Young People and Democracy

– in the House of Commons at 5:35 pm on 9th March 2004.

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Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 5:52 pm, 9th March 2004

I beg to move,

That this House
notes the concern shared by all political parties at the lack of participation in the political process by young people and the decreasing turnout in elections throughout the country;
welcomes the work of many charities, political experts, young people and organisations representing them, who have worked together in their belief that lowering the voting age would improve the quality of politics in the United Kingdom;
and calls on the Government to legislate to lower the voting age for all public elections to 16 years.

This is an issue whose time has come—the enhancing of the role of young people and democracy. Either we deal with that issue and change the way in which politics works, or we as politicians shall be damned to ever-falling turnouts and rocketing disengagement, especially among the recently enfranchised and society, or even both. That is clearly damaging to democracy, and unsustainable for the legitimate and important work of political parties. Unless we buck up our ideas and respond to the problem, it will be very difficult to fix.

There is a range of general measures that we should support to boost younger people's interest in democracy. I believe that Members in all parts of the House support measures such as enhanced and attractive policies for younger people, improved use of the internet and information technology, and better outreach to schools and colleges by politicians and interest groups.

One recent and overwhelmingly positive development in my constituency has been the establishment of a parliamentary youth internship programme in conjunction with local high schools. A victim of our own success, we now have a considerable backlog of students seeking to gain a few days' or weeks' experience in the holidays of how an MP's office works, and a better understanding of the parliamentary process. I strongly recommend the programme to other Members.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Does that not show that young people are not necessary uninterested in politics, and that when given the chance and not patronised they are very willing to become involved? Do not the tremendous success and the growth of UK youth parliaments provide further evidence of that?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's supportive comments, and I shall come to that issue a little later.

The general measures that I enunciated a moment ago are no substitute for dealing with the biggest outstanding issue that disconnects younger people from active democracy: the right to vote. In this Chamber in 1947, Winston Churchill famously said:

"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time"—[Hansard, 11 November 1947; Vol. 444, c. 206–07.]

But what happens when there is a fundamental generational breakdown in democratic participation? That is the challenge we need to address today.

I want to begin with a perhaps surprising word of congratulation to the Minister for what must go down in parliamentary history as the smallest ever Government amendment to a Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru motion. Some people have uncharitably suggested that if Thomas Edison had been an SNP member, he would have been described by the UK parties as a dangerous anti-candle activist. I am glad that Government Front Benchers have dispelled that myth today, at least for a short while, and I hope that the Minister will use his youthful zeal, as the second youngest Labour Member in the House, to withdraw the amendment—perhaps I am being a bit optimistic—and that he will not be sent over the top to defend the indefensible by the fuddy-duddies, wherever they may be.

The Minister has a tremendous chance to be on the right side of history this evening by helping to lead a change to the inevitable—a lowering of the voting age to 16. Parliament should take a lead on this issue, despite the impending Electoral Commission report, to which the SNP and I have made submissions.

My strong views on this subject have been long held, and the same is true of my party. My maiden speech in this House, in 2001, was on the subject of young people and democracy. Indeed, my predecessor, Dr. Winnie Ewing, the current SNP president, made her maiden speech in this House, in 1967, on the subject of lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Of course, that came about, thereby allowing 81 current Members of this House to benefit directly from the last lowering of the voting age, which occurred in 1970. They include the Chancellor of the Exchequer; the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes; and the former shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Mr. Redwood. Who is to say that the next crop of leading politicians are not being turned off such a career path by their inability to have their say? Why should we not enfranchise the 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK?

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth

In the light of the Government's amendment, which makes it clear that all the issues are being addressed, perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain why he chose this subject for a key Opposition day debate?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am delighted that the hon. Lady raises this issue. The commitment of the SNP and Plaid Cymru to youth issues is demonstrated by the fact that, on the one day available to us to choose the subjects for debate, we have chosen that of young people and democracy. We have done so because it is our keenly held belief that it is an important issue, but I am not claiming that those in other parties do not also consider it important. Indeed, perhaps the hon. Lady will contribute to this debate later on.

The lowering of the voting age has been the subject of much deliberation in the House of Commons. There was a private Member's Bill on the issue, which was sponsored by Matthew Green, who will be speaking for the Liberal Democrats. There were some early-day motions, including early-day motion 746 from the last Session, entitled "Votes at Sixteen", which I co-sponsored. The wording of that early-day motion and of today's motion is almost exactly the same. That early-day motion had the support of 37 Labour Members, most Liberal Democrats, and almost all SNP and Plaid Cymru Members—as well as Conservative and Ulster Unionist Members. I hope that we can depend on the votes of all those signatories tonight. This is and should be a cross-party, non-partisan subject for agreement.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones Labour, Clwyd South

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when the Welsh Affairs Committee reported on children and young people in Wales, one of its recommendations was to lower the voting age to 16? That was by no means supported by 100 per cent. of the evidence that we took, and even some young people said that they did not want it, but, on balance, the Committee decided that we should have it. However, I cannot see the point in going for it now, while the Electoral Commission is preparing its report. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say why we have to do it this minute when the commission is to report very shortly.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest in the subject and welcome the findings of the Welsh Affairs Committee and those of the Scottish Parliament's Local Government and Transport Committee, which also found that lowering the voting age to 16 would be welcomed. I believe that Parliament should be leading on this issue and I will come to that point later.

This issue should unite hon. and right hon. Members in all parts of the House. Intellectually and ideologically we can all make the case for change. The nationalist perspective recognises the growing independence and self-determination of younger people. The Conservative perspective perhaps recognises initiative and entrepreneurship among younger people. The Labour perspective might recognise social inclusion and justice, whereas the Liberal perspective represents individual freedom of choice and social responsibility.

Government Members, if not persuaded by my arguments, may be convinced by the English Minister for School Standards, Mr. Miliband, who recently told an audience of A-level students that lowering the voting age would be a "logical" reform:

"If it is right that you can get married at 16, pay taxes, join the Army, there is no case for saying you can't vote until you are 18."

If that is good enough for the Minister, it is good enough for me. I certainly hope that it is good enough for Labour Members and that they will choose to support the motion in the Lobby.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has signalled that he no longer opposes the lowering of the voting age to 16, so there is at least—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman may have realised his error. He should refer to hon. and right hon. Members in the normal way.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for pointing out my youthful error.

The Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, has signalled that he no longer opposes lowering the voting age to 16, so there is at least some consensus with Ken Livingston, Mayor of London, who strongly supports reform.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

One of the weaknesses of the hon. Gentleman's motion is that it does not include the question of candidacy, which is covered by the amendment. The Electoral Commission is studying both issues. Rather than approach the matter piecemeal, would it not be better to examine both aspects by supporting the amendment? What is the hon. Gentleman's position on the age of candidacy?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am entirely open to equalisation of the right to vote and candidacy. It should be for electors to decide whether an individual is mature enough to represent them at any level of government. That does not negate my point that Parliament should take the lead in sending a signal to young people that their role in democracy is as important as that of anyone else.

There is a long list of important organisations outside the House that support the proposed initiative. They include Article 12 in England and Scotland, Barnardo's, the British Youth Council, the Care Leavers Association, the Carnegie Young People Initiative, Charter 88, the Children's Rights Alliance for England and the Electoral Reform Society. The list goes on and on. Before today's debate, the SNP and Plaid Cymru approached several of those organisations. The British Youth Council was specifically mentioned earlier, and I am pleased to say that its vice-chairman, Richard Angell, released a statement in advance of our debate, stating:

"The British Youth Council supports the debate in parliament in trying to enfranchise more young people to vote, reduce the democratic deficit and empower more young people as citizens. The motion that will be debated on Tuesday shows from its sponsors that young people and adults alike, from all parts of the United Kingdom support modernisation of our democracy in this way. We call, as the national youth council in the UK, for the Government and all other Opposition parties to support this call and look to eradicate the inequalities that young people feel when it comes to the political process and let young people vote at 16."

