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UK-EU Future Relationship: Young Voters

Volume 792: debated on Monday 10 September 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what opportunities there will be for United Kingdom citizens who have reached the age of 18 since the European Union referendum to have a say on the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union.

My Lords, we continue to take a cross-Whitehall approach to engagement with young people, working closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that we speak to stakeholders who represent a range of groups and opinions. DExEU Ministers and officials have held bilateral meetings and a round table with youth organisations that represent a cross-section of young people, and this engagement will continue as negotiations progress.

Oh. But may I invite the Minister to join the growing tide in favour of a people’s vote, not because the referendum was corrupted—although it was—but because this will be the first opportunity we will all have to choose between the result of the negotiation, on the one hand, and the status quo on the other? It will be the first time that 18, 19 and 20 year-olds will have had a chance to play any part in it, not having had a chance to do so in the referendum. It matters so much more to them than to us lot.

I remind the noble Lord that we have had a people’s vote already. I do not know what he thinks, but I thought that the people voted in the first referendum. David Cameron said, in 2015, that it would be the final decision: a once-in-a generation choice. To use a more personal example, I was not old enough to vote in the 1975 referendum, in which he no doubt participated. I cannot remember much about what happened then, but I might well have voted no, and I have had to live for 40 years with the decision that his generation took. That is in the nature of binary referendums: those old enough and eligible at the time participate.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think it absurd that the noble Lord should be arguing for a second referendum on our decision to leave the European Union while at the same time arguing against a second referendum on Scottish independence?

None of the positions that the noble Lord takes strikes me as particularly more absurd than any of his other positions.

My Lords, your Lordships’ House voted for 16 and 17 year-olds to be enfranchised in the 2016 referendum. The then Prime Minister was determined that they should not be enfranchised. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, those people have now reached maturity. In a general election, one would expect to be able to vote to kick out the Government and, at the age of 16 or 17, be able to vote at the next general election. The same is not being said of the referendum. For how long is the 2016 referendum meant to be valid? If we stopped holding general elections, I might have stopped the clock in 2010 and we would have had Liberal Democrats in government in perpetuity.

I am not sure how popular that would have been. Of course, young people who are 16 or 17 will be able to vote in the next general election. No doubt they will have the option, if they are particularly crazy, of voting Liberal Democrats—who may well put the option of rejoining the European Union in their manifesto. We will see how many votes they get on that basis.

My Lords, is that not tantamount to the noble Lord suggesting that it would be possible for 16 and 17 year-olds to have a chance, two years after a general election, to record their opinion?

People have opportunities to record their opinion all the time. It is the nature of a democratic society. As people reach maturity, they vote in local council elections—or some do—and in general elections, and occasionally, one or two of them might even vote Liberal Democrat.

The Minister’s colleague until very recently, Steve Baker, warns of a Conservative split if we stick to Chequers. Boris Johnson used his usual rather distasteful language also to undermine Chequers, and this morning, Simon Clarke of the ERG seemed to want anything other than Chequers, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Maude, in this House now supports the EEA. Whether the final deal is agreed by the Commons or by the people, is it not time that the Minister fessed up and admitted that this Chequers deal will simply never fly?

The noble Baroness has illustrated the breadth of opinion that there is on the subject in her party as well as in mine. All we can do as a Government is to set out a credible, realistic proposal. We are negotiating on that basis and waiting for a formal response from the European Commission. We will negotiate the best possible deal that we can for the United Kingdom and then, as we have said, we will put that agreement to a vote in the House of Commons and MPs will determine whether it meets with their approval.

The Minister is keen to talk about the Government respecting the will of the British people. How does that square with the fact that every recent opinion poll has shown that a significant majority want a vote on any deal, or lack of deal, and that if there were such a vote, a majority say that the country would vote to remain? Are the Government respecting the current will of the British people?

It might surprise the noble Lord to know that we do not have government by opinion poll. If we did, we might have some strange results, such as on capital punishment, which he might not support. As I said, we are taking forward the proposals that we put forward in good faith. We are negotiating on them and will put the result of the negotiations to a vote in the House of Commons and a take-note debate in this House, and then we will see where we go from there. That is what we have said, and we can only do our best in those circumstances.

My Lords, has my noble friend noted that, by spring next year, the number of young people who will have attained the age of 18 since June 2016 will exceed in number the majority in the referendum that took place in 2016? Those nearly 2 million young people know that the referendum determined that we should leave the European Union, but it is evident from the debates in this House and the other place that the nature of our future relationship with the European Union is anything but settled. Does my noble friend have a suggestion as to how all those young people might have the opportunity to express a view and perhaps give their consent, if necessary, to whatever conclusion Parliament reaches about the nature of that future relationship?

I assume that that was an obtuse reference to having another referendum. I think that the practical difficulties of that are immense. For a start, there are a number of opinions in this House and elsewhere about what any question should be. It would take at least a year—and possibly longer—to get the legislation through. I can imagine all of the arguments; it took 13 months for us to have the last referendum. There would have to be opinions from the Electoral Commission on what the question should be. Some people want a vote on the principle of leaving or not; others want a vote on the final deal. In the meantime, we are leaving the European Union on 29 March next year. What is supposed to happen in the meantime? The whole thing would be chaos. We are going to negotiate the best deal that we possibly can in the interests of this country. As I said, we will put that deal to a vote in both Houses.

How can it make sense to have a referendum on what might be, but refuse to have a referendum on what it actually is? What is the difference between the previous referendum and the one we are thinking of now? You will be asked to judge on what actually is the case for leaving, not on the hypotheticals one way or the other.

I think that if there was a referendum, people would vote to leave just the same. Anyway, we are not going to have a referendum, so we are not going to find out. We are going to put the deal that we negotiate to the House of Commons, as is proper in a democracy, and it will take a decision about whether it accepts it or not.

My Lords, will the Government give an undertaking that in the event of a referendum on the final outcome, nobody will be disenfranchised, particularly in relation to the 15-year rule?

We do not need to give an assurance on such matters because we are not going to have another referendum.

My Lords, in his initial Answer to this Question the Minister talked about the various engagement activities that were taking place with young people. Could he tell the House how he personally has engaged with the people whom we are talking about now, who were disenfranchised because of their age at the last referendum? Could he tell us whether the minutes of those discussions are available and what he personally learned from those discussions? If it transpires that he has not had any discussions, is it not rather odd that a Minister from his department has not been engaged in talking with young people, who are most affected by these decisions?

We as a Government as a whole have regular engagement with young people’s organisations. As I said, the lead for that is taken by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; but we regularly hold round-table meetings, and surprisingly young people come to some of those as well. I have had meetings with religious and business organisations, and others. We will continue to engage with all sorts of different organisations. It is not just young people who vote in these referendums; other people also have a say and are entitled to have their opinion heard. We made a decision as a country, as a whole, and that opinion will be respected.