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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 723: debated on Monday 13 December 2010

Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

Amendment 36

Moved by

36: Clause 2, page 2, line 19, at end insert “, and

(c) persons who have attained the age of 16 on the date of the referendum”

My Lords, this amendment would allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the referendum due to take place in 2011. Only a minority of 18 year-olds voted in 2010 and it must be a major aim of us all to increase their turnout so that they have a real input into decisions that will affect the whole of their lives. Indeed, although he is not in his place, I was just talking to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell, who mentioned that, during the referendum held in 1975 to ask whether we should stay in Europe, his wife had asked their 11 year-old son how she should vote on the ground that it was his future that she was voting on rather than her own. As it happens, she is still very much with us, but she took her son’s guidance, since it was about his future. That, I think, was a wise move.

For the Labour Party, I fear that our manifesto promised only to put the issue of voting at 16 to a free vote rather than giving it the full commitment that I think it deserves. However, Liberal Democrat manifestos not just this year but also in 2001 and 2005 have been clearly in favour of giving 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote, so I look forward to support from those Benches today. The Electoral Reform Society has long argued for this—the society is, needless to say, following the Bill’s progress with interest. Perhaps less surprisingly, the UK Youth Parliament also supports the Votes at 16 campaign, as does the 2006 Joseph Rowntree Power inquiry, which recommended that not only the age of voting but the age for candidacy should be brought down to 16. They cannot all be wrong. Our citizens can leave school, get married, join the Armed Forces and, indeed, have the great luxury of paying tax at the age of 16, so they do indeed have taxation without representation.

Because of the coalition’s decision to go the full five years before the next election, there will be many more new voters at that general election than when elections are held closer together. The question of the system to be used will therefore play a key part in the preparation for the 2015 general election. It will be the first general election for thousands of our fellow citizens—those young people born between 1992 and 1997. This is a generation of vastly different expectations and experience, with different hopes and aspirations from our own. Indeed, I am three and a half times the age of an 18 year-old and as far away from a 16 year-old as the period from the start of the 20th century to the end of Second World War hostilities. It is no good looking back to our own, long-distant youth to think what might have motivated us to vote in the first election after we had turned 18, although probably for most Members of this House the age was 21. For me, it was somewhere between the two. Alas, I missed out on getting the key of the door, or the first ballot paper, when I turned 18 because at that point the voting age was 21; by the time I had turned 21, the voting age had dropped to 18, so the great day had passed me by. Nevertheless, I remember clearly the significance of my first vote. I was 20 years and three months when I got the right to vote and twenty and a half when I cast that first vote, so I did not wait too long.

For today’s young generation there has been a growth of interest in public policy, if not, I fear, in party activity. Young people were fully involved in the Make Poverty History campaign. They have taken up the green agenda faster than many of us. Last week, school students told us to preserve their sports facilities and classes. Today, they are telling us to continue with the education maintenance allowance. This week, we also see youngsters thinking of the following generations of students by involving themselves in the tuition fee debate. We have a choice over such activity and interest. We can encourage young people to channel their concern about public policy into voting and democratic behaviour or we can leave them frustrated on the streets. My choice is to involve them. Building on their current interest could be a turning point in their future role in the big society, of which elections are an important part.

The great opportunity of the referendum is that it is not about the usual issues on which young people’s parents vote. It is not for the existing MP or for a change of MP. It is not for one of the traditional parties, which may not resonate much with them. It is a new question for a new generation and very possibly the beginning of a new politics. The referendum will decide how those who are aged 18 in 2015 will cast their vote, so why not let them, as 16 and 17 year-olds in 2011, cast their vote in the referendum on how the vote for the general election will be conducted in 2015? I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise in support of my noble friend Lady Hayter. Let me begin by perhaps anticipating the Minister’s response. Despite his commitment to his party as part of the coalition, he will say that it is not possible to do this in the Bill, that the Electoral Commission would not approve and that these young people would not be able to vote in the referendum anyway because the Bill will not allow time for that. He said much the same about the right to vote for prisoners. My reason for rising to speak is to say that this argument is based on a fallacy and that this Bill ought to be something much wider. It ought to be about constituency and voting reform generally, but it is not. It was put together in order to preserve the coalition. That is what it is about. It is concerned with enhancing the coalition’s chances of staying in government for a bit longer. I have to say that that is not good enough.

If the Minister thinks that I am the only person who is saying that the coalition Government are not allowing time for the Bill—they ought to allow time, so that we could consider the wider issue of votes at 16, which is his party’s policy, or indeed votes for prisoners, which is also his party’s policy—let me quote from a letter sent to me and to others by one of his honourable friends in the House of Commons, Andrew Turner, the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. He says the following in relation to a different part of the Bill:

“Debate in the Commons was so curtailed that I was unable to speak on this subject during Committee Stage and only for five minutes during Report Stage”.

In a sense, that sums up the problem. There is a case for votes at 16, although I will touch on that only briefly, since my noble friend summed up my position in her remarks, just as there is a case for votes for prisoners following the European Court of Human Rights ruling. However, there is no room in this Bill for doing things easily unless—this is the point—the Government accept that the legislation ought to be about reform and not just about preserving the coalition’s position.

Perhaps I may deal briefly with why votes at the age of 16 are important. For many years I have felt that, if you can serve in the Armed Forces, you ought to be able to vote. Also, as my noble friend pointed out, if you pay taxes, you ought to be able to vote. However, the important point concerns the Armed Forces. Secondly, it should be understood that many young people start to get interested in politics at this age. However, if they are not allowed to express that interest, if anything they are put off later. It is no accident that in this Chamber either last Friday or in a previous Youth Parliament, I cannot remember which, the young people voted in favour of votes at 16. I might add something that will encourage Members on both sides: they also voted by a majority of between 60 and 64 for a largely appointed House as opposed to an elected House. There are all those wise young people out there, wanting to vote and to keep an appointed House because they recognise some of the strengths of that. The arguments in favour were interesting because the young people were wise enough to support the concept of, at least, a largely appointed House.