Tony Wright mentioned some of the reasons why it is right to lower the voting age, but Richard Angell widens the list in his submission by saying:

"Young people have a right to be able to vote from 16; they can get married, have sex, become a parent, smoke, drive and join the army before they can currently vote; this needs to be rectified."

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

The hon. Gentleman has twice repeated the interesting list of things that one can do at 16, but as almost without exception they are all manifestly painful and grave mistakes, why is there any reason to expand the list on that basis?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The hon. Lady makes an important point. The most significant reason for having the right to vote—some might say that it is also painful—is the necessity when earning to pay tax to the Government. I have always been brought up to believe in no taxation without representation. Many of the items on the list might be painful or unwelcome to people of any age, but I believe that those who have obligations to society should also have the right, especially in a democracy, to take a decision about who governs. I am sure that the hon. Lady would accept that.

It was not only the British Youth Council that responded with a message in advance of this evening's debate. Penny Hollings, the national secretary of the National Union of Students, said:

"NUS believes that people at 16 should be able to exercise their democratic right to vote. Many decisions that directly affect them are being taken and they have no chance to influence these decisions. This is particularly unfair when we consider these 16-year-olds are allowed to get married, join the armed forces and pay income tax"— the point I made a few moments ago—

"but not decide whether they agree with where that money is being spent."

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

Are not some of the interventions from Labour Members rather curious, coming from a party that prides itself on extending the franchise and the rights of individuals? They seem to question the hon. Gentleman's purpose in seeking to extend the franchise to those who are currently disfranchised, but I cannot think of many issues more important than that.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but I would rather not go down the partisan route this evening because I am trying to persuade right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to vote with the SNP and Plaid Cymru on this important motion. I will not therefore be diverted down the hon. Gentleman's route.

We should reflect on clear examples of what has happened when the voting age has been lowered, to see what advantages it has brought It applies to several of Germany's Lander, which reduced the voting age for participation in municipal elections. In Hanover, for example, the turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds was higher than that of those aged between 18 and 35. Admittedly with limited evidence, I believe that lowering the voting age can bring about the bonus of dealing with the disconnection that I warned about in my introductory remarks.

Enthusiasm for supporting democracy among 16 and 17-year-olds is evident wherever one chooses to look—from participation in, and support for, single issue campaigns to the recent demonstrations on Iraq. That has been recognised even by Downing street, with the Prime Minister making a special appearance on MTV to justify the decision to go to war with Iraq. I note with interest that the closing date has just passed in the competition by the Electoral Commission and MTV entitled "Votes are Action". The competition was open to people aged between 14 and 24, and it challenged participants to come up with a creative response to the phrase "Turn Opinion into Action". Perhaps MPs should tune into MTV and get inspiration from the competition entries. I suppose that I should declare that that is not a covert attempt to wangle a free ticket to next year's MTV music awards.

My experience in my constituency bears out the theory that 16 and 17-year-olds are interested in democracy. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties have also had that positive experience. I regularly seek the views of modern studies pupils in the senior schools in my constituency—the Buckie, Elgin, Forres, Lossiemouth, Milnes and Spayside high schools, as well as Elgin Academy and Gordonstoun.

The replies from students are detailed and convincing. On the question of lowering the voting age to 16, the responses have been overwhelming—and overwhelmingly in favour. That is the case elsewhere in the country: 80 per cent. of correspondents on the "Young Scot" website are in favour, and the comments to be found there are also instructive.

Mojo writes:

"I am 16 and think that I should be allowed to vote, because I probably care more about politics than some people that can vote . . . I think that if the law treats you as an adult you, as an adult, should be able to have your say in the country—young people are the future!"

As was noted earlier, that view is not universal. JonnyG writes:

"But do you think that everybody who is 16 is responsible enough to use their vote—I mean—do we really want the monster raving loony party voted into parliament? (or conservatives for that matter)"

There are mixed opinions, but I note with interest the summary of the big conversation forum. Apparently, it is a big conversation on voting age and youth apathy, and the biggest single group among those sampled supports lowering the voting age to 16.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore

I pledge my support to the principle of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I firmly believe that the voting age should be lowered. People aged between 16 and 18 are often criticised for not being mature enough to vote, yet the same could be said about people who are much older. It is not so much a question of age as of maturity, and whether people look seriously at the political climate.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The hon. Gentleman has come as close as he dare to endorsing the views of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru without getting into difficulty with his Whips. I welcome wholeheartedly the logic of the case that he makes.

I am not in favour of limiting the franchise to any group above the age of 16, but I certainly do not think that 16 and 17-year-olds should be excluded.

I do not want to leave the big conversation website just yet, as I want to refer to an interesting contribution from a person named Andy Bannister. He writes:

"A better step would be to consider why turnouts are falling—a general lack of respect in politics. When one watches the performance of politicians of all stripes in the House, is there any wonder? You act like a bunch of year-7s, cheering and booing, trying to score cheap points and refusing to accept anybody on the other side of the house might have a valid point. Grow up and act like the elected representatives you are, and respect might begin to return."

With so much consensus so far this evening, I think that we will be able to offer a good example and show that Mr. Bannister's concerns are unfounded. That is the opportunity presented to the House this evening. We must lead the debate about young people and democracy in a consensual way. The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru strongly support imaginative ways to encourage younger people's interest in democracy.

There is no substitute for addressing the real and substantive issue of the voting age. Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru Members believe, along with many other hon. Members, that the voting age needs to be reformed. Parliament should lead, and it has the chance to do so tonight. I hope that, in the spirit of non-partisanship, hon. Members from all parties will vote with us and send a strong signal to younger citizens that their views really count.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 6:14 pm, 9th March 2004

I beg to move, To leave out from "Kingdom" to end and add

"but notes that the independent Electoral Commission's review of voting age and candidacy age is soon to be published and that the Government will carefully consider its conclusions, alongside the work of other organisations".

As Angus Robertson says, the participation of all people in our democracy is one of the most important issues that we can possibly discuss, and the participation of young people is especially important. The debate transcends party politics and crosses the political divide. All hon. Members have a collective responsibility to capture the imagination of our constituents, engage their interest and have an ongoing dialogue with all parts of society, young and old.

The Government, and many other organisations, are working hard in a variety of ways to focus on engaging younger people in our political process. However, there is no quick-fix solution, and that is where we disagree with the approach adopted by the hon. Member for Moray, and in particular with the suggestion that lowering the voting age is the definite solution to low turnout by young people in elections. Our concise but perfectly formed amendment suggests that we should continue to examine the issue while bearing it in mind that the Electoral Commission is studying the impact of any such changes alongside the potential impact of other steps that we could take.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore

To row back rapidly, although I agree firmly in principle with lowering the voting age, we should not prejudge the issue. Like most hon. Members, I would never want to be accused of premature extrapolation.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am not sure about the allusion made by my hon. Friend, but I am glad that he has rowed back. The Electoral Commission is examining voting at 16, and it is prudent to wait for its report.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

The Government amendment mentions the Electoral Commission, but it does not say whether the Government will accept the commission's findings. If it comes out in favour of votes at 16, will the Government implement the policy?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

It is probably better not to be premature about the matter and to wait for the Electoral Commission's report to be published. At that point, we can decide whether we accept its advice and recommendation. Ultimately, the commission provides advice, but it is for Ministers, Parliament and the House of Commons to make final decisions, and I am sure that the debate will continue.

