assembly in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 and the fact that 16-year-olds will be voting in the Scottish referendum. There is a clear and strong appetite for the reform. I accept that it faces strong opposition, but radical change always does. Change is not always comfortable or easy, but when it is right and just, sidestepping the need for it simply shows cowardice.
It is time that 16 and 17-year-olds were recognised for the things that they can and do contribute to society. The country might not be quite ready for it, but in my view, that means our task is to make the country ready. We must take up the challenge and make the political reforms required to give young people a stronger citizenship education, a greater degree of political knowledge and a broad range of political opportunities. Only by doing so will we give the vote to 16-year-olds in an effective way. By raising our young people rather than pushing them down, we will open up democracy and create a generation of more inspired and confident citizens, who have real faith that politics can make changes for them, their families and their communities.
For too long, the idea has been denied and the issue has been sidestepped. As far back as 1998, the British Youth Council surveyed 1,000 young people and asked their opinions on votes at 16; the response reinforced the desire for 16-year-olds to become a part of the democratic system. In 1999, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) proposed an amendment on the issue to the Representation of the People Bill then going through the House; it was defeated by 434 votes to 36, showing that at that time the opinion of Members of Parliament was significantly against votes at 16. That year, however, the Trades Union Congress passed a motion calling for votes at 16.
Through the early years of the 21st century the campaign gathered strength, galvanising support from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and the Young People’s Rights Network, and even featuring in the electoral manifesto of the Liberal Democrats. An Electoral Commission review of the idea was launched, and private Member’s Bills on voting at 16 were brought forward in 2004, 2005 and 2008. Some progress has been made in recent years but Parliament seems consistently to refuse to give the issue the attention it deserves. On the 24 January last year, Stephen Williams MP led an historic debate in the House of Commons on extending the vote to 16—
I apologise for that slip, Mr Bone.
The motion for that debate stated:
“That this House believes that the age of eligibility for voting in all elections and referenda in the United Kingdom should be reduced to 16.”
Incredibly, it won the Commons vote, with 119 Members voting in favour and 46 against, yet the Government have still done nothing to send a signal to young people that their voice and their vote are valued.
A persistent refusal by this Government to permit voting at 16 sends a message to 16 and 17-year-olds that their views on society are not valid. That is not and should not be the case. Our 16 and 17-year-olds will form the next generation of creative thinkers, business leaders, scientists and engineers. We will and do expect them to contribute to our society, both now and in future. Our message to them should be that we expect them to contribute to a society that appreciates them, that welcomes their opinions and that is willing to act to represent their views. If we cannot act to bring that about, it should be no surprise if our young people become alienated from the democratic system.
Already, the political system serves to alienate young people. The average age of an MP is 50, and less than a quarter of MPs are women. We cannot expect young people to engage in politics if it is seen as unfamiliar to and unrepresentative of them. I do not believe that granting votes at 16 is the final or only step needed to engage young people politically, but I believe that it would be a really positive start to the process. We must show young people that we value both their contributions to society and their opinions about how things should be done.
In government, Labour introduced citizenship to the national curriculum. Rather than paring that back, we should be bolstering the teaching of citizenship and politics in schools. Research has shown that if someone votes in the first election after they reach the age of majority, they are more likely to carry on voting; conversely, someone who does not vote in that first election is unlikely ever to vote. As Members of Parliament, we have an important role in structuring a society that teaches young people that using their vote is worthwhile and that their voice is valued as part of society’s decision making.
We know that people are encouraged to vote when it is easiest and most convenient for them—that is the experience from postal voting—so some campaigners have argued that we should consider having polling booths in schools. That would mean that the first time sixth-form and college students voted, they would do so in a supportive and welcoming environment. Surely that can only be a good thing. Such modifications are crucial in opening up our democratic system. If we want to understand why young people do not engage as much as we would hope, we must start by addressing the environment in which they engage. If we cannot get that right, young people’s entire experience of political engagement will start off on the wrong foot.
Some might argue that that role should fall to the young person’s parents, but leaving it to parents alone allows for a much more variable rate of participation by young people, potentially based on the parents’ own view of whether it is important to vote. We should not be looking to establish a system in which young people decide based on their parents’ intentions, but one in which young people are well informed and have enough support to decide for themselves.
After today’s debate, I hope that every MP—not just the ones here in the Chamber—goes to schools and colleges to discuss this issue with young people in their constituency. I hope that young people take the initiative to write to their MP and tell them why it is so important. I was aware of the issue and believed in it, but I did not actively campaign on it until I heard the young people of Rotherham telling me why it was so important to them. As elected Members, we are here to represent our constituents, and it is particularly important that we represent those who do not have a voice of their own. Hearing the passion of so many young people who believe so vehemently is enough to make one realise that allowing voting at 16 is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do because it is inclusive. It is the right thing to do because it recognises the contributions that 16-year-olds make to society.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I had been here for the previous few minutes, which is why I asked whether that particular point about inclusiveness should apply to 14-year-olds and 12-year-olds. Does the hon. Lady not think that as well as having a right to vote, there is also a responsibility that any young adult should have in matters of politics or current affairs, and that therefore we have probably got the balance right and 18 is roughly the right age? Of course, there will be 16-year-olds and 15-year-olds who are very engaged, but equally there are older people who are not.
