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Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement) Bill

Volume 640: debated on Friday 11 May 2018

Second Reading

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

Let me begin by paying tribute to the many people and organisations that have been campaigning for a very long time to enfranchise 16 and 17-year-olds. There are too many to mention, but I want to single out the work of one organisation, the Association of Colleges, in recent months. The AOC represents further education colleges and sixth forms across the country, and while it often campaigns on matters of policy, this is the first time it has spoken out about such a politically charged issue. Like so many other youth organisations, it understands that young people have become disempowered, and, as a community, are losing out as a result.

Investment in post-16 education is lower than investment in post-18 education, and young people today emerge into an economy that is far more complex than any before, an economy that requires them to have a wider set of social as well as technical skills in order to thrive. The challenges that our country faces are increasingly long-term, from paying off our national debt to picking up the pieces from the Brexit referendum. Those are the challenges that our generation will hand down to the next, yet our political system locks out the very people who will be living longest with the consequences. It is time for that to change. There are many technical, practical, political and even emotional reasons for the change to happen, but for me it always comes down to one thing. Our politics is missing out on the wisdom and insight of young people. Many other Members throughout the House have come to the same conclusion.

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) for sponsoring the Bill. Their sponsorship illustrates perfectly that this is not a partisan issue but one that has support from senior Members on both sides of the House.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will get the usual excuses from the Government today, but does he accept the view of Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who said that until the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 she had opposed votes at 16, but after that process—for which the voting age was lowered—she was a convert? Does he hope that hon. Members will get their act together and support the Bill?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. He will not be surprised to know that I intend to come back to the point that he makes in a few moments.

The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who is not in his place, has been a solitary voice on this issue on the Conservative Benches, but he has been joined by a new generation of Members who are speaking out with real passion and commitment to delivering votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, in particular the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham)—who is in his place—and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). They have been a powerful voice for change on their Benches, and we should celebrate that across the House. It is no surprise that they represent Scottish constituencies, because Scotland is the perfect illustration of why the present settlement is simply not fit for purpose.

Some people ask why 16 and not 15? There are two reasons. First, I believe that education to GCSE level equips young people with all the knowledge and critical thinking that is needed. Secondly, we have the practical experience in other parts of the United Kingdom that shows that it simply works. A 16-year-old in Scotland can vote in referendums, in local elections, and for their preferred candidate standing for the Scottish Parliament, but they have no say in who gets sent to Westminster. I do not believe that there is a Member in this Chamber willing to make the argument that the capacity needed to pick a representative for this Parliament is in any way different to that needed for the Scottish Parliament or indeed a local authority.

My background is as a teacher, and I can certainly attest that 16-year-olds have more than the capacity to make these complex decisions. In fact, does the hon. Gentleman agree that in some cases they put much more consideration into such decisions than some adults?

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and reflects the sentiment that I have heard from teachers up and down the country since I launched this campaign.

Similarly, there is no evidence, and nobody making the argument that since 16 and 17-year-olds were enfranchised in Scotland, subsequent elections and the referendum were in any way negatively distorted as a result of their participation. Now that 16 and 17-year-olds are able to participate in Welsh elections and those in the Channel Islands, it leaves England and Northern Ireland as the democratic laggards of the United Kingdom. Britain has become a democratic postcode lottery and it needs fixing.

We should all pity the Tory candidate who has to speak at a hustings in a future English election. They will have to explain to a 17-year-old questioner why their party believes that English teenagers lack the intellect, experience and common sense of their Welsh and Scottish counterparts and cannot be trusted with the vote. It is politically unsustainable.

Does my hon. Friend recall the research that showed that during the Scottish referendum 16 and 17-year-olds looked at information from a greater variety of sources than any other age group?

I certainly agree. When I held a question and answer session with young people at Brighton Hove and Sussex sixth-form college recently, their questions were erudite, thoughtful and passionate, and rarely concerned their own lived experience in an educational establishment but addressed the big issues facing their community, our country and our planet.

I say to my hon. Friends that we have to engage with such points, and in fact I will come to them later in my speech. But I do not believe that we should link public health with voting. If we do, we need to do so in other areas too.

My Bill would not just enfranchise young people, it would embrace them. By auto-enrolling under-24s and placing polling stations in educational establishments, it would strive to get young people into the habit of voting. Evidence shows that it is a habit that lasts a lifetime.

Does my hon. Friend agree with young people such as my constituents Hannah and Hawa, who have travelled to witness this debate and say that they have their own power and articulacy and should be listened to? They say that young people like them are ambitious about politics and want to express their views.

