I beg to move,
That the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedules 4 and 5 and Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 2015, which was laid before this House on 20 January, be approved.
On 18 September last year, the people of Scotland, including tens of thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds, voted in the Scottish independence referendum, and made the historic decision to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The participation of our young people in the vote was truly historic and inspirational to witness. We saw the young people who took part in the referendum in great numbers listen to the arguments, frequently ask the toughest questions, and make up their own minds in a mature and reasoned way. They showed that they were more than capable of being a part of Scottish democracy when they helped their country take the biggest decision we have faced for centuries.
Evidence suggests that, having listened to the arguments and participated in the debate, 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the same way as the population of Scotland as a whole—to maintain Scotland’s position in our family of nations. This is, of course, welcome in itself, but it also puts paid to the notion that those who are old enough to marry and have children are not old enough to weigh up the issues and decide how to cast a vote. It demonstrated the desire to be involved in an event that would shape the future of the country, and it demonstrated to us all that when people understand the issue before them, hear the arguments and know the facts, they want to use their democratic right to make a difference.
I very much welcome the motion. Does the Secretary of State think it strange that we are saying that it is all right for 16-year-olds to vote in the referendum, but not in the general election? Surely if they are old enough to vote in one election, they are old enough to vote in every election.
Indeed. We are dealing tonight, however, with the franchise for the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local authority elections. I was about to turn to that very point and say that there is no consensus in this Parliament at this time to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the UK general election. My view, however, is that there is every reason to believe that the tide has turned in favour of that outcome. When it comes to extending the franchise in this country, the liberal, progressive argument always wins in the end, and afterwards there is a consensus that it was the right thing to do.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. A few weeks ago I asked the Prime Minister the same question about votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, and he said that although he was inclined to keep the voting age at 18, he was looking forward to a vote. Perhaps the Secretary of State should have a word with him so that we can have that vote.
We may indeed have that vote in time—who knows what business will come before the House, or by what route? However, to all intents and purposes it will not be practically possible to extend the franchise for the UK general election before May, so I think that the House would do better to devote its attention to scrutinising the order before us tonight, whatever sympathy I might have for the proposition that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to advance.
The Secretary of State is being generous in giving way, which is very useful. Surely it is possible to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote for the whole United Kingdom, even at this late stage, because in Scotland all the facts and figures are already on the register. Surely that could be replicated across the whole United Kingdom. Would not that be in all our favour?
Well, not by means of this order. That is the short answer to the hon. Gentleman. The order before the House has been brought forward in advance of other recommendations from the Smith commission report and heads of agreement precisely because it will be very challenging, even at this point, to perform the necessary administrative functions to allow 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in May 2016 and, beyond that, 2017. Those are the practical considerations that he would do well to bear in mind, quite apart from questions about the availability of parliamentary time to get measures through this House and the other place.
In the run-up to the referendum, pledges were made to the people of Scotland. The three pro-Union parties—the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour—all made a vow to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom, ensuring that Scotland retains the best of both worlds. Keeping that vow, the Prime Minister announced the day after the referendum that Lord Smith of Kelvin had agreed to lead a commission to agree what those new powers should be. The commission would work with the five parties represented in the Scottish Parliament to make that determination.
The commission invited submissions from political parties, a wide range of business and civic organisations and the wider public to help guide its consideration of what further powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Following due consideration of all submissions and views garnered by the commission, on 27 November 2014 the report detailing the heads of agreement was published. The report was welcomed by this Government and, as the House is aware, almost two weeks ago we published the draft clauses that will make up the substance of the next Scotland Bill to implement the report’s recommendations.
However, one of the commission’s recommendations is being taken forward separately from that Bill, and it will be introduced to Parliament following the general election: the recommendation that the UK Parliament should devolve the relevant powers in sufficient time to allow the Scottish Parliament to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds for the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, should it wish to do so. That is exactly what this draft order seeks to achieve.
The order is made under sections 30 and 63 of the Scotland Act 1998, the Act that set out the original devolution settlement for Scotland and continues to demonstrate that devolution is a fluid entity. Several section 30 and section 63 orders have been made under that Act and we do not expect that to change, even with the upcoming Bill. Where a need for change is identified and agreed, those changes are made.
The 1998 Act specifies what is reserved to the UK Parliament, not what is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Section 30(2) of the 1998 Act provides a mechanism whereby schedule 4 or 5 to the 1998 Act can be modified by an Order in Council, subject to the agreement of both the UK and Scottish Parliaments. That allows the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament to be changed.