Order. First of all, interventions are short. Secondly, it is entirely up to the hon. Member who is speaking whether they take an intervention. The hon. Lady has kindly taken the intervention, but we do not want half an hour on it. I think we have had enough.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman turning up to the debate. Had he heard my speech, all his questions would have been answered. I refer him to Hansard. I absolutely agree that children should be made aware of the political process from a very young age, but I do not agree that those younger than 16 should be given the vote, because in other areas of their life they are still treated as children, whereas in some areas of their lives 16-year-olds are treated as adults. That is where I believe the discrepancy lies. Most importantly, giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds is the right thing to do, because it sends a message about the values that we as society place on them. It shows them that we believe that they are important.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate. It is a debate we have had a number of times in the House, and I have had the pleasure of speaking on most of those occasions. The hon. Lady will probably find it disappointing that I will not support her campaign for extending the voting age to children—those of 16 years of age—and I would like to set out for the House why.
It is a great pleasure to see the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) in his place. I have occupied the same seat as him in debates on the issue in the past. The Government do not have a settled view on the matter, because the two coalition parties do not agree. I will save him any embarrassment by explaining my party’s view. The Conservative party’s view is that we should not extend the voting age below 18. The Liberal Democrats believe that we should, and I expect that the Minister will set out the Government’s view and expand a little on his party’s view.
I am a humble Back Bencher, and I do not speak for the Conservative party’s voting position. There have been several votes on the matter in the House. For example, in 2005, during the previous Parliament, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) proposed a ten-minute rule Bill, which I spoke against and opposed, and the House voted clearly against it. A private Member’s Bill, which I think the hon. Lady mentioned, was introduced in 2008 by Julie Morgan, the then Member for Cardiff North who is now a Member of the Welsh Assembly. That private Member’s Bill did not get support in the House; it was opposed by Members on both sides of the House, for very sensible reasons.
My arguments for opposing the extension of the voting age to children—those below the age of majority—have nothing to do with the hon. Lady’s straw-man arguments about people’s competence, intelligence or ability to reach a rational decision. My point is simple. We have to have a voting age, and some people will be on one side of that cut-off point and some people will be on the other. I think there is general agreement about that. The real question is where we set the age. My view is that the right age is the age at which we decide that someone moves from being a child to being an adult. That is the right cut-off point at which someone should be able to vote and make a serious decision about who governs their country.
One argument put forward by the hon. Lady and others who favour votes at 16 is to allege that in a range of policy areas 16-year-olds have certain rights. Some of the things that the hon. Lady set out were accurate, but several were not. People tend to set out half the story but forget to fill in the missing pieces, and my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) pointed out one of them. In England and Wales it is perfectly true to say that 16-year-olds can get married, but there is a significant qualification, namely that they have to have permission from their parents. We do not accept, therefore, that 16-year-olds are capable of making that important, life-changing decision; we say that they must have parental consent.
As a Scotsman, albeit one who lives in England and represents an English constituency, it always interests me that 16-year-olds in England can make the choice to cross the border to Gretna and get married there. Do they not, therefore, have the choice after all?
I was careful to say that that was the position in England and Wales, and not in Scotland. I am familiar with the law in Scotland, which is a matter for Scots. People in England and Wales are perfectly capable of going to any jurisdiction in the world to do various things that they are entitled to do there.
When it comes to joining the armed forces, the hon. Lady left out two important qualifications. First, although 16-year-olds can join Her Majesty’s armed forces, they cannot do so without the consent of their parents. We do not accept that 16-year-olds should be able to join the armed forces purely on their own say-so; we insist that their parents consent to that decision. Secondly, we do not deploy 16-year-olds in theatres of armed conflict. We make a clear decision, following on from the UN convention about child soldiers, that we do not deploy young people in conflict zones until they attain the age of 18. Those are two important qualifications.
Yes, but the important point that I have made was that they are not allowed to join the armed forces without their parents’ permission, so we do not accept that they are able to make such decisions. I accept that there are some things that people can do at the age of 16. The age of sexual consent is 16, although there are two scenarios in which we do not accept that someone under 18 is able to make a sensible decision. In a case under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 of abuse of a position of trust, we make a distinction between those aged 16 or 17, and those aged 18 or over. We make a similar distinction about whether someone is able to consent to be in pornography. We say that they are unable to do so until they are 18, for sensible reasons of child protection that I very much support.
My hon. Friend is making an important argument. It is also the case—perhaps he will come on to this—in relation to the purchase and consumption of tobacco products. The trend has been in an upwards direction, with the threshold age now 18. Likewise, in relation to driving, there is now a strong lobby that suggests, perhaps for good reasons, that people should not be behind the wheel of a car on their own under the age of 18. My hon. Friend is making a positive case that there is no consistent move towards the age of 16. If anything, we are militating in the opposite direction, with many of the threshold ages moving towards 18 and the age of majority.
My hon. Friend makes a good point; I was coming to that. I have been involved in this argument since I was elected to Parliament in 2005, and have heard many of the arguments used in favour of various ages of consent for various activities. He is quite right. It is interesting that in many cases the age has been going upwards, often for sensible reasons: we are saying that we want to protect children from certain activities and that we do not think that they can make sensible judgments on some issues. However, I find it interesting that those who are keenest on votes for 16-year-olds—those who think that 16-year-olds should be able to decide who governs our country—are often the same people who are keenest to say in many other areas that 16-year-olds are not able to make decisions, and to increase the age limit. My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, to which I will come in a moment.