Of course I agree, and I welcome them on behalf of the Chamber to the House today. I know that they also enjoyed a good hour and a half of the previous debate and I hope that they learned a lot from that, too.

Returning to the point made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), some people point to things that 16-year-olds are not allowed to do, such as drinking and smoking, but I urge Members not to link voting with public health issues. I think that would be perverse, not least because I look forward to banning smoking entirely. If public health and voting ages were linked, where would that leave voter turnout? We must look at this issue on its own merits, based on the formidable capabilities of today’s young people; we must think about what kind of democracy we should be.

Order. If the hon. Lady faces the Chair, she will be better heard, and I will know who she is so I can say her name.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am a new Member.

As is often the case, the turnout in the recent local elections was abysmally low. Does my hon. Friend agree that if younger people could vote, turnout might improve and the result might be more representative of what the general population thinks about issues?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and if we had longer for this debate we would air such issues in more detail.

The Scottish experience in its referendum was that the proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds who voted was 20% greater than the turnout among 18, 19 and 20-year-olds. That shows that young people of 16 and 17 are enthusiastic, and when they get into the habit of voting and have the opportunity to do so, they grasp it with both hands.

As an honorary president of the British Youth Council and a former president of the National Union of Students, may I give huge thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend for introducing this Bill? What we have just heard about the enthusiasm with which 16 and 17-year-olds have so far cast their votes when able to do so has also been reflected in the enormous support that the BYC, the NUS and other organisations have given to my hon. Friend’s Bill. That is another reason why Members on both sides of the House should support it.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I know that, as a former president of the NUS, he has been considering and campaigning on this issue, and listening to young people’s views on it, for a long time—dating, indeed, back to the days when he was young himself.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point about not comparing voting to other things, but we cannot gloss over it as simply as that. Is it not contradictory to say that those aged 16 cannot gamble, smoke or drink, but they can vote? In fact, it was Labour who said in 2005 that those under 18 should not be gambling online; have they changed their mind on that as well?

I simply say that we must look at this issue on its own merits. I simply do not recognise that there is a fundamental similarity in skills and intellect between gambling, smoking, drinking and voting. They are fundamentally different things, and some are public health issues while voting is about participation in our democratic process. We do need to look at these issues, but they must be looked at in the context of the Bill going through Parliament.

No, I am about to conclude.

These issues need to be ventilated, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for putting them on the record. At the same time as Labour was raising the age limit on the activities she mentioned, it also said that it was open-minded on giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. I think we would find that this generation of 16 and 17-year-olds and this generation of young people are far more sensible about drink, drugs and gambling than previous generations, and I think their voice and experience should be heard as we make policies, not shut out.

We must think about what sort of democracy we want to be. Do we want to be a democracy that looks for reasons to exclude, or do we fundamentally want to be a democracy that looks to the future, and that judges citizens on their merits today rather than the prejudices of yesterday?

I am conscious that we are short of time, although we should be having a full and comprehensive parliamentary debate on this matter. I welcome the cross-party support on this issue. I have worked with colleagues across the House on it, and I stand in support of the Bill today. This is not about party politics; it is about civic engagement. I support the Bill not because I am under some misguided belief that a 16 or 17-year-old would still consider me to be a young person but because of the evidence provided by the participation of 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish referendum and the subsequent Holyrood and local elections. So, what is that evidence? For anyone who was involved in the referendum in 2014, it was a pretty intense political process. One highlight of the campaign was going to the Hydro in Glasgow for a debate in which 16 and 17-year-olds came up with some of the most insightful and well-informed questions for our political leaders on one of the most important constitutional issues for our country.

This is not just about the standard of debate, however. The figures back this up as well. The Electoral Commission report on the 2014 referendum showed that 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the referendum, and the commission’s report on the subsequent Holyrood election showed that 78% of 16 to 17-year-olds voted in that election. That is higher than the figure for the 18 to 35-year-olds. I can reassure my Conservative colleagues that those 16 to 17-year-olds showed a greater propensity to vote Conservative than the 18-to-35s, so there are no worries about the direction of travel.

One issue that has been raised is that of demand. Do 16 and 17-year-olds actually want the vote? Although Scotland has led the way, the NUS should also be applauded for the campaign it has been running in colleges up and down the country to assess the level of support for voting at 16 and 17. It has run a vibrant and proactive campaign.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that voting is an entirely positive thing, whereas drinking, smoking and gambling really cannot be seen in the same light?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. Voting is an incredibly positive engagement, although I have to say that I have derived some pleasure from drinking in the past.

