I beg to move amendment 18, in page 1, line 17, leave out from “electors”
to the end of line 12 on page 2 and insert—
“at a local government election in any electoral area in Great Britain, or
(b) the persons who, on the date of the referendum, would be entitled to vote as electors at a local government election in any electoral area in Northern Ireland.”
This amendment extends the franchise in the referendum to EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom.
The Second Deputy Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to take the following:
Amendment 51, in page 1, line 17, leave out “parliamentary” and insert “local government”.
The amendment would allow citizens of all countries of the European Union living in the UK and Gibraltar to vote in the referendum.
Amendment 1, in page 1, line 17, at end insert
“and persons who would be so entitled except for the fact that they will be aged 16 or 17 on the date on which the referendum is to be held”.
The amendment would entitle British citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland aged 16 and 17 to vote in the referendum.
Amendment 12, in page 2, line 9, after “Commonwealth citizens”, insert
“or citizens of the Republic of Ireland”
Amendment 2, in page 2, line 12, at end insert
“and persons who would be so entitled except for the fact that they will be aged 16 or 17 on the date on which the referendum is to be held”.
The amendment would entitle Commonwealth citizens aged 16 and 17 who would be entitled to vote in Gibraltar for elections to the European Parliament to vote in the referendum.
Amendment 19, in page 2, line 16, at end add—
‘(3) A person is entitled to vote in the referendum if, on the date on which the poll at the referendum is held, the person is aged 16 or over and registered in—
(a) the register of local government electors, or
(b) the register of young voters maintained under section (Register of young voters) for any such area.”
This amendment follows the Scottish independence referendum model for the franchise, which includes 16 and 17 year olds and EU nationals.
Amendment 52, in page 2, line 16, at end add—
‘(3) Notwithstanding the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended, or of any other statute, a British citizen resident overseas in a country within the European Union will be eligible:
(a) to register to vote and
(b) to vote in the referendum.
The amendment would entitle British citizens living in any country in the European Union to vote in the referendum irrespective of the time they have been resident overseas.
Clause 2 stand part.
New clause 2—
“Register of young voters
‘(1) For the purposes of this Act, each registration officer must prepare and maintain, for the officer‘s area, a register to be known as the register of young voters.
(2) The register must contain—
(a) the names of the persons appearing to the registration officer to be entitled to be registered in the register, and
(b) in relation to each person registered in it, the person’s—
(i) date of birth,
(ii) (except where otherwise provided by an applied enactment) qualifying address, and
(iii) voter number.
(3) Subsection (2) is subject to section 9B of the 1983 Representation of the People Act (anonymous registration).
(4) A person‘s qualifying address is the address in respect of which the person is entitled to be registered in the register.
(5) A person‘s voter number is such number (with or without any letters) as is for the time being allocated by the registration officer to the person for the purposes of the register.
(6) A person is entitled to be registered in the register of young voters for any area if, on the relevant date, the person—
(a) is not registered in the register of local government electors for the area,
(b) meets the requirements (apart from any requirement as to age) for registration in the register of local government electors for the area, and
(c) has attained the age of 16, or will attain that age on or before the date on which the poll at an independence referendum is to be held.
(7) In the case of a person who has not yet attained the age of 16—
(a) the person‘s entry in the register must state the date on which the person will attain the age of 16, and
(b) until that date, the person is not, by virtue of the entry, to be taken to be a voter for the purposes of any independence referendum other than one the date of the poll at which is on or after that date.
(8) Where a person to whom subsection (7) applies has an anonymous entry in the register, the references in that subsection to the person’s entry in the register are to be read as references to the person‘s entry in the record of anonymous entries.
(9) In this section, “the relevant date” mean the date on which an application for registration in the register of young voters is made (or the date on which such an application is treated as made by virtue of section 10A(2) of the 1983 Act).”
This amendment extends the franchise in the referendum to 16 and 17 year olds.
Amendment 13, in clause 8, page 4, line 15, at end insert—
““Commonwealth citizens” does not include citizens of any country which has terminated its membership of the Commonwealth or which has been wholly or partly suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.”
I shall speak to amendments 18 and 19 and new clause 2.
It is apt that we are debating our future relationship with the European Union on this, the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. Even though we in the Scottish National party voted against the referendum, we want to see a good relationship with Europe going forward, not one that is damaged by the Prime Minister or the Conservatives. If we are to have a referendum—obviously, we voted against it—we want to see it meet the gold standard that was met by the Scottish independence referendum.
Even though it is the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, French nationals and other nationals should be able to vote in that referendum. We have mentioned before the example of Christian Allard, a very fine Member of the Scottish Parliament, who is a French national who has made a significant contribution to Scottish public life—a more significant contribution than many have made. My hon. Friend Ms Ahmed-Sheikh will build on that and my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard will discuss it further. On the subject of EU nationals, I refer hon. Members to the excellent intervention by my hon. Friend Peter Grant on Tuesday.
I shall focus on 16 and 17-year-olds. I am glad our Labour colleagues have tabled an amendment and are backing a long-standing SNP policy on giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds.
I feel privileged that I am able to give the hon. Gentleman his first intervention, but may I tell him that we are not united on the Labour Benches? I chaired the Children, Schools and Families Committee for 10 years. I believe that the measure that he proposes will shrink childhood. We will eventually have young people going into the Army at 16, and many of the protections that children currently have through to 18 will be destroyed. This policy will bring adulthood down to 16 and will take away protections just as childhood becomes less and less that part of life.
I am not terribly surprised to find out that Labour Members are split. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a good point but we disagree. That was not our experience in the Scottish independence referendum, which I shall go on to discuss.
We need to get more young people engaged in politics. All of us across the Committee can agree on that. Even if we disagree on this issue, we can all unite on that; I am sure Mr Sheerman will agree on that. I know his views are held honestly. In the independence referendum, an astonishing 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds took the opportunity to vote. The same survey showed that 97% of them said that they would do so again. Turnout in the UK election was 66.1%. It was higher in Scotland than in the rest of the UK—because of the Scottish independence referendum, we like to think, and a more politicised electorate. There are lessons for us all to be taken from that.
In February 2015 a BBC “Newsbeat” survey found that young people in Scotland aged 18 to 24 were more politically engaged than in any other part of the United Kingdom. As somebody from Scotland, I am proud of that, and I think everybody from Scotland who engaged in the referendum, whether they voted yes, as we on the SNP Benches did, or no, as our colleagues from the other parties did, should be proud of that.
An Edinburgh University study has found that two thirds of Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds have said that they would vote if they could, compared with just 39% in the UK as a whole. That is a challenge for every one of us across this Chamber. That is why we think that the independence referendum was a great opportunity to get people politically engaged, and we would like to see young people continue to be engaged.
With the EU referendum we have a big question over whether we remain a part of that Union. We want to see a positive case not just for remaining a part of that Union, but for looking at where we could work together more closely, for example, on security, on dealing with the worst refugee crisis since the second world war in the Mediterranean, on climate change, which we were all lobbied about yesterday, or on creating a more socially just Europe. I think that the way to engage more young people is by having a positive campaign—not just tinkering around the edges of certain policies on which the Prime Minister might or might not be able to win the argument.
On Second Reading the Secretary of State rejected the strong case that the hon. Gentleman is making for giving 16 and 17-year-olds a say, claiming that he would rather get 18 to 24-year-olds to turn out. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those two things are not mutually exclusive? One of the best ways to get 18 to 24-year-olds to vote is by engaging all young people in precisely the way he is describing.
As is often the case, the hon. Lady is absolutely spot on. The facts that I have read out show that giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote is the way to make them more politically engaged from an earlier age, and therefore more likely to vote later in life.
The hon. Gentleman was giving reasons why young people would be interested in the referendum in general. I referred in my speech on Second Reading to the wider horizons that young people have. The unity we seek in Europe is a matter not only of the stomach and the wallet, but of the imagination and the spirit. The referendum could be an opportunity for those young people to express that hope.
The hon. Gentleman made an excellent contribution on Tuesday, and he makes an excellent point today. I think that 16 and 17-year-olds have a perspective that many of us lack, just as people from an older generation have their own perspective, and that is what makes our democracy so rich. He and Caroline Lucas have made excellent points.
Is not this about trusting young people to make informed decisions about their future, given that 16-year-olds can leave school, go to work, pay income tax and national insurance and consent to sexual relationships? This is about their future, too. That is why it is absolutely right to extend the franchise.
The hon. Gentleman speaks for the other side of the Labour party on this—I wonder whether there is a third side—and he makes a very good point.
On the Scottish Parliament’s Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill, which I will talk about in a moment, YouthLink Scotland has stated:
“We believe that this Bill addresses the inequality that young people aged 16 and 17 years old have historically faced: the discrepancy between their democratic rights and responsibilities—16 and 17 year olds can join the armed forces, enter employment and be subject to taxation, get married and drive a car, yet they were deemed too immature to cast a vote in an election.”
That is exactly the point Andrew Gwynne made.
The hon. Gentleman speaks fluently on the legitimacy of 16 and 17-year-olds participating in this debate, and I understand the points he is making. As a former soldier, I want to say how proud I was to serve with many who were 18, 19 and 20 years old—young men who served their country with courage and determination—and how pleased I was that we in this country do not use child soldiers. I think that the age of legal responsibility in that sense, whether on the military or democratic front line, should be aligned.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I respect his service. Voting in an election and trying to get young people engaged in the democratic process is quite different from fighting on the front line, so there is a distinction to be made in that regard.
I will make some progress for the moment. I have been generous so far, and I will happy to take more interventions later.
On this very day, Scotland is again ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom. Today the Scottish Parliament is on stage 3—the final stage, for Members who are not in the know about the dealings of the Scottish Parliament—of the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill. That is one of the many examples of where power has been devolved from this place to Holyrood and the Scottish Government have put it to good effect. Today the Scottish Parliament will historically pass that Bill into legislation and give 16 and 17-year-olds a vote. The Scottish Government deserve praise for what they are doing, just as they deserved praise in the independence referendum. I look forward to the next local authority elections, when we will be able to go out and canvass for the votes of 16 and 17-year-olds.
Interestingly, as Members from across the House will be delighted to learn, this draws cross-party support. Even Tories are supporting it.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that votes at 16 are supported not just by the SNP, Labour, the Greens, and even the Liberal Democrats—we still have some—but by the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, who says:
“I’m a fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club now”.
It is great to see progress being made even with the Conservative party in Scotland. The benefit of this is not just to 16 and 17-year-olds; it is in having a bit of common sense across all the parties.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons there has been such a change in attitude in Scotland is the experience of seeing how well-informed young people were when they had the chance to vote, when they were among the best-informed parts of the electorate?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We found that 16 and 17-year-olds, in particular, were studying the information and taking it from a wide range of sources. As she says, they were among the best-informed parts of the electorate. That is a great credit to the 16 and 17-year-olds who took part in the democratic process.
I have lots of 13, 14 and 15-year-olds in my constituency who have very good political views on a variety of issues. On what basis has the hon. Gentleman fixed on 16 as the age of enfranchisement?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware—he was clearly not listening earlier, so I will repeat it—at 16 and 17 people can get married and pay tax; all sorts of responsibilities kick in at 16. We therefore think—and, interestingly, others across this Chamber think—that 16 is the right age at which to give people the vote. Ruth Davidson, the leader of his own party in Scotland, thinks that 16 is bang on the right age as well. She and I may not agree on many issues, but I am very glad that she has come round to our way of thinking on this.
Not at the moment; I will make some progress.
On the example of the Scottish Bill, for which we must give due credit to the Scottish Parliament, Children in Scotland said:
“Children in Scotland believes that it is vital that 16 and 17 year olds are able to participate directly in the democratic process, and strongly supports the extension of the franchise to young people. This Bill will play an important role in addressing the discrepancy that young people aged 16 and 17 continue to face as far as their democratic rights and responsibilities are concerned.”
Young Scot said:
“In line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child…we believe that young people should be involved in making decisions that directly affect them, and that one of the best ways of getting involved in decision-making is through voting. Therefore, Young Scot strongly supports extension of the franchise for all elections”.
We have a responsibility across this House to try to engage people as fully as we can in the democratic process. Each one of us, of every political colour, knows the challenge that we face. Scotland has some good ideas, believe it or not. When we came to this place, we came to be constructive. We know there will be good ideas from Members from other parties, and we look forward to hearing them, but we also want to look at areas where Scotland has been ground-breaking, and this is one of them.
Voltaire said, once upon a time:
“We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.”
Obviously, we know that the Labour leadership candidates are all looking for ideas on leadership from Scotland’s First Minister, but perhaps this is an area on which we can work together. The Electoral Reform Society puts it succinctly:
“There is a widening gulf between people and politics—we see lowering the franchise age as vital to nurturing more active citizens for the future health of our democracy.”
It then makes a good point:
“If they vote early, they vote often!”
That has been our experience in Scotland and we think that extending the franchise will result in it also being the experience of the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to be called so early in this debate. With no disrespect to Stephen Gethins, I will speak to amendments 12 and 13, which stand in my name.