The hon. Member for Rotherham discussed the school leaving age and people’s ability to go out to work. Again, the trend on that issue is in the opposite direction to the one that she proposes. We are now mandating education or training until age 18, although I recognise that that applies in England and not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The driving age is one age limit that I, coming from a rural constituency, would rather keep at 17, because it enables children to be more mobile, especially those who have left school to go to work or those going into higher or further education. However, there are proposals to increase that minimum age as well.
We do not think that 16-year-olds should be able to purchase alcohol, but the age limit that has changed since I have been in Parliament, of course, is the one for purchasing tobacco, for sensible reasons. Personally, I have no problem with adults smoking. I do not think it is a pleasant habit, but I think that adults should be free to make the decision to smoke, although I would not do so myself. However, we think that we should protect children from tobacco, and we do not allow them to purchase it until they are 18. It would be a bit odd to say to children, “We don’t think you’re able to make a decision about smoking tobacco until you’re an adult, but”—to follow the hon. Lady’s argument—“we do think you’re able to vote for representatives who will make decisions about legislation.”
We do not let people gamble until they are 18, with the exception of playing the national lottery and buying certain scratchcards. Many film classifications still have an 18 certificate. We accept that there are many items of subject matter in films, videos and DVDs that we should not allow children to watch. Since I have been in Parliament, there has been an interesting debate—again, one of its proponents was someone who thinks that we should lower the voting age—after which the Houses of Parliament passed the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010, in which we decided that those under 18 years of age were not capable of exercising a decision whether to have a tan or not. That may or may not be a sensible decision—I did not feel particularly strongly one way or the other—but I find it slightly odd that the same people who pass legislation saying that someone must be an adult to make such decisions think that we should lower the voting age. That is not very intellectually consistent.
I held a debate involving four high schools—Haydon Bridge, Ponteland, Prudhoe and Hexham—on that particular issue last month. It was won by Ponteland high school, whose students proposed the motion for 16-year-old voting, and who also swayed quite an elderly audience—with respect to them. I accept that my hon. Friend is my former boss, and normally I would obey everything he says, but on this issue, does he not accept that to a degree, whether or not the argument is won today, the tide is beginning to turn a little?
No, I do not accept that. In a moment, I will counter what the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said by explaining why I do not think that the voting age is particularly significant to how Members of Parliament conduct themselves, or ought to conduct themselves, with regard to young people. I might touch then on my hon. Friend’s point. I will not labour any more of the arguments, but it is worth saying that the trend is against allowing younger people to make such decisions.
On the subject of trends, my hon. Friend will know that in some cases relating to electoral matters, the trend is going in the other direction. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 lowered the minimum age for standing for election to the House of Commons and local authorities from 21 to 18, in line with the minimum voting age.
My hon. Friend has set out the case well. To touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) just said, does he share my concern that there is a lot of cynicism involved in the argument? The perception of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats is that they will reap some electoral dividend by being modern and allowing 16-year-olds to vote, yet there is little good evidence to suggest that the voting age should be reduced, other than the idea that those political parties will benefit from the votes of that young age group and that those of us who take the hopefully more balanced view that it is not necessarily in the interests of the electorate to be extended in that way will suffer from being seen as old and fuddy-duddy.
I do not share that concern, for two reasons. My hon. Friend mentioned people’s motivations for change. I am perfectly happy to accept that the hon. Member for Rotherham is setting out a case that I have heard before from those in favour of the argument, and that it is reasonable. It is, of course, the case that certain people are in favour of allowing 16-year-olds to vote for one reason only; I am thinking of one particular First Minister of Scotland whose only reason for wanting young people to vote in the Scottish referendum was that he looked at opinion polling evidence from some time ago and thought that they would be more likely to vote in favour of Scottish independence. That is the only reason why he supported allowing them into the debate. Subsequently, of course, polling evidence showed that young people have changed their minds and are now opposed to independence.
That is why I am relaxed about the issue. First, I think that we should treat younger people with respect and argue our view, even if it does not necessarily accord with theirs. I think that we will actually get some credit for being prepared to say things to people with which they might not agree, but which we think are right. Secondly, to go back to votes for women, there were people on the left who thought that enfranchising women would mean that women voted for them. The lesson for our party—less true recently, but certainly true for the bulk of the 20th century—is that the enfranchisement of women meant that the Conservative party was in power when we otherwise would not have been if only men had had the right to vote.
On the Scottish referendum, I was in Aberdeenshire last September and was delighted to see that the youngsters proposing to vote were canvassed. Of pupils in the entirety of the Aberdeen schools, 75% were in favour of the Union. Surely, from a politician’s point of view, the lesson is to be careful what you wish for.
My hon. Friend is right. I will mention opinion polling, but it suggests that we should set out what we think is right and have some confidence that it will stand us in good stead, rather than make a cynical calculation of what we think people in some age group might or might not decide to vote for and take a view for that reason, which has a great likelihood of backfiring.