We should remember why the issue is important in the first place. This point may be obvious, but good governance and high-quality future decision making depend on young people participating in elections and taking part in decision making and government. The situation is not a complete disaster. Some younger people are interested and even active in politics. Believe it or not, I was once a young Member of Parliament. In May, I will have been in continuous elected office for 10 years—I was elected as a councillor in Bradford at 21, which was an honour and a privilege. I am glad that younger politicians are entering the political arena in all political parties, but especially in the Labour party.

It is not possible to claim that all young people are apathetic and disengaged. Although we cannot generalise, people aged between 18 and 24 are comparatively less likely to vote than those from older age groups. As MPs, we hear time and again that many younger people are not interested in our political institutions and are not impressed by traditional forms of communication between candidates and electors. What are the solutions to those problems? The hon. Member for Moray and many of my hon. Friends suggest that lowering the voting age to 16 may be one solution. The suggestion is interesting and has been made by individuals in several parties, including the Labour party, over the years. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs said as recently as December that we must be open-minded and listen to the arguments, and we have posed the question in our current big conversation.

Voting at 16 might be an option, but although we are happy to encourage the debate, we must also recognise that there are problems. The House declined to support votes at 16 by 434 votes to 36 when the matter was last debated in 1999. Consequential questions about the wider age of majority might flow from a decision to allow voting at 16. We are open-minded on the issue, and the Electoral Commission will publish its report shortly.

The commission is also looking closely at the age of candidacy, as not just voting but active participation in the political process matters. On candidacy, the minimum age for standing for election to Parliament was fixed—I assure the House that this is true—by the Parliamentary Elections Act 1695, and the age of candidacy for local elections was set in the Local Government Act 1972. They do, therefore, seem overdue for review. In the meantime, the Scottish Parliament is considering the Local Governance (Scotland) Bill, which proposes reducing the age for standing in local elections from 21 to 18. Local elections are devolved matters, but we will follow the passage of that Scottish proposal very closely.

Nevertheless, the Government believe that the challenge of voter engagement and poor turnout requires more than changes to the franchise or the age of candidacy. The key to increasing turnout among younger people is to stimulate their interest in politics and to demonstrate that participation is a worthwhile and effective use of their time. The issues and policy options offered by political parties are therefore crucial, and all Members of Parliament have a responsibility to persuade younger constituents that their voices count. I am pleased that the Labour Government are playing their part in focusing on that issue and taking action in several different ways.

For example, we have the "Yvote?/Ynot?" campaign, under the auspices of the children and young people's unit, which has sought to gauge the views of younger people about the political process and how interest in it could be improved. We have had a tour of regional meetings involving hundreds of young people in discussion with 17 Ministers in total. A website funded by the Department for Education and Skills and the Hansard Society has been designed as an interactive resource for teaching. The UK Youth Parliament, which has already been mentioned and with which many hon. Members will be familiar, has received £165,000 of Government support this year. We have many other initiatives, including the very successful Scottish Youth Parliament, to which I know the First Minister has given his close support. That shows great promise, and we are happy to continue to encourage such projects.

At local government level, in Scotland and in England and Wales, I know that councillors and council officials are working with schools and colleges to bring younger people into the decision-making process. In my own city, the council has supported the Bradford Youth Parliament, which involved elections of non-party candidates in secondary schools across the district. Young people were not only the candidates, but got involved in scrutineering and running the polling stations and the ballot. That was a worthwhile exercise.

The Electoral Commission has also taken a lead in advising on policy. Since its creation in 2000, it has initiated a wide array of policy mechanisms, including the "Votes are Power" campaign, which sent birthday cards to those reaching 18, encouraging them to use their vote. A publication targeted at first-time voters, entitled "An Easy Guide to Voting" has been widely distributed. Another initiative has been a team of outreach workers, which has travelled across the country to raise awareness of the voting process with young people outside the school environment. The Electoral Commission is to be commended for that work.

Perhaps the most significant change is in school education. In England, citizenship education is now part of the curriculum in both primary and secondary schools. Since September 2002, it has been a compulsory subject for 11 to 14-year-olds. Citizenship education has three interrelated elements—community involvement, political literacy, and social and moral responsibilities. We believe that citizenship education in England empowers young people to discuss and debate issues affecting them and helps to stimulate their active participation in society.

In Scotland, while there is no statutory curriculum, I understand that the Scottish Executive have produced guidance that seeks to ensure breadth in the curriculum, so that teaching can touch on the duties and responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society. In Wales, citizenship education forms part of the personal and social education framework implemented in September 2000. In Northern Ireland, I understand, my ministerial colleagues are considering proposals on citizenship education for school curriculums.

Encouraging participation for all ages is not just about informing the electorate. There are also ways in which we can make voting easier, simpler and more convenient. We should continue to look at new ways of making the process and mechanics of casting a ballot more appropriate to modern lifestyles and try out ideas for taking the vote to the citizen, rather than requiring the citizen to overcome obstacles in order to voice his or her opinion.

We debated all-postal voting pilots only yesterday. We should recognise the beneficial impact that that method may well have on turnout. It is also important to explore the possibilities offered by new technology, whether voting by telephone, internet, e-mail or even digital television, which might reach out to electors who might otherwise not go to the polling station. In short, electors should have as much choice as possible to decide how they cast their vote and which option is the most convenient for them. We aim to provide that greater choice, and piloting is a prelude to that.

Whether in the political or the social realm, active citizenship by all in society is clearly a desirable goal from which we all benefit. Taking an interest in our communities, looking after our neighbours, reporting crimes to the police, volunteering for good causes, and activism in civic affairs and politics, even if it is simply voting or writing to councillors or MPs, or joining political parties, are the glue that helps our society stick together.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

All that is fair enough, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to do more in this debating Chamber to engage young people? We have to start discussing issues that interest and excite them. Can the Minister think of anything that has been brought to the Floor of the House in the past year that has been of great interest to young people and has been a matter that they could positively engage in?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I can think of many examples of such issues. It would be wrong to pigeonhole young people as supposedly interested only in particular niche issues. I think that young people are as interested in the quality of public services, the level of taxation, the nature of the constitution, international poverty and so on as any other member of society. It is how we engage with young people that makes the difference. It is clear that there is widespread support across all parties for engaging younger people in our democratic process, even if there is a slightly different emphasis among the parties on the precise way of doing it.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

For the record, will the Minister say whether he agrees with his colleague the Minister for School Standards that, if someone can get married at 16, pay taxes and join the Army, there is no case for saying that that person cannot vote until he or she is 18?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody, in effect suggested that one does not have to be married or pay taxes in order to vote. These matters are not all interrelated; thankfully, they are mutually exclusive. We should look simply at the voting age.

We are open-minded about the matter. I have not formed my own conclusions, and nor have the Government. We want to look at the debate that is taking place. In particular, it would be wrong to pre-empt the Electoral Commission's views and study. It would be sensible to proceed by looking at what it says. We shall no doubt return to the matter after that.

With that in mind, I urge the House to decline the motion and support the Government's amendment.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 6:28 pm, 9th March 2004

I congratulate the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru on securing this debate, which is on an extremely important issue. I also congratulate Angus Robertson on the way in which he introduced it, very constructively and eloquently. I think he was genuinely trying to work for a cross-party consensus. Whether he will manage to achieve it is, of course, another matter entirely.

It is, as always, a pleasure to follow the Minister, who, in his normal, charming, Radio 2 easy-listening voice, can talk eloquently about virtually everything. I agreed with a great deal of what he said about the measures the Government have taken. I think there is genuine cross-party consensus that more must be done to address this issue.

I was surprised that the Minister did not have a view on the main issue in the motion. The Electoral Commission asked all parties to submit their views and it is most peculiar that the Government—or the Labour party—do not appear to have submitted an opinion. For the Government not to react until the commission produces its findings seems a peculiar way to proceed.