That mechanism will be used to give the Scottish Parliament the power to legislate to reduce the minimum voting age to 16 at elections to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections. The order achieves that by making several amendments to schedules 4 and 5 to the 1998 Act. That will include the power to legislate to make provision on the registration of young electors in order to give effect to any such reduction in the minimum voting age. Section 63(1)(b) of the 1998 Act allows for an Order in Council to provide for any functions, so long as they are exercisable by a Minister of the Crown in or with regard to Scotland to be exercisable by Scottish Ministers concurrently with the Minister of the Crown.
The order will also give Scottish Ministers the ability to exercise certain functions relating to the individual electoral registration digital service. Those functions will be exercisable by Scottish Ministers concurrently with UK Ministers, and subject to the agreement of UK Ministers.
The changes to the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence will provide an exception so that the reduction of the minimum voting age to 16 at elections to the Scottish Parliament and at Scottish local government elections, and the registration of electors in order to give effect to provisions reducing the minimum voting age at those elections, will no longer be reserved matters.
The order will also enable the Scottish Government to make provision for the use of the individual electoral registration digital service when giving effect to provisions reducing the minimum voting age. I would like to make it clear that Scottish Ministers will be able to exercise those functions—in relation to the individual electoral registration digital service—only with the agreement of a Minister of the Crown. Scottish Ministers will be able to exercise those functions concurrently with a Minister of the Crown in so far as these are exercisable in or with regard to Scotland.
Yes, that is the whole point of devolution. If the Scottish Parliament chooses to make a further change, it will have the legislative competence to do so as a result of this order. Of course, the Scottish Parliament is accountable to the people of Scotland for any exercise of the powers it has.
Finally, the order also provides that in certain cases the requirement to consult the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner, and to publish reports prepared by the Electoral Commission, will apply to Scottish Ministers if they exercise the functions given to them relating to the individual electoral registration digital service.
Members will realise that in one respect the order goes further than what the Smith commission recommended: rather than simply devolving the powers necessary to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to participate in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections and subsequent Scottish Parliament elections, the order devolves the power to enable the Scottish Parliament, if it so desires, to legislate to lower the voting age to 16 in time for the 2017 local government elections in Scotland.
That was felt to be beneficial for two reasons. First, there is an issue of timing. If the Scottish Parliament wished to take forward such legislation, the timing of the Scotland Bill would make it very challenging to devolve the necessary powers in sufficient time for the Scottish Parliament in turn to legislate in time for May 2017 without breaching normal electoral rules. Secondly, the franchise for the Scottish Parliament elections is set by reference to the local government franchise. Devolving only the legislative competence to reduce the minimum voting age for Scottish Parliament elections would have meant that the Scottish Parliament needed to separate the Scottish Parliament franchise from the local government franchise, which in our view would have risked unnecessary complication.
If the approval of this House, the other place and the Scottish Parliament is secured, the order will go forward for consideration by Her Majesty in Council. When the order comes into force, the Scottish Parliament will be able to bring forward the legislation necessary to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in all Scottish Parliament and local government elections. I understand that the Scottish Government intend to introduce this legislation as soon as possible once this order has been made by the Privy Council.
I have always been a firm believer in votes at 16. With the sheer number of young people participating and voting in last year’s referendum, I believe that that case has become undeniable. This was reflected in the Smith commission heads of agreement, with all the main political parties agreeing that the voting age for Scottish Parliament elections should be lowered to 16. The UK Government fast-tracked devolving the power for this as an exception from the rest of the Smith package so that it could be in place in time for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. I commend the order to the House.
On the day that Scottish Labour has set out how we will enhance the vow in our home rule Bill if and when we are elected, it is fitting that we are debating, for the first time since the Smith agreement, powers to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament.
It is worth reminding the House of how we have reached this stage. The result of the referendum on 18 September was emphatic. The call for change was equally significant, and it was a call that we heard. Labour promised people safer, faster, better change with a no vote in September, and that is exactly what we have delivered. The cross-party Smith agreement reached just 10 weeks after the referendum vote was the first time that all Scotland’s parties had reached that degree of consensus on new powers for Scotland. The Smith agreement gives Scotland modern home rule, with extensive new powers over jobs, tax and welfare, and that is what we will legislate for if we are in power after May. Today’s discussion and agreement of this order should be another demonstration to the people of Scotland that the vow has been delivered and that we are standing true to the word we gave during the referendum campaign. The timetable set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) has been met.