The reason why I have laboured the point about age categories is that if we do not set the voting age at 18 —the age at which we suggest that children become adults—I am slightly concerned about where we will set it. I know that the hon. Member for Rotherham is advocating that we set it at 16, but I am concerned that once we move it to 16, based on her arguments, there are no good reasons why we should not make it 14 or 10, for example. We say that 10 is the age of criminal responsibility, at which people may be held accountable for their actions, so why not 10, 12 or 14? I have met plenty of 14-year-olds in my constituency who are perfectly capable of listening to facts and arguments, making very good arguments themselves and making up their own minds. By the hon. Lady’s argument, there is no logical reason why I should not give them the vote. If we move away from 18, there is no obvious place to stop, which I think is a good reason for sticking where we are today.
Obviously I have not made my argument very clearly. In numerous fields, 16-year-olds are recognised as adults in law. The hon. Gentleman has shown some of the present anomalies. I would like to clear up those anomalies. It is precisely for that reason that I am arguing for votes in law. He looks confused, so let me give an example. People can have sex at 16 but are not allowed to watch it until they are 18—there are all sorts of anomalies like that, and we need to clear them up.
Although I used to be a great fan of tidying things up, one of the things that I have learned in my time in politics is that life is quite complicated and that some of those anomalies exist for very good reasons. For example, although the hon. Lady said earlier that people can get married and have children at 16, and it is perfectly right that they can legally do so, I do not think there are very many people who would advocate doing so or say that, as a general rule, it is a good idea for 16-year-olds to get married and start a family. I think that most people would consider that 16 is rather too young for someone to do that.
Also, regarding the hon. Lady’s point about children having sex and watching sex, I hope that she is not suggesting that the age at which children can participate in pornography should be reduced. As I said, I am very happy that the age for that is set at 18, which is not the same as the age at which people may have sex, for very good child protection reasons. Again, the trend has been against any reduction in the age at which children can participate in pornography.
All of the rules on age may not be logical and tidy, but a lot of them exist for very sensible reasons. The hon. Lady says that she would like to tidy some of the rules up. Some of the arguments about increasing the age at which people can buy tobacco and do a whole bunch of other things—use sun beds, for example—were championed by her party. I am perfectly happy to accept that there are people who think that we should change the legal age for doing lots of things to a lower level, and if they want to reduce the voting age as well, that seems logical and consistent. However, I find it very odd that people who support raising the age at which we let people legally do things such as using sun beds and purchasing tobacco—it is perfectly sensible to hold that view—simultaneously hold the view that people should be able to vote at a younger age. It is not logically sensible to hold both those views; to do so seems to make no sense at all. If someone votes, they are making decisions about who governs the country, about tax rates, about where we deploy armed forces and about all sorts of important issues. If people think that young people are capable of making those sorts of decisions, I do not see how they can also say that young people cannot purchase a packet of cigarettes. That does not seem to make any sense at all.
Let me just pick up on the point that the Electoral Commission made, which has been mentioned. In 2004, the commission published the results of a review that it had carried out on the age of electoral majority; the review took 12 months and was pretty extensive, and it was set up under the previous Government. Having carried out that research, the commission concluded that the minimum voting age should stay at 18. That conclusion was based on international comparisons; on the minimum age limits and maturity, although as I have already said the maturity issue is not one that I am particularly focusing on; and on research that the commission had carried out among the public, which suggested there was strong support for keeping the minimum voting age at 18 and which also showed that young people themselves were divided on the question. I will come back to that last point in a moment, because I have a relevant story about it of my own; it is similar to that told by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), but has a different conclusion.
The commission also referred to voter turnout, although I have to say that the argument about voter turnout is not my strongest argument; just because people between the age of 18 and 25 turn out to vote at very low levels, that is not in itself an argument against reducing the voting age. Having said that, it is an odd argument that lowering the voting age will engage more people, because there is no evidence that suggests that 16 to 18-year-olds would turn out to vote in higher numbers than those aged between 18 and 25.
The commission recommended that the candidacy age should be brought into line with the voting age and thus be reduced from 21 to 18. That is a very sensible proposal. It seems to me that if someone is able to vote and make a decision about who their representatives are, they ought to be able to stand to be one of those representatives themselves. The House has debated the issue previously and I know that a number of younger people have been elected to local authorities, although no one under the age of 21 has been elected to the House of Commons. As I say, the suggestion seems perfectly sensible, but it prompts a question. If someone believes in reducing the voting age to 16, do they also believe that 16 to 18-year-olds ought to be able to be candidates at elections? I genuinely do not know the views of the hon. Lady and the Parliamentary Secretary on that issue; the hon. Gentleman might like to fill us in on what the Liberal Democrat view is.
Let me deal briefly with a number of the arguments that the hon. Lady made. The one that I thought was not very sensible was about the various previous campaigns about voting—for example, the campaigns to enfranchise women, first the campaign to enfranchise women generally, and then, of course, the campaign to reduce the voting age for women after they were enfranchised at a higher age level than many people wanted. That question arose when we were debating the private Member’s Bill on voting age. There is an obvious difference between enfranchising women and reducing the voting age. Unless something horrible happens, a 16-year-old will become an 18-year-old in due course and will then be able to vote. Women, who were unable to vote were never going to be anything other than women and therefore were never going to be able to vote. So giving the vote to women is qualitatively different from giving the vote to children, because a 16-year-old may not be able to vote today but will of course be able to vote in two years’ time.