I have no doubt as to the seriousness of young people's disaffection with politics—or, more accurately their disaffection with the political process. In general, as the Minister said, young people are extraordinarily interested in the issues; their dissatisfaction is with the way in which politicians, and especially the House, deal with many of those issues. Fewer than 40 per cent. of first-time voters voted in the last general election, and turnout is likely to be even lower in the European and local elections later this year. Pensioners are almost twice as likely as first-time voters to vote in a general election.

I believe that, although the nationalists have correctly identified a problem, they have come to the wrong conclusion. Of course, some 16-year-olds are very ready to vote. Many Members—especially the Minister—were probably ready to vote when we were 10, 11 or 12 and we would have been delighted if the voting age had been reduced when we were young, but we had to wait. However, my experience of talking to youth groups and students throughout the country and from the straw polls that I have taken in schools and colleges shows that there is no clear majority in favour of change. Those who are politically involved and aware are certainly keen to see the voting age reduced, but that is not the case for the majority of younger people.

Moreover, a voting age of 16 is not an international symbol of democracy. There are only nine countries where one can vote in general elections at the age of 16 or 17; they include Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Sudan, so the message is that people can vote at 16 as long as they vote for the one candidate on offer.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Perhaps the reduction of the voting age in German Lander is a new factor. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the democracy of Germany is comparable with dictatorships? Surely, democracies, too, can change and give 16 or 17-year-olds the option to vote.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Of the nine countries that allow voting at that age in general elections, four are dictatorships of one type or another and five are democracies. However, no European country allows it in general elections, although Germany allows it in local elections. The hon. Gentleman said in his opening comments that the voting age was the outstanding issue affecting young people, but that is not felt to be the case almost anywhere else in the democratic world.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

When we rightly gave women the vote almost a century ago, we were among the first countries to do so. Following the hon. Gentleman's logic, we should never have given women the vote on the basis that other countries have not done so. Why can we not lead the world on the reduction of the voting age?

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

In a moment, I want to discuss why that is a bogus argument and distracts us from the key issues that lead to young people being disaffected with politics and politicians.

There is no common age of majority. One can do many things at the age of 18; for example, one can buy alcohol and obtain credit. In effect, people cannot drive until they are almost 18: most have almost reached that age before they pass their test. However, I want to take head-on the bogus arguments that have already been mentioned; for example, that one can join the Army at the age of 16. A 16-year-old can join the Army with their parents' permission, but they cannot be put on front-line duty until they are 17, or 18 for international duties. The reality is that most young people cannot freely join the Army until they are 18.

The point has been made that people pay tax at the age of 16. My five-year-old pays VAT on the sweeties he buys with his weekly pocket money—[Interruption.] He gets far too much pocket money. However, no one is suggesting that because he and other children pay VAT they should be entitled to vote, although he would probably think it was a good idea.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Economy and Taxation; Education & Skills; Miner's Compensation; Regeneration; Trade & Industry)

European Union visitors to the UK also pay VAT, but that is not an argument for them being given a vote. The distinction relates to income tax, which is based on being domiciled in the UK.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I understand the distinction that is being drawn, but the reality is that 90 per cent. of 16-year-olds do not pay income tax—only a small proportion of them do so. Those who have put the case for change to the Electoral Commission may want to consider the argument about no taxation without representation. If people pay tax, they should be entitled to vote, but that does not justify giving the vote to the overwhelming majority of that age group, to whom that does not apply.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

The historians in the House may correct me, but I believe that the original cry of no taxation without representation was applied to tea duties—an indirect tax, not a direct tax.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is, as ever, wise and well informed, and I am grateful to him for his support in these matters.

Reference has also been made to the age at which people are allowed to get married. The situation is different in Scotland, but certainly in England and Wales, people can marry at the age of 16 only if they have their parents' consent. No one would suggest that people should be allowed to vote at the age of 16 only if they have their parents' consent. Such arguments do not apply generally. One in 500 girls and one in 1,000 boys get married at the age of 16. To trot out such things as though they were the norm is decidedly misleading, but we are finding that they are being used to try to turn our minds away from the real reasons why young people are not getting involved in politics and not taking an interest in what is going on.

My belief is that young people are not voting because they do not see politics as being relevant or addressing the issues that concern them, as Pete Wishart was saying just now. Rather than considering an extension of the voting age, our priority should be to motivate the 60 per cent. of those who could vote for the first time but do not bother to do so to get out and use their votes.

Charter 88 and the YMCA found in a survey in 2002 that 90 per cent. of 16 to 22-year-olds would be more likely to vote if the parties addressed the issues that matter most to young people. Even though a survey carried out by the children and young people's unit in 2002 showed that just 40 per cent. of 14 to 19-year-olds had some or a great interest in politics, it also showed that 76 per cent. of that age group thought that they should be taught more about politics while in school. So young people clearly have a great desire to have a better understanding of the way in which such issues are addressed.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the argument that lowering the voting age increases participation is not sustained by the figures for those aged between 18 and 25? Participation is lower in that age group than in any other.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. No one has ever told me that they did not vote when they were 18 because they were not allowed to do so when they were 16. There is no connection between the two.

We need to consider the issues that are of greatest concern to young people themselves. Many people say that young people are primarily concerned with the environment and international affairs, particularly in developing countries. That is of passionate importance to a few, but not to the majority of young people, who are concerned most about issues that are closer to home, such as their safety on the street. They are profoundly concerned about crime. One of the things that politicians so often get wrong is the language that we use in addressing those issues. Too often, the words that young people hear used in the House or that they read in the newspapers refer to young offenders, as though young people are constantly waiting behind the bus shelter for the next elderly lady to come along so that they can hit her over the head and steal her purse while they are waiting to daub the next bit of graffiti on the back of the wall.

The reality is that young people are much more likely to be the victims of crime than any other section of the community, and we need to talk in a way that reflects that problem and their anxieties and that delivers the solutions that they view as realistic. That involves putting more police on the beat and, to an extent, a different attitude to policing, so that, when young people say that they have been attacked or that they have a problem, the response is not, "Well, what were you doing wrong, then?" We must address those issues constructively.

The second issue that comes up consistently is that of facilities and transport. It is no wonder that young people have little faith in politicians when they see the youth clubs and youth organisations that they attend at risk of closing because of a complete lack of funds, when other departments round the corner are awash with funds.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is on to something. Does he agree that we have almost developed an "us and them" culture distinguishing between what we view as general society and young people, who are sometimes identified as a problem that must be dealt with and addressed? Cannot we do more to include them and to ensure that they are part of our political process? If we do not do so, we stand a good chance of alienating more and more people from the political process.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I could not agree more. We have to try to challenge the media perception that the majority of young people are inherently bad. The overwhelming majority of young people whom I meet in all places are inherently good and enthusiastic people who work hard for their communities. We have to change the language that we and newspapers use by showing a much more positive approach toward young people. After all, it is hard to understand why they should have much faith in the work that we do if we appear to have little faith in what they do in their lives.

The third issue that comes up time and time again is education, which is not surprising. However, it is also not surprising that the young people who disproportionately voted for the election of a Labour Government in 1997 and 2001 are now disproportionately more disaffected with that Government than other voters as they see the Government breaking their manifesto commitments and wanting to charge students tens of thousands of pounds to go to university. [Interruption.] Labour Members may tut-tut, but three years ago the Conservative party was the third largest party on campus. This year, it is bigger than any other party, and probably bigger than the other two major parties combined. That has happened because of the education issue in particular, so for Ministers and Labour Back Benchers to brush it aside shows a lack of understanding about how young people feel.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

The hon. Gentleman talks about support on campuses. I am sure he is aware that the most recent MORI poll on the matter—it conducts a yearly poll—shows that the Conservatives have the third highest support with about 20 per cent of students' support. The Labour party is down at 34 per cent. and the Liberal Democrats have 38 per cent. support among students.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

That is yet another example of why one should never believe opinion polls, although I understand that the Liberals have been working hard in universities as well.