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary indicated that this is an important matter for the United Kingdom—it is indeed—and therefore that the appropriate franchise is the general election franchise. That, in my respectful judgment, is absolutely correct.
“Commonwealth citizens who, on the date of the referendum, would be entitled to vote in Gibraltar as electors at a European Parliamentary election in the combined electoral region in which Gibraltar is comprised.”
The difficulty, however, is that the proposed franchise for Gibraltar is not the general election franchise, because it leaves out of the count those who are citizens of the Republic of Ireland.
I know not how many people that may affect—it may affect three, five or a dozen, or it may affect none—but if we are going to pass legislation, it should be consistent. I suspect that, because this is a new extension of the franchise, the issue was overlooked by the Government and the Foreign Office lawyers when they considered how the Bill should be drafted to extend the franchise to Gibraltar.
I do not intend to push the amendment to a vote, but, because this House aims for consistency and because the Government’s stated aim is to use the general election franchise, the franchise extended to Gibraltar, with the consent of its Government, should be the same franchise as that which is used for general elections in this country.
That is why I ask the Minister to consider amendment 12 and perhaps table it as a Government amendment. It would insert words designed to ensure that those who are citizens of the Republic of Ireland but who are none the less domiciled in Gibraltar are entitled to vote in the forthcoming referendum.
Amendment 13 seeks to deal with the definition of “Commonwealth citizens”. I have searched long and hard in electoral law, including the Representation of the People Acts, and, indeed, in this Bill and other sources to try to ascertain who is and who is not a Commonwealth citizen. There is, obviously, a broader debate to which this House may wish to turn in due course, particularly given the accession of Mozambique and Rwanda to the Commonwealth, about whether Commonwealth citizens should continue to be part of the franchise for general elections in this country. There is also, however, an entirely different problem, which relates most acutely to nationals of Zimbabwe who are resident in this country and in Gibraltar.
At the moment, Zimbabwe is not a member of the Commonwealth; it has simply withdrawn from it. The Commonwealth ministerial action group is charged with deciding who is and who is not a member of the Commonwealth, who is suspended and whose membership is terminated, and it is unclear whether or not some countries—for example, Fiji—are presently members of the Commonwealth for all purposes.
I know not whether there is non-statutory guidance for returning officers, but the law is unclear whether they are supposed to afford the right to vote in a general election to a national of Zimbabwe, which, as I say, is not presently a member of the Commonwealth.
As I understand it, a previous Government indicated that no Zimbabwean should, as a result of that country’s withdrawal, suffer in respect of their ability to vote in general elections. However, in the absence of a definition, who is and who is not entitled to vote among Commonwealth citizens of countries that have been suspended from the Commonwealth or that have terminated their membership is, in practice, entirely unclear. We might therefore end up with the position where in one place in this country, a Zimbabwean national is on the electoral roll and entitled to vote, whereas in another place, a Zimbabwean national is not entitled to vote because the returning officer takes the view, rightly or wrongly, that Zimbabwe is not a member of the Commonwealth and therefore that that person is not a Commonwealth citizen.
There is a much broader debate to be had about this matter, but the Government need to ensure that there is consistency across the entire country and to make it clear whether the national of a Commonwealth country that has withdrawn from the Commonwealth or been suspended by the Commonwealth ministerial action group who has permanent leave to be here and should therefore be entitled to a vote is able to vote. When the Minister responds, I would like to hear what his plans are in this area.
Amendments 12 and 13, although they originate from the Back-Benches, are meant to be helpful to the Government, in the sense that they will provoke debate and ensure that there is consistency across the legislation. For that reason, I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government’s attitude to them is.
I rise to speak to amendment 1, which would extend the franchise for the referendum to 16 and 17-year-olds, and amendment 2, which would have a similar effect in Gibraltar.
The franchise that has been chosen for the referendum, which is set out in clause 2, is the franchise for UK parliamentary elections, but with two exceptions. First, it is extended to peers, and secondly, it is extended to the people of Gibraltar. The Opposition have no objection to those two extensions of the franchise, but we believe that they are incomplete. My right hon. Friend Hilary Benn flagged up our concern on this issue on Second Reading, when he said that we wished to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds for the purposes of the referendum.
There has been an active debate for some years about extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, and we heard some of the arguments in the initial exchanges of this debate. People of that age can pay income tax and national insurance, obtain tax credits, consent to sexual relationships, get married, enter a civil partnership, become a company director and do many other things. In fact, both my party and the Conservative party allow them to join and have a vote in the selection of the party leader, if they so wish. Until very recently, 16 and 17-year-olds could not vote in national or local elections, despite their ability to select someone who aspires to become Prime Minister.
If the right hon. Gentleman is going to cite a list of things that people can do at 16, he also needs to consider the things that they cannot do. They cannot leave school without being in full-time education until they are 18. They are protected in law as a minor if they commit a crime. They do not serve on the front line. They can only get married with parental permission, and they cannot buy fireworks, alcohol or cigarettes. I do not see the point of trading these lists. We have made a decision that young people at the ages of 16 and 17 receive protection in law, up to a point. That is agreed in relation to the franchise.
The hon. Lady makes the point that not every right and legal responsibility is conferred on people at 16. That is true, but many of them are. The question of the right to democratic participation is therefore not a science, but a matter of judgment. That judgment will be the subject of the rest of my remarks.
I find this very awkward, because I nearly always agree with my right hon. Friend, but is not what is missing from this debate the responsibility that we have as parliamentarians to care for young people who are very vulnerable? Up and down this country, young people are vulnerable to sexual predators and ghastly things happen to them right up to the age of 18. This move towards making people adults at 16 will make a lot of young men and women more vulnerable to sexual predation than they are at the moment.
I have huge mutual respect for my hon. Friend, but I do not see the connection between extending voting rights to people at 16 and making them more vulnerable to sexual predators.
Of course, the first major poll in the UK in which 16 and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote was last year’s Scottish independence referendum. That major referendum tested all the familiar arguments that we have heard before and which we may hear in this debate about whether such people are old enough to understand the issues and mature enough to take part in the debate and exercise their democratic responsibilities. I do not think that anyone on either side of the independence debate argues that Scotland’s 16 and 17-year-olds did not pass those tests with flying colours. Many campaigners have said that the debates among 16 and 17-year-olds were some of the most engaged and informed of the referendum campaign. The post-referendum report by the Electoral Commission said:
“109,593 16 and 17 year olds were included on the registers by the registration deadline and 75% of those we spoke to claimed to have voted. Importantly, 97% of those 16-17 year olds who reported having voted said that they would vote again in future elections and referendums.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that schools and colleges have a role to play? Perhaps the thought that anyone who is vulnerable or who has certain issues can have a wider debate in the school or college context, and therefore be better educated about democracy and the role it can play, will put the mind of my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman at rest.
I do not think any of us would ever want schools to be engaged in partisan debate, but schools do have an important role in teaching young people about citizenship, their responsibilities, the importance of elections and so on. My hon. Friend is right about that.
The experience of last year is that young people did understand the issues and did take part. They felt empowered by their democratic choice, not apathetic or overawed. They exercised their democratic rights in huge numbers and, afterwards, said that they would be more likely to vote again. Stephen Gethins quoted the leader of the Scottish Conservative party as saying that she is now
“a fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”.
There may be a relationship between allowing votes at 16 and 17 and encouraging voting in the 18 to 24 age group. If we get young people registered early and they stay on the register when they are between 18 and 24, it might address the low turnout among that group. That is the age at which people leave home to study, to go to work or for other reasons. That is a challenge on the registration front and the turnout front.
The argument that the right hon. Gentleman is employing could equally be made for 13, 14 and 15-year-olds, so may I put to him the same question that I put to the Scottish National party spokesman, Stephen Gethins? Why is he fixed on 16, as opposed to a lower age, for example 13, as the age for enfranchisement?
As I said, the rules of the hon. Gentleman’s own party allow people to join at 15, but we have related our amendments to the age at which legal responsibilities and rights are conferred. There is a slight difference between the general argument about the age of the franchise and its applicability to important constitutional referendums.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he is fixed on 16 as the age at which legal rights accrue to the individual, but that is true only of some rights. It is not until an individual is 18 that we treat them as being a full member of society. Surely that is the point at which they should be enfranchised and be able to contribute to our national life through a full democratic debate.
We could argue that there are some rights that people do not get even at 18. In the end, it is a matter of judgment. I do not want to go through the list again, but when people can start to work, pay taxes and do many other things, there is at least a reasonable case for giving them the right to vote.
A small minority of Labour Members worry that we will make 16 the age of becoming an adult, which will shrink childhood at a time when kids in this country are going to live to 100. The amount of time that they will be children is getting smaller as a percentage of their life. There are arguments for and against certain things happening at 16 and at 18, but if the Opposition amendments became law, they would mean that young people would become adults at 16.
My hon. Friend has made his point about shrinking childhood before. I say to him that maturity is not an exact science. There will be some people who are mature at 16 or perhaps less, and some who manage to hang on to their immaturity for a great many years after that. I do not believe that any of us can pinpoint an exact age.
One thing that the EU referendum has in common with the major constitutional referendum that took place in Scotland last year is that it is a decision for a long time into the future. To quote Alex Salmond, who is not here today, it is a decision to be made once in a lifetime, or at least for a generation, not something to be repeated every few years. I hope that all hon. Members will agree with that. The referendum will not return every few years like general elections.
The right hon. Gentleman will remember from our happy days together in the Labour club at Edinburgh University that in Scotland, unlike in England, the age of legal capacity is 16. However, child protection laws in Scotland, like those in England, go up to the age of 18. Stephen Phillips made the point that the age of legal capacity in England is 18, but it is worth making the point that it is 16 in Scotland.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention.
The issue before us is the UK’s future in the European Union, a huge constitutional issue that will affect the future of the country and its citizens for many years to come. The rights of Britain’s young people will be directly at stake in the referendum. Let us consider the politics behind why the referendum is coming about. A major reason is concerns about how the free movement of people operates in the EU and in this country. Our citizens currently have the right to live, work and study in 27 other member states by virtue of our membership. I do not think there are many people who want us to leave the European Union but do not want to restrict the right of free movement. There may be some, but not many, and that is pretty high on the agenda of those who want to leave.
If we leave the European Union, and as a result decide that we will restrict the rights of other European citizens to come to live and work in the UK, we can be sure that reciprocal action will be taken against young people from the United Kingdom. The rights that British citizens currently enjoy to live, work and study throughout the EU are directly at stake in the referendum. Even setting aside the general debate about the right of 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in elections, that is a strong reason for giving those citizens the right to vote in the referendum. Their future is directly at stake.
It is 40 years since this country last voted on membership of the European Union. As we hear perennially in these debates, someone would have to be in their mid-50s to have voted in the last EU referendum. The referendum will not come around every few years. It is a generational decision that will have a direct impact on young people’s future rights, which is why I believe they should be given a voice in it.
One of the key rights that we have as citizens in this country is to be judged by a jury of our peers, and eligibility for jury selection begins at 18 because of how important a responsibility it is. Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that that eligibility, which is drawn from the electoral roll, should be changed to 16?
That is not part of our amendments, but I am sure such things can be considered in other debates. My point, as the hon. Lady has just heard, is that the referendum result will have a direct impact on our citizens’ right of free movement.
I associate myself with what my hon. Friend Antoinette Sandbach said, because her point is fundamental. We are talking about the constitution of the United Kingdom and the details that allow people to participate in decisions on it. The right hon. Gentleman is arguing that we should play with it in the case of this particular referendum, but in fact we should have a proper debate in the House about the age at which people should be enfranchised to debate the matters of our nation. That age should apply throughout, whether to juries or to an EU referendum.
I believe that the long-term trend will be towards enfranchisement at a younger age, for some of the reasons that have been set out in the debate. My party believes in a general reduction to 16, but the amendments are concerned with the EU referendum facilitated by the Bill. My argument is that there is a good reason for enfranchisement at 16 in this case, given the direct impact of the result on the right of free movement and the right to study and work in other EU countries. There is a good argument for that, and I do not believe that it is a partisan one that is made only by Labour or Scottish National party Members. Some Conservative and other Members support it.
Although some say that the voting age should be dealt with generally rather than specifically, is it not the case that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government and the House were quite happy for a specific change to be made for the Scottish referendum? Why cannot my 16 and 17-year-old constituents in London, and those in the rest of England, have a vote, yet Scottish young people can?
The decision was taken for the Scottish referendum because the power to do so was devolved. The power has also been devolved to the Welsh Assembly.
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has given way on the nature of the legislation before us as we are—after all—in Committee. I welcomed the point made by my hon. Friend Antoinette Sandbach about the electoral register and I am deeply alarmed that the proponent of any amendment would not have—in the right hon. Gentleman’s words—“thought through” whether it would have an effect on such an important issue as jury service. I am a supporter of votes at 16, and I shall seek to make further comments on that later, but we are now examining the quality of legislation.
I thank the hon. Lady for her praise of my amendment, but its effect would be clear and we have taken advice on the point. The amendment would extend to 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote on exactly the same basis as the other changes to the franchise in the rest of the Bill. As was said on Second Reading, the Bill already changes the franchise—for Gibraltar and for peers—so the amendment, like the Bill, will apply only to the EU referendum.
