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Equality of Voting Ages

Volume 636: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2018

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the equality of voting ages in the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I want to begin by talking about why voting equality is an important issue for me. When I first entered this place following the election in June, it was not my first time in the Chamber. In fact, I first sat on the green Benches in October 2009. I came here as part of a Youth Parliament delegation, debating the issues of the day and calling on Members to lower the voting age to 16. I have not stopped campaigning on the issue since.

Voting equality is an extremely important issue to me and to many people—especially young people, although it is not just young people—across the UK, and it is not going away. I am here to give a voice to each and every 16 and 17-year-old in my constituency of Midlothian and across the UK until they can have their voice heard in this place through the ballot box. I spend a lot of time talking to and engaging with young people in my constituency, including young people who run a local youth radio network; who volunteer for a range of fantastic local charities; who help to collect food for their local food bank; who create fantastic items and sell them as part of a local art group in Dalkeith; who champion Scotland, Midlothian and the UK through their sporting achievements; and who represent my young constituents in the Scottish Youth Parliament. There are some remarkable young people in Midlothian and across the UK. They have informed and ambitious ideas about how their community and society as a whole should work. They meet me and tell me their thoughts on policy. They give me their honest opinion on how I am doing as their MP, yet they could not vote for me at the election, and that frustrates them deeply.

The feeling I had back then, when I sat in the Chamber, was that I was a token young person being asked to give my thoughts and opinions without being allowed to vote. I felt that was echoed a few weeks ago when Jordhi, a fantastic young woman from the Youth Parliament, was here speaking at an event with Theresa May on the centenary of some women gaining the vote. She said:

“But it’s important to remember that the Representation of the People Act, given royal assent one hundred years ago today, only allowed some women over 30 and all men over 21 to vote. Despite the journey of strife taken by passionate, principled and determined women, it was only the first step in an even longer journey to equality. It took another 10 years for women to win the same voting rights as men, and still today we face inequality at every turn. The journey is not yet complete, the vision not yet realised.”

I could not agree with Jordhi more. She spoke very eloquently. This is a journey about voting equality. We have come a long way, and we absolutely have to celebrate that. We have to celebrate our achievements on women gaining equal voting rights, but we must not allow ourselves to rest. We have overcome a great hurdle, but there are more hurdles to come.

Why must the voting age be lowered to 16 to ensure voting equality? That is the age when people can pay taxes, and I firmly believe in no taxation without representation. I find it patronising that members of the Youth Parliament, including me back then, are welcomed here for key events, but those same intelligent and vibrant young people are then not trusted to vote. The Minister for the Cabinet Office said at the Dispatch Box during Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago that youth organisations such as the Youth Parliament and the British Youth Council were great “training grounds” for young people. I found that an odd term and slightly patronising. He made a good point—these are great institutions—but they are not simply there to train up young people or tell them what to believe or how they must vote. They empower young people to decide what policies matter to them and then lead and run their own campaigns. It is further testament to the political awareness and ability of our young people.

My hon. Friend is making a wonderful speech that I fully support. This week in my borough of Camden, 16 young people between the ages of 13 and 19 have launched their campaigns to become Camden’s next youth MP. The previous youth MP worked with the NHS and the police to make it a safer place to live. They reflected their views to the MP and to councillors. The irony is that the next youth MP may not be able to cast his or her vote at the forthcoming local elections. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be following Scotland’s success by not denying our young people their civic rights?

I absolutely agree, and I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I will come on to the differences in voting ages across the UK in just a moment.

Let us look at what has already happened in this place on votes at 16. I am glad and grateful to have secured this debate. I also spoke during the debate on the Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon). There were many passionate contributions during the debate—I made a short contribution—but the Bill did not quite make it to the next stage. It was talked out by the Conservatives for fear of losing a vote in Parliament on whether to proceed. I use the word “fear” deliberately. Some say that the Government do not want young people to vote because they are scared that they do not agree with their policies. That move during the debate showed me that the Government seem scared of their own MPs, some of whom I am sure would vote to support votes at 16.

The hon. Lady is making a very good case as to why young people should be able to vote. My party, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, opposed the extension of the voting age before the 2014 referendum in Scotland, but having seen how young people in Scotland were so enthusiastically involved in our referendum and the debate about our country and Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom, on reflection we decided to change our position. We now support the extension of the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds. I look forward to working with her and others in a personal capacity to persuade other Members of this place that extending the voting age is something that we should try to achieve.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I absolutely agree that all parties can get behind the issue and work together on it. I would very much welcome that from all parties from all parts of the House. That brings me perfectly on to my next point. Former Chancellor George Osborne has said that

“not only is extending the vote the right thing to do but…the cause is also unstoppable.”