On education, young people are frustrated that great emphasis is put on universities and that not enough attention is paid to technical and vocational training, which many believe to be a more appropriate route to take. They want politicians to address those issues more seriously than they believe to be the case at present.

We must consider not only those issues, but the way in which we relate to young people. I commend to hon. Members the work of the UK Youth Parliament, of which I am a trustee, as is Matthew Green. Anyone who attended the meeting that it held here last week will have been immensely impressed by the way in which the young people spoke, the coherence of their arguments and their positive approach to tackling the issues. I urge all hon. Members to engage more closely with the UK Youth Parliament.

I also urge hon. Members to engage more closely with youth forums and councils in their constituencies. However, I emphasise that those forums and councils too often make presentations to local politicians—councillors or otherwise—who listen patiently but go away and do nothing. If we want the bodies to take us seriously, they must see that there is genuine action as a result of such presentations.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Bearing in mind the fact that the British Youth Council has issued a call for as many hon. Members as possible to vote in favour of the voting age being lowered, will he and other Conservative Members do that?

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I have already set out the reasons why it would not be right to lower the voting age at this time. Taking someone seriously does not mean automatically agreeing with everything they say. It means taking part in a constructive dialogue and debate. At the end of the day, young people will be more attracted to people who argue genuinely and sincerely from a given point of view than to those who they think will support them irrespective of what they say in the belief that that will win their votes.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

We are all aware of the Electoral Commission report that is due to be published soon. If it states clearly that it believes that there is a case for giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, will the Conservative party back that?

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

We will wait to find out the nature of the report. We produced a submission in which we said we would not reduce the voting age to 16, but that we would support a reduction in the age of candidature to 18. We will want to know about the nature of the report and the submissions that other bodies made before reaching our final conclusion, but at present we are not persuaded of the case for reducing the voting age.

We need to listen constantly to young people if we want to be taken seriously, which is one of the reasons why we have set up a database of 4,000 voluntary organisations that work with young people. We e-mail the organisations every month to consult on matters that the party is considering. We are extending that practice to secondary schools, as it shows a willingness to use the communication methods that young people are using more and more. Most Members, with the possible exception of the Minister, grew up at a time when there were three channels on television. The Minister probably cannot remember the age when it was not possible to watch an evening's television without seeing some current affairs. There was news on every channel and one could not avoid it. Many young people growing up today watch television channels with no current affairs or news content. The most popular channels are E4 and Sky One, which have no current affairs presentation whatsoever, which makes it much more difficult for politicians to reach and communicate with young people. We must therefore make sure that we understand new technology and use it in a way that is not condescending.

Above all, we must have face-to-face contact with young people. People's attitudes to politics and politicians is often changed when they have the chance to come to Westminster, look round Parliament and see how it works. They have a chance to meet their Member of Parliament and talk to them face-to-face about the issues that most concern them.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the importance of members of the public coming here. Does he accept that a downside of the new sitting hours is that they have substantially reduced the opportunities for school parties, certainly from outside London, to come and visit the House of Commons?

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. From the perspective of my own constituency, we have to wait many months to get people in for school visits, if we can get them in at all, because of the problems caused by the new hours. I hope that the House will address that, but it is obviously a separate issue, so I shall return to the subject of our debate.

I congratulate the nationalists on raising the issue, but lowering the voting age is a sideshow. Young people want politicians to listen to them and act on their concerns. If we can introduce policies that will make our communities safer for young people; provide more facilities for them and improve transport so that they can access those facilities; provide open access to higher education and improved vocational training; and show that young people's views are genuinely important to us and that we will act on them, they will give us an opportunity to be heard and we will find that they are willing to use their vote and express their political views.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest 6:47 pm, 9th March 2004

I am a little hesitant, because according to the latest count I am the 17th oldest Member of Parliament, although I was encouraged when an hon. Member who is considerably older than me made an intervention.

The Minister said that we should stimulate an early interest in politics. I could not agree more, but we are missing the point—that the people who stimulate that interest are parents, relatives and teachers. I should therefore like to spend a few minutes discussing some of the things that put those people off politics, preventing them from transmitting an interest to children.

The first factor—the lack of openness—was discussed at great length in the previous debate and was one of the many things that contributed to my election to Parliament. Yesterday, The Times leader advocated "Honest politics" and the front page of The Independent said, "Scientist was 'gagged' by No. 10 after warning of global warming threat". Allegations of gagging, if true, work against openness and honesty.

The second factor that puts people off politics was exposed last week in the debate on the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. The Government refuse to consider logical or reasonable amendments before a Bill goes to the House of Lords in order to leave themselves bargaining space for Lords amendments. That is like a second-hand car salesman who sets a high asking price that he can later reduce, and Labour Members clearly alluded to such conduct in that debate.

Another example would be that of a debate on a very difficult issue that is derailed by being taken into the fields of party politics, of which the foundation hospitals Bill was an absolute classic. When this House considered Lords amendments to the Bill, we spent little time debating foundation hospitals; instead, it became an issue of party loyalty, and then of the supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords. Politicians find it extremely hard to apologise or to make U-turns. During one of last Saturday's rugby matches, the commentator congratulated a referee on apologising for getting something wrong. It would be good to see politicians apologising sometimes, as we are not always right.

Angus Robertson mentioned the factors that specifically affect and interest the young. In that context, I would stress the importance of schoolteachers. When we visit schools in our constituencies, we encounter staggering differences. In those where the teachers do not take much interest, the kids are apathetic and uninterested. On my first visit, I could not get a spark out of them, and thought that that must be down to me. Then, I went to two more where they had a huge, spontaneous supply of questions on local and national issues, some of which I had to answer afterwards in writing. They ranged from what we actually do, my view of the war in Iraq and, of course, why the voting age is 18.

At the end of the summer recess, the parliamentary education unit made a series of visits to Parliament, two of which I took part in because I was in London. The first involved a livewire group of kids, mainly from Sunderland, who had got up at the crack of dawn and got home late that night. They asked questions that demonstrated their interest in, for example, the involvement of women and ethnic minorities and why MPs have posh accents. Those in the second group were very different. For a start, they all had posh accents and were not interested in anything. The influence of teachers is crucial. If their interest can be rekindled, that will rub off on children. Lowering the voting age would help, because such issues would have relevance sooner in life.

In 1944, Lord Beveridge wrote:

"Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens."

I would take that even further. Education in politics and democracy is absolutely essential for the maintenance of democracy.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities 6:53 pm, 9th March 2004

I, too, congratulate the Scottish and Welsh nationalists on choosing this topic for debate on one of their rare Opposition days. I commend Angus Robertson for his excellent attempt to avoid partisan politics and to win some consensus across the House.

I was slightly bemused by the Minister's response. I am aware that many of his colleagues are firmly in favour of votes at 16, but having become Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries they are forbidden to say so. I will refrain from naming them.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is strange that although the Minister for School Standards can enunciate clear support for lowering the voting age to 16 or 17, the Minister cannot?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's example and not be cynical, but I am tempted a little down that route. It could be said that the Government have enough voices expressing both opinions and that, therefore, whatever the Electoral Commission's conclusion, they can say that they were of that view, but perhaps that is too cynical.

There have been some welcome signs. The Prime Minister has moved from opposition to agnosticism, and I hope that he takes the next step. However, it was incumbent on the Minister to make it clear that if the Electoral Commission recommends reducing the voting age to 16—I hope it will, because the arguments for so doing are overwhelming—the Government will accept the recommendation. After all, they have asked the Electoral Commission to consider the matter and I presume that they are therefore sufficiently interested to take note of its conclusions. They pray the Electoral Commission in aid so often that I would expect the Minister to accept its recommendations.