As the Secretary of State explained, the order deals specifically with the power that was promised in section 25 of the final report of the Smith commission—namely, that control of the franchise for Scottish Parliament elections be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. Last year, Labour Members called for these powers to be brought forward quickly, and we are pleased that the Government are now doing so. As the Secretary of State said, it is obviously for the Scottish Parliament then to determine what the franchise should be, but it is clear that all the parties at Holyrood will support the lowering of the voting age to 16. It is right that we are debating these powers today so that we can give a guarantee that 16-and-17 year olds will be able to vote in the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. I hope that the Scottish Government will move to ensure that those same young people are able to vote a year later in Scottish local government elections.
Too many people, too often, are cynical about our young people, but the referendum campaign in Scotland showed many of them at their very best, engaging with politics, getting involved in the campaign, and participating in record numbers in debates in schools and college across Scotland. I am sure that many hon. Members can pay tribute to the debates held in their constituencies during the referendum campaign. The young people in my constituency of Glasgow East were a great credit to the referendum campaign and, in particular, to their schools. They organised very balanced debates to inform themselves and encourage participation.
The hon. Lady is obviously going to congratulate the Scottish Government on introducing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds; I am sure she is getting round to that. What I remember about the debate on giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds is a lot of whingeing and whining by Labour Members telling the Scottish Government that it could not be done and finding all sorts of reasons why it would not be possible. Does she not recall any of that?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who perhaps has the greatest expertise in whingeing, will join me in paying tribute to those involved in the Smith commission for bringing this forward. If we all agree on something, let us for once stress the fact and say, “Isn’t it good that we’re all agreed on this progress for Scotland?”
Research by the Electoral Commission has shown that about 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the referendum—a very high proportion considering that it was the first vote to which they were entitled. I hope that we can speak positively about those young people and be constructive in our comments as we welcome this landmark for 16 and 17-year-olds in our country. I recognise the positive energy and enthusiasm that those young people brought to the referendum and can now, I hope, bring to Scottish elections as well. It does not matter whether they voted yes or no; what matters is that they participated, and that is something we want to encourage. What matters is that with this order, and with the actions that the Scottish Parliament will take, we can strengthen our democracy and increase democratic participation.
The changes that we are discussing have very broad support in Scotland. They have been welcomed by a large body of pressure groups and organisations representing young people, including the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on children and young people, Young Scot, LGBT Youth Scotland, Children in Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament, and the Scottish Trades Union Congress. As Young Scot said in its statement calling for votes at 16 in Scotland,
“Scotland will be viewed as a world leader by fully engaging and empowering its 16 and 17 year olds as fully franchised citizens active in the political life of the country.”
As has been the case in the past, Scotland can lead the way on this change and show that our young people have what it takes to engage in our democratic process. However, as was indicated earlier, Labour Members would go much further. The order meets the agreement made in the Smith commission on votes at 16 and 17 in Scotland, but we believe that there should not be two-tier voting across the country. As the Secretary of State said in response to questions from my hon. Friends, it is reasonable to ask, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) did at Prime Minister’s questions, when we will get the opportunity to pursue this policy. If the Prime Minister indicated that there would be a vote, it is reasonable for the Government to say when it is likely to take place. If our young people in Scotland have what it takes to decide the future of their country in the referendum and, soon, the shape of the Scottish Government, they also have what it takes to decide the shape of the UK Government. That is why Labour would extend the franchise in all UK elections so that 16 and 17-year-olds can also vote in general elections. Taking a lead from Scotland, Labour would extend votes at 16 and 17 to the other devolved Administrations, English local government and the London Assembly, truly empowering young people across the United Kingdom. It is about time that our young people were given a voice, regardless of the type of election or where in this country they live. As I said, the Prime Minister was recently forced to concede that.
It is welcome that the Secretary of State has brought forward this order and that we are delivering these powers ahead of the general election, honouring the commitment given during the Smith agreement. I have raised with him several times the possibility of extending this principle to other areas of the Smith agreement, notably the devolution of employability support. I again push him to listen to Labour’s calls for immediate devolution in that regard and to bring an order to this House to achieve that. He has shown his competence in introducing this order; perhaps he could extend that to an order on employability support. Flattery does not seem to be having any impact on him, but it was worth a try, and I will keep trying. Devolving these powers should not wait until after the election. They are another step towards delivering the modern home rule that was at the heart of the Smith agreement. That is indeed the first step in delivering more powers for Scotland. Labour’s home rule Bill, which we intend to introduce in the first 100 days of the next Labour Government, will give Scotland the full powers it needs, as agreed during the Smith commission and announced today. We thank the Secretary of State for bringing this order before the House today, and give it our full support.