I suppose that we all think of our own backgrounds. My noble friend was remembering where she was for her first election, albeit with some uncertainty. I remember mine clearly. It was in 1955. When I had campaigned in the previous election, I was belted round the ear by someone with a rolled-up poster who told me that I was too young to be thinking about such things. All that did was to reinforce my view that I ought to think about it a bit harder, if only to deal with people who belted you round the ear with a rolled-up poster. There is a genuine interest. Certainly, I was very interested in what was happening internationally. We had come out of the Second World War, which had influenced me very much, as it had so many of us who were born, as I was, just before it. If you grow up under the shadow of dictatorship, you know the importance of democracy. That argument was profoundly important to me. It always has been and still is.

I should not need to exercise these arguments with the Minister, because his party supports this policy and I believe that I am right in saying that he does. The only thing standing in the way is this attempt to get through a Bill that is about the survival of the coalition, not the reform of the parliamentary system. The Government really need to do better on this. It is just not good enough to duck this issue in the way that he ducked the issue of votes for prisoners.

My Lords, I, too, support my noble friend Lady Hayter. I came to this issue rather sceptically but changed my mind when I was chairing the Power inquiry, as we took evidence from around the country and heard from young people and their teachers. One thing that this House should have in mind is the alarming way in which we in this country are losing the habit of voting. What we are finding is that young people, if they do not establish a habit of voting, do not turn to it. People would say to us, “Well, they soon start voting once they start having children of their own or a mortgage, or when they start paying tax”—often, they were Members of Parliament. Yet the reality is that, if the habit is not established before, very often people do not end up voting at all.

Teachers were telling us that already, in schools, there is talk before age 16 about why the vote is so important and about the history of the vote. Then there is a gap, where a substantial number of our young are still not staying on at school to 18, so when they leave school there is a period of non-participation in the public arena. They do not vote, so they never establish the habit of voting. We should move from knowing about voting at school—understanding its history and its importance in our firmament and why it is at the heart of our democracy that people should vote—to harnessing that while people are still young and interested. That is vital.

Hearing from young people who were clearly interested in how their country worked and in the issues of the day, yet then hearing from teachers about the terrible loss of interest between the ages of 16 and 18—sometimes, it is as long as four years before these young people get the chance to vote—was a lesson that convinced me that people lose the habit of voting. We should take this opportunity to reform the system as soon as we can. I know that many people, certainly among the Liberal Democrats, share this view. We should be harnessing that interest in politics before it is lost. Now is a good time to do it, when we are in the process of engaging in some reform of our electoral system.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Kennedy referred to instilling the habit of voting. My fear is that the subject of this referendum will instil the habit of not voting. I certainly do not detect any overwhelming interest from the younger generation in the alternative vote or in any other technical form of voting in this country. If they do not vote on the first occasion when they are given the opportunity to do so, the danger is that they will form a habit of not voting. That is the real problem.

The genesis of this whole thing is the Faustian pact between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. The Liberals have this magnificent obsession with structures. It is not an obsession that a great number of people in this country share but they consider it the unfinished business of Lloyd George. They were prepared to do anything to change the voting system, while allowing the Conservative Party to have free rein in all its attacks on our welfare system.

I cannot imagine young people for a moment being interested in going to this vote. From over 30 years as a Member of Parliament in the other place, trying desperately to get people to vote in difficult parts of the constituency—we sometimes had, alas, a very sad turnout—I cannot imagine even a tiny proportion of those individuals bothering to vote and, if they do not, I certainly see no serious interest or enthusiasm among younger people. That is my starting point.

However, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter. She led me along a silken path with her felicitous words until I was almost persuaded; alas, not quite. I have form in this, because many years ago I promoted a Private Member’s Bill in the other place to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18. I was before my time, as it were, because it was before that view became a consensus. Sadly, the Bill was talked out, but there was a very logical case to move from 21 to 18 at that point because, about then, the legal age of majority had been changed—I believe that it was by a royal commission—and it was wholly consistent with that that the voting age should also be reduced from 21 to 18.

I should like to bring my noble friend Lord Anderson around to supporting my noble friend Lady Hayter because, while I am sceptical as well, this is not about votes at 16. It is about allowing the people who will be 18 at the end of a fixed-term Parliament to vote for the voting system that will be used then. If it were not for the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which gives this some intellectual credence—and it is the same gang bringing in that Bill—we would not be asking the people who we know will be 18 at the end of this Parliament to choose the voting system. This is not about votes at 16, so my noble friend can support my other noble friend if this matter is pushed.

I look on my noble friend’s intervention with considerable respect, as I do all the matters that he raises. Clearly, he raises an important point. The essence of what I was saying is that, whereas from 21 to 18 there was a logical stopping point, I see no such point in going from 18 to 16. Indeed, I ask rhetorically where it will stop. The real reformers—the people trying desperately to be radical—will ask, “Why stop at 16?”. It may not perhaps go down to babes and sucklings but next they will suggest, incrementally, “Well, having had 16, why not 15 because we want to encourage people to take part in politics?”. They will ask, “After all, this is a newly politicised generation; did we not see schoolchildren on the streets last week?”. Yes, but I am not sure whether those schoolchildren—we are now, I think, meant to call them school students—were or are likely to be worried about alternative votes, or a voting system of STV, or whatever it is.