I know that the Scottish Conservatives are supporters, with their leader, Ruth Davidson saying that she is a fully paid-up member of the votes at 16 club. We can speak and we can work together, but when can we vote on the issue in the House? Or are the Government going to block us from voting as well?

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and congratulate her on her speech, in which she has made the case very well. If the Government are nervous about this issue, surely the best answer is to test it in elections. We have seen the impact the change had in Scotland. Young people in Wales will have the right to vote very soon. Surely by extending that to England and Northern Ireland, we can test turnout and appetite and we can provide that education in schools and then look to expand beyond that.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. As a Scottish MP, I am uncomfortable that some young people in the UK can vote in certain elections, and others cannot. I hope that we can fix that inequality in the franchise.

In Scotland, 16 and 17-year-olds can vote in local elections, Scottish elections and referendums. Our young people have shown that they have the knowledge, passion and ideas to drive forward a dynamic democracy. They showed that especially when they voted in and engaged with the Scottish independence referendum. They made politicians think differently, act differently and campaign differently. We saw some very vibrant campaigns, which were different from what we have had in the past and really reached out to all corners of society. Far from being apathetic and disengaged, more than 89% of 16 and 17-year-olds registered to vote in the Scottish independence referendum, and about 75% turned out to vote, which is much higher than the average for 18 to 24-year-olds in general elections. Even the most recent general election saw a turnout of only about 59% for 20 to 24-year-olds.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate; it is fantastic to see the pressure being kept up. Young people in Plymouth want the right to vote as well. We do not have a devolved Assembly or Parliament to lower the voting age for local elections; we are relying on this place to do it. Whether a 16 or 17-year-old lives in Perth, Penarth or Plymouth, they should have the right to vote. The message from young people in the city that I represent is that those voting rights should be equal across the UK.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and fantastic alliteration. The Scottish experience shows that lowering the voting age could be a key way to improve voter registration rates and engage younger people in politics. The political habits that we form at a young age are likely to be carried into later life, so lowering the voting age could support greater voter registration and achieve greater political engagement in our society. The voting age is not just about voting, but about supporting and broadening citizens’ political engagement and empowerment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate, and for allowing me to make an intervention. Does she agree that by extending the franchise politicians of today will be remembered in a far better light? It works successfully in Scotland. Extending the franchise to that very important part of our communities would be a relatively simple step to achieve some good news headlines.

My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. I would like to quote the member of the Scottish Youth Parliament for part of my constituency, Laura Adams, as she makes the point so eloquently I could not have put it better in my own words:

“In general, we face the issue of trying to get people out to the polls to vote—so why should we actively prevent engaged, informed and politically motivated young people from voting? It can only help represent a wider section of society; and it is a section of society who are working, in school and university, and living through the issues that are debated and scrutinized daily in the houses of parliament.”

She makes a fantastic point about engagement, and why it is important for 16 and 17-year-olds across the UK to have a say in Parliament.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent point; I agree with all the points that she has made in her speech. Does she agree that now is a particularly good time for the UK Parliament to look at this issue? Surely the period between elections provides a good opportunity to extend the franchise. Opportunities to do so when considering Bills on devolution and the EU referendum were rejected, on the grounds that it was not the right time. Now seems the perfect time to look at the issue again.

I absolutely agree. Looking back on the Scottish independence referendum, research showed that 16 and 17-year-olds accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than other age groups. That makes them more informed citizens and voters, disproving the notion that young people are less engaged with and informed about politics. Following the Welsh Government’s recent decision to extend the franchise in local government elections to 16 and 17-year-olds, this Parliament will be the only Parliament in Great Britain that is dragging its heels on that clear step forward in Scotland and Wales.

If we do not extend the franchise we run the risk of increasing the distance felt by young people in Scotland and Wales between them and their Members of Parliament, since they know that their voices will not be heard during elections. That is very concerning for me as a Member of Parliament.

I commend the hon. Lady on her excellent speech. I am in the bizarre position where I can visit one of the local high schools in my constituency with the constituency MSP, and the kids in the fifth and sixth years can vote for the MSP but not for me. Does she agree that that is absolutely perverse, and the Government must take action?