The amendment on EU citizens is also in this group of amendments. The franchise in the Bill is that for UK parliamentary elections, except for the exceptions that we have discussed, and the amendments would extend it to citizens of other EU countries. EU citizens currently have the right to vote in local and European elections, but not in parliamentary elections. When other EU countries have held referendums on EU accession decisions or treaty changes in recent years, EU citizens from member states outwith those countries have not been given the vote. That is true for recent referendums held in France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and many other countries. When a member state makes a decision on its own membership of the EU, on whether to join the euro or on whether to accept treaty change, the pattern has been to use the franchise for national elections. It has not been the pattern to extend that to citizens of other EU countries. For that reason, we do not support allowing citizens of other EU countries to participate in this referendum, but we do believe that it is important to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.
We all visit schools in our constituencies, and I am sure I am not alone in thinking that some of the most thoughtful and challenging discussions in those visits have been with 16 and 17-year-olds. Do I feel that they have the capacity to understand the information, to weigh it and to communicate their views? Absolutely I do. The question is whether Members of Parliament have the capacity to change our view and give those young people a voice and a vote. I could not return to my constituency, look those young people in the eye and tell them that I had denied them the opportunity to take part in the forthcoming referendum.
I have lobbied hard for everyone in my constituency to have their say on our future in Europe, but when I reflect on who will feel the impact of the result most, I conclude that it will be 16 to 25-year-olds, who will live with the decision for longer than the rest of us. I am delighted that we have extended the franchise to Members of the Upper House, and that their lordships will have the opportunity to vote in the referendum, but I feel strongly that we should extend the same courtesy to young people in our constituencies.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear me say that I do not think that we should widen the opportunity for young people to be exploited by big tobacco or big alcohol—I am robust on that point. I do not think, however, that we need the same thresholds across the board. We have already heard that we judge people to have capacity at many different thresholds, but we do not deny people detained under the Mental Health Act the opportunity to vote. We do not deny the opportunity to vote to people who may lack capacity because of advanced dementia. We understand that those people need the opportunity to express their voice.
The wider point is that as the age of our population increases, which is a good thing—the only thing worse than getting older is the alternative—it will have profound implications for us all, and we should be concerned about that. Because older people vote, it tends to drive policy in their direction. There is a compelling case for balance, and we need to give young people a voice and a vote.
I, too, often speak to sixth-form colleges, and after a discussion about whether 16 and 17-year-olds should vote, I often ask them whether they would like the vote themselves. In my experience, the majority of sixth-formers say that they would prefer to wait until 18 to vote as they could then make a more informed decision. Has that been my hon. Friend’s experience?
Absolutely not. I am clearly talking to very different young people in south Devon. I agree that young people—indeed, people of every age—are crying out for clear information. Perhaps, instead of the Government churning out information that is not widely trusted, we could consider some way in which we could grade the quality of information, as we do for scientific papers, which are graded according to the quality of the evidence. Perhaps we could ask academic bodies, or the Library, to grade the information to which people have access, so that they can judge whether it comes from one perspective or another. People want clear information.
Does my hon. Friend agree in principle that votes at 16 is an idea whose time has come, but that it should not be introduced by means of an amendment on a matter of this significance? Does she agree that lowering the voting age to 16 is inevitable and would she welcome, as I would, the Government taking the initiative on that sensible and timely reform of our franchise?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the time has come. The time came in Scotland, and we saw very clearly how important that was for young people. More than 90% of young people in Scotland registered to vote. They now permanently have a voice and a vote, and I do not think they will accept its being taken away from them now. That would be infantilising. We should accept that they have the capacity to make these decisions, and the House should embrace that.
I believe this should be a decision for Parliament, not a party political decision through the Whips. I would like the whole House to have the opportunity to decide on this in a free vote. Furthermore, on my hon. Friend’s point about whether we should take this as a stand-alone issue or debate the wider franchise, I will be making the same point and voting in the same way when this comes back and we have a wider discussion about the franchise in other elections. Let us not be dragged into this kicking and screaming; let us make a positive decision that we trust our young people and want to give them a voice.
The hon. Lady is making a rigorous case. I agree with her very much about the importance of information, and certainly young people in Brighton are telling me that they would like more information too. Does she agree that things such as more personal, social, health and economic education in schools is one place where we could have that kind of debate? I have had a private Member’s Bill for mandatory PSHE in schools, so I wonder whether she would support that point.
I think the hon. Lady knows that I agree with her on the importance of PSHE in schools, and there are also opportunities through citizenship. I have heard people in this debate so far arguing, “Well, shouldn’t we first be concentrating on getting 20-year-olds to vote?” I absolutely agree—that is important too, but the two are not mutually exclusive. We can set patterns for a lifetime if we get young people starting to think about the importance of voting, as well as about their active participation in politics. That is important, because although young people take part in politics—we know that; they are very engaged on issues and with community activism—we need to persuade them that it is absolutely in their interest to vote as well, because of the way in which voting drives policy, as I said earlier.
In my opinion, too much of our policy across this House is being driven by issues that are important to people who vote, and as there are more and more people from the older demographic who vote, there is a risk that our debates will become even more distorted. We must recognise the need to balance that by giving young people a greater voice, but the voice is always stronger if it is accompanied by a vote. What message will we send to the young people we will be asking to vote in 2020 if we infantilise those same young people and deny them the vote as 16 or 17-year-olds in 2016 or 2017?
My hon. Friend is making a persuasive and enlightened case. She is right: we should never be fearful of making fundamental changes to the franchise; but they should be properly and fully considered, and not rushed. Does she agree that the Electoral Commission should be asked to carry out a full review of the voting age? I think it last did so in 2003-04, when it said it wanted to return to the issue in the next five to seven years, and we are now 11 to 12 years on.
I agree with my hon. Friend, but we can sometimes use excuses to delay important issues. The important thing is to look at the experience in Scotland and the way the vote was energised. Is anybody seriously arguing that 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland were incapable of taking in the information, weighing it in the balance and communicating their views? Is anybody seriously suggesting that there were harms to those young people from taking part? No, and I would say to those on our Benches that they should look at what has been written by Ruth Davidson for the Tory Reform Group. She makes a compelling case for Conservative Members to embrace that change and take this forward. We must do so for the referendum for the very reason that we are talking about the young people who will be most affected by the decision and living with it for the longest, but who will not, as in general elections, have an opportunity to change their view in five years’ time. This decision will last for decades.
My hon. Friend is making a strong argument, but, to reflect the point raised by my hon. Friend Peter Aldous, surely it is better that a constitutional issue that is so important that it affects all elections should be fully debated by the House as a separate matter. She has mentioned Scotland. Scotland has a heritage of 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote in local elections, and when it comes to responsibilities such as marriage, there has been a long-standing position that people can get married there without their parents’ permission. That is not the case in England at 16. Therefore, we need a far more in-depth discussion about this issue, rather than cramming it into today’s debate on amendment 18 to clause 2.
My hon. Friend is right that we need to debate it. We need to do that too, and I will be making exactly the same argument at that point, but we must not miss this opportunity to express a view as a House. I believe we should have a free vote—I believe that passionately—on whether 16 and 17-year-olds have the capacity. I say to my hon. Friend: what is the harm and what are the benefits? We should all weigh up—if we look at our ethical grid—the benefits versus the harms to the individual and society. As I said earlier, I believe there are compelling societal reasons why we must give young people a voice and a vote, because without the vote, they do not have the same voice. There are also societal reasons about the changing structure of our population, but I ask him: where are the harms?
Taking a philosophical approach, if we look at, say, young offenders institutions and prisons, is my hon. Friend therefore arguing that 16-year-olds should go straight to incarceration in adult prisons? If we take voting as part of the age of responsibility, we will be opening a whole can of worms; therefore, the argument that they could be placed in prisons comes up. That is what I am worried about. Sixteen-year-olds are vulnerable. I appreciate what she is saying, but this is not just about the voting age; it is about looking after those vulnerable young people. She is making the case for voting, but the obverse of that is that equality must apply everywhere.
Let me point out to my hon. Friend that one of the things I campaigned long and hard on in the last Parliament—one of the things that perhaps drove me into politics—was the scandal of children being detained in police cells under section 136.
But the point is that these are children who are being incarcerated. The inquiry on child and adolescent mental health services that I led as Chair of the Select Committee on Health at the end of the last Parliament shows, I feel, the opposite. The point is that one of the reasons we have such woeful services for young people suffering from mental health problems is partly the way that policy drivers tend to come from the other end of the age spectrum. If my hon. Friend is going to bring up incarceration in prisons, I would say yes, we do incarcerate young people in wholly inappropriate circumstances. Part of giving them a voice and a vote is about changing the way we treat our young people in those circumstances. I am delighted that the Government are finally making progress on this scandal and stopping the incarceration of children in cells—something that I witnessed as a forensic medical examiner and have felt passionately about for years.
One of the most extraordinary arguments I have heard this afternoon was from Mr Sheerman, who is no longer in his place. He suggested that children would somehow be at greater risk of abuse if they were allowed a vote. I would say absolutely the opposite, so I do not accept the argument that my hon. Friend has made about the criminal justice system. Let us stop infantilising young people; let us give them a voice and a vote.
My hon. Friend may not be surprised to know that I agree that it is time for people to have votes at 16. However, we are seeing an interesting and passionate debate in the House, and if something is worth doing and is important, it is worth doing well. Our hon. Friend Chris Skidmore raises some interesting points. Whatever we think about them, these are important points for debate. If we open this new opportunity for young people, there may be inconsistencies. Consistency in when we feel that young people are adults and responsible is something that we have to get right. Does my hon. Friend feel that it is now time for the Government to grasp the nettle and have a proper debate about the franchise and when we have the vote? This is not the time for that, because a lot of debate needs to be had and there is too little time now in which to have it. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
There will always be inconsistencies. We will never get complete consistency on the threshold issues; we will continue to have different thresholds for different things, and the points at which we choose cut-offs tend to be around 16 and 18. I am comfortable with that. The issue is whether we feel as a House and as parliamentarians that we should look those 16 and 17-year-olds in the eye and say to them on an issue that will have far-reaching implications for their future that although they have the capacity to make decisions, we are going to deny them the vote and kick it into the long grass.
If we are honest, there are other political reasons at stake, and we should be honest about them. We should give young people a voice and the vote in this referendum and then let us have the other discussions. As I say, I will make the same arguments about the wider general election franchise, but I feel that the case for this particular referendum is compelling. I can see no reason why we would not want to give young people a vote on this extremely important issue, which will affect them for far longer than it will affect me.
I am always keen to follow what my hon. Friend has to say and the thoughtful way in which she makes her case. Does she agree that this is indeed all to do with maturity, and that the reason why we protect children concerns their level of maturity and the need for society to make sure that they are okay? The same argument can be deployed for the age of enfranchisement. We need to define what we mean by a child and what we mean by an adult. The argument about enfranchisement is really a supplementary and consequential argument, depending very much on the age we have determined.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I feel that this is the right age to have the opportunity. Do I think that 16-year-olds have the capacity to make decisions and weigh all the arguments in the balance in this referendum vote? Absolutely. I cannot believe how I could walk into classrooms to meet 16 and 17-year-olds, look them in the eye and say, “Actually, I do not believe that you have the capacity to understand and make a case.”
Are not the people who are arguing against votes at 16 also doubting, by extension, the virtue of the vote in Scotland earlier this year, which came down, of course, on the Unionist side?
Does the hon. Lady think there are lessons to be learned about what happened in Scotland, where there was massive engagement on the part of young people? Also, after a debate very similar to this one in the Scottish Parliament, when people saw what really happened, they stopped being worried about what might happen, so there is now very little opposition in Scotland to giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote for every election.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Who could have watched that extraordinary debate, the most compelling debate of the referendum campaign, with thousands of people in the stadium in Glasgow, without feeling inspired by the opportunity and enthusiasm for the whole campaign and the wide turnout? I believe those young people will continue to be engaged in politics, not just in activism within their communities but in turning out to vote, which is the important issue here. We must increase voter engagement. If we do nothing, we could face a situation within a decade where half the population are simply not turning out to vote. That will have terrible consequences for our democracy.
I shall finish on that note. I really hope that any Members in doubt about the issue who feel that we can kick it into the long grass will ask themselves whether they want to walk into those schools after this debate and tell young people that they have denied them the vote.
I congratulate Dr Wollaston on her speech, and I absolutely agree with what she said. I will support votes for 16 and 17-year-olds and the position put forward by my Front-Bench team. I want to speak to my amendments 51 and 52. Amendment 51 relates to a serious anomaly in the current position regarding European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom, while amendment 52 relates to a further anomaly regarding British citizens living elsewhere in the EU.
Let me deal first with amendment 51. As things stand, a citizen of Malta, Cyprus or the Republic of Ireland, which are all European Union countries, can vote in the proposed referendum on the future of the UK in the EU. Those citizens can do so because, in the case of Malta and Cyprus, they are also in the Commonwealth. In the case of the Republic of Ireland, they can do so because it was once a British colony and there would be complications with regard to Northern Ireland if they could not vote. These are historical reasons. Under our parliamentary franchise, we allow citizens of those three countries and all other Commonwealth citizens in the UK to vote in the election.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a valid reason for extending the franchise to members of the Commonwealth—many of the citizens of those countries fought and spilt blood in defence of the freedoms we enjoy, which gives them a unique entitlement to vote?