Would my noble friend bear in mind that at age 16 you can serve in the Armed Forces and you pay taxes? That is a good dividing line.

That is one factor. One could say, for example, why not 17? That is the age at which one can be on the front line in our armed services. One can make a plausible, or semi-plausible, case for reducing the age from 18 to 17, then to 16, but although there are pointers at each little watering place and stopping point along the way, in my judgment there is no sufficient reason to say that one should stop at 16.

I have heard the argument in favour. Of course there are some points to be made for it, but in my judgment it would be wrong in general and, in response to my noble friend Lady Kennedy, certainly wrong to have the change on a matter that is, frankly, of little or no interest to the younger generation—the nature of the voting system. It would be a bad precedent and, if it is to be justified at all, a bad starting point for the younger generation.

My Lords, I support the amendment. I want to say two things. The thrust of my main argument is that, without doubt, 16 year-olds have a sufficient knowledge and understanding of the world to have a valid opinion on this referendum and to be able to make a valid decision about it. Moreover, a 16 year-old today has a level of sophistication significantly greater than 18 year-olds of even 20, but certainly 30, years ago. You have only to see the parliamentary youth debates on TV to witness a standard of debate unthinkable in teenagers of a previous era. If 16 year-old students and younger can demonstrate on the streets and know what they are demonstrating about, which they do, then they are certainly able to participate in this referendum.

My second point concerns public indifference to politics, and specifically to Parliament. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. While the voting age remains at 18, it is all too easy for schools to slide out of providing education about Parliament. However, if 16 year-olds were able to vote in this referendum then not only would the teachers become enthusiastic about a reality that took place while their pupils were still at school, but the students themselves would feel they had a real stake in their Parliament and would demand the education on voting systems and on Parliament to go with it.

The referendum is a highly appropriate moment to test out voting at 16. It is a specific issue, though one of paramount importance, and, crucially, it is about Parliament. The voting age was correctly lowered in 1969 from 21 to 18. Now it is time to put our trust in 16 and 17 year-olds as well.

My Lords, in contrast to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, I have found that young people are very interested in the way in which we elect our Members of Parliament and feel as cheated as many other members of the electorate about the way that the system works. I was with 120 sixth-formers on behalf of the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme on Friday, and I assure the noble Lord that they are extremely interested in this issue and indeed many others. I agree with the noble Earl that many of them would like to express an opinion.

The issue today is the one addressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws: what is the appropriate time to make this change? How can we do it? How soon can we do it? Can we do it before May? There are two major problems about the otherwise very persuasive case that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has put before us. The first, I am afraid, involves the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. He is my good friend in these matters; he so often provides me with ammunition. Those who might be voting in a referendum on 5 May 2011 will not just be the 16 and 17 year-olds who will become 18 before 2015—they will also include the 14 and 15 year-olds. The logic of the case that is being put from the other side is that if we are trying to identify those who will have a vote by 2015, we have to include those who are 14 and 15. That is the case that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made just a few minutes ago.

I must caution the noble Lord, if that does not sound too presumptuous, against assuming that the Bill, which has not even arrived here, to extend the parliamentary period to five years—I think that that would be about one and a quarter years longer than the average Parliament since the war, in an attempt to increase substantially the length of this coalition—is as good as an Act of Parliament. We simply cannot have this debate on the total assumption that a Bill that has not yet arrived has become law.

It is all very well for the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to change the whole basis on which others on his side of the House have been arguing. The case was made a few minutes ago that those who are going to vote in May 2015 will be 15 or 16 next year. They could also be 14. That is the simple point that I am making—no more than that.

There is another practical problem. It is almost inevitable, I believe, that the referendum will take place on the same day as some other elections—others may take a different view on which other elections. It would be ridiculous to have a completely different electorate for two different purposes, with the referendum in one ballot box—

What an opportunity I have been given. Is the noble Lord not aware that there are already two completely different franchises for this election, as some people on this side have been arguing? How hard is he going to struggle to find ways of explaining why he is not prepared to stand up for something that he spoke about from this side of the House again and again? Is that duplicity?

No, it is not. That is an absurd point. I am simply talking about putting in place a major change in the electorate, changing the whole qualification for voting in parliamentary elections between now and 5 May. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that that is a reform that I supported and that I hope that the Government will get around to. Incidentally, her own Government, I am sad to say, did nothing to move in this direction. I hope that our Government will make progress on it before the general election in 2015 but it would be totally irrational to attempt to do it before 5 May, and that is my last word on the subject.

Before the noble Lord sits down, the deftness of his footwork in response to my noble friend was good enough to ensure that those who are putting together the next “Strictly Come Dancing” competition should approach him. Not only did he change horses between the point that he was making, the intervention and his response to it, he moved to a different racecourse altogether. The point that he was making, as I am sure that the record of this debate will show, was that it is entirely inconsistent and confusing to have two separate electorates approaching the same polling station for both a referendum and the contemporary election. That is exactly what he was defending, time and again, from those Benches, if not from that exact spot, as we were making that very point to him.

The amendment does not propose to fundamentally change the electorate for future elections. It proposes to change the electorate for the referendum. That is exactly what the noble Lord has been supporting up until now in relation to Peers, with a distinction between those who can vote, perhaps in local government elections, and those who are citizens of the EU or whatever and cannot vote. We will have an opportunity to address that issue. Will he address why he has now been persuaded by our argument and is now parroting it back to us? What will the consequences of that be for his future voting intentions towards the Bill in Committee?

