Representation of the People (Reduction of Voting Age)

– in the House of Commons at 3:42 pm on 29th November 2005.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 109
    A majority of MPs voted against considering a Parliamentary Bill to reduce the voting age to 16

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Health) 3:42 pm, 29th November 2005

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reduce the voting age for parliamentary, local government and European parliamentary elections to 16.

Twenty years ago, at a Welsh party conference, I first heard a debate on reducing the voting age to 16. I was one of the youngest people in the room, but I voted against the motion. In the two decades since, I have been involved in many elections, seven of them as a candidate. In that time, I have moved from being a sceptic to a doubter. After the 2001 general election, I became a firm believer that the time had come to reduce the voting age.

Like all of us, I have visited many schools and colleges during, and in between, elections. I have always been impressed by the penetrating and incisive questions and by the open way in which ideas are debated. Contrast that with a typical wet evening during an election when one meets someone on the doorstep who has no time, is not interested, would rather be watching the television, or offers an opinion that they say is fact but actually matches what they read in the newspapers that morning. Reducing the voting age to 16 is an idea whose time has come. It is a shame that the Government failed to grasp that opportunity for change in the Electoral Administration Bill.

The parliamentary franchise was extended six times between 1832 and 1969. Each extension was met with opposition and scepticism. Indeed, after the Second Reform Act 1867, the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Derby, described his own measure as a "leap in the dark". Robert Lowe, who was to become Gladstone's first Chancellor of the Exchequer, remarked that the Government would have to "educate our masters".

In the 21st century, our eyes can be open and we can see that we have the best ever educated, informed and politically interested cohort of 16 and 17-year-olds. In recent times, young people's interest has been awakened in politics. Perhaps one of the few silver linings of the Iraq war is that young people take an interest in the Chamber's deliberations and the fundamental decisions that we can make in this place.

All hon. Members will have been lobbied here and in our constituencies by young constituents about issues such as third-world poverty and climate change. Young people will shortly take an interest in controversial education measures, which will be determined here, just as they recently took an interest in decisions that affected their access to higher education.

Like the rest of us, young people can pick and hoover up information 24 hours a day through television and the internet. In schools, citizenship is compulsory at key stages 3 and 4 for all 11 to 16-year-olds in England, stimulating community involvement and political literacy. In 1969, when Parliament previously decided to extend the franchise, the school-leaving age was 15 and most people left school at 15. Few went on to further education and even fewer to higher education. In 2005, the educational world is totally different. I am sure that today's teenagers have the same social interests as their counterparts in the 1960s, but this decade's 16-year-olds are better informed and of a similar maturity to 18-year-olds of nearly 40 years ago. It is now time for them to use their knowledge and maturity and for us to extend the vote to them.

The Prime Minister often talks about rights, responsibilities and respect. Young people already have various rights and responsibilities when they are under 18. At 16, they can leave school, go to work and join the Army. In both latter circumstances, they will pay taxes. They can marry or—shortly—enter into a civil partnership. All of us would agree that entering into a marriage is a long-term commitment and a fundamental decision that is far more important to someone's life and future than choosing between candidates in an election.

At 17, one can learn to drive. My hon. Friend Lembit Öpik could learn to pilot a plane but he was not trusted with the vote. We give young people many rights and responsibilities but, as politicians, we do not always give them the respect of listening to their opinions.

Many of us have expressed worries about democracy in our country and especially about turnout at elections. I believe that voting at 16 could boost turnout in the long run. The Social Market Foundation conducted some interesting research on the topic. It undertook a study of 17 and 18-year-olds who either just missed out or just qualified to vote in the April 1992 general election. Those who missed out in 1992 had to wait until they were 22 or 23 before they could vote in the 1997 general election. In 2001, that group of people was studied and it was found that 49 per cent. of 17-year-olds who had just missed out in 1992 voted in 2001 but that 65 per cent. of the 18-year-olds who qualified for the vote in 1992 voted in the general election nine years later. That is a 16 per cent. gain in turnout through an exercise of the franchise at the earliest opportunity.

Bristol's twin city, Hanover, has recently extended the vote to 16-year-olds and it was found that they are twice as likely to turn out to vote in elections as people in their late 20s.

Let me trespass briefly on the territory of the next debate. Cigarette manufacturers believe that a person whom they can get to take up smoking by the age of 16 is likely to be addicted for many years but that, of those who resist the temptation into their 20s, few take up smoking. Votes for 16-year-olds will be a healthier habit for people to take up.