There is broad consensus that, whatever our views on voting age, it is logical that someone who is old enough to vote is also old enough to stand as a candidate. The electorate should be able to judge whether a candidate is sufficiently mature to be elected. I am glad that there is consensus on that and that Conservative Members, even if they do not support reducing the voting age to 16, agree that voting age and candidacy age should be the same. The Government did not make even that commitment although I suspect that the Minister probably agrees with the proposition. He has probably made up his mind and simply will not give us his conclusions.

It is worth emphasising some of the reasons that have been expressed for reducing the voting age to 16, the most important of which is fairness. We regard citizens as old enough to pay direct taxation at 16 if they are in work. I would not go as far as Conservative Front Benchers, who suggested that people who pay taxes should have the vote, because the logical conclusion of their argument is that those who do not pay taxes should not have the vote. That would mean that many pensioners were taken off the voting registers.

Sixteen-year-olds who are in work may have left home and may pay council tax. We judge them to be mature enough to play such a part in the state's life, yet we do not appear to believe that they are old enough to decide about the politicians who set their council and income taxes. Those who are old enough to contribute to the state if they are earning sufficient money are old enough to elect the politicians who determine the rates.

Much has been said about turnout. The Electoral Commission's document cites some interesting studies, which show that 16 and 17-year-olds are more likely to use the vote than 18 to 25-year-olds. Evidence shows that those who start to vote continue to do so. There is therefore good evidence that reducing the voting age to 16 would increase the turnout in elections. However, we should not reduce the voting age simply to improve turnout. If we judge people to be old enough to pay taxes, they should have a right to vote.

The Minister rightly mentioned citizenship education, to which several Members referred. It ends at 16 in Scotland and will end at that age in England. It is compulsory up to the age to 14 and can be continued until a person is 16, but a two-year gap follows. The Government should either provide for teaching citizenship until the age of 18 or reduce the voting age to 16. Teaching citizenship until the age of 16 and asking people to forget about it for the next couple of years before they get an opportunity to vote does not make sense. The turnout in general elections is considerably higher than that in local elections. Many people vote in general elections and no other elections. Some people who become 18 just after a general election are 22 before they exercise their vote for the first time. Bringing down the voting age so that it is nearer the age at which young people receive citizenship education would help to encourage people to vote and play an active part in society.

A more philosophical point is that young people tend to behave well if they are given responsibility. If we try to make young people do something by bashing them over the head until they do it, they rebel and recoil against it. When they are given responsibility, however, they generally act very responsibly.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

Actually, I did not join any political party until I was 23, so the Minister was already a councillor at the age at which I entered politics.

Giving young people the vote at 16 would send a strong signal that we regard them as full members of society, and would encourage them to behave more responsibly. It would be a signal, not a panacea, but it would help. That chimes with what Charles Hendry said—I agree with much that he said, apart from his comments on the voting age—about the "them and us" situation and the language that we use. Reducing the voting age to 16 would be a sign that we respect young people, and we can send that powerful message to help to draw different groups together.

One argument that is used against giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote is that they are not ready. However, as Huw Irranca-Davies suggested in an intervention, it is difficult to argue that someone cannot have the vote because they are not mature enough. That would take us down the dangerous and dodgy road of suggesting that people should take a test before being given the vote. Before the days of universal franchise, which the Conservatives did much to try to prevent, the amount of money people owned, or the value of their property, were used as voting thresholds, and, of course, only men could vote. The argument about not being mature enough was used against giving women the vote—it was said that women could not possibly understand what they were doing. Those who use that argument about young people now would do well to read the Hansard report of debates that took place at the time when women were given the vote. They might find an uncanny resemblance between their arguments and those used in opposition to giving women the vote.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Were not almost exactly the same arguments used against lowering the voting age from 21 to 18? No one in their right mind would now advocate that people should not have the vote until they are 21.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

My hon. Friend might be aware of the work of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which interviewed several young people. Some of them said that they wanted to vote, but some said that they did not feel able to make a judgment. Surely, people who feel that they are confident enough to vote should be allowed to, while the others would not have to do so, because it would not be compulsory for them to vote.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

My hon. Friend makes an excellent and pertinent point.

The Welsh and the Scots have been a little more prepared than the Government to engage in this process, although I shall not detract from what the Government have done. The fact that the Electoral Commission is carrying out its review is a welcome development, especially given the situation 18 months ago. At that time, I received a dismissive answer from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's questions, suggesting that young people should not even be doing the things that I said they were, and he would not even meet a group of young people to discuss the matter. We must welcome the movement that the Government have made and I, for one, do not want to belittle that.

I have seen another argument against lowering the voting age in—believe it or not—academic submissions to the Electoral Commission, which were also sent to me. It is that 16 and 17-year-olds would automatically copy their parents. Perhaps the way to deal with that argument is to turn it on its head. If we carried out a poll among parents and asked them whether they thought that their 16 and 17-year-olds would automatically copy them, I think that we would be told very firmly that they would be more likely to do exactly the opposite. It is patronising to suggest that young people cannot think for themselves, and that all they can do is what their parents tell them to. Fortunately, no one used that argument in the debate today, probably because even those in the Chamber who oppose the lowering of the voting age to 16 are sensible enough to see the flaws in it.

I am delighted that the Scottish and Welsh nationalists used their Opposition day debate for this subject. It is an important matter, and we have had only a few opportunities to discuss it before. I think that its time is coming, but I am sorry that the Government are still sitting firmly on the fence. I had hoped that the Minister would at least say that, if the Electoral Commission recommended a reduction in the voting age, the Government would pursue the issue. Clearly, however, that would be a step too far for this Minister, even if it is not a step too far for the Minister for schools standards, who has clearly made up his mind on this already—

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

Indeed, he is leading the debate on this issue in the Government.

This has been a timely debate and, even if the Government numbers win tonight, I suspect that with the publication of the Electoral Commission's report on 26 March we shall see votes at 16 recommended. Such a recommendation is long overdue; it is about time that we began to bring our political system into the 21st century.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Labour, Caerphilly 7:07 pm, 9th March 2004

Before I was elected to the House, I worked for the youth service in Wales, particularly the voluntary youth service. One of the initiatives with which I was involved was the Young Voice/Llais Ifanc initiative, which I helped to establish for the National Assembly for Wales. That initiative has now become Funky Dragon—the Children and Young People's Assembly. It was an important initiative because it was, and still is, peer-led. It is about facilitating the young people of Wales to get together and express their views and priorities to the decision makers in Wales, building on the excellent work that has been done by the local authority youth forums there.

Among the things that impressed me about the initiative was that, contrary to what many people think, young people have plenty of opinions and ideas. What annoys them most is the fact that older people do not credit them with having those views, which are often not taken seriously or acted upon as a result. Those young people wanted not a grandiose debating society, but a facility in which they could express their views and then see action being taken.

One of the consequences of this ongoing initiative is that the National Assembly for Wales now has to consider how it relates to young people when it makes decisions. Its elected Members recognise that it can be counter-productive if young people are provided with a means to express their views and nothing happens as a result. What is required is a change of culture, so that young people's views—along with the views of other people in society—are taken into account and can become part of the policy-making process. That is beginning to happen in the Welsh Assembly.

The same needs to happen in other parts of the United Kingdom and in relation to central Government. Great strides have been made throughout Britain with the UK Youth Parliament, but that is not enough—well financed and well structured though that forum is. We need a mechanism to ensure that when the Government's policy-making structures consider the issues concerned, the views expressed by young people are taken into account.