I welcome this order which will deliver on commitments made in the Smith commission. Its timeliness will allow it to be implemented effectively, efficiently, and in time for the Scottish election and future local government elections, and in particular it will allow us to get the register right.
I wish to reinforce the experience of having 16-year-olds involved in the political system. The referendum did that in a practical sense, but for years many Members of the House have been going into schools and recognising that 16-year-olds have an informed and enthused approach to the political system and engagement with politicians. An important aspect of engaging people at 16 is that they are in a stable environment such as school or college, and many are still in a home environment. There is therefore a chance of getting them registered and involved in the electoral system before they get into the flux and change of life that goes with the upheaval of moving on from school and towards the rest of their lives. If we can engage people at 16, they are more likely to stay engaged with the voting system throughout their lives.
Many of us criticise short-termism in electoral decision making, but 16-year-olds clearly have the most long-term future in decisions that are made about this country and what is happening. If we can engage with them and get them to think about the future and build on that, we can perhaps take a longer term approach to our voting system. I welcome the order and I hope that the House will see it come to fruition, honouring the Smith commission and delivering votes for 16 to 18-year-olds in Scotland.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important order, which if approved will ensure that the voices of our young people in Scotland are heard. More specifically, it will guarantee that the franchise is extended in time for elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2016, and the Scottish local government elections in 2017.
I welcome the publication of the Smith commission’s Command Paper, which includes provisions for the conduct of Scottish elections to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Furthermore, I am proud that Scottish Labour’s calls for the change to be fast-tracked will become a reality this evening, and I urge the Scottish Parliament to take swift action to ensure that changes are in place ahead of those elections. It is vital that we build on the energy and momentum created by the participation of our young people in the independence referendum, and grant the Scottish Parliament power to lower the voting age to 16.
As I am sure all Members will acknowledge, the level of engagement witnessed among our young people during the referendum is a cause for celebration. More than 100,000 16 and 17-year-olds registered to vote, and on the day itself many thousands of young Scots made their way to polling stations up and down the country to have their say on the future of their country. Young Scots had a genuine opportunity to involve themselves in a meaningful process that offered them a real chance of influence. Such levels of participation demonstrate that it is right to enfranchise our young people and lower the voting age to 16. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are more than capable of taking important political decisions. Our young people already contribute much to our society; they have other rights, and a number of obligations are placed on them. It is therefore correct that they should be able to participate in the selection of those who govern them.
I often visit local schools in my constituency, and I am always impressed by how engaged young people are. During the referendum it was evident that our young people were fully involved with the independence debate, carefully examining the implications of both sides of the argument. Young people are informed, politically interested, and fully aware of the world around them. It therefore makes perfect sense to approve the order and grant 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.
The need to lower the voting age is supported by a number of organisations and groups including Barnardo’s, the National Union of Students and the Electoral Reform Society. Lowering the voting age brings with it a number of benefits and can serve to increase engagement—indeed, the Power Commission makes that point:
“Reducing the voting age to sixteen would obviously be one way of reducing the extent of exclusion for many thousands of young people, and of increasing the likelihood of…taking part in political and democratic debate.”
Evidence has shown that someone who votes when they first become eligible is more likely to keep voting for the rest of their life.
I am proud that a future Labour Government will legislate to ensure that 16 and 17-year-olds across the UK are able to vote in general and local elections. As the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland—hopefully soon to become the Secretary of State for Scotland—made clear, Labour will go further, and I am disappointed that the current Tory-led Government do not share that view. Just as it is important that 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland have their say, it is equally important that other young people across the UK in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are afforded the same opportunity. Lowering the voting age to 16 would strengthen our democracy and open it up to a new generation. I urge all Members to support this order, and hope that it marks the first step in the enfranchisement of all 16 and 17-year-olds across the UK.
It is an honour and a pleasure to speak on a subject close to my heart. Lowering the voting age is one of the main reasons I became involved in politics in the first place. I joined the youth wing of the Scottish National party in 1985, at a time when the Young Scottish Nationalists updated the party’s policy. From then on and until the present day, SNP policy has been that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote in all democratic elections.
I felt so strongly about the issue that it was the subject of my maiden speech in 2001, and I hope the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) does not mind my reading some of it out:
“Speaking as the youngest Member of the House who represents a Scottish constituency”—
I think the hon. Lady has taken over that responsibility from me—
“I am convinced that one change might help to engender an interest in voting among young people: lowering the voting age to 16. That has the support of Members on both sides of the House and I make the suggestion in the non-partisan hope of boosting democracy.