That point relates to the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, who is no longer in his place, raised earlier. As an MP, like all hon. Members, I am sure, I visit youth projects and schools. I visit schools right down to primary schools, where I talk to very young children, and right up to secondary schools, including sixth forms, where there are students who are old enough to vote today. I treat all the young people I meet with great respect. First, I respect them in themselves; we debate and have arguments. Secondly, I am of course very well aware as an elected Member that if I am talking to a 13-year-old today, in five years’ time that person will indeed be casting a vote. When I was first elected to the House in 2005 and I went round schools, I was very clear that in 2010, when I would be seeking re-election, any 13-year-olds to whom I spoke would indeed have a vote and would be able to make a decision on my future.
Consequently, I just do not follow the argument that just because someone is not entitled to vote today that we pay no attention to their views, because we only pay attention to people who can vote. I pay attention to the views of all my constituents. Some of my constituents—for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses—do not vote because they choose not to, but I still listen to their views and take their arguments seriously. About 30% of my constituents chose not to vote at the last general election, but when people come to me to state their views on something, I never engage in a conversation with them about whether they are likely to vote for me. I treat everyone’s views with great respect and I am sure that that is true of all Members, so the idea that we do not listen to young people and we do not pay attention to what they think—that we do not think about tuition fees, education or similar things just because young people under the age of 18 are not able to vote—does not hold water.
We have to set the line somewhere, and I think that the right place to set it is the age of majority—the age of 18—when we basically decide that children become adults. That is where I think the line is best left. I do not think that that means that we do not engage with children in debates and arguments in schools and colleges; I and all other Members do engage with children in that way perfectly well. Also, those who campaign on this issue because they think that it will in some way pay an electoral dividend for them—I am not putting the hon. Member for Rotherham in that category—should, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, be careful what they wish for. If we treat young people with respect and engage them in the argument, they will have more respect for us than if we just agree with something that some of them think because we consider that it will make us more popular. As I say, I do not put the hon. Lady in that category. The voting age should stay where it is—at 18—and I am against what the hon. Lady is proposing.
Thank you, Mr Bone, for the opportunity to speak. I rise to support the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). She made an excellent speech. It is a crucial fact that in many areas of their lives 16 and 17-year-olds are treated as adults. That is not the case in all areas, and we are not arguing for many other areas to be addressed. However, there should be an extension of their responsibility to include the ability to cast a vote. I say that because in my experience young people are far more mature, engaged and proactive than perhaps they were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
It is very important to recognise that if we want a society that is based on the principle of involvement and participation, there is no more important a group to be involved and to participate than young people. I see empowering them, by giving them the vote at 16 and 17, as a crucial way of doing that.
It slightly worries me that some—though not all—the arguments against extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds are very similar to the arguments that were used in the past against extending the vote to other people in society. I think of the arguments about the Reform Act 1832, and the Reform Acts that followed. The establishment in this country is always reluctant to empower people by extending the ability to vote. It is sad that some of the same arguments are being used against extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds.
My background has convinced me of the desirability of lowering the voting age. I worked for the Workers Educational Association and conducted a number of classes for young people. The involvement and depth of maturity displayed in the discussions we had in those adult education classes was quite remarkable. We discussed every issue under the sun, so it seemed illogical to then say, “Your views are very interesting, but nevertheless you have no ability whatever to influence outcomes on such issues in our society.”
Similarly, before being elected to this House I worked as the policy officer for the Wales Youth Agency, and was particularly involved with the voluntary youth sector. Today, I am the president of the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services, known as CWVYS. The issue of how to empower young people was absolutely central to the work I was engaged in at the Wales Youth Agency. I am pleased to say that we established a youth forum in Wales, initially known as Young Voice, but now going by a more trendy name, Funky Dragon, which was thought up by young people themselves. That body has an impressive track record on engaging with a range of issues, particularly relating to the Welsh Assembly, and expressing its collective views clearly and powerfully.
As in many other constituencies, we have a very effective youth forum in Caerphilly that meets regularly. The maturity expressed by young people on a range of issues is remarkable. I am pleased to say that the local authority in Caerphilly, like others elsewhere, takes on board such effectively and coherently expressed views.
I would like to make a couple of points, the first being on the situation in Scotland. There will be a vital referendum in September in which 16 and 17-year-olds are being given the vote for the first time. I think that that has been welcomed in Scottish civic society, whichever way those young people vote. It will be difficult to put back into the box something that has been released—and something that I think has proven successful, in terms of having an effective debate in Scotland. What is good enough for the debate on the Scottish referendum is good enough for debates and votes on a raft of other issues in all parts of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham referred to the situation in Wales. Although it does not have the power to extend the voting age, the Welsh Assembly has expressed its opinion that the vote should be conferred on 16 and 17-year-olds. That is the way that things are going.
Finally, if we are honest with ourselves, when Members engage with young people, we all come away with the feeling that it is not the case that young people are not interested in politics; that is a myth. Young people are interested in a raft of issues that affect them, whether it be the environment, education, or employment. They are turned off by establishment politics; frankly, they are turned off by middle-aged men in grey suits—not blue ones—discussing issues as though they knew best. We must move away from that culture, and the most effective way to do that is to extend the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds to ensure that their voice has a material impact on the development of our society.