I absolutely agree. It can be odd to turn up at an event with an MSP and a councillor whom the young people are able to vote for, and therefore know better. Young people have a greater interest in them, because they feel that they have an investment in those politicians. I recently visited Lasswade High School in my constituency, and I asked, by a show of hands, whether the pupils supported votes at 16. It was an almost unanimous yes. I asked what reasons pupils had for supporting it. They told me passionately that the future is theirs. They said, “We know that sounds cheesy, but the future is ours, and we are going to grow into a world that we cannot shape.” That is such an important part of this issue.

The current Government, if they last another year, will make decisions that will affect those pupils’ lives. Those decisions will affect their job prospects, their safety net if something should go wrong, how their money is spent, and how their society works. However, those young people in Lasswade High School will not be able to elect the Government who make such crucial decisions about their lives. In Parliament, we have debated the Budget, Brexit, housing, education and jobs, and have voted on issues that directly affect every taxpayer in the country. We will decide how much is taken from people’s wages and how that money will be spent. Sadly, 16 and 17-year-olds, even if they are married, have children, are working full time, or indeed have signed up to serve in our armed forces, do not have a say on how the Government spend their taxes.

Does my hon. Friend agree with members of the Slough youth parliament, and students of Upton Court Grammar School in Slough, whom I discovered during a recent visit were virtually all in favour of votes at 16, that votes at 16 should be introduced in England as well?

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend’s constituents sound very engaged indeed. As I said, the inequality of voting ages across the UK makes me uneasy.

Those who oppose extending the franchise often cite the fact that the legal age for smoking and drinking alcohol is 18, but I find that a very odd and unfair comparison. The legal age restrictions in those circumstances are based on the related health risks, which are borne out in facts and evidence. Those arguments do not hold for the act of voting, which is clearly not bad for someone’s health—in fact, I would argue that it is very good for it. That argument also confuses public and private rights. The right to vote is a public right, but drinking alcohol, for example, is a private right. It is not contradictory for 16-years-olds to hold one right but not the other.

Things that a person can do at the age of 16 include giving full consent to medical treatment; leaving school and entering work or training; paying income tax and national insurance; obtaining tax credits and welfare benefits; consenting to a sexual relationship; getting married or entering a civil partnership; becoming a director of a company; and joining the armed forces. I am sure that everyone would agree that all those things are affected by how we vote in Parliament, so it is not right that young people can do them and their lives can be greatly affected by someone for whom they cannot vote.

There are also benefits in young people voting. Compared perhaps with older generations, younger people access more education and information digitally. They are often very aware of current issues through citizenship education. Some 85% of secondary schools have school councils, and across the UK many more than 20,000 young people are active in local youth councils and youth parliaments, which work in close collaboration with local councils. Often young people have a really acute idea of what their local services are doing, and how that is affected by Government policy.

So what are the Government scared of? If they are worried that 16 and 17-year-olds will not vote for the Conservative party, I would say that they certainly will not, once they do get to vote, if they feel that they have been disenfranchised by the Conservative party. If they do vote, 16 and 17-year-olds only make up 2.9% of the population over 16, so are unlikely to cause any huge change at an election. Nevertheless, it is critical that they have their say.

I will end with some questions for the Minister. Has the Minister met her local Youth Parliament reps and spoken about votes at 16? What are their opinions? What are the reasons for the Government refusing to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds? Are those reasons exclusive to that age group, and do they incur any health risks? Does the Minister consider that we have an equal and fair system of voting across the UK? Does she think there are any issues with young people in different regions being able to vote, and others not? Will she agree to a debate and a vote in the House of Commons on this issue? Now that 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland and Wales can vote in some elections, it would be unacceptable if their peers elsewhere in the UK could not. I urge the Government to take action on this important issue and let us vote on it.

Thank you, Mr Davies. I wonder whether Members will bear with me and refrain from intervening to allow me to deal with the questions in the nine minutes available. I will do my very best.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) for raising the issue and securing today’s debate. I believe we have a few things in common, namely, being elected here in our late 20s and having started out in politics by means of youth fora—in my case, in rural Norfolk. I am delighted to be speaking with her in this debate. Her experience and passion are inspiring, and the way in which she has brought her constituents’ voices here is very important.

The franchise is important and benefits from the close consideration that we are giving it. In the time available, I will try to go through the reasons why the Government do not agree that the age of majority ought to be lowered. The hon. Lady asked whether I think it is okay to have inequality in the voting franchises. I will answer that upfront, at the outset. We ought to be clear that what is happening is a consequence of the devolution settlements. I do not in any way speak against the devolution settlements, which rightly allow the devolved Administrations to take decisions in their competences. That is why we have an inequality in the voting ages. That is how it has come about. I will not enter into what a devolution settlement ought to contain, but that is what it is and that is why the inequality exists.

