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UN’s Not Too Young to Run Campaign

Volume 618: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UN’s Not Too Young to Run campaign.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Today’s generation of young people is the largest the world has ever known. Half of the global population is under the age of 30, yet young people are starkly under-represented at virtually every level of government and politics. Efforts have been made around the world to promote young people’s right to run for public office by seeking to lower the legal age of candidacy.

In 2007, as a result of the “How old is old enough?” campaign, the minimum candidacy age in England, Wales and Scotland was lowered from 21 to 18, in line with the voting age. In Turkey, young people lobbied the Government to reduce the age of candidacy for Parliament from 30 to 25. In Nigeria, the Not Too Young to Run campaign has embarked on a mission to address age discrimination in candidacy for the legislative and executive branches. That serves as an inspiration for the global campaign.

Building on the not too young run—I need to get that right; I am going to be saying it a lot. The global Not Too Young to Run campaign will focus on promoting young people’s right to run for public office. The campaign, launched by a partnership of the office of the UN Secretary-General’s envoy on youth, the UN Development Programme, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the European Youth Forum and the Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement, aims to elevate the promotion of young people’s right to run for public office and address widespread age discrimination.

Launching the campaign, the UN Secretary-General’s envoy on youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, said:

“Young people have every right to be active participants in civic and public life and it is time to ensure they no longer face arbitrary barriers to run for public office—whether at the local, regional or national level…Through the Not Too Young To Run campaign, my office will work with partners around the world to raise awareness about the issue of age discrimination and promote and expand the rights of young people to run for public office.”

In a rapidly changing world where more than 50% of people but fewer than 2% of elected legislators are under 30, the campaign highlights that young people’s active participation in electoral politics is essential to thriving and representative democracies worldwide. The campaign emphasises young people’s rights to engage fully in the democratic process, including their right to run for office.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said:

“Younger generations are not adequately represented in formal political institutions such as Parliaments, political parties and public administrations. This leads many to feel leadership and policymaking are reserved for an élite. A society that does not fully respect everyone’s equal right to participate is fundamentally unsound. The right to express opinions—including criticism—and to participate in public affairs are essential to ensuring state institutions are accountable, grounded in service to the people.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and how, eloquent as ever, he is setting out his case. Does he agree that institutions such as the Scottish Youth Parliament and the UK Youth Parliament provide fantastic opportunities for young people to project themselves and have an experience of electoral office that stands them in good stead?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come to the benefits of the Scottish and UK Youth Parliaments a little later.

The Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Martin Chungong, has said:

“If young people are not too young to get married, to serve in the military or to choose the parliamentarians who will represent them, they are Not Too Young To Run…IPU calls for the age at which people may run for political office to be aligned with the legally permitted voting age. IPU Member Parliaments agreed to this in 2010 when they adopted a resolution on youth participation in the democratic process. If more young MPs were elected, there would be more role models from whom young people could take their lead and engage in politics. The time has come to increase youth representation in politics and we are happy to join forces with the United Nations Envoy on Youth in this endeavor”.

The campaign will gather inputs and ideas from young people around the world through a series of online activities and engagement, while providing a platform and resources for national campaigns to flourish.

If I may quote one more person, I should say that I was particularly taken with this quote from Johanna Nyman, President of the European Youth Forum:

“Young people bring the fresh ideas and innovation to politics that are sorely needed! In an era when young people are turning away from traditional politics, we must all work together to increase youth participation in politics and to encourage political parties to welcome younger candidates and young people to run for political office.”

I likewise congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that part of young people’s enthusiasm and engagement comes from their right to vote? The Scottish independence referendum was one of the best demonstrations of that. We welcome the fact that 16-year-olds can now vote in Scottish local authority and parliamentary elections; it is just disappointing that they were not able to do so in the European referendum and that they cannot vote in Westminster parliamentary elections.

I absolutely agree, and I will come to that point too. My hon. Friends must have copies of my speech.

Johanna Nyman continued:

“If the last few months of global political upheaval have taught us anything, it should be that politics needs young people more than ever and that young people do care passionately about the decisions made about their future.”

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I welcome this UN campaign, which raises awareness of the need to get more young people involved in politics. We share the UN’s wish to inspire young people to run for office, vote and engage in politics. As has been mentioned, Scotland values young people’s involvement in politics, and our independence referendum was a great movement for young people. With the power to legislate for that referendum in September 2014, the Scottish Parliament enabled 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. Turnout in that referendum among people aged 16 or 17 who were able to vote for the first time, 66% of whom it is estimated registered to vote, was 75%.