It has already been mentioned that last year there was a good debate on the Floor of the House on lowering the voting age. I had the pleasure of summing up for Her Majesty’s Opposition. The vote at the end was in favour of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds by 119 votes to 46. Given that clear view expressed by the House, I would like to think that the Government will respond positively with what they intend to do to make progress on this issue. I have learned this morning that, despite the fact that it abstained on that vote in January last year, the Conservative party is opposed to extending democracy by lowering the voting age. I hope that that is not the view of the Government as a whole, and look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bone, in a debate on what you rightly said was an important matter of constitutional significance. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate and on her passionate speech. She is devoted to the issue and has often raised it in the House, and she had time this morning to set out her thoughts in full. I look forward to the Minister’s response, particularly now that it has been previewed by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) as reflecting both the Government view and the diametrically opposite Liberal Democrat view. We are all used to Liberal Democrat politicians expressing two opposing views at the same time, but it will still be interesting to hear how the Minister responds.
I will not allow my views to be traduced. I was trying to be helpful to the Minister. He will set out the Government’s position, which is that they have not taken a view on either side of the argument because the coalition parties have different views on the subject. He will no doubt take the opportunity to set out the view of the Liberal Democrats as well. The two positions are not opposite, and I was trying to be helpful, as I always am.
We will find out. I will resist provoking the hon. Gentleman because we have already heard quite a lot from him so far in this debate. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David); both Members are experienced on this subject, as they are, respectively, the former Minister and former shadow Minister with responsibility for constitutional reform. I therefore feel that my knowledge of the matter is somewhat limited, particularly as I am carrying the flag on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who unfortunately cannot be present because he had a long-standing commitment to chairing a conference on electoral reform. He is particularly keen on that issue, but also on lowering the voting age, and I know that he has been travelling up and down the country meeting young people to discuss the issue. He, the shadow Secretary of State for Justice—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan)—and the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), have led on this agenda and are together putting the issue at the heart of the Opposition’s constitutional reform programme.
We are facing a deficit in politics that goes beyond the issue of young people voting. It would be easy to retreat from the problem, especially in the midst of a significant economic crisis, but it is not enough to do nothing and hope that the tide changes. It is essential that we seek to explore new ways of achieving democratic renewal and political reform. General election turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since the 1950s, when 84% of the population turned out to vote. At the last election, the proportion was just 65%. As we have heard, membership of political parties has fallen off a cliff, spectacularly so in the case of the Conservative party, which is now at one thirtieth of its peak membership, but all political parties have been affected.
We deplore the fact that a majority of young people do not vote at elections yet decide to do nothing about it. I thought that some Members who intervened earlier and oppose voting at 16 were using that fact as a reason to justify doing nothing, rather than as a reason to take the matter more seriously. Youth is not automatically linked to apathy, and the reasons behind low turnout are complicated. My experience is that young people today are often highly political but wary of formal party politics. Many do not feel that politicians listen to their concerns or discuss their aspirations.
Bite the Ballot is a very good organisation that promotes young people voting, and one of its representatives commented:
“I would say the majority of young people don’t trust politicians.”
It is probably true that a majority of all people do not trust politicians, but that feeling might be particularly significant among the young, who are perhaps not so world-weary, slightly more idealistic, and therefore more shocked by the way in which politicians sometimes behave. People will have heard the exculpatory comments of Chris Huhne during his media exercise yesterday; I think we must all say that sometimes we politicians do not do ourselves any favours at all.
Sitting back, doing nothing and hoping that our young people vote is not enough. Opening up our democratic system to younger people is important and is a way to solve this problem. Rather than turning our backs, we must seek to improve the current democratic malaise by empowering young people.
Only 44% of those aged 18 to 24 voted in the general election. A recent survey found that only a third of 16 to 24-year-olds say they have an interest in politics. Compare those figures with the 76% of those of pension age who voted. The gap has almost doubled since 1970, when there was an 18 percentage point gap between young people and those of pension age, to around 30 percentage points.
There was a good article in the Daily Mirror this morning—there are always lots of good articles in the Daily Mirror—about this issue, although I do not know whether the Minister read it. It stated:
“Almost 60% of young people say they will not vote in the 2015 General Election”
and that the percentage of those intending to vote in the European elections is only 30%, although perhaps the latter is not so surprising. Those are poor figures and they appear to be getting worse. The response to that should not be to write off young people’s voting, but to take the approach that my party has taken. At the Labour conference, the Leader of the Opposition set out how we will seek to change the situation.
It is right to say that introducing votes at 16 is a radical proposal that has the potential to energise a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens. However, votes at 16 need to go hand in hand with wider youth engagement and a renewed commitment to citizenship education. The education participation age is rising to 18. By offering the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds at school, at college and in workplaces, we can intertwine civic duty with our education system. Conferring a democratic responsibility and opportunity on people still in compulsory education offers practical benefits. For example, on polling days, schools and colleges could have polling stations for students, making it more likely that this group would take advantage of the opportunity. That would be intertwined with Labour’s policy to empower schools to work with electoral registration officers to ensure that students are registered to vote.
The next Labour Government will create schools that nourish real civic duty and democratic understanding, as well as ensuring, of course, that teachers are qualified and all schools are properly inspected, and taking up other unconventional ideas that the Government do not appear to support.
