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EU Referendum: Voting Age

Volume 762: debated on Monday 1 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to consider proposals to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in any referendum on membership of the European Union.

My Lords, we introduced the European Union Referendum Bill in the House of Commons last week. This is an issue of national importance, so the parliamentary franchise is the right approach. It was the franchise used for previous UK referendums. The Government have no plans to lower the voting age. I am sure that noble Lords and colleagues in the other place will set out their views on this issue as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not agree that learning from the positive way young people embraced the referendum in Scotland, seeking to address the democratic deficit we have here in the UK and allowing young people aged 16 and 17 to vote on an issue that will have a profound effect on their future is the right and proper thing to do and that there can be no justification whatever for the Government not taking action to make it happen?

My Lords, I know from one or two words said in the Queen’s Speech debate last Thursday that there is some support for such a proposal. I remind the House that the Scottish Parliament decided the franchise for the Scottish referendum. That was right as it was a Scottish matter: Scottish independence. It is therefore also right that any decision about the franchise for United Kingdom elections or referendums should be taken by the United Kingdom Parliament. This is a United Kingdom matter. We are basing the franchise very much on what is usual in our elections, with two slight additions that I think will be welcomed by this House: Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar and Peers may also vote.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that an important part of due diligence in the policy of lowering the voting age would be to consult child development experts? Is she interested to learn that the view of a child development expert who has treated 16 and 17 year-olds for depression, eating disorders and other health issues over many years is that while quite a few 16 and 17 year-olds would be old enough to make a good decision in this area, many would not?

The noble Earl raises several important issues which will bear greater scrutiny when we come to debate these matters. There is no standard age of majority in the United Kingdom at which one moves from being a child to being an adult. More than that, the noble Earl rightly raises the issues of capacity and capability. It is quite a difficult route to go down in Question Time because one could perhaps argue that some 14 year-olds should be able to have the vote. It is a serious matter, and I know that the House will approach it seriously.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is time for coherence and fairness throughout all the electoral processes in this country? We are a United Kingdom and there is surely no justification for having a different age in Scotland from that for the EU referendum. I gather that British residents abroad are going to get voting rights in general elections for a longer period, but not in time for the referendum. There is incoherence throughout the system. Will the Minister undertake with her colleagues to look at this as well as at the unfairness of first past the post?

My Lords, there is the issue of coherence in franchises for different elections; the noble Baroness raises a serious point. In particular, she refers to the fact that we as a Government have given a commitment to delivering votes for life for British citizens who have moved and now reside overseas. A Bill to deliver this as a permanent change later in this Parliament will achieve some move towards the coherence for which she calls. I am sure that that matter will be discussed broadly across Parliament over the forthcoming Sessions.

My Lords, may I take the noble Baroness back to her answer to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel? I believe that she said that there was no settled age of majority in respect of decisions—or did she say “maturity”? Either way, I remind her that we expect 16 year-olds to take very serious decisions. We certainly allow them—and sometimes expect them—to do so. Those decisions, for instance concerning whether they wish to join the Armed Forces or get married, are just as important and require just as sophisticated judgment as whether they are going to vote, and for whom. Is that not a powerful argument for considering very seriously their right to the vote now?

My Lords, I hope that I said that there was no standard age of majority in the UK. The noble Baroness raises two crucial decisions which young people at 16 may wish to take. However, I gently remind the House that at that age they may make those decisions and carry them through only with the permission of their parents.

My Lords, is it not also true that they cannot smoke or drink legally? There are many in this House—I am sure my noble friend would agree—who were unhappy about the inconsistency and the precedent created in Scotland and who wholeheartedly approve of the fact that the Government have come to their senses on this one.

My Lords, I am sure that many in this Chamber will be greatly relieved that they are now old enough to vote when it comes to the referendum on the European Union. However, perhaps at the other end of the age spectrum—with the greatest respect—in the Scottish referendum 16 and 17 year-olds showed with great maturity their capacity to make a choice as to whether they wished to carry on as part of a political union or not. At an event in Scotland on Friday in which I took part, the Scottish Conservatives said very strongly how much they were in favour of 16 and 17 year-olds having the vote in the European referendum. Has Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, made representations to the Minister in support of 16 and 17 year-olds having the vote in the referendum?

Those representations have not been made personally to me yet, but I can almost hear them winging down the wire at the moment as the noble Lord sits down. The issue of who votes and how they vote, and at what age they gain the legal right to vote, is of course very serious. I have heard a lot of discussion by people who may end up in the for and against camps when it comes to a referendum as to why each of those groups would like to see 16 and 17 year-olds have the vote. The most important thing is to have the referendum and give the British people throughout the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland the opportunity to make that choice.