On the important issue of civic engagement, does my hon. Friend think that 16-year-olds should be able to sit in judgment on their fellow citizens on a jury?

If we are allowing 16-year-olds to vote and be part of the political process, yes, they should be part of the judicial process as well.

We have talked a lot about consistency today, and I want to turn to whether there is a difference between allowing 16-year-olds to vote and allowing them to drink, to smoke or to use sunbeds, which is a question that has been raised in Wales. The only thing that is consistent about the age-related laws in this country is their inconsistency. In pretty much every aspect of our age-related laws, we choose different levels at which to give people access. For a long time, people could vote at 18 but they could become an MP only at 21. That was changed in 2006. I see no reason why we should not have differentiated laws, allowing people to vote at 16 and run for office at 18. That is entirely consistent with saying that we want civic engagement. People would be allowed to vote before taking the next step of having the responsibility of representing 75,000-plus people.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that if we were to be completely consistent, we would have to raise the age of consent? In my view, that would lead to the creation of an awful lot of criminals. As the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) rightly said, in a cross-party spirit, each of these age limits has to be based on its own individual merits.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We do not need to have consistency right across the board. These different age-related laws are quite separate and they are not contingent on one another. We should not allow them to muddy the waters and clog up this debate.

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point about the appropriate voting age, and I question whether 16 is the right one. I have just left a meeting with a bunch of schoolchildren in the education centre, where they were asking me the most sophisticated questions, some of which—dare I say it?—were far more sophisticated than the questions I get from their parents—[Interruption] —much as I respect the constituents of Mid Worcestershire, of course! I may have to dig myself carefully out of that one. My point is that there are some incredibly sophisticated children in this country, and they can be engaged in politics, but whether they should vote is a different question.

As my hon. Friend’s point proves, age and wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand—[Laughter.] The UK Youth Parliament and Scottish Youth Parliament representatives from my constituency have strongly advocated for votes at 16 and 17, and I applaud them for their representations. I am fortunate to have visited schools across my constituency, from Morrison’s Academy to Lornshill Academy, and the support for votes at 16 and 17 is there in the schools. Young people are engaged with the debate, and they are not only engaging within their age group, but challenging their parents and grandparents. We have a richer democratic discourse as a result.

As a new MP visiting schools, I know that 16 to 18-year-olds are angry that they are not getting a vote. The election last year could mean no vote for five years, which has changed the age gap. These kids are upset, and I fully support the hon. Gentleman.

I could not agree more. Colleagues across the House need to remember that today’s 16-year-olds will be reaching 20 come the next election, and they will probably have a bearing on our own electoral successes.

Another lesson that can be learned from Scotland is how the Scottish Parliament takes forward private Members’ Bills. This is the second Bill on votes at 16 this Session that is in danger of being talked out. The reality is that if such a proposal had the same amount of support in the Scottish Parliament as it clearly does here, it would go through because Holyrood’s system allows it. We need democratic reform, votes at 16 and to reform this corrupt, unfair private Member’s Bill system.

The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the Scottish Parliament, but at the risk of getting slightly party political, I would draw his attention to the fact only one such piece of legislation was put before the Scottish Parliament in 2016-17, so its legislative example is not exactly leading the way. I will not take lectures on that from him in this place.

Whatever Members may think about the current private Member’s Bill system, does my hon. Friend agree that the suggestion that it is somehow corrupt is wholly reprehensible?

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe that the word “cruel” has been used in the past because the system can be so unfair on Members, but I withdraw the word “corrupt”.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made his point of order. I did not like the use of the word “corrupt”, but I appreciate that he was not calling any Member corrupt, so I did not call him to order. He has recognised that moderation is best, and I thank him for his point of order.

Returning to votes at 16 and 17, I was about to talk about the risk of having different standards across the United Kingdom, which should not be the case. As a base minimum, we should allow 16 and 17-year-olds in England to vote in their local elections, as they can in Scotland.

Education was present in the previous private Member’s Bill on this topic, but it is absent from this one, so I want to highlight the importance of civic engagement across the UK and to tackle those who say that 16 and 17-year-olds do not have the right level of education or world experience to take part in a democratic process.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way and for his support. As a fellow Scottish Member, does he agree that young people in our constituencies often feel more disconnected from their MP than from their councillors or MSP because they can vote for them?

As a fellow Unionist, I think that is something we constantly need to combat. We have to remember that Westminster is Scotland’s Parliament, too. As MPs, it is incumbent on us to go into schools to make sure we are just as accessible as many MSPs or local councillors.