Following the positive experience of that referendum, calls grew for the voting age to be lowered across the UK. Speaking at a press conference on 19 September, the First Minister of Wales said that high youth turnout proved that teenagers cared about politics. He said:

“How often do we have discussions bemoaning the fact that young people don’t vote…That didn’t happen yesterday. The case has been made much more strongly for 16 and 17-year-olds to get the vote more generally in elections across the UK”.

I cite the independence referendum as one of the main reasons why I am here. The grassroots nature of the campaign allowed young people such as me to take ownership of ideas and get involved in politics. For me, it meant going out in all weathers to knock on doors right across what is now my constituency, and I ended up running the yes campaign in that area. That gave me the confidence to decide that I would be just as good as anyone else at representing the area where I grew up, for which I have a deep passion.

Encouraging young people to get involved in politics is not new for the SNP. After her famous Hamilton by-election victory in 1967, Winnie Ewing used her maiden speech in Parliament to argue that the voting age should be lowered to 16. Further, the SNP Scottish Government have lowered the voting age to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in all Scottish parliamentary and local council elections. The same day that happened, the UK Government denied young people the right to vote in the EU referendum. The SNP tabled an amendment calling for the EU referendum franchise to include 16 and 17-year-olds, but unfortunately it was rejected. I encourage the Minister and the UK Government to look again at extending the UK-wide franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Like many colleagues from all parties, I get invited to schools to speak to pupils about my job. I was recently lucky enough to go back to my old school, Banchory Academy, to talk to some modern studies classes. When I studied higher modern studies at Banchory, there were probably only around 12 people in the class; when I went back last year, there were two classes of at least 18. That shows the growth in political engagement among young people in Scotland. The questions that young people ask me about political issues are always informed and articulate. Young people nowadays are digital natives, and with constant access to social media, they are always up to date with the latest information, news and current affairs. Indeed, 16 and 17-year-olds are often much more informed than people much older than them.

The Scottish and UK Youth Parliaments and youth councils are good examples of young people being engaged. Those are hubs of active young people taking political issues right to the heart of communities across Scotland. The Scottish Youth Parliament and youth councils have been important in raising awareness of issues of importance to young people such as mental health. It was also inspirational to see hundreds of Youth Parliament MPs debating in the Chamber a few weeks ago. The ones I saw spoke passionately and with authority on a variety of issues, and I am sure some of them could give Members of this place a run for their money.

At the weekend I met with one of my local MSYPs, Kyle Michie, to discuss the Not Too Young to Run campaign and get his thoughts on youth participation in politics. He had this to say about being an MSYP and youth political engagement:

“I have spent nearly two years involved in the Scottish Youth Parliament. In this time I have gone from being politically unengaged to encouraging and promoting involvement in politics to local young people. Organisations such as the youth parliament are effective in that they not only inspire Members of the Youth Parliament but countless others to speak up for their opinions and rights.

It is a positive shift in our culture that young people can initiate and take part in dinner table debates. Young people more than ever have been encouraged to promote their beliefs in a rapidly changing world—a skill which is undoubtedly vital to ensure Britain becomes a country that our future generations want to live in.”

Having been an elected representative continuously for nine and a half years, despite having celebrated my 30th birthday only earlier this year, I encourage young people every time I meet them to get involved in adult politics, because politicians here are making decisions that affect their lives. Does my hon. Friend do similar?

I do. Every time I visit schools or speak to youth groups, I encourage them to get involved. I am going to mention my hon. Friend a little later on in my speech—nine and a half years, really? Wow!

It is important that we emphasise to young people that they could get involved in politics. However, we should also emphasise that there is not just party politics—when I was young, party politics was the last thing I wanted to do; young people can also get involved in community groups or in issues that they care about. Whether charities or campaign groups, the point is to get involved in something that they care about and make a difference.

I am lucky to be joined by some of my colleagues today who are fantastic examples of being not too young to run. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), as she mentioned, was 21 when she was elected to Aberdeen City Council in 2007. She would have been the youngest if it had not been for her brother who was elected at the same time at the age of just 18. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig), who is not here today, was also elected to Aberdeen City Council in 2007, and in 2011 he became the leader of that council at age 26.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) was elected as a councillor in 2012 at the age of 24, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) was also elected at 24. Believe it or not, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) was at one point the youngest councillor in Scotland when he was elected in 2005. Finally, my hon. Friends the Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald)—he is not here—were under 30 when they were elected to this place, although I delight in reminding them that that is not the case anymore.

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

It seems like a long time since I was elected to local government back in 2005. Does my hon. Friend agree that although I was fortunate in having support from the local party network, who really encouraged me to run for election—I had not thought about doing that until then—that is not necessarily the case for everyone? The case he is making is about putting in place that support network for young people who want to get involved.

Absolutely, and I will come on to speak about that. I cannot mention colleagues without mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), who was elected to this place at the age of just 20, edging me out as the youngest Member.