I will not be diverted into a long argument, but I have constituents and friends who are Poles, whose parents and grandparents fought with the British. I also have constituents whose relatives fought with the resistance, with the left in Italy and in France against fascism and Nazism. I have friends from other European countries who acted similarly, so I am afraid the hon. Gentleman cannot use that argument.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. In Scotland, we have an excellent Polish community, for example. We have a huge Polish community who fought incredibly bravely during the war, and a newer Polish community who are making a significant contribution to Scottish life.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
On the question of EU citizens, there is a very good organisation called New Europeans. I was privileged to be involved when it launched exactly two years ago on
In my recent general election campaign, I met a couple on the street: he was British, she was French. She has been living in this country for many years, and they have children at a school in my constituency. In the referendum, however, one of them will have a vote and the other will not. We have the interesting scenario whereby Commonwealth citizens can vote. A person from Jamaica can vote in the referendum. A person from India or Bangladesh can vote in it. However, someone from Italy or Spain who may have lived in the United Kingdom for longer than people from those other European countries that I mentioned cannot vote.
During the general election campaign, a man stopped me in the street and said, “I am not sure whether I can vote.” I asked, “What is your nationality?” He said, “I am an Italian citizen.” I said, “In that case, you will not be able to vote in this election.” He then said, “I am originally from Bangladesh, and I have dual citizenship.” I told him, “Well, in that case you can vote.” But if that man had been a Somali with Italian citizenship, he would not have been able to vote. Someone in a similar position who had come to this country in similar circumstances, as a migrant or an asylum seeker, with the nationality of another European Union state such as Sweden or the Netherlands, could not vote, but if that person had come from a Commonwealth country in such circumstances, he could vote. It is an absurdity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his pronunciation of all those names.
In her brilliant speech, Dr Wollaston spoke of sending a message. I hope that the Committee will accept my hon. Friend’s amendment, which I have signed and which I support—I also support the amendment tabled by the Scottish National party—because it sends the message that those who come to this country and pay their taxes ought to have the same franchise as everyone else, and to be able to vote in the same way.
Mr McFadden read out a powerful list of other European countries that apply exactly the same criteria. I speak as the child of an EU citizen—my mother—who does not vote. She chooses to retain her nationality and her citizenship in the Netherlands, where she was born, although she has lived in this country for many years. Ultimately, it is for such individuals to decide what their citizenship is. If they wish to become British citizens, they can exercise the franchise here.
That is true, but there remains an anomaly which is not dealt with by what has been said by either the hon. Lady or my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East. We allow some EU citizens to vote in our elections; there is not a blanket ban. A Cypriot can vote, a Greek Cypriot can vote, but a Greek cannot vote.
I am happy to have added my name to the hon. Gentleman’s very sensible amendment. What reasons have his Front-Bench colleagues given him for not supporting it?
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for his amendment in arguing against differentiation between people of different nationalities who are resident here and pay taxes, but why stop at EU citizens? Why does he not apply the same argument to citizens of the wider world who are also resident here and pay taxes, and who will also be affected by the decision?
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but the referendum is about the European Union. I agree that people in the United States and other parts of the world are affected, but we already allow a great many people from other countries who live here to vote in our parliamentary elections, because of the Commonwealth. A large number of British people living in other countries and a large number of Commonwealth citizens living in the United Kingdom—many of whom have not taken British citizenship, whether they have come from Pakistan, India, Australia or Canada—can vote in those elections.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s argument relates to the complexities of our current system of eligibility to vote in either the potential European referendum or a general election, but may I take up the point made earlier by Keith Vaz, who mentioned tax? How long does the hon. Gentleman think the period of contribution should be? Should it be five years or 10 years, or should taxpayers be eligible immediately?
That is not a question that I can answer at this stage. We have residence rules with regard to people’s eligibility to vote. The essence of my argument is that there should be no discrimination against European Union citizens who are not from Commonwealth countries that are in the European Union. My amendment would end discrimination against EU citizens who may have lived in the United Kingdom for many years—perhaps with children who are at school or university—and may have been making a contribution during that time, whether they are directors of companies, accountants, traders in the City of London, or taxi drivers. Yesterday, I was taken to the climate change event on the South Bank and Lambeth Bridge in a rickshaw pedalled by a Polish guy who had been living in London for many years, working as a rickshaw driver.
The future of many people who are making a contribution to British society could be seriously affected by the referendum. If we leave the European Union, what will happen to the right of those people—many of whom have children who were born here—to stay in our country? The referendum has enormous implications for them and their families, and it also has huge implications for the 2.2 million British people who live elsewhere in the European Union. That is what amendment 52 is about.
The two amendments are balanced, in a sense. There are 2.3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and 2.2 million British citizens living in the other 27 EU countries. However, the demography is a bit different. The people who are living here are younger, they are paying taxes, and they are working. Many, although not all, of those British citizens are living in countries such as Spain and France. Today, I received e-mails from people in, for instance, Crete and Germany who believe that their voices should be heard.
It is possible for people who live abroad to register to vote in UK elections, although there is a restriction. A person who has lived in any other country as a British citizen for up to 15 years has a right to register as an overseas voter, although, despite the efforts of political parties, very few many people do. However, a person who has lived in another country for more than 15 years is not eligible to register.
I tend to study the manifestos on which general elections are fought, and I came across a paragraph in the Conservative party’s election manifesto that states:
“We will complete the electoral register, by working to include more of the five million Britons who live abroad. We will introduce votes for life, scrapping the rule that bars British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting.”
That is in the Conservative manifesto and was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, yet the Government propose a referendum that is not consistent with their own policy on which they were elected. I am perplexed by that, so perhaps the Minister when he responds will he explain why they want to change the law and allow people in future general elections, presumably, and local elections, probably, to have a vote irrespective of how long they have lived abroad. They are not, however, going to allow those people—the 2.2 million—living in the EU, of whom a significant number have lived in Spain, France or elsewhere for more than 15 years, to have a vote in a referendum that is vital to their future.
There is an organisation that represents Labour party supporters who live in other countries. It is called Labour International. It is affiliated to the Labour party and sends people to our annual conference. Other parties have similar organisations; there is an equivalent Conservative one. Labour International this week sent an email to the general secretary of the Labour party. It quoted one of its members, who says:
The In/Out Referendum has the very real and very frightening possibility of making me an illegal immigrant overnight. How are you going to get the Government to protect me, my family and friends should the electorate turn their back on Europe. What will happen to my rights under the Freedom of Movement clause? What about my job, my pension, my health-care, my property? Will I be able to/forced to claim political asylum? Will I be compensated for losses? Who is making our voice heard in the UK? The list of questions just grows and grows along with my insomnia.
There are people, who perhaps went to Spain 25 or 30 years ago, who are extremely nervous about their future. They are apprehensive, because a decision will be taken in as little as two years’ time that will have an enormous impact on their status, their future and their life. They thought they were settled in another European country, yet they will have no say over that decision, because the British Government—the Conservative Government—believe that their future can be put at risk through this referendum, while they as British citizens living in other European countries have no democratic voice because they have lived there for more than 15 years.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case, as does that email, but first, may I gently remind him that it was the previous Labour Government, whom he supported, who introduced the 15-year limit; and secondly, may I assume from everything he has said that he will support the proposal he read out from the Conservative manifesto to extend the limit for life, beyond 15 years, when it comes before the House?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, I must say that interventions are supposed to be on a single point. When I hear the words “and secondly”, I begin to get a bit concerned. Please keep interventions as brief as possible.
There is no proposal from the Government, and that is why my amendment explores exactly what their position is. It is unclear to me why they believe that British citizens living in a European Union country for 15 years and one month should not have a democratic right, while those living there for 14 years and 11 months do. That is an argument for all parties; I am just raising the democratic principles. A referendum is going to happen that will have a profound impact on British citizens and their families living in other European countries, on British-born children, on people in this country with European Union backgrounds and on people from other countries who are married to, working with or employing British citizens in this country. Yet, none of those people has a voice in this debate. These are serious democratic anomalies which need to be dealt with, if not today, then by another place when it considers these matters.
Is the hon. Gentleman therefore restating his opposition in principle to a referendum and to allowing the British people to have their say? I thought the Labour party had finally done a U-turn and walked through the Lobby with us the other week.
It is a pity the hon. Gentleman was not here on Tuesday to hear my response to another intervention from one of his colleagues. I will not repeat it now. My views on a referendum are well known—they are the same as Margaret Thatcher’s and Clement Attlee’s—and if he reads Tuesday’s Hansard he will see the whole quotation.
Will the hon. Gentleman consider the fact that some people who miss out during elections are impacted when such votes occur? Government Members are seeking to ensure that the rules are completely consistent and that those who vote in general elections—indeed, those who voted for this referendum—are the same people who vote to decide whether to stay in the European Union.
The problem with that argument is that the hon. Gentleman’s party agreed to a local government and European Union-model franchise for the Scottish referendum. European Union citizens living in Glasgow or Edinburgh were allowed to vote in the referendum that took place in 2014, yet European Union citizens living in London, although they will be able to vote in the mayoral election next year, will not be allowed to do so in the referendum in 2016 or 2017, on membership of the European Union, which will have a profound impact on whether they can continue to live in London and whether their families stay here afterwards. There is an anomaly, and the Government need to get real about the problem and the damage it could cause to the presence of people who are a benefit to our country and to our own citizens in European Union countries.
I do not wish to prolong my contribution. I have made my points—[Interruption.] I am happy to take another intervention before I conclude.
The situation is clear: hon. Members on both sides of the House need to look carefully at the implications of this referendum for the future of our country, our citizens and those who are resident here. It is going to happen, and it needs to be seen to be fair—and to be seen to be in the interests of our country—so that we get the best possible result.
Surely, the hon. Gentleman recognises that one way to guarantee that the referendum will not be seen to be fair is to change the rules of the franchise from those which applied when he was elected—when all of us were elected—just a few weeks ago.
The choice is clear: we could have the local government franchise, which would allow European Union citizens to vote, as they did in the Scottish referendum and in the Mayor of London and local council elections; or we could have the restrictive franchise that the hon. Gentleman proposes. On the wider question, I quoted the Conservative party’s manifesto, which stated that they would extend the franchise period for British citizens living abroad, yet mysteriously—perhaps the Minister will explain why—that proposal is not in the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Bill is a local or a national matter? If he thinks that it is a local matter, will he not seek to apply a local franchise? If he thinks that it is a national matter, will he not seek to apply the franchise that is traditional in this country at national elections?
This Bill is more than a local or national matter; it has wide-ranging international implications. Before the hon. Gentleman puts his hands up in the air, he should note that EU citizens living in the UK can vote for MEPs in this country. Given the wide ramifications for our relations with our partners in other European countries, and the mingling and movement of peoples and investments, which is an inevitable consequence of a European Union with a population of 500 million, there are enormous interests for many British people and their families in having a say on this proposal. That is not being allowed to many of them at the moment.
I absolutely agree with that. I will conclude my remarks with the hope that both Front-Bench teams are listening to the points I have made, because the voice of the European Union citizens living in the UK and of British people living elsewhere in the EU needs to be heard in this debate.
I would like to say it is a pleasure to follow Mike Gapes, but I found his arguments somewhat confused and wide-ranging. Let me remind him that the reason we have a Conservative Government is because a Conservative manifesto promised the people that if we had a Conservative-led Government, they would have a referendum. That was decided on by the current franchise of 18-year-olds and over. Those people voted to have a Conservative Government—I like saying that—so that we could then give those aged 18 and over a choice on their future in Europe. As someone who is in her late 50s, I am sorry to say—[Hon. Members: “Never!”] You are so kind. I would like to remind Labour Members that until this moment they, including Mr McFadden, who led for the Opposition, wanted to deny me, in my 50s, a choice on the future of my country. I am glad there has been a Damascene conversion to allowing people of all ages, including me, to have a choice that I never had 44 years ago.
We now have a choice on the future of our country. Muddying the waters by, as the hon. Member for Ilford South was suggesting, including every person who could be affected as a result of being in this country in the time of a referendum and trying to make the franchise so wide—
Let me make a little progress, because Scottish Members have made a lot of comments in this debate. I am pleased that Scotland had its own referendum under its own rules, because that was devolved as such, but we are not devolved here. We have a franchise and I would like to stick with it. That is why I say to my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston that I fully disagreed with the points she made. I understand the passion with which she made them, but I do not believe this is the time to adopt her approach. The electorate who decided that we would have this choice should now have the right to exercise that choice.
Stephen Gethins argued that we should have people on the franchise at 16 because it gets them into good habits, but he then made the confused argument that between 18 and 25 people dropped into bad habits, because they went off to university, got married, moved away or went travelling during a gap year. But those 16-year-olds would eventually become 18-year-olds, so surely they would then have the same chaotic approach to voting that he described. This is not a time to make the point that we will get 16-year-olds into good habits that they will continue for the rest of their lives.
