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Representation of the People (Young Persons’ Enfranchisement and Education) Bill

Volume 599: debated on Friday 11 September 2015

Second Reading

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

It is a great pleasure to follow such a high-quality debate—so much passion from Members on both sides. I know that many young people would have strong views on the positions taken in that important debate, and if they are able to engage on issues like that, surely they should be given the vote, allowing them the chance to decide who represents them. But it is not just on that subject that young people have strong views. Let us take the Scottish referendum. Young people were engaged: 75% of young people who were registered to vote did so. And when I visit schools in my constituency, the young people I speak to are motivated, enthusiastic and passionate. They are worried about their future. They are worried about what is happening around them—cuts to youth service provision, cuts to police numbers and about safety in their area. They want to have a say over their future education. They have a voice; they want to be heard. I have been told this time and time again. The strength of feeling among the young people that I have spoken to is clear, and it is for that reason that I chose to introduce the Bill.

While debating the EU referendum, this House had the opportunity to introduce votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, and it is such a shame that it did not. Many Members contributed to those debates, including many Conservative Members. For example, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) said that

“surely it is better that a constitutional issue that is so important that it affects all elections should be fully debated by the House as a separate matter.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2015; Vol. 597, c. 509.]

And the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said:

“I concede that there are those in the House who will wish to debate whether that franchise itself should be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, but the Government are not persuaded and that is a debate for another day.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1053.]

Well, this is that day. The Bill has an added plus—improved citizenship education, giving pupils the knowledge, skills and confidence to prepare them for the responsibilities of voting and the opportunities to become politically active.

No, I do not have time.

Some say that young people cannot make informed decisions, that they are not educated enough in politics and that they lack the life experience to be able to vote. To those people I say this: you are wrong and you are scared. Young people are a lot more informed and clued-up than they are given credit for. They are a lot more informed and clued-up than—dare I say it—some hon. Members here.

Whenever change takes place, people are often afraid of what that means, but once delivered it can become the norm, as in 1919, when the Representation of the People Act gave women over 30 the right to vote, or in 1928, when the Equal Franchise Act finally gave women the same voting rights as men. That was nearly 100 years ago, when we did not have a single female Member of Parliament. In 1919 Nancy Astor, the first female MP, was elected to Parliament. By 1945 there were still only 24 female MPs. It took a Labour victory in 1997 for a huge increase to take place in female representation. In that election 120 female MPs were elected, 101 of whom were Labour.

The House may wonder why I am talking about female representation when I am putting forward a Bill for votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. I am highlighting the fact that progress can be slow, but that does not mean that it is not the right thing to do. Just as Parliament has been enhanced by women’s participation, the political system can be improved by young people’s votes.

The issues that matter to young people need to be at the heart of our politics. Young people tell me they are concerned about further education, university funding, apprenticeships, jobs and the minimum wage for young people. They want the education maintenance allowance back. They are concerned about housing and whether they will be able to afford to buy a property or even to rent one.

Let me give a little more historical analysis, specifically on young people. Back in 1969 it was felt that people under 21 were too young to vote. Many of the arguments used then are arguments that I continue to hear today, so I shall quote the words of James Callaghan when debating lowering the voting age to 18. He said:

“It will become increasingly difficult to explain to young people why for all social purposes they are entitled to regard themselves as adult at the age of 18, except on the question of the vote. I believe that this would be an anomaly that would become increasingly difficult to explain.—[Official Report, 26 November 1968; Vol. 774, c. 624.]

Why is it that at 16 young people can give full consent to medical treatment, pay income tax and national insurance, obtain tax credits and welfare benefits in their own right, consent to sexual relationships, get married or enter a civil partnership, change their name by deed poll, become a director of a company or even serve in the armed forces, but they cannot vote? Over the past month Labour party members from the age of 15 have been voting in our leadership election. Young Conservatives can also vote in elections, though I hope in their own. Our deadline has now passed.

In closing, let me quote one of the strongest advocates of votes at 16 and what he wants—the ability to vote in the Mayor of London election and the upcoming EU referendum. The young mayor of Lewisham, Liam Islam, is one of the most passionate, articulate young people I have ever met, and he is not alone. There are so many Liams out there who are desperate to have their voice reflected at the ballot box. Let us be part of that historic change today. I urge all Members to support the Bill and ensure that young people’s voices are reflected in politics. I commend the Bill to the House.

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 23 October.