The principle reason why the UK Government believe that the age ought to remain at 18 is that the latest poll on the issue, in April 2017, indicated that only a third of the public is in favour of lowering the voting age for all UK elections. It is for that reason that the Government believe the voting age should stay at 18, and why our manifesto for the recent election included the commitment to maintain it. That is also the answer to the hon. Lady’s question about whether there will be a debate and vote in Government time. No, there will not be, because our manifesto said we would retain the voting age at 18. That is the shortest and simplest answer I can give to that question.

I am terribly sorry. The hon. Lady has only just arrived and I have very few minutes to answer the important points put by hon. Members who were here earlier.

On the rights of young people, 18 is widely recognised as the age one becomes an adult. For example, that is why we start jury service at 18. Some things that people can do at 16, such as join the Army, get married or enter into a civil partnership, can only be done with parental consent.

The UK has seen a general shift to a higher minimum age requirement on a number of things in recent years, with cross-party support. For example, in 1997 the minimum age for buying fireworks was raised from 16 to 18. In 2005, gambling at a casino was restricted to 18-year-olds and upwards. In 2007, the legal minimum age for buying tobacco in England, Scotland and Wales was raised from 16 to 18. You get the picture, Mr Davies. There are a number of things where we have moved the age from 16 to 18.

Does the Minister agree that the examples she gives incur a health risk or a danger, and voting does not? Perhaps she thinks it does.

The overriding point is that we do not have a single age of maturity in this country. That is what underpins what the hon. Lady sees as age inequality. We do not have a settled age at which one is thought to become an adult.

I have another important example. In England, those under the age of 18 must remain either in full or part-time education or start an apprenticeship. In other parts of the UK, individuals may start full-time work at 16. Supporters of the lower voting age thus cite the principle of no taxation without representation. Indeed, I heard the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) argue last week that there should be no representation without taxation. Neither expression is particularly accurate on how our country works. Many people pay various amounts of income tax, including none if they earn below the threshold, at various points throughout life.

Let us move on to research into the voting age. The Electoral Commission undertook the most comprehensive review to date. In 2004, a large consultation exercise showed mixed results. There was support for lowering the voting age, but there was also strong support for keeping it at the current minimum of 18 from the general opinion polling conducted alongside it. Crucially, young people themselves were divided on whether they felt they were ready to be given voting rights at 16. The Electoral Commission therefore concluded that the minimum age should not be changed.

In 2008, the last Labour Government established the youth citizenship commission, which similarly got mixed results. In 2013 and 2017, YouGov polls found mixed results. Only 30% were in favour of lowering the age to 16, and nearly half were against.

On international comparisons, it is important to recognise that there is variation around the world, but most democracies consider 18 to be the right age to enfranchise young people. The UK Government believe that 18 is the right age.

I have long made the argument, including when meeting youth parliamentarians—the hon. Lady asked me about that, and I am delighted to say I maintain very good relationships with the young people in my constituency— that engaging young people is a far wider question than the technical one of the age at which somebody can vote. We need to engage young people more broadly. The Government are doing that in a number of ways, including through existing measures, from supporting the Youth Parliament through to gaining the views of young people on specific legislation, such as changes in mental health provision. There is a consultation about that at this very moment. Of course, citizenship is on the curriculum in schools and there are online Government resources.

The hon. Lady began her remarks by celebrating the suffrage centenary. The Government are doing a lot more this year, including reaching out to younger voters. We have a full set of education projects. A package of resources is coming out, including in secondary schools, as well as a democracy ambassador scheme and a pack for parliamentarians to use to engage young people in their constituencies. I hope all hon. Members in the Chamber will work with me across parties on that important work.

I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian again for introducing this important debate. She has spoken well, but I do not think the public is convinced by the hon. Lady’s arguments. It is for that reason—I have cited the evidence—that the Government continue to believe that the voting age should remain at 18 and not be lowered. Given that our manifesto commitment was in line with that, we will not provide Government time for a debate. However, that does not detract from the central point that young people are part of democracy and society and that their voice matters. The Government and I will continue to work to ensure that young people take up their rightful place in politics in order to grow our vibrant democracy. That is what we ought to all be working together on, on a cross-party basis.

The hon. Lady and others have a job more broadly in the country to persuade the public at large of her arguments. The Government’s manifesto position won the day—we formed the Government after the 2017 election—and in that we said that the voting age would remain at 18.

Question put and agreed to.