In a relatively short time, we will have this momentous referendum, which I have wanted for a significant period. I would have been hugely disappointed because up until now a Labour Government would have denied me that choice—I am sure I would have gone to my grave without ever having had it. We should stick with the franchise we have. As people have said, they want there to be a recognised choice and a momentous decision. Eighteen is not so far past 16 to say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, that these people are not going to be the ones who have that future—they are, too. We should be making the effort to engage the 18 to 25-year-olds and to increase the turnout. St Albans had a high turnout—
A study by the University of Edinburgh showed that if people engage at 16, that increases their chances of being engaged from 18 to 24. That is one of the many reasons why we should have votes at 16.
I respect the right of the Scottish people to draw those conclusions, but my conclusion is that we need to look at why in so many of our constituencies—perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell me the turnout in his in a further intervention—the turnout is so low. Why does the weather affect the turnout?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, but his turnout was lower than my turnout. Having said that, many Members will know that in their constituencies the turnout, particularly in local elections, is woefully low. The turnout among young people is woefully low. I did 10 hustings—I am sure he did 110—but I can tell the House that many young people told me that those who were able to vote did not know enough. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes on that, because we need to make sure that that information is got across. We do not have the mechanisms at the moment to get the information to enough young people in a way that I would like. I do not believe now is the time to consider lowering the age for the franchise and including 16 and 17-year-olds. We need to put our energies and efforts into the 18-plus group.
In my intervention, I made the point that we have things that people can do at 16, but we have a lot of things that they cannot do. The comments made by Mr Sheerman have been somewhat misinterpreted by the Committee. I think the point he was trying to make is that we protect young people from a lot of things—he happened to discuss child and sexual abuse. If a young person gets involved in a bad group and eventually goes down the criminal path, we treat them in a way that accepts their youth in law. We treat them in a way that protects them and we hope they will learn the error of their ways before they enter the adult world when they would face extremely serious consequences. We take that approach on a lot of things for young people. We try to protect them from the evils of smoking, drugs and drink.
I know that this is different in Scotland, before someone bounces up and down to tell me so, but we say that a young person still needs parental permission in our country to get married at 16, which I would suggest is a very young age to be getting married. Now is not the time, in an amendment to a Bill as important as this, to decide that we have to review the whole franchise. I do not accept that it is infantilising young people to treat them as what they are—young people, pre-18, the age at which the full weight and consequences of the law fall upon them.
Let me also point out to Opposition Members that people pay tax aged three if they happen to be a child star—that has nothing to do with age. So let us leave that one out; “taxation and representation” is somewhat of a misnomer. We say that young people are protected. What we need to say is why those young people of 18 are then considered adults. They can leave school—they can leave full-time education—and enter the world of work. They lose that protection of that twilight era between being a very young child and an adolescent, and being a young adult.
Has my hon. Friend considered the issue of who the electoral roll and electoral data should be made available to? During the general election we all had access to the data in order to ensure that we provided materials, but those data could be used in other ways, such as by marketing companies to target 16 and 17-year-olds. How would she ensure that the roll is used sensibly and is not used for damaging purposes?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but I will be chided if I go down that route because it is not within the remit of the amendments under consideration.
Such a matter would have to be discussed if we were to reconsider the franchise. I do not think that we should pick and choose our franchise arrangements; I know that Scotland did for the referendum. At the moment, we have a franchise of 18 plus. Those voters elected this Government and asked this Government to deliver a referendum and it is those voters who should vote in the referendum; it is as simple as that.
If we are going to start treading in these waters of saying that 16-year-olds should vote, why should we stop there? As has been said in this House, why not 15-year-olds? Why not 14-year olds? How have we picked this arbitrary age? Scotland went down the 16-year-old route. Does that make it the right one?
Does it not strike the hon. Lady that whenever franchises have been extended in this country, whether it be from 21 to 18, or indeed allowing women the franchise, arguments about capacity and the ability to vote have always been made, yet the franchise age has gone down? More people have participated in elections, and that has been a good thing for democracy.
The hon. Lady has just made my point. My point is: why not any age? She has exactly made the point. We choose ages for a reason. My generation was one of the first to vote at 18. I am sure that my father thought I was barking mad and should not even be running a whelk stall. The point is that we made a decision, and that decision has stood us in good stead. We must face the fact that 18 to 24-year-olds are not exercising that franchise. Moving the franchise inexorably downwards, which the hon. Lady thinks is a good idea, does not necessarily mean that we get better political engagement, debate or even consequences.
The hon. Member for Ilford South seemed to feel that the franchise for this particular referendum should apply to everyone who may or may not feel they are affected by being in the country as a result of EU membership; well, I profoundly disagree. This is about the self-determination of our country and how we see our place within Europe. That is something that I have never voted on, and I wish to vote on. I am pleased that the public have been offered such a vote now.
My hon. Friend reinforces my point. Up until this very moment, the Opposition did not want us to have this debate. Suddenly, they are coming up with a whole load of detail that they feel is crucial to the debate. I think they suspect that the younger generation are more likely to want to remain in Europe. Political opportunism is why they are looking to move the franchise. I agree that, in the future, we should all have a larger debate on whether the franchise is pitched at the right age. Let us park that political opportunism, welcome the fact that Opposition Members want to give us old birds an actual vote—at long last—but let us keep the franchise where it is. It has stood us in good stead. Any efforts and bluster—
I missed that last comment. I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Just to be clear: she keeps referring to Opposition Members. Some of us have been calling for a referendum on this subject for many, many years—and it was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto in 2010. It is just that the Front Bench team took a bit of time to get to where some of us were.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I hope that he will forgive my comments. We have many friends on both Benches who have wanted a referendum. I accept that he is a firm and staunch European. He wanted to have the referendum to give a choice, with the choice being, in his view, to stay in. He has colleagues who share that view, and others who share the opposite view. I am prepared to be corrected by the right hon. Gentleman, who holds staunch views.
The right hon. Gentleman is also right in another regard. I have that poster on my wall that says, “We are the only party that will give a true referendum”. I think we were playing games with the Lisbon treaty at the time. A poster of Nick Clegg, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, is on the wall in my office, and has been there for some time, as are pictures of those who want to give us a true referendum.
My hon. Friend said that her father might have thought she was eccentric voting at the age of 18, when she was first allowed to do so. The fact that she has a poster of Nick Clegg on her wall seems to add to her father’s view. Does she need some help in this matter?
I have been gently chided from going down that route. The point is that a referendum is something that has been rattled around for a considerable time. We are now having one, thanks to the fact that we have a Conservative Government who have promised to deliver a referendum, and deliver it we shall. I do not wish to muddy the waters of something so vital, so important and so longed for by trying to move the franchise down to the age of 16 or 17.
I look forward to all sides expending as much effort and energy on this matter to ensure that those people who currently have the franchise exercise it. That will be the best way to ensure that we get a vote that represents the true wishes of the people of this country. Those people of 18 will be living with the consequences for a very long time—just as those of us in our fifties have lived with the consequences of what our parents chose for us. We should stick with our current franchise, and not be considering passing an amendment that does something so momentous as extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. Such a decision may be for another day. All the implications raised by the hon. Member for Ilford South could be discussed then. We could consider who should vote at general elections and at local elections. That is an important issue, but it is not for today. I shall vote with the Government and not support the amendment.
I rise to speak in favour of amendments 51, 1, 2 and 18. Having been advised that the lead amendment would be 51, I put my name to that, but I am also happy to support amendment 18, which seeks to achieve the same thing in relation to EU citizens being able to vote.
Briefly, on the subject of votes at 16 and 17, the Scottish referendum has demonstrated convincingly that 16 and 17-year-olds are interested in politics and that when there is a vote of substance, they will want to take part. They have demonstrated, I would have thought convincingly to the House as a whole, that they should be entitled to vote. Certainly, that is something that the Liberal Democrats have pursued vigorously for many years. Indeed, Stephen Williams, the former Member for Bristol West, pursued the matter in the previous Parliament and ensured that the House voted in favour of votes at 16. It was not legislated on, because it is not something that the Conservatives would agree to in the coalition.
The right hon. Gentleman takes a snipe at the Conservative party for refusing to take certain decisions within the coalition. But the Liberal Democrats refused to give us a referendum on Europe in the previous Parliament, which is why we are having it now. It is hardly fair to make those assumptions when his party, at heart, has always been against a referendum on Europe—certainly after 2010.
The hon. Gentleman will know that that is not the case. In the previous Government, we legislated to allow a referendum to take place if there was a substantial transfer of powers—or proposals for such a transfer—from the UK to the EU.
There is one final reason why 16 and 17-year-olds should be given a vote in this referendum, which is that if the UK votes to come out of the EU, it will be a one-way street. If we choose “Brexit” rather than “Bremain” there will be no “Breadmission”. What does that mean for 16 and 17-year-olds? Their options for living, working, travelling and studying abroad are curtailed. Their horizons are restricted and their futures diminished. They have a right to have their say in a referendum, which, if the UK votes to leave the EU, could have a long-lasting and damaging impact on their life chances. We in this place should be giving them that right.
In relation to the franchise for EU citizens, currently 2.3 million citizens of other European member states live and work in the United Kingdom. In the regional and local elections that will be held across Britain and
Northern Ireland next year, all EU citizens living in the UK will be entitled to vote, yet, as clause 2 stands, EU citizens living abroad in the UK will not be entitled to vote in the referendum. To respond to the point made by the Opposition spokesman, Mr McFadden, I do not think the fact that other countries have not allowed EU citizens to take part in similar referendums means that that is the path that the UK Government should follow.
I said earlier that EU citizens will not be entitled to vote, but of course, as several hon. Members have said today, a number of EU citizens will be able to vote in the referendum, because there is no consistency. Citizens of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta living in the UK will be able to vote in the referendum, but citizens from all other EU member states will not. As Mike Gapes said, it is clear that non-British EU citizens living in the UK have a very big stake in this election. If Britain leaves the EU, those men and women will still be EU citizens—unlike their UK counterparts, who will lose their EU citizenship rights—but they will no longer have the automatic right to live and work in the UK.
We should also remember that non-British citizens have the right to vote and stand in regional and local elections. There are many examples of European citizens playing a leading representative role in our democracy. As SNP Members will know, one of the best-known cases is that of the French-born Christian Allard, the SNP MSP for North East Scotland. It would be a disgrace if he was not allowed to vote in the EU referendum.
Do we really want to say to EU citizens who make such an outstanding contribution that they are good enough to represent us in the Scottish Parliament, in the Greater London Authority, or as our local councillor or mayor, but that they are not good enough to have a say in the EU referendum? Do we want to say to EU citizens that they are good enough to invest in Britain, set up a business here, pay their taxes and contribute to our communities, but that we do not want their voices to be heard in the referendum? Do we have the chutzpah to go to EU citizens next year, when all the political parties in this place will be competing for their votes in next year’s local and regional elections, and say, “Sorry, we didn’t give you the vote in the EU referendum, but please give us your vote now so that we can represent you”?
The corollary of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument is that he is advocating the abolition of the distinctions between the registers for local government elections and for Westminster and European elections. Is that at the heart of what he is saying? While I am on my feet, may I stress that this is not a qualitative position? We are not saying that people are either good enough or not good enough. It is about whether it is right or not.
I certainly agree with Simon Hoare on the latter point, if I may respond to just one of the points that he made.
This is about what is right and what is wrong, but there are some Opposition Members who believe that it is right to give EU citizens the right to vote in the referendum. Clearly, most Members on the Government Benches, if not all of them, do not think that it is.
Most importantly, EU citizens are mobilising and demanding the vote. A former Member of this House, whom I knew quite well as he represented a constituency close to mine, Roger Casale, an Italian by origin, has set up an organisation, New Europeans, which has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Ilford South, to ensure that EU citizens living in the UK have their voices heard. The organisation is celebrating its second birthday today, so I wish it a happy birthday.
On Tuesday, Roger and fellow members of New Europeans visited the House of Commons during the first Committee day of the EU referendum debate to speak to MPs about the franchise in the EU election. We have already heard the names of many of those who attended and I will not attempt to pronounce them, as that was well done earlier by the hon. Member for Ilford South.
EU citizens in Scotland had the right to vote in the referendum and may have helped to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom by voting no to its break-up. Many EU citizens living in the UK now demand the right to vote in the EU referendum to keep Britain in Europe. Would we have argued that the independence referendum in Scotland was illegitimate if it had been won by such a narrow margin as to make the votes of EU citizens there decisive in the outcome? If not, why should we deny EU citizens the vote in the EU referendum, fearing that the outcome of the vote might depend on them?
As we all know, rightly or wrongly, many of the people who would vote to leave the European Union would do so because of the perceived issue of the number of people coming into the country. If we were to vote to stay in specifically as a result of the votes of European citizens, would that not be inflammatory to many millions of people who voted no?
I will let the hon. Gentleman speculate on that, but what is clearly inflammatory is that 2.3 million EU citizens who live here will not be able to take part, if the Government have their way, in a referendum that will have a significant impact on them and their children. The Government disregard that at their peril.