Does it not strike hon. Members as ludicrous that we can raise and spend tax money levied on 16 and 17-year-olds? Is it not ludicrous that we can pass legislation that affects their working lives and economic well-being? Is it not obscene that we can send young service men and women into hazardous situations where they may give their lives for their country? It is obscene that 16 and 17-year-olds are judged old enough to pay tax, get married or die for their country, but are not granted the equality that enfranchisement brings. As Ministers in this place and in the Scottish Executive consider suggestions for boosting the teaching of civic life and modern studies, would it not help to show 16 and 17-year-olds the relevance of the democratic process if we gave them the vote?”—[Official Report, 3 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 192.]
That was in 2001.
I also reflected on the fact that the commitment of the SNP to lowering the voting age goes back much further. One of my predecessors who represented Moray, Winnie Ewing, was elected previously in Hamilton in 1967, and she made her maiden speech on lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. The commitment runs deep in Scotland’s largest party.
It is fantastic that Members on both sides have praised the independence referendum and the involvement of 16 and 17-year-olds, although I have not yet heard Members from other parties acknowledge that they were able to vote because the SNP-led Scottish Government insisted on it. It behoves Members to recognise that as a significant reason why we are at this stage. Perhaps they will think it noteworthy to bring up in their contributions later.
The experience to which hon. Members have attested was reflected in my constituency and, I am sure, in every single part of Scotland. We were invited to take part in debates in schools and sit on panels with young people—I went to Speyside high school, Forres academy and the Elgin youth café. I am sure that Members on both sides could attest to these types of events, and as the referendum drew closer, the level of debate among younger Scots about what the referendum would mean for them, regardless of whether they had made up their minds, was fantastic.
The statistics thus far—there will many more, because several academic studies have yet to report—and early academic feedback are extremely encouraging. The Electoral Commission released a report in December 2014 suggesting that turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds was 75%—significantly higher than among some older age groups. Of all respondents, 60% said they would support a measure allowing everyone to vote from the age of 16; and 97% of the 16 and 17-year-olds who reported having voted said they would vote again in future elections and referendums. This is tremendously encouraging and should give great support to those arguing for a wider franchise.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, although widening the franchise will make that much easier for future generations, through engagement in schools, through modern studies, and with political parties and local representatives. That will help to join up, in a much more tangible way, the political world with what happens in schools. However, he points out the challenge of those age cohorts who have not had that experience, and we all need to work hard to bridge that gap.
By enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds, we can encourage schools to hold political debate and involve democratically elected representatives. Some schools have concerns about managing the process fairly, but it is not beyond the wit of those schools to do so, and as we know—because we attended many of these events—it works. All of us, having gone through the referendum experience, will want to ensure it is not a one-off. That we can do it for Scottish Parliament elections is great; that it will happen for local government elections is fantastic; that it will not happen for Westminster elections is shameful.
I note that there are two Conservative Members in the Chamber. I observe that 58 of the 59 Members from Scotland belong to political parties that support lowering the voting age in Westminster elections, yet it is not happening. It is for Conservative Members to reflect on what message it sends to people in Scotland when yet again decisions are being made, or rather when progress is not being made because there is not a willingness to recognise the democratic wishes of people in Scotland.
It is unimaginable now that we might go back to a situation in which 16 and 17-year-olds could not vote. I shall spare the blushes of some people in Scottish politics, and not quote their words in the run-up to the referendum.
My hon. Friend encourages me. I shall give one quote. The Scottish Secretary’s predecessor told the Press Association on 19 February:
“Sixteen and 17-year-olds should be barred from voting in a referendum on independence for Scotland.”
It was inexplicable—now it just sounds ridiculous. Why on earth would he say such a thing? I have no idea. Once we have lowered the voting age, nobody will argue that it was not the sensible thing to do. When this place finally gets round to lowering the voting age for 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland and the rest of the UK, I shall be all in favour of it. It will play a part in reconnecting younger people in society with the political process, which over time will lead to a reconnection with the whole of society.
I am sure my hon. Friend is doing all he can to spare the blushes of our Labour colleagues regarding some of their comments in advance of this order. Does he agree, however, that we now have to work together—it is great that the Labour party has embraced this measure—and ensure that our young people get to vote in all subsequent elections, whether for Holyrood or Westminster?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is up to all of us. What will be in the manifestos of the political parties? If the overwhelming majority of Members returned from Scotland are in favour of lowering the voting age, that is what should happen, as should be the case with every other major policy decision.