My Lords, I am just making a simple point. I want to change the qualification for voting in parliamentary elections. If it is possible to do that between now and 5 May, and I very much doubt it, there is of course a case for it to be part of the qualification of voting on the referendum that, as is in the Bill, you are already qualified to vote in the parliamentary election. That is my simple point. I was taking up the very proper challenge from the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that for those who want to vote in general parliamentary elections we should make this change and reduce the age to 16. I accept that. I do not believe that we can do that in practical terms before 5 May, and I was making a simple point about the confusion that could arise if we were to attempt to do it just for the referendum and not for any other purpose. That is all.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, made her argument extremely well but are she and her supporters aware that, 50-odd years ago, only two groups of people in the world could vote at the age of 18? The first comprised citizens of the Soviet Union, where you could vote at 18 provided you voted for the Communist Party. The second group consisted of white South Africans, who made up about 20 per cent of the population of that country. In most other parts of the world the voting age was 21 but there were at least four exceptions. These four exceptions were countries that are generally regarded by progressive opinion as highly praiseworthy, with superb welfare states and high standards of literacy, healthcare, education and so on. They were the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, where the minimum voting ages ranged from 23 to 25. That is not a preclusive argument against lowering the voting age but it is certainly something to reflect on.

I support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Hayter. My reason for this is that 16 year-olds today are a very mature bunch of people. They have been well educated, on the whole, and many of them have studied current affairs to a far greater degree than I did when I was at school. We encourage our 16 year-olds to take responsibility; we wish them to behave well and to pursue active citizenship. I can think of no better way of doing so than exercising the vote responsibly. It is patronising in the extreme to think that 16 year-olds are not interested in how our Government are run. Most 16 year-olds I know are extremely interested in this area, as were most of my children’s friends when they were 16. Some of the frustrations that we see on the streets today may well have arisen from the fact that people have not had the opportunity to be active citizens or to exercise the vote. This is, therefore, a wholly worthy amendment and one that I support.

In opening the debate on active citizenship from these Benches two weeks ago, I made clear my view that votes at 16 would be timely. I do not resile from that one little bit. I served in the mid-1960s on the Latey committee on the age of majority, which reduced the age of majority for certain civil purposes to 18. A year later I also served on the Speaker’s Conference on electoral law, which recommended that the age of voting should be not 18 but 20. None the less, Parliament rejected that advice and the following year voted for votes at 18. So, I have a track record of involvement in this debate.

However, it appears that what we are talking about in this amendment is not giving people votes at 16 but giving them the right to participate in a one-off referendum. That raises somewhat different issues. It is also clear that, throughout the debate in Committee, there has been lengthy opposition to and debates on amendments, which—if the process goes on in this manner—will have the effect, whether it is desired or not, of postponing the referendum. As many people as possible should take part in the referendum, so that we have a clear indication of what the public view is. Whatever side of the argument we may be on, to have the maximum turnout for the referendum is highly desirable. If we are to achieve that maximum turnout, it makes sense to hold the referendum on a day when people are turning out for other polls. That is why I favour the proposal of the coalition Government to hold the referendum on the day of the Scottish election and the local elections, when roughly 85 per cent of the electorate will at least be able to turn out. That seems a very strong argument for not holding up this process. Consequently, we should view somewhat askance an amendment that could result in denying people that opportunity, or at least the likelihood of there being a substantial turnout.

The second issue that causes me to hesitate about having 16 year-olds voting in the late spring—as is implicit in the Government’s attitude—is that it seems improbable that many of them would be on the register in time for that. Even if the decision were taken by this House to change the provisions and allow them to vote, it would have to go back for approval to another place. Consequently, we could expect substantial delays. Practically, their being on the register—which they would need to be if their votes were to be validated—is very improbable.

There is an easy solution to that. I think it is the case—I do not have children but I was at the DSS—that when you are 16 you are issued with your national insurance number. You are known about on the system. It would be easy for the DWP to know where all 16 year-olds are because it would be about to issue their national insurance numbers. That argument, with respect, is not a valid one.

Could the noble Lord also address the London issue? He skated over that when talking about the second election. The greatest density of voters in this country is in the 100-odd constituencies in London—the capital of the country, where there is no other election next May. The damage to possible turnout because there is not another election could be catastrophic. The 15 per cent who will not be voting are not evenly spread over the country. Has the noble Lord thought about that?

I take the noble Member’s point. However, the concentration of the media—the London-centred media—makes it highly likely that London is the least likely part of the country to be unaware of what is happening, or not to have been stimulated by the press, including television and radio, into recognising the importance of the issue. I envisage that being the proper possibility in other parts of the country, where other elections are happening. It is conceivable in Scotland, for example, that the voting system for Westminster will not be regarded as the first priority; rather, the structure of the Scottish Parliament and which Government will take their place in Scotland will. So, I do not altogether go along with the noble Lord.

The suggestion that national insurance numbers could be used would be unlikely to lead to an outcome that carried much conviction.

Forgive me but that was not my point. The noble Lord was saying that we could not get 16 year-olds on to the register in time. The fact is that they are on a register now. It would be very easy to transfer them to the electoral register. It is known in government, electronically, where they are because they are about to be issued with an NI number. I am not suggesting that the NI number is used for voting but it would be very easy to put them on to the electoral register.

I would be interested to hear the views of the Electoral Commission on that. I do not regard myself as an expert on these matters but I doubt it is quite as easy as that, given that the timing for the Bill becoming law is decreasingly clear.