In the wake of the vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump, we saw people taking to the streets to protest against those decisions. It was fantastic to see that passion, but we need to emphasise to young people that politics is not just about protesting against decisions they do not like or having a rant on Facebook. We need to make the case that they should be harnessing that passion and making use of it. The message must go out that “If you think the level of debate in politics is poor, get involved. If you think politicians aren’t representing your views, get involved. And if you think you can do a better job, get involved and run for office.”

I, along with a number of colleagues, would not have run for elected office if it were not for those in elected office encouraging and supporting us to run. Running for office, at whatever age, is not easy, and it is important that those elected at every level, whether council or Parliament, encourage young people to run. I would like to put on the record my thanks to those who encouraged and supported me to run. I would also like to thank those who told me I was too young and inexperienced and that I could not and should not run. Due to my contrary nature, that was as much of a motivator to run and succeed as those telling me that I could do it.

When I was elected, I was surprised to find that the international classification for a young MP is under 45. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] While that may suit some of my hon. Friends, that demonstrates the skewed nature of politics internationally. I am not saying that all our politicians should be under 30, but our politics needs to reflect society better.

It has been a pleasure to raise awareness of the campaign, which is an important step in encouraging young people to consider running for office. Young people will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made by politicians now and will most definitely have to sort out some of the mess that those decisions have left. We need young people to participate in decision making globally so that Governments and other actors take into account the effects of decisions that they may not be around to see. It is crucial that we as parliamentarians do all we can to ensure that our politics reflects our society, whether that be in age, race or gender, and to inspire and encourage young people to run for elected office. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I am delighted to be introduced in that manner, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate, which reminds me and I think all of us of where we started our own journeys in politics and the fact that we punctured through the veneer of the perception of what it is like to dare to be a politician in this country. We do need a thick skin and to be able to weather the storms of the Chamber or indeed Westminster Hall and, sometimes, the exposure, the intrusion into our private lives and so on.

Every time there is another story—however interesting or appropriate it might be—that somehow has a go at a politician or a Minister, it sends a more negative message to someone else who might be considering saying, “Actually, I’d like to stand in politics, but boy I don’t really want to enter that world.” We have to bear in mind the atmosphere that we create if we want other people who are watching this to be able to be encouraged to say, “Yes, I am happy to step forward into that exposure in order to participate in democracy” at arguably the mother of all Parliaments. That is important to Britain.

As a Minister in the Foreign Office, I spend a lot of my time going around the world underlining the importance of the rule of law, democratic values and human rights. We have 800 years of experience of that ourselves and we cannot expect others to change. However, we in this country must endeavour to underline the standards that we aspire to be achieved in other countries. It is therefore a real pleasure to respond to the debate.

How do we galvanise and inject that seed of aspiration so that people do not necessarily stand in politics but participate in the political debate, which is just as important? I remember that when I was growing up, my school had an opportunity to participate in the UN youth assembly, which was a fantastic introduction for us. It armed us with more knowledge and experience of how decision making took place, which is crucial. I am sure all of us as MPs have visited schools in our constituencies to encourage students to participate in mock elections during the election season, and indeed once they become 18, too. It is tough.

The latest figures I see from Ipsos MORI show that time is arguably better spent targeting over-65s, of whom 78% are likely to vote, than 18 to 24-year-olds, of whom less than half are likely to vote. It is therefore beholden on us to try to change that, to get those youngsters, who are the future—they are the ones who hopefully will step into our shoes—to be involved and understand. Unfortunately, the challenge is that there are a lot of distractions, particularly with the internet and so on. People sometimes do not engage with the electoral process until they start paying taxes and being more affected by policy. We need to make sure that we burst that perception, and ingratiate ourselves and engage with young people to tell them to participate, have a view, share that view and influence decision makers.

I appreciate that this is not the tone of the debate, but I am sure the Minister did not mean to say that young people are too distracted by the internet to take part in politics. I am sure what he meant to say was that young people’s attention might be elsewhere—which is the same for adults. It is not only young people who sometimes look at other things. I do not think it is right for the Minister to say that young people are too distracted by the internet to take part in politics.

No, I did not say that, but I am happy to clarify: the internet and other things that youngsters have nowadays can be, and are, distracting. It is the same for adults as well; there is a lot going on in our lives. We have a duty to make the importance of politics relevant. I hope that clarifies the point that I think the hon. Lady misunderstood.

Focusing on the work of the United Nations is important. Stepping aside from the work that we are doing in this country, we have to make decisions here about our place in the world and where we want to be. That is all part of the political mix, and it is where the public have a chance to influence us, such as in decisions on how much we spend on defence, on the environment or on international aid.