This is a rare event in the Chamber. Almost all Scotland’s parliamentarians in this place agree on Scotland’s constitutional progress, but we should reflect on the fact that it was not always that way. It is amazing how when one moves beyond the introduction of such a measure, everyone is suddenly in favour of it—even those who only a year or two before were opposed or highly sceptical. I am really pleased that the SNP and the Scottish Government, when given the chance to put their money where their mouth was, delivered on what was promised decades ago—that younger people in Scotland should be able to vote. That should happen in all subsequent elections, for the Scottish Parliament, for local government and for the Westminster Parliament.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate as the chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, the organisation within the Labour movement that speaks and campaigns for political and constitutional reform. Labour can trace the origins of its commitment to these great causes back to Keir Hardie more than a century ago. It was he who first called for an elected second Chamber and for a powerful home rule Scottish Parliament through strong devolution. I regret we cannot honour the third of his commitments—his strong desire to see the cause of temperance furthered across the UK—but we will honour every element of his commitment to political reform in this modern Labour movement.
Rarely in this House do debates on statutory instruments range beyond the specific matters they address, but this debate signifies two wider forces shaping the future of these islands. First, devolution and good governance across these islands will be strengthened by the delivery, as promised, of the Smith agreement, of which this draft order is the first legislative stage. Secondly, the rights of citizens across the UK demand a new political and constitutional settlement, including: votes at 16; the replacement of the unelected other place by an elected second Chamber; substantial further devolution within England; and making devolution and human rights protection permanent within our constitutional arrangement. It is increasingly clear that the order must be the first stage in generating a codified constitution for the UK to put all these changes beyond the day-to-day conflict of partisan politics. I shall address each point in turn.
The strength of the devolution settlement, originating in the devolution referendum of 1997 and the original Scotland Act 1998, is clear in this evening’s debate. An agreement between five of Scotland’s political parties on transferring powers in connection with the franchise in Scottish parliamentary and local government elections, resulting in the devolution of those powers in law within a matter of weeks, will ensure that 16 and 17-year-olds can vote in next May’s Scottish Parliament elections and in the council elections in Scotland the year after. We are achieving together the progressive cause of extending the right to vote in these elections to tens of thousands of young people in Scotland. This stands as a further testament to the work of the late Donald Dewar in crafting a devolution settlement capable of evolving and meeting popular demand in Scotland, and we will see much more evidence of that in the weeks following the general election this May.
The incredible enthusiasm and level of engagement by 16 and 17-year-olds in last year’s referendum proved all the doubters wrong, so with this draft order today, the Scottish Parliament will have the power—the full powers—to make full post-16 voting rights a reality in devolved elections. I recall speaking to a young man on the doorstep in Riddrie in my constituency on referendum polling day. He expressed with remarkable insight and knowledge the evidence and beliefs that had motivated him to participate at the age of 17 in his first democratic election. How many more young people will become active in their communities and in wider society and stand for elected office themselves because of their experience in the referendum campaign last year?
Many hon. Members, regardless of political party, have made much of continuing that engagement with young people and getting access to our schools in order to discuss with our young people who are about to be 16 the relevance of politics to their lives. We have seen an awakening among young people, so I encourage each and every Member to carry on with that. I am about to meet 100 young people from Inverclyde schools to discuss such matters on Friday.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is a champion of engagement in his own constituency. I hope that will be remembered in Inverclyde in just a few weeks’ time.
All the evidence from Demos and the Electoral Reform Society demonstrates that the earlier young people participate in democracy, the more likely they are to remain voters in the future. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can pay taxes, get married, join the armed forces and act as company directors. It is an absurdity that they have been denied the right to be full members of our vital democratic processes for so long.
This debate reminds us that we have a duty to make it easier for young people to be able to vote, and it is a warning about the effects of the botched introduction of individual voter registration being presided over by this Government. In its present form, it could have the effect of removing the right to vote for thousands of young people in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.
This is indeed a good day for democracy, but not a perfect one. I hope that most right hon. and hon. Members will not rest until votes at 16 are introduced for elections to this House and for the elected Chamber that must replace the unelected other place. I hope leaders at EU level will show boldness in extending the franchise at European parliamentary elections to 16 and 17-year-olds too, offering hope to those currently suffering the most from low wages and high unemployment due to the problems in the eurozone economy.