My final point may not carry so much weight but I believe that our 16 year-olds are increasingly very interested in politics, which is why I want to see a change in the voting age. However, I do not believe that in a few months’ time they are likely to be able to discriminate between different electoral systems when they have not been thinking about voting. It is highly improbable that even their teachers would be in a position to give them guidance on the virtues and merits of different electoral systems. We have heard arguments being put forward on the Benches opposite and conflicts between the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others about the merits of the supplementary vote as opposed to the alternative vote, or various kinds of alternative vote. Without prior discussion or only the most minimal educational input on this issue, it is extremely improbable that 16 year-olds would add greatly to the authority of the decision to be taken next May, if that is the date decided upon. Therefore, for the three reasons that I have given, I would prefer to see the system of voting change and for subsequent referenda to follow the electoral register.

I would like to ask the noble Lord a very simple question. Can he tell your Lordships’ House which members of the public he thinks have been thinking about these issues with the necessary intensity to make the decision he has just proposed needs to be made?

A large number of people who have voted in previous elections feel that their vote did not count and that the relevant constituency remained dominated, come hell or high water, by the party which had been there for over a generation. I am bound to say that those people are likely to look at alternatives with a passion and concern not shared by a new voter, who may simply be mystified by what could appear to be a very academic debate. Consequently, I do not think that the noble Lord’s intervention has much substance.

My Lords, it never fails to surprise me that when people want to resist an advance in the franchise all the same objections are made. They say, “These people do not know how to vote. They are not interested in politics; they are just not good enough”. That happened in 1832 and it has been happening steadily ever since, every time a reform is suggested, especially when people believe sincerely in the reform but do not want to implement it, as is the case with noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. They say, “Ah, but there are administrative difficulties. We are entirely for it in principle, but it is so difficult to transfer a number from one computer to another that we cannot do this”. It is almost a universal law that every time any advance in the franchise is proposed, the establishment is against it on the ground that people who are about to get the franchise are too ignorant and too stupid to deserve it.

In proposing this amendment, my noble friend has done a very nice thing. Given that we are talking about a referendum, we are not so worried about which constituency people are registered to on the electoral register. The constituency does not matter; this is a nationwide election. Therefore, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said in his imaginative intervention, once you have your national insurance number, people know that you are 16 and then you are eligible to vote. One could even experiment with e-voting given that we are not electing Members to represent constituencies but asking the nation a question: “Are you for AV, or not?”. We should not be so conceited as to presume that students, or their teachers, do not understand the issues surrounding AV. They can all read and write and people have been reading about this stuff for ages.

I remember that in the 1960s the only party which publicly supported voting at 18 was the Monster Raving Loony Party, and it was far ahead of the electorate in that respect. These really radical reforms always come from the outside, as it were. For some strange reason the Government want to hold the referendum on 5 May 2011; perhaps it should be held in 2012, but they want it on 5 May. However, they should not let that one little thing be an obstacle to achieving a good reform. If we can achieve this reform, it will make a tremendous difference. As regards the point about today’s 14 year-olds being eligible to vote by 2015, that is a great idea. We could easily amend the noble Baroness’s amendment to say that anybody who is likely to be 18 by 2015 should be eligible to vote in the referendum.

My Lords, this amendment concerns the age at which one should be eligible to vote in the referendum. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, convincingly to separate out the arguments for allowing people to vote at 16 on the referendum and lowering the voting age for other elections. Indeed, in the speech in which she so ably moved this amendment, my noble friend Lady Hayter engaged with those wider considerations, as did my noble friends Lord Soley and Lady Kennedy of The Shaws.

My observation of young people’s views on what the voting age should be is a little at odds with the experience of my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Like many Members of Parliament, I used regularly to have meetings with sixth formers in my two former constituencies. They were very different constituencies situated in different parts of the country with very different socioeconomic make-ups. I expected my youthful constituents to be enthusiastic about lowering the voting age but I found that that was not commonly the case. I used to go to their schools to talk to them about the role of a Member of Parliament, the way Parliament works and broader constitutional issues, and very often the question of whether the voting age should be lowered came up. While my young constituents were well informed, sophisticated in their interest and in no sense apathetic about politics, Parliament and their future role as citizens, I was struck that commonly they did not think it was appropriate to lower the voting age. Many points of view and a range of arguments were put forward, but commonly they felt that it was not right to lower the voting age and that they were not ready for that. You can take a horse to water but you cannot necessarily make it drink.

We have noted at a series of elections that the lowest turnouts are among those entitled to vote for the first time, which worries us all. That should not necessarily be interpreted as disaffection from politics, but it is a matter of concern that those in the youngest age group eligible to vote are not conspicuously prone to exercise that right. If we lowered the voting age, I worry that that trend might intensify and become extended. Therefore, there is a case for caution. I would be interested to know whether my noble friend Lady Hayter thinks that my observation is correct and that there is not a great demand among young people for the right to vote at a younger age than 18, whether on a referendum or in other elections.

My Lords, since there has so far been silence from these Benches, I want to offer my noble friend on the Front Bench a modest bit of encouragement before he replies. I might frighten him by saying that I have some sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in that I did not get my first vote until I was 22. I am not going to tell noble Lords how I cast it, except to say that it was consistent with my being a supporter of the coalition. I am more or less agnostic on whether the voting age should be reduced further, although I am bound to say that the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Howarth, have made some powerful points on the sceptical side.

The key point I want to make to my noble friend is that, whatever my view might turn out to be were we to have a properly considered and consulted-on proposal brought before us, I do not think that an amendment in your Lordships’ House to this Bill at this time would be an appropriate way to bring about a reduction in the voting age. So if my noble friend wishes to resist the amendment, whether in the terms forecast by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, or in any other, he will have my support.