It is important to note that only about half of young people aged 18 to 24 are registered to vote. If people vote once, they are more likely to vote again. The Social Market Foundation published research that found that the closer to an election an individual’s 18th birthday is, the more likely they are to vote. That demonstrated that people who turn 18 in the year leading up to a general election are significantly more likely to vote than those who turn 18 in the year after the previous general election and have to wait five years. Those who vote when young continue to vote. Over time, voting could become a rite of passage in our education system, like taking exams, but this will require a strengthening of citizenship education.
Almost 50% of the population of my constituency was born outside the UK. This is anecdotal rather than statistical evidence, but in communities in my constituency, there is often much greater political awareness and willingness to vote, and that is passed down from parents to children, whether because they value the vote more or because they are taking more of an interest in a country that they have come to relatively recently. If the same interest was shown more widely, that would help; it is achievable. Often, marginal decisions affect whether people vote. For example, we all know that making it easier to vote by post or by other means massively increases turnout.
The Labour Government made great strides with their introduction of citizenship as a subject in secondary school. Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum, giving young people an understanding and deeper knowledge of, and interest in, civic issues. Votes at 16 would place renewed emphasis on this area for our schools.
The Government are introducing individual electoral registration. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main emphases of the Government’s programme encouraging young people to vote should be schools’ participation in encouraging young people to register, so that they can vote at 18? It would be a small step forward to encourage registration for votes at 16.
I worry about individual electoral registration, as a number of wards in my constituency have below 50% initial tie-up. In many ways, that will be a barrier to voting. That makes it all the more important that we ensure that the educational aspect and the simple ability to explain to people how the new system works go hand in hand. These problems are not limited to young people.
Votes at 16 can inspire young people to get involved in our democracy. Many young people are already involved in roles of democratic responsibility. Some 85% of secondary schools have school councils, around 20,000 young people are active in youth councils and there are 600 elected Members of Youth Parliament, each serving for 12 months and voted in by their peers. Most hon. Members will have witnessed Youth Parliament debates and met their local representatives, who are supported by groups like Bite the Ballot, the British Youth Council and the Patchwork Foundation, which do great work getting young people involved in politics.
I agree with Government Members that this is not a partisan political issue, although I worry about why so many Conservative Members are against the idea. So much damage has been done to young people under the current Government. They have abolished the education maintenance allowance and university fees are soaring—we must give a hat-tip to the Liberal Democrats for that, although perhaps we will find out that Constance Briscoe was responsible for that as well, in the long term. The Government scrapped the future jobs fund, too. It is hardly a surprise that the coalition parties are nervous about the idea, but over time that will not be an issue.
Finally, let me deal with the main subject of the speech made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. With all due respect to him, he was trying to infantilise young people. It is not as simple as saying, “Yes, there is a single age at which young people are able to do everything.” That is not what my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham was saying. The fact is that we do move age limits up and down, and they differ from those in other countries. For example, we decreased the age of criminal responsibility by four years, just as we equalised the age of consent at 16 for all young people. The point is that one has to make a judgment on the merits of the case. Yes, it has been right in some cases to protect young people by imposing an age limit—for purchasing tobacco products, say, because they are addictive, and because if people start smoking young, they tend to continue. However, we do not need to protect people from voting. If anything, we should encourage that engagement, and the later stages of school is exactly the time to do that.
At 16, people can go out to work, become a director of a company, join a trade union and participate fully in society. Many young people are adults at 16, and it is wrong to restrict them in respect of voting. That is why the next Labour Government will give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. However, that is not enough; they must be given a reason to vote, and the support to engage in the democratic process. Voting is a gateway to participation in society, not an end in itself. If we do not give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote, we are excluding them from some of the rights and responsibilities that we otherwise increasingly load on them. Giving them the vote is the fair and right thing to do.
The Daily Mirror article that I mentioned ends with a rather depressing quote from a young person:
“Young people’s voices don’t get heard, so why should they vote? I don’t think politicians take enough time to listen to us, and it’s a shame because we are the future.”
That downward spiral should be reversed. If we give young people the vote and encourage them to use it, they will feel that we are taking their interests more seriously, and then I hope we will see a rise in participation and in the percentage turning out to vote.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate on an important, interesting and topical issue and for highlighting some of the excellent achievements of the young people she has met in her constituency, with whom she has debated this matter. I also thank other hon. Members who have contributed.
The hon. Lady described votes at 16 as a radical change. Personally, I consider it to be an incremental change, not a radical change, but that is a Liberal Democrat view rather than a Government view.
I am afraid that I have been needled into responding to a couple of points that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) made. He likes to target the Liberal Democrats. He was, I am afraid, posing as a slow learner who did not understand the practicalities of coalition, although I am sure that he understands them very well: there is an agreement between two parties, they form a Government and deliver a programme, but those two parties remain independent and have differing points of view, as set out earlier. It was made clear in this debate that Opposition Members have a clear view.
The hon. Lady, who opened the debate, the hon. Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David), and the shadow Minister spoke in support of votes at 16. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is no longer in his place, supports votes at 16 or thinks it is a logical conclusion and somewhere we will get to eventually. Other contributions from the Government Benches, whether it was the interventions of the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), the detailed speech of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)or the lengthy interventions of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), who is no longer in his place, made it clear that there is no consensus within the Government on the issue. There are, therefore, no plans to lower the voting age in this Parliament.