That is the point, is it not? If young people in Scotland already have the right to vote and if young people in Wales will soon have the right to vote, and if we believe in a United Kingdom, it is right that we have a united democracy in the United Kingdom, too.

I could not agree more. As a basic minimum, we should make sure everyone can participate in local elections at 16 and 17.

On civic engagement, the previous private Member’s Bill, the Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill, would have specifically provided for constitutional education across the United Kingdom. Obviously, education is devolved, so the exact delivery of such education is at the discretion of the devolved Administrations, but the content should be uniform across the United Kingdom.

I remind the House again that the United Kingdom would not exist without a Scottish king. The political Union that sees the unicorn side by side with the lion, and the thistle, the rose and the harp we see in every cornice and on every bit of woodwork in this building, is a reminder that this is Scotland’s Parliament, England’s Parliament, Wales’s Parliament and Northern Ireland’s Parliament together. We should make laws that bind us together and provide rights to us together.

We spoke earlier about consistency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) mentioned the judiciary. Again, I make the point that these laws are not contingent on each other. Like many in this House, I believe that 16 and 17-year-olds have the wit and wisdom to be able to differentiate between different rights and different activities. We should take each of those topics on its individual merit. If he wants to change the position on 16 and 17-year-olds serving on juries, I look forward to his private Member’s Bill, which I am sure will be forthcoming.

Often the argument is made that it would be helpful to have an overarching review of all the different qualification ages. Is that something my hon. Friend would welcome?

I would more than welcome a review, but we have to be careful that we do not turn such a review into another royal commission and another formal debate. We need action. We usually ask for a review when we do not have any evidence, but we have clear evidence in Scotland on the participation of 16 and 17-year-olds, on how they are contributing to our democratic discourse and on how they are influencing and participating in local democracy. We do not need a review; we need more action.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that, as is evident, those people in our society who are most socially excluded would be more included if they could vote at the ages of 16 and 17?

I could not agree more. When I go round schools and community groups to speak to 16 and 17-year-olds, as I am sure the hon. Lady does, they really are at an inflection point in their lives. They are coming towards the end of their education or course and will be deciding which area of work they want to go into, or whether they want to go on to further or higher education. It is an important moment for us, combined with some of the education measures I mentioned earlier, to engage with those individuals so we can tell them how important they are, how valued they are as British citizens and how their voice matters. It is essential that, as MPs, we sit down with 16 and 17-year-olds, who are the primary users of our state-funded education system and are users of other public services, and look them straight in the eye and say, “I think your voice matters.”

On public services, I recently tabled a written question to the Chancellor on the amount of tax and national insurance paid by 16 and 17-year-olds. Interestingly, the figure for those who are eligible is £2,247, more than every category of pensioner, which is perhaps not surprising. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key issues is taxation and representation? If people are expected to pay tax and national insurance, they should have a say in how that tax and national insurance are spent.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I certainly was not aware of that figure. I would be grateful if he shared the figure with me and other members of the all-party parliamentary group on votes at 16. This House probably should have learned the lesson by now that taxation without representation can lead to unforeseen and unfortunate consequences, so I hope that we can seek to avoid that in future. Many speeches and column inches are taken up with how to engage with young people. A huge multitude of think- tanks, debate nights and academic pursuits—

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. A number of Members have, unusually, come to the House on a Friday because they wish to vote in favour of this Bill, which the Government have blocked today by means of filibustering. [Hon. Members: “No!”]

What methods are available to hon. Members to change the procedures of this House to allow us to have a vote and allow votes at 16 to become law, as is the will of the people?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of order. The first part of it alleges negligence on the part of the Chair, so I cannot allow that to stand. No filibustering has taken place in this House today, because if such a thing had occurred, I would have stopped it. It is the case that we had one Bill that went through two stages and it took a long time to do that. Therefore, this Bill has had only half an hour’s consideration. That is perfectly proper under the rules of the House. His question about changing the procedures is a very good one that has merit, although I of course express no opinion as far as that is concerned. I suggest that he, and any other Members who feel as he does, should consult the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, who might wish to consider the points that he has made.

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When we tried to bring this matter to a vote with the last private Member’s Bill on the subject, you stated that you felt more time was need to debate this issue. Could you advise me on how much more time you think is needed to debate this issue before this House will get a vote on it?

It is normal for the Second Reading debate on a Bill to have some three, four or five hours on the Floor of the House. This Bill has had only 28 minutes this afternoon, but the matter is not up to me. It is normal to have considerably longer than 28 minutes to deal with very important matters.

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

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 26 October.

It will be resumed on 26 October—that is the answer to the question asked earlier. We shall hopefully then have another opportunity to discuss this important matter.