I see the issue in a rather different way. It is part and parcel of our long march to democracy. I take as a starting point the situation 537 years ago, with the enfranchisement of some men on a property basis. We talk of the Great Reform Act 1832, where we enfranchised only some 14 per cent of men. The great reforming Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, represented a rotten borough that was bought for him on his birthday at the age of 21. It was only in 1918 that we allowed all men over 21 to vote, due to our embarrassment from the First World War, when people fought and died but were not allowed to vote.

The first voices on the enfranchisement of women were heard in the mid-1800s. Disraeli wrote the novel Sybil and began to talk about votes for women. It was not until 1885 that the women’s suffragette movement started. However, it was not until 1928 that all women were able to vote on the same basis as men. I suppose that my sisters in this House have to think ourselves lucky that we were not French, because it was not until 1945 that women in France could vote.

We set ourselves up as a paragon of democracy that the rest of the world can look to. When we look back, we have actually taken quite a long time to come here. It was only in the last century that we started to look at age. It was only some 40 years ago, in 1969, that all 18 year-olds were allowed to vote. I look around the Chamber and I do not wish to be disparaging to anyone, but that happened probably within all our lifetimes.

Various noble Lords have talked about why 16 year- olds should be brought into the franchise because they can, for example, leave school, work full-time, pay tax, serve in the Armed Forces, and so on. However, we are at a unique point in our history dealing with serious issues that affect only this age group, including, for example, tuition fees. This issue is a huge departure and is not about a contribution to student fees, which were brought in by the previous Labour Government, but is about a Government who are wholly standing back from contributing to teaching in universities. We are in a wholly different situation which relates to an issue that will be faced uniquely by this age group. That has never happened before.

Look at today’s announcement on the education maintenance allowance. We hear a lot from the Government about how everything they do is progressive. Even though outside bodies always fail to agree, the Government say they want to be fair and to help those who find it hardest. Getting rid of the education maintenance allowance will hit the poorest members of our society. Issues such as these are unique to that age group. We have a choice as to whether we bring people into democracy and let them have a say about the big issues of the day.

The Electoral Commission has carried out much research in this area. It shows how 15 to 17 year-olds are much more interested and likely to vote than their older contemporaries. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, said he was 22 before he voted. If the voting age remains at 18, someone’s first vote is likely to be cast when they are between the ages of 18 and 24, rather than near their 18th birthday, depending on when there is an election. It looks like members of that age group are more likely to vote. I personally feel—and research bears this out—that if you vote in your first election when you are young, you gain a habit of voting and vote throughout your life. I think that the whole House would want to join me in agreeing with that.

Another social impact is that when young people are 18, they are now much more likely to move away from home to university than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They are not given the same parental guidance that perhaps we were at that age when we were taken to the polling station to vote. Something struck me for the first time on polling day in the 1997 general election—and I have been active in politics since 1978. It came home to me that that was the first election, after the previous four general elections, when more than 50 per cent of first-time voters voted. I was very pleased to be out of Millbank Tower for the first day in many months. When I was knocking on doors and talking to young voters in the streets, I discovered that it was not older people who needed help getting to polling stations, but first-time voters, who asked, “Where do I go? How do I vote?”. I was struck by the number of people who were not sure of the practicalities, whether they had to pass a test, or whether they should vote electronically. A younger person will be given more parental guidance and be told that voting is a right of passage as they grow older.

For those reasons, allowing 16 to 18 year-olds to vote for the first time in this referendum will be a positive good.

My Lords, I have been persuaded to make only two brief points, encouraged by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Newton. I am always slightly nervous about suggesting that I am an agnostic on a subject, but as he has given me courage, I shall begin by saying that my instinct on this is one of agnosticism. I am not sure whether I have been helped or hindered by listening to the debate and hearing what I thought were two weak arguments—one on each side of the debate.

For those who favour votes at 16, I found the argument that there was an intense interest in different forms of electoral systems among 16 and 17 year-olds very unconvincing. I acknowledge that there is tremendous interest in issues such as those to which my noble friend referred—student fees and the like, and, over the years, in bigger issues such as war and peace—but, please, not in different electoral systems. If such interest exists, it is in a parallel universe to the one that I have inhabited. I have found hardly any adults who are interested in different electoral systems, let alone people aged 16 and 17. I used to think that I understood electoral systems but, having listened to nearly all of the debates so far in the Committee stage of the Bill, I have become more confused as the debates have gone on. I did not realise that there were three types of alternative vote systems and I certainly could not answer in two sentences how the d’Hondt system operates. I find it an unconvincing argument that there is a clamour for votes at 16 and 17 on electoral systems.

However, I find it equally unconvincing to challenge the right of people to vote at 16 and 17 on the basis that they are not yet well enough informed. I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lord Desai that it is a dangerous path to tread to say that there should be a test of someone’s knowledge, ability and awareness before giving them the right to vote; it should be a universal right. We all acknowledge that there has to be a dividing line somewhere on the grounds of age—at least I assume we all acknowledge that—but excluding someone simply on the ground that they do not understand the issues is a weak argument. I have been frank with the House and explained that I do not fully understand the d’Hondt system and yet I shall be voting with enthusiasm when the referendum takes place. So, faced with two weak arguments, one on each side of the debate, what does an agnostic do?

My Lords, the effect of the amendment of my noble friend Lady Hayter would be that the voting age for the referendum would be lowered to 16. Two bases are put forward to support the amendment: first, that those who vote at between 16 and 18 in the referendum will be voting on the voting system that they will be using in a general election and therefore they should be allowed to contribute to choosing it; and, secondly and separately, that 16 is the right age for people to be able to vote in a general election and therefore they should be able to vote in the referendum. I do not regard the first basis as a strong argument. If we as a nation conclude that 18 is the right age to vote in a general election, 18 is also the right age to participate in the referendum.