I am pleased to say that votes at 16 is very much party policy, and has been for a number of years. A point was made on whether political parties advocate the policy for their political advantage. We will have to see whether it is to the Liberal Democrats’ political advantage to give votes to 16 and 17-year-olds, but we have held a position of principle for many years that we want to see the policy adopted.
We have heard a variety of facts and figures, both for and against the proposal to lower the voting age, which demonstrates that the evidence is not clear cut. Most studies and polls seem to show that a majority of 16 and 17-year-olds favour lowering the voting age, although the situation is not always clear. A YouGov survey of 14 to 25-year-olds conducted for the Citizenship Foundation in November 2009 found a majority—54%—opposed to votes for 16-year-olds, with just 31% in favour. I regularly take straw polls when visiting schools in my constituency, and I can confirm that there is not unanimous support, even among 16 and 17-year-olds, for lowering the voting age.
The Youth Citizenship Commission, which the previous Government set up in 2009, looked at ways of developing young people’s understanding of citizenship and increasing their participation in politics and, as part of that, whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. In its summer 2009 report, it did not find significant evidence on which to base a recommendation and did not believe that evidence that would lead to a clear conclusion was available or would become available in the foreseeable future. In light of that, it concluded that the question of whether the voting age should be lowered should be decided by political processes. That is clearly what today’s debate is about. While certainly not a silver-bullet solution, I believe that lowering the voting age would help engage young people at an early age in our democracy and political processes and give them a greater say over the many decisions that affect their lives and the world in which they will grow up.
Members have referred to the worrying levels of engagement among young people, and I echo their concerns. Registration among young people is lower than for other population groups. Turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds, who of course can vote, has also been falling. At successive elections from 1974 to 1992, around a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds did not vote. In 1997, that rose to nearly 40%, then to around 45% in 2001 and 55% in 2005. We can all take individual action, and many Members have set out the contacts they have. They referred to the activities they undertake with schools to promote registration and political activity. There are things that we have to do as politicians, unpopular as we are. People may have their views about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, but handing over responsibility for our expenses to an independent body was one of the collective actions we needed to take to restore credibility, which is lacking. The most recent Hansard Society annual audit found that only 24% of 18 to 24-year-olds said that they were certain to vote at the next election, and that is an alarming statistic.
A number of Members referred to citizenship education, which has been a compulsory part of the national curriculum in secondary schools for pupils aged 11 to 16 since 2002. It will not only be retained in the new national curriculum for teaching from September 2014 but will be strengthened. It will not be pared back, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said. We are all in agreement with her that citizenship education is key to this debate.
The Government are fully committed to doing what we can to increase voter registration levels. That point was made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, who touched on independent electoral registration. He asked whether the Government were trying to increase voter registration, particularly among young people, and that is exactly what we are doing. We have announced that five national organisations and all 363 local authorities and valuation joint boards in Great Britain are sharing just over £4 million of funding to promote voter registration among under-registered groups, which include young people. In particular, UK Youth and the Scottish Youth Parliament are working exclusively on engaging young people, as are other organisations, such as Bite the Ballot. I am sure that many Members will have had opportunities to participate in events in their constituencies that Bite the Ballot has organised. I had the pleasure of doing that at Carshalton Boys Sports college a couple of weeks ago.
Reference has been made to the Scottish independence referendum. The hon. Gentleman said that this was the first time that 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland had had the chance to vote. In fact, there have been health board and crofting commission elections in which they could participate. However, Members cannot read anything into the Scottish Parliament’s decision to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum and any effect that that might have on the voting age for parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament has powers to determine aspects of the referendum, and that is exactly what it has done.
One of the main focuses of the debate has been on the rights and responsibilities of 16-year-olds. We have heard lists of what young people can and cannot do at certain ages. Advocates on both sides of the argument have exchanged blows on those lists, and it is correct that the age limits change from time to time. In truth, however, those lists add relatively little to the debate. There is no standard age of majority in the UK at which one moves from being a child to being an adult. The lists are not pertinent to a debate on the specific issue of whether young people should be able to vote at 16 and 17.
After carrying out an extensive consultation and review, the Youth Citizenship Commission did not find significant evidence on which to base a recommendation, and that is why we are having a political debate on whether young people should be able to vote. There is no plan in this Parliament for a change to the voting age, but the Government welcome and encourage the involvement of young people in policy and decision making. Indeed, we are seeking to increase democratic engagement among the youth of this country through the Government-funded youth voice programme—Members will be well aware of many of its aspects—and the Youth Parliament, which I had the pleasure of welcoming to the Chamber last November. The Youth Select Committee is an important innovation that mirrors parliamentary inquiries. It is now in its third year and I look forward to giving evidence to it. I am sure that we all commend the young people on it for their hard work on their inquiries.
To conclude, the debate has again shown the divergent views in this House on whether 16 and 17-year-olds should be eligible to vote, and that reflects differing opinions on the issue in society at large. There is also no consensus within the Government on the issue. It was not included in the coalition agreement and there are no plans for a change in this Parliament. We are, however, taking a range of measures to encourage young people to register and to ensure that their voices are heard. I am sure that debate on whether to lower the voting age will continue and, for my part, I support the proposal and welcome the ongoing debate.