This is exactly the argument that many Government Members have made to deny EU citizens the vote. It is a tactical and political argument that says that they want the referendum to be won—that is, for us to come out of the EU—on the votes of British citizens alone. There is no consistency in who can vote in the election, because it is not just British citizens who will be included. Citizens of 73 nationalities will be able to vote in the referendum, as they come from Commonwealth countries, and members of three EU states will be able to vote alongside British and Commonwealth citizens, yet citizens from the other 24 member states of the EU will not have the vote under the current parliamentary franchise.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I suspect that given the ferocity with which the Conservative party opposes any proposed extension there would not have been much point in my trying to pursue that as Deputy Leader of the House.
EU citizens in the UK are the group whose future will be most affected by the outcome of the vote, as well as 16 and 17-year-olds, as Dr Wollaston said earlier. EU citizens in the UK are demanding the vote and for too long, we in this place have not listened to their voice in our communities. That has to change. It is the Liberal Democrats’ policy to allow EU citizens to vote and we call on other parties to follow suit. When we go to the polls next year in the regional and local elections, we will be held to account by more than 2.3 million EU citizens in the UK for the actions we take today. It is time to do the right thing and empower EU citizens by giving them the vote in the referendum. What better way to mark the second anniversary of New Europeans and to acknowledge the rights of the 2.3 million EU citizens they represent than to extend the franchise in the EU referendum to all EU citizens rather than just some? Basing the provision on the local election franchise and not the parliamentary franchise would achieve that, so I commend these amendments to the House.
I believe passionately—I have spoken on this point before, both in this place and outside it—that young people should have a place in our democracy. Doing nothing about their current position within our democracy is no option at all, and I would follow on from the arguments in that regard made by my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston. However, I shall not support the amendments today. Let me explain why.
Disraeli tells us with some wisdom, as he often does, that we can see two nations in one. I do not mean two nations under one roof in the United Kingdom, but rather that there are two nations of older and younger voters. His original point was that his two nations might as well have been dwellers on different zones or planets, as they had so little sympathy with each other’s positions. One might be drawn to think that from the relative turnout figures for older and younger voters. In the 2010 election, the last one for which we have the complete figures, I believe, the average voting rate was around 65%. The rate among pensioners was about 75%, and the rate among 18 to 24-year-olds was about 44%. The data we have for the election just past are incomplete, but I understand that one set of data suggests that the turnout rate among 18 to 24-year-olds declined by one percentage point.
The point is this: we in the UK have a serious problem of low youth turnout—we are the sick man of Europe, or indeed the world on some counts. Some studies suggest that, at that statistical level, we are hopelessly behind other countries in Europe. There is a US-UK-Germany study on this point, which shows that, although young people turn out less than their elders in other countries—the US is a good example—in the UK the divergence is accelerating. That is a serious problem.
The percentage of young people who turned out in our election just past is expected to have been in the high 60s, compared with just above 40% here. I would lay that at the feet of the referendum. A referendum means that every single vote in the country counts. You will never inspire young people as much as with a referendum, because if they are in a safe seat, whether they agree or not, their vote may not count. A referendum is exactly the time to look at extending the franchise; otherwise, you are facing the prospect of your turnout in a decade’s time being pitiful.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about the nature of a referendum, although if I understood her correctly, I probably ought to balk at her references to there and here and you and we, and some points of division that I think she is seeking to make. However, I believe she is broadly with me on my point that the UK as a whole, in national UK elections, has a problem about which we all despair.
On the point about referendum turnout, is my hon. Friend aware of the Electoral Commission study of the ICM poll showing that, in the recent Scottish referendum, turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was 54%? It was 75% among 17-year-olds, but the study concluded that many of them were accompanied to the ballot box by their parents. Among those who had turned 18 and were independent, turnout slumped to 54%.
I will attempt to draw the statistically based interventions together into a broader point: young people turn out to vote less than older people, and we should all be concerned about that. We are all in the business of looking for ways to improve that situation.
The hon. Lady makes some good points, and I hope she will join us in the Lobby tonight, unlike the Labour Members who say they are for something but then do not actually vote for it. On the point that Chris Skidmore raised, what the study showed is that people who start voting at 16 and 17 are more likely to continue voting. As the Electoral Reform Society has said: vote early and vote often.
The hon. Gentleman makes a sound point. Voting is a habit that is formed early, and we ought to treat it as such. The franchise is but one element of all that we should do to encourage young people to take an early interest in politics and to sustain that throughout their lifetime. I will discuss that more broadly later in my speech.
The nature of young people’s interest in politics compared with that of their elders is evolving. Some would argue that young people simply become like their elders as they get older—it is, in effect, a life cycle argument, which I think we should cease to make. There is a lazy complacency open to us to say, “It’s all going to be okay. They’ll just start voting when they get married and get a mortgage and settle down.” To start with, we all know perfectly well that getting a mortgage is increasingly hard for young person. That is part of another evolutionary change we are seeing in our economy and society, but what we are confronted with is a generation—our generation; I include myself in that generation and others in this House may choose to define themselves that way, too—who are willing to be involved in politics, but perhaps less wiling to be involved in traditional, formal politics. We see young people who choose to make their voices heard using new technology and techniques, getting out there and rolling up their sleeves to achieve community change, and that is a very fine thing. I think that traditional politics has adapt to that, so my first point is that we have to do a range of things to make traditional, formal politics adapt to a new generation.
My hon. Friend’s point about low turnout among younger voters is a good one. What is her opinion on the possibility of extending the franchise to younger people having the effect of lowering average turnout, because it will take in a group whose propensity to vote is also low?
Unfortunately, mathematically my hon. Friend may well be right. I am endeavouring to avoid the dry maths, but her prediction may be correct. She returns me to my key point: we need to do more than just concern ourselves with percentages, turnout rates and franchises if we are to address the problem.
My hon. Friend is a great expert on these matters. The point has been made that efforts to encourage 17 to 18-year-olds and 18 to 24-year olds to vote are not mutually contradictory. Does she agree that, on the evidence we have so far, such efforts are mutually reinforcing—that we are more likely to increase lifelong voting by allowing people to vote before the age of 18 than by waiting until they are over 18? Such fairly limited academic evidence as we have suggests that that is the case.
Yes, I do agree. I think my right hon. Friend is echoing a point made by Stephen Gethins. The question of the quality of the evidence available to us is a difficult one. Any “evidence” will be something like a poll of 16 and 17-year-olds asking, “Would you like this franchise?” My understanding of the evidence is that it is extremely mixed. I have seen polls of 16 and 17-year-olds asking them that question, and they say, “Yes please.” I have also seen polls of a wider age group asking, “Would you like this franchise, or would you have liked this franchise?” to which they reply, “No, we’re not so sure, because we think we might not be ready,” if they are younger than 16, or, “We might not have been ready,” if they are older.
One does not have to speculate about the effect of lowering the voting age to 16. Musings from the other side are not necessary when one merely has to look at what happened in Scotland.
I take that point, but I still think the evidence is mixed. We have one—very strong—example. Ruth Davidson is one Conservative, and I am another, who reflects positively on that experience and thinks that we should learn from it, but other evidence in this arena is scant and not concrete.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and allowing me to make a point in response to Hywel Williams. In fact, the evidence is not quite as clear as he suggests. The Scottish referendum was on a simple yes/no question and we know that such questions attract higher turnouts of every age, so the question whether 16 and 17-year-olds’ participation attracted a higher turnout is moot.
I have found, Mr Howarth, that it is always good sense to try to stay on the right side of the Chair, and I will do that.
Let me return to the main point of my remarks. We need to do a number of things to address the question of youth engagement in politics. I have already noted that there is high youth engagement in political activity, but not in traditional politics. That is one of the characteristics of the problem facing us. If Mr Speaker were in the Chair, he would no doubt refer us to some of the work that he has led on digital democracy, which is another aspect that we should consider. There is more to the question than the franchise and the age at which we enfranchise young people. The franchise age is no silver bullet on its own.
Clearly, the hon. Lady is keen to see young people engaged. She talks about their broad interest in dynamic politics, but not necessarily in party politics. As Tom Tugendhat pointed out, referendums get a higher turnout. The question is simple and, as I said earlier, every single vote counts. The Conservative party is in danger of passing by the best opportunity to engage young people that we may have in a decade.
I thank the hon. Lady for her point, which I think is the point she was making earlier. I do not dispute the special quality of referendums which gets people excited. That is a good thing, and I am delighted that we are having a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. It is one of the things I was proud of in the Conservative party manifesto. It allows us to engage people of any age in an important question for our country. However, the referendum is not the vehicle for us to attempt to change the full franchise. I shall come on to that as my main argument.
When I was in the position now held by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend John Penrose, who is one of the Ministers present today, I stood at the Dispatch Box and demurred on the question whether we should change the age of the franchise. I referred to mixed evidence and said at that time that, on the basis of the evidence available to us, I was not convinced that we ought to alter the age of enfranchisement in this country. I have since changed my view and come to believe that we should have votes at 16. I have come to that view for a number of reasons: additional evidence has come in from the Scottish referendum and it is such an important signal to send to young people to welcome them into our democracy. As I have argued, it is no silver bullet, but it is a very important signal to give.
I endorse the work of the Tory Reform Group. My hon. Friend Damian Green have contributed to that and I have collaborated with them. There is an important argument to be made from the Conservative Benches in favour of enfranchising young people and engaging them in our politics. Let me make that Conservative argument briefly. The youngest generation in our adult world today is least interested in big redistributive schemes. Of the generations in our democracy today, it is most interested in welfare reform and in enterprise. We have an opportunity in our party to make the Conservatives the home for young voters, and we should grab that opportunity with both hands.
We have made a good start. We are the party that has just won a national election on the basis of an improving economy, jobs for young people and record youth employment figures, and on our record of fixing this country’s debts so that they do not fall on the heads of future generations, helping young families with childcare and putting education in this country on a stable footing that serves those young people for their future. We are the party of young people and we can be the party of young voters. However, the Bill is not the vehicle for extending the franchise. Let me explain why.
The hon. Lady seems to be making the case that 16 is not too young to vote, but the referendum would be too soon to make that change. Rather than the evidence being mixed, is she not giving us a very mixed argument?
The hon. Gentleman kindly brings me to my next point, which is the nature of making a change as important and as necessary as this through an ad hoc means. I am arguing for a lasting change for young people, not for an ad hoc change, as represented by making it on a one-time referendum. As good as referendums are, they are by their nature one-timers.
I fully agree that there is a strong argument for lowering the voting age in this country and I would welcome a full debate on the issue in this place in due course, but I am not sure whether the British public, who have waited more than 40 years for a referendum on Europe, would forgive us for squabbling over the franchise at this point. Does my hon. Friend agree that a full and frank discussion about the enfranchisement of 16 and 17-year-olds is needed in this place in the fullness of time and that such a discussion should not be rushed?
In that case, why has the franchise been extended in relation to peers? Now the only additional young voters we are going to get are four Lords called Young and one called Younger. The franchise is being altered specifically for them as a one-off. If it is okay to extend the franchise for them, why not for 16 and 17-year-olds?
My answer to that, as opposed to the Minister’s, which he will give to explain the full point, is that if we agree here, as many of us do on a cross-party basis, that we ought to look at ways to bring young people into our politics, we need to do that more permanently. I for one would not be happy to settle for doing so only on the ad hoc basis of a referendum. For that reason, and because I want to make sure that this is good-quality legislation, as I mentioned earlier, I will not vote for the amendments today because they would not do that properly.
I refer to the points made by my hon. Friend Antoinette Sandbach, who has just left her place. She emphasised the need to make sure the electoral register is robust, so that we can have a robust jury service system. I refer also to the argument put by my hon. Friend Chris Skidmore, who says that we should do this properly as a view of the age of majority. Several important points are not adequately dealt with by swiftly enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds in an ad hoc manner.
My hon. Friend may think that—I couldn’t possibly comment. What I will comment on is the need to ensure that everyone of a suitable majority in this country has a chance to play their role in democracy. Defining a suitable majority is a much bigger thing than we could do through the amendment, as the quality of the debate today has shown.
Given that the hon. Lady wants to deal with the issue holistically, has she spoken to Ministers and asked them if they would urgently introduce a Bill that would deal with it in a holistic manner? The referendum could then take place with 16 and 17-year-olds voting.
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, having served alongside him on some of these matters in the previous Government. I want to say to Ministers through my remarks in the House today, in addition to whatever I may say to them privately, that we ought to return to this matter in the House. Some very important issues have been raised in the debate and I hope my remarks serve to show that there is cross-party consensus on the need to involve young people in our democracy. I am sure the Front-Bench team are listening very carefully to that.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady and have a large degree of sympathy with her argument. Given how important the EU referendum is—the issue has defined the Conservative party’s political agenda for at least the past 15 to 20 years—does she not realise that giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds would allow them to take charge of their own destiny, because the EU treaty rights will be theirs as well as hers?
The hon. Gentleman is right that this is an important matter for the Conservative party, and I think that he would be forced to concede that its absence from his party’s agenda has also been a defining matter for it. I repeat that I am delighted that we are in a position to have this historic referendum, which is wanted by many of my constituents and others. Indeed, during the election campaign, I could barely find one constituent who could comprehend the idea of not having the referendum.