In those circumstances, two issues are raised by the amendment: first, should the voting age be 18, which should be addressed as a matter of principle; and, secondly, if the House were to conclude that 18 is the right voting age, are there practical reasons why people should not be entitled to vote in the referendum because, for example, it is too late, too complicated or too confusing?

Let me address those two critical issues. First, should the voting age be 18 or 16? The Labour Party position is that there should be a free vote in relation to this. In my view—this is a personal view; I am not expressing the view of the Labour Party—the voting age should be 16 for the following four reasons. First, we allow people of 16 to do things that are only consistent with being an adult—joining the Army, marriage, paying taxes. In those circumstances it is quite difficult to see a basis on which not to allow them to vote. A possible basis could be that we think 16 year-olds are not mature enough to vote whereas 18 year-olds are. However, I do not think there is much evidence in relation to that. Secondly, as a matter of history, we have always taken a time to recognise that younger people than previously are capable of doing things. My noble friend Lady McDonagh made the point that in 1918, when we allowed women the vote for the first time, we said that they had to be 30 before they could vote. That was not a view about how mature or otherwise women were; it was society’s attitude to people. I suggest that the position now—just as it was in 1969, when Parliament rejected the view of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, who is no longer in his place, that the age should be 20—is that society is much more trusting of people than it was before.

I think that 16 is an age at which people can vote. I speak as an expert in that I have a 17 year-old son and a 20 year-old daughter, one of whom is completely uninterested in politics and the other of whom is very interested. I do not put this forward on the ground that there is a clamour from 16 year-olds—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and I have always been rather despondent about the lack of clamour and interest in politics—but that is not the issue: a judgment about maturity can be made by each Member of the House individually. One hears people say all the time, “Of course they are mature enough” or, “Of course they are not mature enough”. I was struck—and this is my third point—by what my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws said. She had done some work on the Power commission and received evidence that people between 16 and 18 and their teachers were in favour of it.

My fourth point is that this matter was debated in the other place; there was a vote and 200 Members of Parliament voted in favour of reducing the age from 18 to 16. So I, like the Liberal Democrat Party, am in favour of reducing the voting age from 18 to 16. I suspect it will happen at some stage and we should grasp the nettle as soon as possible.

On the second issue—are their practical reasons which indicate that it should not be done at the referendum stage?—three points have been raised. First, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said that there would be confusion. There is scope for confusion in relation to this but the people who are likely to be as little confused as anyone are those between 16 and 18 who know that all that he or she can do is vote in the referendum. So I find the confusion argument unpersuasive.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, asked how you will get 16 year-olds on the register by 5 May 2010. That point needs an answer. I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said in relation to that. He believes that it could be easily done because the Department for Work and Pensions has a list of all 16 year-olds because it is sending out national insurance numbers to them. I do not know whether that is the answer and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says in relation to that.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Newton, delivered a magisterial statement along the lines of, “Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t put it into this Bill”. In my view, if the practical difficulties can be overcome—I shall listen to what the Minister says in relation to this—then, because I favour votes at 16, as do the Liberal Democrats, I will support the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. However, I make it clear that I do that in a personal capacity, not on behalf of my party which has indicated that there should be a free vote in relation to it.

Let me make one final point. I regard this as a wholly appropriate issue to be debated in relation to the Bill. I find the suggestion that there is something wrong about debating this issue both offensive and wrong. I regard the debate that has taken place as good and worthwhile; I do not regard it as a worthless debate because no Tories took part, except for the noble Lord, Lord Newton. This is the kind of thing we should debate in relation to a Bill whose self-stated purpose is to reform the way in which we elect MPs.

My Lords, as ever it is a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, not least because his speeches never fail to give the feel of how he tries to persuade the House. To give an example, he said in his summing up that 200 Members of Parliament voted in favour of votes at 16. That is an impressive statistic, but actually 196 voted in favour, on 18 October, while 346 voted against. Occasionally, in his wonderful summings up, the noble and learned Lord leaves out the odd fact that the House might like to have and I think that knowing that 346 Members voted against might help this side of the House.

I do not object to the debate, as I found it absolutely fascinating. The span of it, on the Benches opposite, illustrated why the amendment should not be pressed. The noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Howarth, were against, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, were for, while the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was agnostic. That is the kind of spread and I can see why the Labour Party wants a free vote. It is a very interesting issue to debate.

These shafts of wit will throw me one of these days. In the mean time, I address the problem with this proposal. I am surrounded by parliamentarians of great expertise, who know that there are two kinds of Bill. There are the Christmas trees, which people hang things on—I have hung many a thing on a Christmas tree Bill and had great pleasure doing so—but then there are the clear, simple Bills, whose beauty and simplicity are their major strengths. As has been said on this side of the House since this debate began—it seems like years ago, but apparently it was only four parliamentary days ago, as we gallop into Clause 2—this Bill is about fair votes on fair boundaries. All the other things are interesting and will undoubtedly continue to be debated as this Government carry forward their constitutional reform agenda.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is constantly asking to see the big picture. Tomorrow I am speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Legal and Constitutional Affairs, when I will give the constitutional big picture, or big vision, from this Government. I hope that the noble Lord will come along. In the mean time, what we are trying to do is to keep this Bill clear and simple in its objectives.

I invite the noble Lord to remember his Christmas tree. There are only two things hanging on it—one is the Liberal Party and the other is the Conservative Party. It would be better if he just admitted it and then we would all know where we were coming from.

That Christmas tree lifts the spirits and lights these gloomy days.