At the local level, age does not matter. People are affected by the character of their communities. It is critical to participate in local debates, whether or not people are old enough to vote. Again, it is important for us to not be distracted by the figures but to see them as a target, and to say, “Let’s change this; let’s engage with the youth and with schools in ways that we have perhaps not done before”.

The debate has certainly drawn attention to the hugely important development of democracy, not just in this country but beyond our shores. The facts are simple: more than half of the world’s population is under 30, yet they provide less than 2% of the world’s elected politicians. That matters, because young people are the future. Each generation brings fresh priorities, different perspectives and creative ideas. A representative democracy can only fully serve the needs of its people when it is truly representative of all of them.

While the situation is easy to describe, as has happened in the debate, the causes and remedies are much more complicated. Young people are less likely to vote and participate in the political process generally, possibly due to the perception that politics is run by an older generation that does not pay sufficient attention to the needs and interests of the young. If there were more young role models in politics, I believe that more people would follow their lead. We welcome the valuable perspective that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) brings to this debate and the encouraging of greater participation.

Strong external factors can discourage young people from participating in formal politics, such as the disparity that exists in several countries between the age at which people can vote and the age at which they can stand for office, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Another barrier has been the failure of political parties to promote enough younger people. Our selection processes all too frequently seek political experience, often at local or regional level, or long-held party membership, before candidates are selected. We perhaps need to update those views. That was reflected in the Richmond Park by-election, although not by my party. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) was expedited to become a candidate after a short membership of her party and actually won the election. That shows that the electorate are happy to consider somebody who has not been a party member for goodness knows how many years before having the right to stand as a candidate.

Supporting and promoting human rights, democracy and accountable institutions are key elements of our work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Vibrant, effective and accountable democracies are more likely to create the stable, peaceful and prosperous societies that we seek, and they tend to make for more reliable international partners.

Young people sometimes have to overcome centuries of social stereotyping that can confuse age with qualification. The fact that so much of the planet’s next generation remain so peripheral to representative politics across the globe is certainly worrying for the future of representative democracy, so it is right that we should look at the whole range of ways of encouraging people to participate in politics—particularly the young. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine is right to draw the House’s attention to the UN’s Not Too Young to Run campaign, which began on 22 November and aims to raise awareness around the world about the barriers to young people’s participation in public office.

I appreciate the Minister’s response. As a Foreign Office Minister, will he tell us what the UK Government are doing in other areas around the world to promote participation, not only among youth but among genders and minorities to increase participation in politics?

I will certainly come to that in the short time available; I will also write to the hon. Gentleman with more details, if I may. Perhaps after the debate he can tell me which areas he means. We have specific programmes tailored to certain countries in different parts of Africa, which are nuanced to reflect what is actually happening on the ground. Our Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the British Council are engaged on that, and a lot of work that the Department for International Development does through NGOs is directly connected to trying to get greater engagement and greater accountability, which helps to challenge corruption and all of the other issues as well. That is at the heart of what the Foreign Office is trying to do.

Returning to the United Nations’ efforts, the campaign aims to gather ideas for the promotion and expansion of opportunities for young people to stand for public office and to inspire them by showcasing young elected leaders. The campaign fits into a range of existing work by countries across the world to try to increase young people’s participation. I mentioned the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Educating the next generation about the political process and nurturing their interest is the essential first step. That is why the foundation runs programmes to promote youth participation in politics, including youth networks for political parties in the Caribbean and eastern Europe, with the aim of encouraging young people to engage in political life and become candidates for office.

In Africa, for example, the Nigerian group, the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement, which was an inspiration for the Not Too Young To Run campaign, is pursuing projects that support young people’s political participation not only in Nigeria but in other parts of Africa as well. It is also planning to work further afield in east Africa, moving across to Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, too.

I am delighted that we are able to focus on this issue. It is something that I do not think we spend enough time on in Parliament. We all get elected, we come here, we pat ourselves on the back and then we focus on the big policy issues, but talking about wider participation in democracy is absolutely key. I very much commend the United Nations’ campaign. It is something that is at the core of what the Foreign Office is trying to do, as I said.

On every visit and in all of our engagement with members of Governments, the international, outward-looking Departments—from the Department for International Trade to DFID to the Foreign Office—look to inspire and to make sure that we engage the younger population so that they are involved. When they are not involved and governance is absent, and when there is a vacuum of inclusion, youngsters can be attracted, in the worst case, to forms of extremism, to violence, to crime and so forth. Engagement is critical from an early age. Schools, communities, families, Governments and international organisations such as the United Nations all have a role to play.

In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine on drawing the issue to the attention of the House. I hope I can sum up its importance by quoting the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has been mentioned a few times in the debate:

“Young people need democracy—and democracy needs young people”.

Question put and agreed to.