Let me go to the heart of the technical point that the Committee is considering. Clause 2(1) gains its legitimacy from the parliamentary franchise. Any change that we might want to make should be made at the source. If the legitimacy of holding a referendum derives from a franchise, we ought to change that franchise if we think that is the right thing to do, rather than do so on an ad hoc basis.
My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. Does she agree that throughout history this House has granted suffrage and extended the franchise after full and robust debate, not in a last-ditch, shoehorn way in Committee?
I think that my hon. Friend is with me in my argument. We should do this properly. Some very important issues have been raised, and some extremely important consequential matters, such as the quality of our jury service, should also be dealt with.
Today, I am calling on the Minister to review this issue. I hope that he will be able to take away from today’s debate the nature of the cross-party support for enfranchising young people and empowering them to take their rightful place in our democracy. Taking my cue from my hon. Friend Suella Fernandes, I note that neither she nor I would have been here under the franchise of previous decades. It is important that we take—dare I say it?—a progressive stance on these matters. It is important that every party in this House considers how it can best encourage young people to take their rightful place in our democracy. We must not do that in a slap-dash way; we must do it in a way that allows every aspect of the age of majority to be properly discussed.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that to refer to this as ad hoc is really quite disingenuous? In Scotland, we saw a generation of people engaged, and I think that any 16 or 17-year-old watching this debate would hear lots of technical points, but would she not consider it to be a regressive step to have given the young people of Scotland the opportunity to engage in their nation’s future—we on the SNP Benches heard from many young people south of the border who were just as engaged—and then make them feel that they are losing out on a major opportunity?
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Howarth, and thank you for your patience; I am conscious that I have made some lengthy remarks and taken plenty of interventions.
I accept the point made by Hannah Bardell and share her desire to say to any young person watching today, “We believe in your place in this place. We believe in your place in politics. We believe in your place in changing the world in which you live.” I want to do that in a fundamental and lasting way, rather than a temporary, one-time way, which is inevitable with a referendum. I am pleased to have heard all the arguments built up for a case for change. I am delighted that there have been way markers in building up that case for young people to be properly involved in politics, both community politics and traditional, formal politics.
I will not take any more interventions, because I want to bring my remarks to a close and allow other Members to contribute fully.
My plea to the Minister is to take these issues away and review them fully. Will he speak to his colleagues, including those in charge of bringing forward the legislation needed to extend the enfranchisement of overseas voters? Perhaps that will provide an opportunity to return to these matters shortly. Let us do this in a way that achieves fundamental, lasting, good-quality change and that can make us all proud to go back to young people in our constituencies and across the country and say, “You have your place in politics.”
If we are going to have this referendum, we really should aspire to have the widest possible engagement in it. I rise to support the various amendments that seek to extend the franchise to all people over the age of 16 who are legally resident in this country.
Let me deal first with votes at 16. Growing up is clearly a process; changing from a child to an adult is something that happens over time. However, we must, as a matter of administration, put legal definitions on things. In this country we confer rights and responsibilities on people at different ages as they go through that process: at 16 they have the right to marry and to join the Army; at 17 they can drive a car; and at 18 they can buy a drink in a pub. The question, then, is this: why 16, rather than 17 or 15? To my mind, the answer is that 16 is the age at which we are given a number: our national insurance number. We turn from being simply a member of society to someone who has a liability to contribute to society. We reach the age of economic majority. That is why I believe that 16 should be the age at which people are allowed to vote.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the argument about consistency just does not stack up, because 16 and 17-year-olds can marry only with the permission of their parents, and they cannot buy cigarettes or alcohol. If he is going down the consistency line, is he advocating extending the age for those activities?
I point out to the hon. Lady that 16-year-olds can marry without their parents’ consent in Scotland. I think that trying to draw a comparison to cigarettes and alcohol is mischievous, to be honest. I think that having the right to vote is an awful lot less dangerous than the consumption of cigarettes or alcohol. We should look for the widest possible and most generous interpretation.
We live in a changing world, and I think that this House needs to be aware of the world the way it is. There have been particular changes that relate to this debate over the past decade. There has been an information explosion in this country. People are more connected, aware and engaged than ever. Sixteen-year-olds are far more aware of what is going on in this world and in this country than many of their parents are. To say that they do not have the right to make up their minds on things, frankly, is to treat them with disrespect.
As I said earlier this week, we should be making our policy on the basis of evidence, and we are indeed fortunate in this case, as in some others, to have direct evidence of what happens when we lower the voting age to 16, and this is because of the experience of the Scottish referendum. We saw a remarkable thing. Despite concerns that young people would not be interested in voting, we saw a 97% registration rate among 16 and 17-year-olds and a 75% turnout. The turnout was slightly lower than average, but it was higher than some other age cohorts. That dismisses completely the idea that if they are given the opportunity, young people will not want to get engaged.
Will the hon. Gentleman elaborate on his economic argument, which I find extremely interesting? If he is saying that as soon as someone is economically viable, they have the right to vote, does he recognise that the duke’s boy who inherits millions of acres of land and starts paying tax at the age of three should be enfranchised, whereas the post office worker’s boy who does not pay tax until he is earning should not have the right to vote until that point?
I would not enfranchise him, but I would certainly be happy to take the money. I am grateful to Mrs Main for addressing what I believe to be the elephant in the room. She let the cat out of the bag by expressing her concern about what 16 and 17-year-olds might do if they had the right to vote. I think there are probably too many people in this Chamber whose attitude towards whether to allow young people the right to vote is determined by their perception of how young people might exercise that vote.
Again, I refer to the experience of the Scottish referendum and ask hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber to put caution to one side. Two years out from the Scottish referendum date of
On that note, I have a 16-year-old son, and before the general election I discussed with him and his friends whether they should be able to vote in the election. They came to the conclusion that young people of 16 are wont to change their minds very frequently, and that perhaps it was not good to be voting on something so important, and that they would prefer to be more mature. If we are all to live until we are 100, there is no hurry.
Young people have different opinions about many things, and they will change their minds. I do not think that we can judge whether to accord somebody the right to vote based on their propensity to change their mind. That would be a contradiction of democracy.
Rebecca Pow brings me to my next point. The younger someone is when they vote in the referendum, the longer they will have to live with the result. It seems to me iniquitous that we should not allow our younger citizens to participate in a decision over the future of their country, when they will have to put up with the consequences of that decision for the longest.
Does my hon. Friend accept that we are having this debate because so many people have not been given the right to have their say in the EU debate? Does he accept that in extending the franchise for this election, it is of vital importance that young people have the right to have their say and have their voices heard in such an important debate?
My hon. Friend echoes the points that I am making. There are many international comparisons in this discussion. Young people—16-year-olds—have the right to vote in Australia, Brazil and many other countries. Nearer to home, they have the right to vote in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. I think we should play catch-up and accord them the right to vote here. This is an idea whose time has come.
Several hon. Members have suggested that they are relaxed about the longer-term principle of lowering the voting age in this country but they feel that we are rushing into it with the referendum, so they object to it today because of their commitment to trying to get the process right. I suggest that they should look at it the other way around. They should treat the referendum as an experiment, a trial and an opportunity to see whether lowering the voting age would work. The results of that experiment could inform our longer-term discussions about the franchise more generally.
The hon. Gentleman’s Government have been quite keen to inflict experiments on Scotland. I refer him to the poll tax, if nothing else, which the Government decided to implement first in Scotland on an experimental basis before applying it to the rest of the United Kingdom. There is an argument for saying that with constitutional change of such magnitude as changing the voting age, we might want to try it first and see how it works in a referendum, after which we could certainly apply the results to the longer-term franchise.
I want to take up the point that we have heard from Government Members that making the change through this amendment would be inappropriate. I do not understand why we cannot allow young people to vote in this referendum and later go through the issue with a fine-toothed comb before making a permanent change.
My hon. Friend makes the point well. I commend those on the Government Benches who are curious about and interested in the idea of lowering the voting age to try it and see.
I turn to the question of EU nationals. I have the great fortune to represent a mainly thriving metropolitan area in central Edinburgh full of creative and dynamic people who have moved to the city and made it their home because of its attractions. Several of my constituents have contacted me because they are concerned about the fact that they may not be able to vote in the forthcoming referendum. Dr Carmen Huesa came here 18 years ago from her native Spain and got her PhD at Aberdeen University. Ever since, she has worked as a senior research scientist, and she is currently working on trying to develop a cure for osteoporosis as part of an important research team at the University of the West of Scotland. She has been here for 18 years, and her partner, children and family are here; she has no intention of going anywhere else. Another constituent, Esther Kuck, came here from Germany and settled in the thriving neighbourhood of Portobello. She has contributed to that community by building up her own small business and providing a vital service. She, too, has made her home here, and she has no intention of going anywhere else. Elia Ballesteros has also come from Spain and lives in the city centre. She is a BAFTA award-winning film maker, and a vital member of our creative community in the city of Edinburgh. They all have in common the fact that they are not on a gap year, they are not backpacking through this country and they have not come to visit. They have come to apply their intellect and their industry to make this country better.
If those individuals reside and work in the country, they are adding great value, but they are citizens of countries in the EU that govern their membership of the EU. If a vote came up in those countries, they would of course be entitled to vote. Otherwise, they would end up with two votes.
I will come to that point in a moment. It takes me on to the discussion about why people should be able to vote in the process in the first place. I reflect back a couple of weeks to when I made my maiden speech, and a Conservative Member—I think he was trying to be kind and helpful—said, in an attempt to endear himself to Scottish National party Members, that he had Scottish blood in his veins. I did not get the chance to say so at the time, but although he may well have some Scottish blood in his veins, I have none whatsoever in mine. I am a member of the Scottish
National Party and I represent my constituents because I have chosen to make my life in Scotland. I am going to die in the city of Edinburgh. It is a fine city, and I would not envisage going anywhere else. It is not a question of identity or genetics; it is a question of residence.
The thing I am most proud of in the Scottish referendum is that that was the principle we applied. We said that if people choose to come and live in this country, make their future here, contribute to the country and be part of it, they have an equal say with anyone else in the future of their country. I find an awkward national identity being proposed, which is not the current franchise for Westminster; amendments are being made to it anyway. Attempts are being made to couch it in these terms: if people have some sort of historical or genealogical connection with the country, they have a right to a say in its future, but if they have worked here for decades, contributed their taxes and raised their families here, they may not. I think that that is iniquitous. It will drive wedges between families and communities, and it will make many of our citizens feel second class. I urge the Committee to try to avoid that situation by supporting amendment 18.
I will speak in support of Labour amendments 1 and 2 to clause 2 to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum. I will also argue generally in favour of lowering the voting age for all elections everywhere in the UK. I am arguing for 16 and 17-year-olds as young people, not as adults. I consider that all the arguments about this being a way of bringing down the age of adulthood are missing the point.
The right to vote is enshrined in law in the Representation of the People Act 1983 and article 3 of the European convention on human rights. For a human right such as this to be limited, restrictions should be justifiable and proportionate, and restricting the right to vote in this way is no longer justifiable or proportionate. The evidence says so as well. People have referred to a lack of evidence, but I urge them to read the British Youth Council’s report on the commission on this subject, published in 2014—a comprehensive and useful document, which provides many forms of evidence, as well as consultation.
Others have made the point about representation, but I reiterate my support for it. Taxation without representation is not democratic. Young people of 16 and 17 may be taxed in certain circumstances, and they should be allowed to be properly represented.
The arguments about the sale of cigarettes and alcohol and serving in the armed forces are not watertight. Because the United Kingdom is a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of the child, those who join the armed forces at 16 cannot see active service until they are 18. To marry, to work and to do various other things, 16-year-olds need parental consent. For those who do not have parental support or care, the state has duties of care up until 18. An argument for lowering the voting age is not an argument for lowering the age limits for all those other various forms of protection. They are different situations, and all present potential risks. As far as I am aware, walking into a polling booth does not, in and of itself, present a risk of harm to a young person, so that argument simply does not hold.
My experience of politically engaged young people is that they are as motivated and well informed as their adult contemporaries, if not more so. In fact, young Labour activists in the recent general election, particularly those from my local secondary schools of Cotham and St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol West, were among the most organised, passionate, articulate and determined campaigners I have ever had the pleasure of working with. They wanted to vote, and I believe they have earned the right to vote.
What of their contemporaries who are perhaps not so well informed? Many have said that because they are not well informed enough, they are not mature enough, and that because they do not know enough about politics, party politics, democracy, or the ways of this House or the other, they are not to be trusted. However, I am yet to become aware of any plan to restrict the franchise for adults to those who are fully tested before they enter the polling booth. Is there such a plan? I hope to be convinced that there is not. Why, therefore, should this argument be posed in relation to 16 and 17-year-olds?
My experience of hustings at the recent general election is that not only politically engaged young people are capable of participating fully in political debate. The hustings held at my local secondary schools of Cotham and St Mary Redcliffe were among the most well-informed and courteous, and the participants the most interested and interesting. The young people at both events included many who were not in any way involved in party politics but were interested in their world and their future. They were also knowledgeable. Because they were immersed in education, they were, in many ways, better informed than many adult voters. They had thoughtful insights, they wanted to know what was going on, and they wanted to participate. I agree with Dr Wollaston, who is no longer in her place, who said that she had consulted young people and they did want to vote. I would say that the young people in Bristol West have made their case very clearly to me.
