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Elections: 16 and 17 Year-olds

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 17 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Edinburgh Agreement of 15 October 2012, whether they plan to allow 16 and 17 year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to vote in future referenda, and all 16 and 17 year-olds in the United Kingdom to vote in general elections.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and declare my interest as president of the youth organisation Bite the Ballot.

My Lords, it was for the Scottish Parliament to decide on the franchise for the referendum on Scottish independence. That decision does not affect the voting age for parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom. That remains the responsibility of the UK Parliament. Reflecting the different views in society at large, there is no consensus within the Government on this issue, and there are no plans to lower the voting age in this Parliament.

I regret that Answer; I had hoped for a more positive one. The Minister must be as concerned as I am that at the most recent general election only one-quarter of those eligible to vote between the ages of 18 and 24 did so. People have lost their confidence in politicians and in politics. People are disengaged in so many ways. Does the Minister not agree on the importance of young people having a good citizenship course, possibly in every school in the United Kingdom? At the end of such a citizenship course, they should be able to register at the age of 16 to become voters and be put on the electoral register.

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that democratic engagement is essential. That is why the Government are investing in the engagement programme to ensure that the levels of electoral registration and engagement in the democratic process improve. My noble friend has raised the particular issue of young people aged 16 to 24, but that also includes residents of social housing and all sorts of other initiatives such as Operation Black Vote and Bite the Ballot. This issue is very important and the Government are investing in that programme.

My Lords, I am proud to say that my party is in favour of votes at 16, but that must be in parallel with improved citizenship teaching. Lessons well taught including active citizenship, as at the Bethnal Green Academy, are crucial in the development of our young people. However, there is an alarming decline in an already low number of teachers trained to teach citizenship. Indeed, in too many schools, and in free schools, citizenship is not taught. Will the Minister say what the numbers of citizenship teachers are, and what the Government are doing to address the problem of the lack of them?

I should say straightaway that I do not have the precise details but I will write to the noble Baroness with those figures. However, citizenship education is clearly an important part of the national curriculum, as indeed it has been since 2002 since her party’s term of office. I applaud that. Ministers have agreed that citizenship education should be in the new national curriculum. It is very important, and I say again: even if some do not agree that 16 year-olds should have the vote, clearly they can enrol on the electoral roll at 16 and it is important that that is the beginning of the stage of age-related majority, which across the piece is a very interesting subject.

This is about participation. Will the Minister start talking about maturity, judgment and experience and how they relate to the decision about when people should have the power to vote for the future of this country, to fight for it, and the age of consent? A broad range of decisions is based on calendar age. If the biological age of this country is changing, we need to know.

My Lords, in preparation for this Question I asked about age-related legal thresholds for a number of issues. My noble friend mentioned fighting for our country. At 18 you can join the Armed Forces without the consent of a parent or guardian, be deployed, sit on a jury, buy alcohol and hold a licence to sell alcohol. There are many other sectors in which 18 is considered a suitable age-related threshold.

Does the Minister welcome the rapid development of school councils, which give young people important assistance to develop a sense of citizenship, and children in care councils so that young people in the care of local authorities can speak regularly about their concerns to those in charge? In relation to this Question, is he thinking about the need for children to be able to enjoy their childhood and the concern that sometimes children seem more and more to be accelerated through their childhood?

I entirely agree that children should have a right to enjoy their childhood. What we have seen recently, and in the past, has shown that children have not been given the care that they should have been given to enjoy their childhood. The British Youth Council, for example, delivers the youth voice programme on behalf of the Government. Under the previous Government and this Government there has been a range of programmes as part of ensuring that young people engage in the democratic process and also enjoy their childhood.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Citizenship Foundation. Does the Minister accept that Parliament and successive Governments have failed young citizens in that we legislate madly and do not equip school leavers with the skills and knowledge necessary to be engaged in what is now a hugely complicated democracy? Will he review his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in which he spoke of citizenship education? Does he accept that the status of citizenship education is woefully inadequate for the demands put upon it, which is reflected in the fact that it is not part of the Ofsted inspection report? Is it not vital that we do something about it?

My Lords, I will reflect on what my noble friend said. I have been hearing about the National Citizen Service, a personal social development programme for 16 and 17 year-olds. More than 460,000 hours of social action were completed by participants last year. Young people are increasingly doing an important role in the voluntary programme, and we need to ensure that that continues.