One surprising discovery that I made in working closely with young people was that many of them did not think it at all important to have the voting age reduced to 16. Some did, of course, but many saw it as irrelevant. Indeed, some young people saw it as some kind of sop and a means to incorporate them into the current political structures. They considered more important the introduction of genuine mechanisms that allowed their views to become part of the broader decision-making process.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Does my hon. Friend agree that one genuine way of involving children and young people related to the appointment of the Children's Commission for Wales, as they took part in the whole of the appointment system and had an equal voice in choosing the person for the job?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Labour, Caerphilly

Indeed. That is a good practical example of how young people can be genuinely empowered. Young people greatly appreciate the fact that they were part of that process and that their views were taken into account. That is one reason why the Children's Commissioner is proving to be extremely successful. Other parts of the United Kingdom can learn from the example in Wales.

There is a strong case for reducing the voting age to 16. I simply point out, however, that we should not assume that all young people regard that as of central importance. Many young people are concerned about a far broader range of issues and want their views taken into account. Therefore, while it is important that the issue is considered, it is not the be-all and end-all of demands from young people. It must not be used as an easy way out for decision makers. The view that reducing the voting age is the end of the debate, at which point we can go away contented that we have done something to help young people, is very patronising. It could also be counter-productive, as young people will see through it. We need a broader and more fundamental debate on this issue; above all, our starting point must be to respect the views of young people and to ensure that their views are always taken seriously.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:12 pm, 9th March 2004

I am grateful to the nationalist parties for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of participation in our democracy. We take a large amount for granted in that respect, and I am grateful to my constituent, the Bishop of Worcester, for drawing to my attention the participation of criminals in the democratic process. Perhaps we need to challenge and examine much more carefully the assumption that criminals should be denied the vote.

I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to discuss the involvement of younger people in the democratic process. All Members know that one of the single most dangerous issues facing British democracy is young people's apparently declining enthusiasm—I say "apparently" for good reasons—for the British democratic system. That should worry us all greatly. We must look for ways of re-engaging young people in the process.

I am reluctantly coming to the view that perhaps I am getting old. I watched a Question Time last week with a group of younger British politicians—younger even than the Minister, if such a thing can be imagined—and I was struck by the very different tone of voice that they were using to discuss political issues: a much more relaxed, informal and inclusive style, from which the House could learn something.

To leap from the various views expressed in the Chamber today about the importance of involving younger people to the idea that they must be given the vote is a dangerous conclusion, however, as Mr. David implied in his remarks. Certainly, all the soundings that I have taken in the many schools that I have visited in my constituency do not indicate great enthusiasm for it. The soundings that my district council has taken, probably as part of the response to the Electoral Commission's work at present, suggest no enthusiasm for it either. What people want is to be listened to, engaged and involved, and not necessarily to have the vote, which, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, could be seen as a sop or a patronising approach to the problems that we agree exist in relation to engaging people in the process.

My hon. Friend Charles Hendry rightly drew attention to our problems with the media. Most of the media to which young people now listen tend to ignore us, while the rest trivialise us. The national broadsheets are a scandal in this regard. When I, like my hon. Friend, was an enthusiastic young political anorak aged 12, 13 and 14, I used to buy The Times and The Daily Telegraph and read a whole page about Parliament on a regular basis. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I know, I know; it is sad but true.

There were some interesting and important debates to read about at that time. It was a great period in British politics. It is not possible to read about such things now, because the media either ignore us or, when they do report us, trivialise us. It must be said, though—a number of Members have said it today—that we give the media quite a lot of ammunition with which to trivialise us. My neighbour, Dr. Taylor, made some important remarks about the seriousness with which we, and the Government, take political debate. If we listened to more of those lessons, young people might take us more seriously.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when young people look at this place, what they mostly see are middle-aged, middle-class, grey-suited men? I say that as someone who is 42 today.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

As one who turned 49 a couple of weeks ago, I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy birthday. Even ageing rock stars grow old, as Bill Nighy has reminded us. But enough of this, given the time available. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the way in which we behave here is often inappropriate.

I deeply regret the fact that Prime Minister's Question Time is the only parliamentary programme that most people watch, because it is the least edifying part of our proceedings. Watching a broadcast of this debate would probably be more edifying for most young people than what will happen here tomorrow, in a few hours' time.

I agree about the importance of youth parliaments, but I must tell the hon. Member for Caerphilly that I do not think they have enough resources. I hope that they will attract more sponsorship. I find engaging with a youth parliament surprisingly difficult in practical terms. I am notified of events much too late, and I do not receive replies to letters. Because of the annual election cycle for young people in my constituency, I find it difficult to establish a relationship with them. Such arrangements need much more support, both financially and from Members of Parliament.

We have a crucial role to play as ambassadors for politics through our involvement with schools. I believe that every Member takes that role very seriously. I can honestly say that some of the challenging questions posed to me by young people aged 15 and 16 are among the best and most perceptive that I am ever asked. They are not tainted by the prejudice and experience of years. This morning, a young man called Tom, from Prince Henry's high school, interviewed me on the telephone for a newspaper competition in which his school is participating. His questions were worthy of Jeremy Paxman. I was subjected to an exceptionally intelligent grilling from someone aged only 15.

The Minister pointed out that there were all sorts of ways for us to engage with young people. He described what I regard as the gimmicks involved in that process: e-mails, text messaging and digital television voting. I do not think that that deals with the fundamental issue, which is what we say to young people and how we say it, rather than the means we use to communicate with them. Although I approve of the fact that, typically, young people are involved with the same issues as the rest of society, inevitably the emphasis is sometimes a bit different. The current debate about university education is one example of something in which young people take an interest; other examples are environmental, third-world and animal-welfare issues. If we could only talk to them about those subjects in language that they understand and in a non-partisan way, we would gain their respect.

I do not believe that it is right to reduce the voting age to 16, but I think that we must engage young people much more in the political process—not just 16-year-olds but those aged 12, 13, 14 and 15. They all have views that are worth listening to. What we must do is make the prospect of voting at 18 exciting. So many good things in this life are worth waiting for; the tragedy is that most young people in Britain today do not think that engagement in the political process is worth waiting for.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Economy and Taxation; Education & Skills; Miner's Compensation; Regeneration; Trade & Industry) 7:19 pm, 9th March 2004

We have had a thoughtful, considered and mature debate, which is perhaps uncharacteristic of this place, as Mr. Luff suggests. I am sure that normal service will be resumed in time for Prime Minister's questions tomorrow.

It is 35 years since Parliament last voted to lower the voting age, and as the Minister said, it is more than 300 years since we examined the question of candidacy age. Even at the grindingly slow place of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom, the issue is certainly overdue for revisiting.

It is certainly a pleasure for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party to be able to divide the House on this issue for the first time in five years, and it will be interesting to see whether there has been a shift in opinion. Disgracefully, last time, the motion was lost by a ratio of 10 votes to one. We have witnessed a sea change in some quarters, and it will be interesting to see how that is reflected in both the spirit and the letter of tonight's vote. Three independent studies have supported a reduction in the voting age in the past five years: the Kerley report in Scotland; the Sunderland Commission in Wales; and the Local Government Commission for England. Two Select Committees in this place have supported such a reduction, as have subject committees in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, and the human rights committee of the legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland.

Even Government Members have been falling over themselves to embrace the radical, new and progressive idea of reducing the voting age. Sadly, they do not include the Minister, as we have heard tonight. He seems to be taking his lead from the Prime Minister. In January 2002, the Prime Minister opposed the idea with a characteristic shrug, saying that he was not sure that we would always want 16-year-olds to do all the things that they are capable of doing. However, a few months ago he said that people grow up a lot more quickly now, and that there are many things that 16-year-olds can do, so why should they not be able to vote? The Prime Minister's volte face seems to have led to agnosticism, at least on this issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Angus Robertson on introducing the debate with his customary panache and good humour, which was welcomed on both sides of the House, and I thank the Minister for his response. There was certainly consensus on the importance of engaging with young people. The problem with participation in politics is not confined to young people. We accept that there is no panacea or quick-fix solution to the entire problem, but today's debate is an important step in the right direction in terms of re-engaging young people with politics.