What are the arguments against extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds? Some people argue that there is pressure from families, campaign groups and political parties, especially in marginal seats in elections; that the voting age in all but a handful of democracies throughout the planet is the same as that in the United Kingdom. It is argued that young people are not mature enough, even with education. It is claimed that knowledge may be one thing but mature judgment is another and that young people do not see the broader picture. All of those opinions will have been offered in the past few years while the debate has been on the agenda, and I am sure that they will be offered in time to come. I obtained all of them through a perusal of Hansard from November 1968, when the House decided to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18. Similar arguments were advanced in the 19th and 20th centuries when it was said that middle-class paternalism could protect the interests of the working classes, or husbands could make decisions on behalf of their wives, or parents on behalf of their children. Those were Aunts Sallies then and I think that they deserve to be knocked down now.

Voting at the age of 16 is supported by Members of all parties in the House. Early-day motion 801, tabled by Ms Johnson, now has the support of 90 signatures. Outside Parliament, the campaign is supported by children's charities and political campaigners from Barnardo's and the Children's Society to the National Union of Students and the YMCA.

Extending the franchise to 16-year-olds will not be a leap in the dark. Rather than having to educate our new electoral masters, we would find them the most responsive and responsible constituents. I believe that young people are informed, engaged and ready to vote. I hope that by introducing the Bill, I have contributed to a debate that will eventually lead to a franchise that is fit for the 21st century.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 3:51 pm, 29th November 2005

It is worrying that Stephen Williams drew a parallel between smoking and voting. If the Labour party gets its hands on it, it will be banning voting just as it wants to ban smoking.

The Electoral Commission is investigating national voting at 16 at great length. Its report, which was published in April this year, concluded that the minimum age for all levels of voting in UK public elections should remain at 18, although it said that the minimum age for candidacy should be reduced to 18. I welcome the latter move, and that has been put forward by the Government in the Electoral Administration Bill. My party and I support that. Having candidates aged 18 would be valuable.

In its report on reducing the voting age, the commission, which conducted wide-ranging public consultation, concluded:

"On the little hard evidence available, it would appear that overall turnout would almost certainly drop in the short-term as a result of lowering the voting age and the longer-term effects on turnout are disputed."

It also said that

"lowering of the voting . . . age was unlikely to have as significant an effect as the much more fundamental cultural shift required in how young people are engaged in the wider political process."

In my constituency, Speech House—the home of debate—was host to much discussion on this subject when Forest sixth-formers met during local democracy week in the Verderers' court. The Royal Forest of Dean college, Wyedean school and Newent community schools sent students to debate whether the minimum age of voting should be lowered to 16. Even among an audience made up entirely of 16 to 18-year-olds, there was almost a 50:50 split. Even among the target age group there is not a clear wish for change.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West said that there are a number of things that young people are permitted to do at 16, but he did not give the full picture. It is true that someone can join the Army at 16, but that person cannot serve on the front line until 18. It is true that we can get married at 16, but until 18 people have to have their parents' permission. We make distinctions in this country and there are certain things that can be done only when someone achieves the age of majority, when he or she is deemed to be an adult. A line must be drawn somewhere. If we move to 16, no doubt there will be arguments to move the age even further. Without a clear line there is no obvious end.

The Electoral Commission conducted a wide-ranging survey that involved ICM. In an unprompted survey, 64 per cent. of the public said that 18 was the correct age. Only 18 per cent. thought that 16 years was preferable. When given a choice between 18 and 16, 78 per cent. said that 18 was the correct age. Interestingly, those below the age of 18 wanted the voting age to be lowered, but once they had reached the age of 18, they expressed overwhelming support for the 18 limit.

The Electoral Commission's survey, conducted by ICM, came up with some solid conclusions. It stated:

"These results represent a solid affirmation of the status quo. There may be valid reasons for reducing the voting age"— the hon. Member for Bristol, West has outlined some that he found convincing—

"but the general public are . . . unimpressed by them. Indeed, a reduction in the voting age could only be justified . . . by attaching more importance to the wishes of current 16–17 year olds than to the views of the public at large".

It went on to say:

"Rarely does a research survey produce a truly remarkable statistic."

We have to draw the line somewhere, and traditionally we have set 18 as the age at which one becomes an adult. That is a sensible settlement. It is sensible to reduce the age of candidacy to parallel the voting age, but this measure does not deserve the support of the House.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 128, Noes 136.

Division number 109 Representation of the People (Reduction of Voting Age)

A majority of MPs voted against considering a Parliamentary Bill to reduce the voting age to 16

Aye: 128 MPs

No: 136 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 378 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.