The order demonstrates that grass-roots campaigns for political reform can bring change in this House and to our country as a whole. Just as the Chartists campaigned for democratic rights, trade unions campaigned for the enfranchisement of working class people and the suffragettes campaigned for the enfranchisement of women, so today’s order is the further realisation of their ambitions for a society where everyone can participate, and where government, at whatever level, is more responsive and accountable to all the people of this country as a result. The British Youth Council has campaigned tirelessly for votes at 16 for years, and today is the first recognition of the justice of its campaign in parliamentary and local government elections. It will not be the last.
The debate on this order shows that the governance of the British state is changing and that the pace of that change must increase in the coming years, so we must see a constitutional convention to produce a coherent plan for devolution in England, recommend proposals for an elected senate, consider how the role of human rights protection can be strengthened within our constitution and explore how all our governance arrangements can be made permanent in a single constitution, binding us all as citizens of the United Kingdom.
These are changes worth fighting for: a modern democratic constitutional settlement that can reflect our common links, but also our diversity across these islands. Today marks the first element of that change, but it also shows us the potential to see what can be if we have the boldness and courage to act early in the next Parliament.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this momentous debate for the young people of Scotland. I am often referred to as a young person in debates such as this because I am the youngest MP in Parliament. I feel increasingly fraudulent about that claim, however, as I must be—now in my 30s—the oldest youngest MP for quite some time! I continue to appreciate being referred to as a young person. [Interruption.] I thank hon. Members for saying that I do not look my age—and I am glad that that will now be on the record for eternity.
Today’s order will devolve the control of the franchise of the Scottish Parliament to its rightful place—the Scottish Parliament. It seems ludicrous now that that was not done at its establishment. There appears to be a consensus among the parties represented in the Scottish Parliament that the voting age should be lowered to 16. Even the Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who had previously said that she was opposed to this move has reportedly, like many others, changed her view. She said that her referendum experience of young voters had changed her mind. I look forward to her Westminster colleagues following suit. Many others previously unsure about the move to lower the voting age now concede that there is no going back after the referendum in Scotland, where we saw our young people thoughtfully and passionately engage in the debate on the future of their country.
As I say, there has been consensus, but I was disappointed by the tone adopted by the hon. Members for Moray (Angus Robertson) and, in an intervention, for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). They seemed to be trying to seek divisions in the debate when there is cross-party support for the devolution of the power and for votes at 16 in elections for the Scottish Parliament. At the time, some did not agree that young people of 16 or 17 in Scotland should have the vote in the referendum. There will be some examples of that, of course, but my overwhelming recollections of the debate and the conversations people were having at the time was that there was support for votes at 16. There was, however, strong scepticism—even from myself, a long-term supporter of votes at 16—about the SNP’s view that the power should be devolved for the purpose of the referendum when they had not called for the franchise to be devolved previously.
The hon. Lady is, of course, right about the consensus: we all agree on all this. Surely, however, she could bring herself to acknowledge the fact that it was the Scottish Government who introduced this measure. No Labour Members have mentioned the role of the Scottish Government, and they seem reluctant to say that it was the SNP Scottish Government who introduced votes for 16 and 17-year-olds first.
I welcomed it at the time, and I congratulated the Scottish Government on it. I am happy to do so again tonight, but it was not done on their own—there was cross-party support for it at the time. I welcome the fact that they did it, but there is this overwhelming scepticism about why it had not happened in the past and that over the years of the SNP Government they had not once asked for the devolution of the franchise and the ability to lower the vote to 16. I was disappointed that it took them so long. However, I am happy that the franchise is to be devolved, and that it is the policy of my party to allow votes for 16-year-olds throughout the United Kingdom and not just in Scotland.
Let me say a little about my career before I entered the House. As some may know, I was a Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament. At that time, “Votes at 16” was a big campaign. I was very much a part of that campaign, along with the rest of the Youth Parliament, and I am still a keen campaigner today. I remember visiting for the first time, as a Member of the Youth Parliament, a class of 16 and 17-year-olds—who were not much younger than I was—at Calderhead school in Shotts, which is still my constituency. I clearly recall that, when I asked those young people whether they wanted the vote, most of them said that they did not. I have had the same experience several times since, as a Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament and also as a Member of this Parliament.
Those young people told me that they did not think they knew enough about politics and current affairs to make the decision, and also felt that many of their peers would not take it seriously. I pointed out to them that I knew people of every age who that might apply to, and that no one was suggesting that 40 and 50-year-olds should not be able to vote on political issues, or should be subjected to a competence test before being able to do so—and neither should we suggest that. People of all ages should be able to use their knowledge and experience of life to choose who they want to represent them, and in my view 16 and 17-year-olds are no less capable of doing that than those aged 18 and over.