The amendment seeks to amend Clause 2 to enable 16 and 17 year-olds to participate in the referendum. As I have said before, the amendment is similar in intent to one tabled in the Commons, which was lost by 196 votes to 346. Then as now, the Government’s position on the franchise and in all other aspects relating to how the referendum is run is that we should follow the arrangements for parliamentary elections unless a particular circumstance is presented by the referendum that would require us to adopt a different approach. There is no requirement here to depart from the standard approach to the voting age of 18 that applies in those elections. The Government have no current plans to lower the voting age. I recognise that there are different views on whether the voting age in this country should be lowered to 16, but if we are to have a debate about reducing the voting age it needs to be had in relation to elections more generally. The passage of this Bill is not the right platform on which to discuss that issue.

There is a wider debate to be had about the voting age more generally and we need to consider the arguments for and against. I recommend that, when there is a Bill to bring the voting age down to 16, tonight’s Hansard should be required reading for anybody persuaded in that Bill. My noble friend Lord Newton, to whom I can almost say “Welcome home”, is right—this Bill is not the right forum for that debate. I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

If this is not the right Bill, could the Minister deal with the practical issues to which I referred, as that would influence me in relation to whether it was the right Bill? He has not dealt with any of the arguments; he has just said, “Wrong place, close it down”. But it would be of interest to the House to hear the practical objections to putting this measure in.

On the practical objections, I could almost refer to the opening three or four lines of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, when he summed up my arguments perfectly. We are determined that this Bill will not be a Christmas tree. It is a simple Bill in its objectives of fair votes on fair boundaries. That is what we are aiming to achieve.

One interesting thing was that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, raised the issue of using the national insurance database to register all 16 year-olds. Almost as an example of how this Government are thinking about the broader issues involved, we are running data-matching pilots next year and we will be looking at how we can use the wider government database to get more people on the register. As the Minister responsible for data protection, I would like to see some of the implications of that. That is why some of these things cannot be rushed.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I wanted to give one point of information. To date, all voters in the UK are registered from the point when they are 16 years and three months. Would the Minister agree that that is why it is important to retain household registration and not move to individual registration? As I am on my feet, I shall ask a second question. Given that the noble Lord thinks that it is not right for this Bill to reduce the voting age to 16, does he have any intention to bring forward another Bill?

As Lord Peart used to say, “Not next week”. I am not looking forward as far as that. On the question of the 16 year-olds, according to this amendment we would also need to identify all those who are now 15 but who will be 16 on 5 May. Registration officers have no power to do that and it would be a real practical burden to do it in such a short timescale. I could not quite work out whether the noble Baroness was backing off individual registration. This Government are certainly not doing that.

The noble Lord misquoted me. I certainly did not say that this was the wrong sort of Bill for the proposal; I said that he would say that the Electoral Commission would have difficulties with it. I would like to know—as, I suspect, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer would like to know—whether that is true or not. Secondly, I said that it would be difficult to deliver this proposal in such a way that the votes could be put into effect. Those were the two things that I said and that was what my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer was asking about.

It would be difficult. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, indicated, the implications of the amendment go far beyond normal electoral registration and far beyond what it would be proper to debate in a House of Lords amendment. My noble friend Lord Newton wisely guided me on that. I will keep bobbing up and down as long as other noble Lords do, but I emphasise our determination to keep the Bill simple and clean. I feel a tingle between my shoulder blades and will sit down.

The noble Lord referred a few minutes ago to data protection issues arising over the transfer of information from departments for the purposes of registration. Is he suggesting that the Department for Work and Pensions has reservations about the transfer? The issue was raised during the passage of the Bill when the matter of electoral registration was discussed. Is there a problem looming with data transfer?

As I said, the issues are not simple, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who served in that department, knows. We are running pilot projects; there is no great mystery.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords, including the noble Earl, for their support for this amendment. As a new Member, I was amused by the description of this as a simple Bill—I am dreading the next ones—and by the idea of a Christmas tree. My noble friend Lord Soley said that there were two things on the Christmas tree. I now picture the Minister as the fairy on top. The image will remain with me.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, is not in his place, but I think that at one point he suggested that this was an attempt to delay the referendum. It is absolutely not that. I am particularly interested in a high turnout for the referendum and in catching the interest of our young people. The more that they are involved in the arguments, the higher the turnout will be. I have tabled another amendment to set a threshold. I hope that those noble Lords who also want a high turnout will support it.

The noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, said that he had already voted for two parties. If in the local elections he would like to go for a third, I can suggest one that would be very attractive. He said that this was not the right vehicle. I had not thought about that argument, but my noble friend Lord Soley was right: the Bill is about reform of the parliamentary voting system and there is almost nothing more important than who has the vote in that system. Whether the voting age should be 16 is a key issue, even for those whom I may not have persuaded. I was asked whether there was a demand for this. I cite the Youth Parliament and the research of the Power inquiry, which suggest that there is. I was horrified by my noble friend Lady McDonagh saying that it was 40 years since the voting age was lowered to 18. I would have guessed that it was about 20; that says something about one’s age. It is time to look at this issue again.

Basically, those of us who put our names to the amendment won the argument. There is general support for voting at 16. The objections that were thrown up were practical ones rather than issues of principle. The practical objections could be overcome if there was a desire to do so. As my noble friend Lord Desai said, this is not a constituency-based vote but a national one—although I may challenge that in future. The real issue is that nearly everyone supports the idea of voting at 16. I would hate to embarrass my former friends on this side, the Liberal Democrats, by forcing a vote, because it would be difficult for them to vote against what I know they believe in. Therefore, I will not test the opinion of the Committee. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 36 withdrawn.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.36 pm.