The Minister said that it would be prudent to wait for the Electoral Commission report, but we have been waiting for it for some time. The consultation ended in October and the publication date has been moved three times. I should be magnanimous and point out that it was a Labour Government who reduced the voting age the last time, with Plaid Cymru and SNP support. If the Government are to act on the Electoral Commission's recommendations on voting age or on candidacy, will they ensure that such changes are in place in time for the next UK general election? The then Labour Government ensured, through the Representation of the People Act 1969, that such changes were in place for the 1970 general election. We do not want simply a manifesto pledge; we want action, so that the current generation of 16 and 17-year-olds will be able to vote.

Perhaps the natural generosity of spirit of Charles Hendry was slightly hemmed in by Conservative policy on this issue, but there was some agreement. He was being a little mischievous in pointing out that the voting age is lower in Cuba, North Korea and Iran, where turnout is indeed higher, although perhaps not for reasons that we would like to support. However, there is evidence that the lower voting age of 15 in Brazil—a high proportion of whose population is below the age of 18—has an invigorating effect on that country's democracy.

I thank the hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and for Mid-Worcestershire for turning the question around. Politicians, political parties and the House should address the culture of our democratic institutions. Reducing the voting age is only one step among a panoply of measures to make democratic politics more inclusive. Matthew Green has long led the charge for the Liberal Democrats. His point was well made that—without meaning any disrespect to hon. and right hon. Members who take a different view—similar arguments were made against extending the franchise to the working class in the 19th century and to women in the last century: it was doubted whether individuals were mature enough to cast their votes wisely.

The arguments in favour of lowering the voting age, which are supported by many youth organisations and are well understood, include consistency. Many 16-year-olds sleep together, marry without parental consent in Scotland and have children. Sixteen-year-olds can become company directors, be tried by jury in a Crown court and be locked up. They can even change their name by deed poll.

Thirty-two per cent. of 17-year-olds pay income tax—a not insignificant proportion. If it is proper that they should do so, surely they should have a stake in society and the right to decide how their taxes are spent. Some young people may not have wanted their taxes spent on the war in Iraq or for other purposes. The Government should be congratulated on creating so much anger and a new enthusiasm for politics among some young people. There is a broad consensus that we all need to engage and to examine the culture of our political parties. Now is the time to consider reducing the voting age, because we need to crystallise the energy, passion and enthusiasm that young people have for political issues.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (Scotland) 7:27 pm, 9th March 2004

As someone who was not allowed to vote until the age of 21—I know that I do not look it—and remembers only one television channel rather than the three mentioned by Charles Hendry, I found this an enjoyable debate in many respects. Contributions from all parts of the House have been thoughtful in addressing an issue that ought to concern us all, regardless of our age or political party.

However, in concentrating on lowering the voting age, perhaps the House has lost focus on an issue that I hoped it would debate—the abysmal turnout by the current cohort of young people between the ages of 18 and 24. I would have welcomed significantly more emphasis on that aspect. The hon. Member for Wealden pointed out that only 39 per cent. of those aged 18 to 24 voted in the 2001 general election, whereas 70 per cent. of 65-year-olds did so.

Other issues were worthy of exploration. Of all age groups, young people are least likely to register to vote. There are a variety of reasons for non-registration. Without being too party political, I think that we are still reaping the legacy of the poll tax and the registration issues that it posed. We have heard about some of the many reasons why people will not register—alienation from the political system, deliberate avoidance and so forth.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs; Treasury)

I agree with the Minister, but one reason why we lost so many people, particularly young people, from the register stems from the fact that in most Scottish constituencies there is no longer a personal canvass. If the franchise were lowered to 16, when people are mainly still at school and can be readily identified, it would assist in the process of getting people registered.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (Scotland)

I am not sure that that would solve the long-term problem, because people move around and there are all sorts of reasons why people come off the register. There is a danger of those who support the reduction of the voting age to 16 undermining their own case by using such arguments: it must be right because it is right, not because it will increase turnout or make registration easier. Electoral returning officers can canvass personally, and many do. Certainly the Scotland Office, working with the Electoral Commission and electoral registration officers, is examining some of the concerns expressed in the House and elsewhere about the perception of under-registration.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Briefly, for the record, we now know that the Prime Minister is agnostic on the issue of lowering the voting age; that the Minister for Schools Standards is in favour; and that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Mr. Leslie, who opened the debate for the Government, has not yet made up his mind. May I therefore ask the Minister about her position? Is she in favour of lowering the voting age to 16—yes or no?

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (Scotland)

The Labour party has specifically highlighted the reduction of the voting age in the big conversation: we are a listening party on the issue. My one criticism of today's debate is that it is unfortunate that our discussions are so close to the Electoral Commission's report on its findings and analysis. I look forward to having a full and frank debate on the reduction of the voting age after the Electoral Commission has reported.

I should like to deal with a few of the issues raised in the debate. Matthew Green, among others, mentioned taxation. I am certainly pleased that, in this country, individuals' right to vote is not determined by whether they are married, sleeping with someone, receiving benefits or paying taxation. I believe that it is an intrinsic right, albeit at a threshold in respect of age, that is unrelated to any other aspect of being citizens of this country. We confuse the issues when we start to make those linkages. It is not about the Boston tea party or whether young people in Scotland—but not in England—can get married at 16 without parental consent. It is all about whether the case for voting at a certain age is worthy in its own right. I hope that we will properly debate that when—

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (Scotland)

I have only a few minutes left, so it must be a very short intervention, which might be difficult for a Welshman—[Interruption.]

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Economy and Taxation; Education & Skills; Miner's Compensation; Regeneration; Trade & Industry)

When the Minister says that we should have a full debate following the publication of the Electoral Commission report, is she committing the Government to a debate on the Floor of the House?

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (Scotland)

The hon. Gentleman, charming though he is—I think that all Welshmen are charming—will not seduce me into predetermining what Government business will be dealt with on the Floor of the House. It was a nice try, nevertheless.

My hon. Friend Mr. David brought the wealth of his own experience in youth work to our debate. Those who have worked with young people—I include myself in that category—know that many issues affect their lives and that they are interested not so much in whether they should be allowed to vote at 16 or 17, but in a whole plethora of issues, which we, as the Government, have addressed.

Mr. Luff made a thoughtful contribution, although the terrible image of him at the age of six sitting by his fireside and reading Hansard does not sit well with his current politics. Generally, though, the House has agreed that we must focus on issues that are important to young people. We must go beyond the mechanics of democracy and deal with the outcomes of the democratic process.

I want to go on record as saying that the Government have dealt with some of the great issues affecting young people. In my experience, one of the most debilitating problems faced by young people was long-term youth unemployment. The new deal and other aspects of the Government's employment policy have almost obliterated youth unemployment, and we have established modern apprenticeships in Scotland. We need to talk about young people's issues, and not just mouth the platitudes for which so many of them criticise us.

I want to comment on some of the initiatives that have been taken in Scotland, some of which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs mentioned when he opened the debate. Currently, the Local Governance (Scotland) Bill is going through the Scottish Parliament. It will reduce the required age for local government candidates in Scotland. I think that that is a step forward.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 50, Noes 346.

Division number 81 Young People and Democracy

Aye: 50 MPs

No: 346 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 259 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 310, Noes 10.

Division number 82 Young People and Democracy

Aye: 310 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House notes the concern shared by all political parties at the lack of participation in the political process by young people and the decreasing turnout in elections throughout the country; welcomes the work of many charities, political experts, young people and organisations representing them, who have worked together in their belief that lowering the voting age would improve the quality of politics in the United Kingdom; but notes that the independent Electoral Commission's review of voting age and candidacy age is soon to be published and that the Government will carefully consider its conclusions, alongside the work of other organisations.