Some people—and I have heard it in this place—use such anecdotes and polls that show that young people do not want the vote at 16 and 17 to say that they should not be given the vote. I would argue that the level of self-awareness among these young people, and their readiness to research, learn and take their votes seriously, suggests that they are more than ready to take on the responsibility of choosing their representatives—and it is a responsibility. We must remember that, and highlight it. We often discuss the right to vote, but it is not just a right; it is a responsibility as well. It is a shame that a third of people of all ages did not vote in the last general election, and I hope that that will change in the next election.
My main reason for campaigning for votes at 16 has already been mentioned by other Members in this debate. Lowering the voting age will ensure that many more young people will still be in full-time education as they prepare to cast their first votes. I hope that young people who are still at school or college will learn about the responsibility that they must take, and about the importance and impact of their votes. I hope that they will be more likely to vote because members of their peer groups will initiate conversations about the upcoming election and encourage them to participate. I agree with others that, in casting the first vote for which they are eligible, they will establish a habit for life.
We often hear about voter apathy, although the Scottish referendum was a recent exception to the rule. In fact, the turnout for the 2010 general election, especially among young people, was higher than the 2005 turnout: it rose from 38.2% to 51.8%. That represents a change in a trend that had lasted for decades. We must nurture the momentum, and encourage young people to participate fully in our electoral system.
I am delighted that we are taking this important step towards giving a vote in next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections to 16 and 17-year-olds in my constituency and throughout Scotland, and I look forward to the day when that is replicated throughout the United Kingdom.
With the leave of the House, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a few more comments about the order. I am grateful to the official Opposition for their co-operation.
There has been a remarkable consensus in the House this evening, despite all the efforts of the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who did his best to challenge that consensus by violently agreeing with everything that was said by everyone else. It takes a particular skill to sow division by agreeing with everyone else, and that is just one of the reasons for which I have always regarded the hon. Gentleman as very special.
I particularly welcome the support of the official Opposition in respect of the order, and, indeed, in respect of the extension of the franchise to the rest of the United Kingdom. However, as one who, like the hon. Member for Moray, has long been a supporter of the extension of the franchise to 16-year-olds—indeed, I have supported it throughout my political career—let me gently suggest to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) and her colleagues that, when challenging the rest of us about the current position, they may wish to reflect on the fact that they had 13 years to change it when they were in government and I was a Member of Parliament here, but did not do so.
The hon. Gentleman intervened during my opening speech to ask about an extension to those under 16. The order restricts the power to the age of 16, which is an honouring of the Smith commitment. Once the draft clauses have become law, however, full devolution will follow, and the position will be as I described it to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he still wishes to intervene.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his generosity in giving way. One matter concerns me greatly. We are approaching a general election in May, and the same youngsters who were enabled to vote in the referendum will then be disfranchised. What effect will that have on their future involvement in politics? The point was not made this evening, although I expected it to be.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. If I had had my way, we would have made the change many years ago throughout the United Kingdom. However, I can only deal with the situation at hand. As I have already explained to the hon. Gentleman and others, the practicalities and the administrative issues are complex and involved. As a consequence, the purpose of the order is restricted, but it allows us to honour the commitments that we have made. I think it is clear from what has been said from Members in all parts of the House that, throughout the United Kingdom, we are on a journey. On a personal level, let me say to the hon. Gentleman and others that, while it is clear that there will be no change before 7 May for all sorts of practical reasons, it is, in my view, unthinkable that franchise for the 2020 election will not include 16 and 17-year-olds. I think that the move in that direction is now irresistible, but it will, of course, be for the House to make the decision on another day.
All Members who spoke described the positive engagement that they had experienced in their constituencies and elsewhere throughout the referendum campaign as a result of the participation of 16 and 17-year-old voters, and that was certainly my experience at the time, in all parts of Scotland and especially in my own constituency. One of the more positive memories that I will take from that campaign is of a packed meeting in Kirkwall town hall, which was addressed by me, by my noble Friend Baroness Williams of Crosby, and by a 15-year-old Orcadian school pupil, Jack Norquoy, who was not even old enough to vote in the referendum. It was both humbling and inspirational to observe that level of engagement and participation. It is, indeed, that level of engagement and participation that has brought us to this point, and it is for that reason that I am immensely proud to invite the House to agree to the order.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedules 4 and 5 and Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 2015, which was laid before this House on 20 January, be approved.