Young people need protection from harm, and rights to that protection should be tapered as they gain maturity. Yet abilities to work, vote and make decisions about education and joining the Army are not all of the same quality. I have great respect for those, such as my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman, who argue that we need to protect young people from harm, but voting is not, in and of itself, harmful to the voter. I am not against certain forms of protection. I am certainly not arguing for lowering the age limits for drinking or for smoking—I would not ask for those to be tampered with in any way.
I am also not arguing for 16 or 17-year-olds to be termed “adults”. I have referred to them as young people, and I believe they are young people.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the hazards of drinking and smoking are to do with the ability to foresee the consequences, whether it be tomorrow’s hangover or next year’s lung cancer? Does she agree that some elections—indeed, some rather well-reported elections—can also bring hangovers?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and I thank him for my first experience of an intervention. Yes, of course, those are potential forms of harm where young people may not be able to see the consequences of their actions. However, as I have said, going into a polling booth, in and of itself, does not present any harm, whereas smoking immediately presents harm to a young person.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the argument against allowing younger people to drink alcohol is not merely social or one of predicting consequences? There is significant medical evidence that the human liver takes longer to develop than once thought, and allowing and encouraging young people to drink alcohol—some would even say up to 21—can have medical effects that are much more severe than they would be for drinking the same amount of alcohol at an older age.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and of course I agree. Again, I draw a contrast between the risks of harm from certain behaviours and the lack of risk of harm from going into a polling booth. The risks of harm from drinking early are well known and well presented. There is a large amount of evidence, as there is on smoking.
The Electoral Reform Society wrote:
“If we get more young people registered early and into the habit of voting, we will not only see lasting improvements in turnout but a lasting improvement in our democracy.”
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to see those consequences, for young people and for ourselves. I am not arguing that 16 and 17-year-old young people be termed “adults”. I am simply arguing that they are capable of voting and interested in voting, and the evidence suggests that it would be a good thing generally for democracy that they be allowed to vote. That does not make them adults; they should simply be given the right to vote.
Thank you, Sir Roger, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I have to declare an interest because—[Hon. Members: “You’re 16.”] It is a somewhat different interest to the one that hon. Members are suggesting. My wife is not 16, or 17, but she is French. Tommy Sheppard talked about divided households. I can say that none is as united as mine on this issue. My wife has identified what hon. Members would be well advised to note. As a constitutional expert in French law, she realises that what we are talking about is not a tactical political change, but a major constitutional change to the state of the United Kingdom.
I understand that nations within our great kingdom have taken different decisions, and I recognise and respect the right of those decisions to affect the laws and conduct—
The laws of Scotland, as well as the laws of England, recognise that majority is not attained until someone passes a certain age. In England that age is 18, but in Scotland it is 21. Legal rights are given to 16 to 18-year-olds in Scotland in relation to the economic activity that we have heard about.
I bow to my hon. Friend’s superior knowledge of Scottish law.
My point is not about 16 and 17-year-olds because my hon. Friend Chloe Smith covered that so completely and so ably.
May I make a little progress, please?
I will instead make a few comments about citizenship, because that is what we are really talking about. This is a constitutional vote. It is not a tactical vote or a minor amendment; it is about the constitution and governance of our country. When someone chooses to be a member of our society and a participant in it, there are various things they can choose to do. They can choose to reside here for educational purposes and stay for year or two, or perhaps do a PhD and stay for longer. They can also choose to reside here for an occupation and stay for a few months or a few years; or they can choose—as I am extremely glad my wife has done—to reside here for significantly longer to raise a family, marry and settle. If they do so, they are choosing a specific state of existence in our nation. What they are not choosing is full citizenship, because that is governed by other laws.
The hon. and learned Lady has greater knowledge of that subject than I do, but I do not know whether her knowledge is greater or less than that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire. I will leave it to them to debate that.
The hon. Gentleman has listed a lot of things that we can choose to do to set our position in society. Does he agree that a significant number of people—citizens of these nations—have chosen to surrender the right to vote in order to take a seat, often at the request of Her Majesty’s Government, in the other place? How can he justify giving them the chance to undo what should have been a permanent decision by giving them the right to vote, but not giving the right to vote to people who have lived here for 25 or 30 years?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I will leave it to greater minds than mine to decide whether noble Lords have made such a decision or whether they have simply chosen to access a different seat and therefore surrendered on one, but not every, electoral term. They do not rescind their right to vote universally; they merely rescind their right to vote in general elections, because they already hold a seat in Parliament.
Citizenship is not something to be added or taken away arbitrarily, and that is what we are talking about when it comes to the enfranchisement for the referendum. It is not simply a tactical choice; it is the act of citizenship. In constituency cases, I have been sad to hear time and again people think that they have rights that they do not. Concepts of “common law this” or “common law that” do not exist, and in this case there is no such thing as common law citizenship. If people wish to have citizenship, the laws of citizenship, immigration and naturalisation cover it. If people wish to have citizenship in Her Majesty’s great United Kingdom, they have a choice to ask for it. There are laws that allow them to do so and rules that set out at what stage they can or cannot apply.
As people move through the process of residency in our great kingdom, there are various moments at which they may or may not choose to take that citizenship, and there are consequences that go with that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a cost of £1,005 to seek naturalisation in this country deters many people who cannot afford it from claiming citizenship, and that they should be allowed to vote in the referendum by virtue of residency? There should be no price on democracy.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but I would argue to the contrary: the right of citizenship in this kingdom is so great that the price of £1,005 is but a small price to pay for the benefit of being British.
Citizenship is not a common law right: there is no common law marriage, common law contract or common law citizenship. It is, therefore, no more the right of this House to bounce people into citizenship than to bounce them into any other form of contract. The proposal seeks to push people into a deal that would change their relationship to this country without their having chosen to do so.
I know that for a fact, because my wife, who could, should she wish, begin the process of citizenship, chooses not to do so. She is—and there is some debate about this—proud to be French. She is—again, there is some debate about this—unwilling to become British. My argument is that becoming British is such a great honour that, even as a French woman, she should appreciate the joys it offers.
Most of the English aristocracy were French at one time in history. The hon. Gentleman’s wife is not going to be bounced into anything. If European nationals get the right to vote because of residency, there is no compulsion on his wife voting.
The right hon. Gentleman may say that he is not bouncing anyone into anything, but he is seeking to change the social contract between citizens who have specifically not chosen to be British and citizens who are British. In changing that contract, he would bounce people who have not made that choice into a relationship with the state that they do not wish to have. If he wishes to do so at a regional level—
I accept the correction and I apologise.
If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to make that change at a national level, I accept that, but the United Kingdom is a different state. It is a sovereign state that exercises rights on a different basis from the nations of England, Scotland or, indeed, Ireland. Those who have come from across the European continent—my grandfather came from Austria almost 100 years ago—understand that choosing British nationality is just that: it is an active choice and one of which we should be duly proud. It is not something that we should find ourselves with by accident of residency.
The hon. Gentleman makes an entertaining point. The fact hat he was born here and has residency here is what gives him citizenship.
As well as the question of citizenship in the constitutional sense, there is also the issue of the referendum’s legitimacy. It would be wrong if we were to suddenly change the deal to benefit those who have a specific interest in doing so. I refer specifically to the hundreds and thousands of migrant workers who affect various states of the debate. We all know that there were some people who tried to get into this House whose principal argument was based on immigration. If we force ourselves to enfranchise those whom many people would not regard as British, the terms of the debate would be changed halfway through. I argue very strongly that that would be unwise and that it would call into question the legitimacy of the referendum itself. We could find ourselves with hundreds of thousands of European Union citizens who have not made the choice to become British citizens.
Is there not a danger that the argument being developed by the hon. Gentleman could also be used to argue against Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland citizens who are resident in this country having a vote?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but we are not making the argument on that basis; we are making it on the basis of the difference between what is normal in a national election and what is normal in a local or regional election. In doing so, we are sticking to the existing rules. In sticking to the existing franchise, we are allowing those who are normally entitled to vote in national elections in our kingdom to exercise that right. It is essential that we maintain that continuity, because if we do not, we leave the door open.
I, too, declare an interest, in that my husband is German. He has been here for 29 years, working as a general practitioner and paying tax, but he does not get to vote in elections to this House, which sets his rate of taxation, and he certainly did not get to vote for me.
Given the argument that Tom Tugendhat is making, is there not a danger that this will become a very nationalistic debate? That accusation was thrown at the SNP when our nationalism was completely civic and open to everyone. Pursuing a genetic-source, where-were-you-born franchise is a dangerous argument to follow.
I remind the Committee that interventions are intended to be brief. [Interruption.] He’s finished? I’m terribly sorry; I thought that the hon. Lady was intervening.
Usually I do not quote individual cases because there are many dangers in speaking about the individual circumstances of constituents, but in speaking about this matter I will describe briefly two cases that prove the rule, in the proper sense of the phrase. I am aware that hard cases make bad law, but we are talking about 2.3 million cases in total. These are just the cases of a couple of friends of mine.
The first is Swedish and has been resident here for more than 20 years. She is an NHS worker in the tough field of mental health and she pays her taxes. She is Welsh-speaking, English-speaking and Swedish-speaking, and she has two children and a husband who also speak Welsh, English and a bit of Swedish. In my book, she is a Welsh citizen—there is no doubt about that—but if she tried to vote in the referendum, she would be turned away.
The second is a Danish friend who has been resident here for 35 years. She is a university worker who pays her taxes. She is Welsh-speaking, Danish-speaking and English-speaking. She has two children and a husband. Again, in my book, she is a Welsh citizen, but should she try to vote, she would be turned away. That is plainly outrageous.
Those people are not public figures, they are not famous, but they are hard-working members of their communities. They have an equal stake in the collective future of those communities and, in my book, they have an equal right to have their voices heard. In that sense, I fully support the amendment. It would be outrageous if those people were denied the right to vote on a matter of such importance.
Briefly, I will turn to votes at 16. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that the Government’s St David’s day Command Paper on the future of devolution in Wales proposed that the Assembly should decide on the issue of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. There is strong opinion in favour of that move in Wales. In 2008, the Welsh Assembly collectively decided that it was in favour of it. Interestingly, in 2014, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales said that more work had to be done on the issue. He was pressing for the franchise to be extended before the 2015 election, but that did not happen. Opinion in Wales is strongly in favour of votes at 16.
There have been early-day motions and private Members’ Bills in this place on extending the franchise. One of those was introduced by a Welsh Member, others were introduced by Liberal Democrat Members and one was introduced by Natascha Engel, although, given her current status,
I do not want to suggest that she is in any way biased on this issue now. There is, however, a great deal of support for votes at 16.
As I said earlier, any speculations that we make about the effect of introducing votes at 16 are trumped by the experience in Scotland. That experience trumps all the counter-arguments. We do not need any fanciful musing from Government Members, because we have the proof in respect of engagement in the debate and in respect of turnout. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon said on Second Reading, one reason why there was engagement in the referendum is that people were talking about a real question, whereas there are doubts about whether the referendum provided for in the Bill will be on a real question. Perhaps that might be explored later.
As I said earlier, if people doubt the value of 16 and 17-year-olds having a vote on this crucial question, that might be thought to throw some doubt on the value of the results of a referendum decided partly by the votes of those aged 16 and 17. I am sure that the opponents of the amendments today are not saying that, but one should make that point.
The hon. Gentleman’s argument, which was also made by Chloe Smith, who is no longer in her place, reminds me of the ancient joke, “Make me holy, but not just yet”. I believe that we need to move quickly on the matter.
Over the years, from my experience in my constituency of visiting sixth-formers during what I suppose we would call civics lessons to talk about my work, they are hugely interested in and committed to voting as soon as possible. They want to know what we do here, and they want to get involved. I have often felt humbled by the sincerity of the opinions that they hold, which can sometimes be compared with the insincerity of some of the opinions that their older peers have.
I also draw the Committee’s attention to my experience during the election campaign, when hustings were held at my local secondary schools. It was a tough experience, and we were questioned hard by young people who were totally engaged in the campaign, some of whom were able to vote. Another experience that humbled me was seeing a large group of young people coming down from school to the polling booth at lunchtime to vote together. They were proud to do so, and I was even more proud to see that they were all voting for me. I cannot say how young people would vote in an EU referendum—I suspect I know, but I cannot guarantee it. However, I trust them, and I believe they have a right to be heard.
I want to make two key points about the amendments on voting age, which are what most Members have been talking about. I agree in principle with reducing the voting age to 16 in general elections, but I do not think that that should happen in the referendum. The most important point for me—there is no nice way of saying this—is that the electorate in the UK are top-heavy. In the election campaign, it was striking how issues affecting older voters had greater resonance simply because of the power of older voters. I have tried to put that as apolitically as possible, even though there are obviously political implications to voters’ ages.
I am trying to be as objective as possible in saying that it is in the interests of public policy to extend the vote to 16-year-olds. We would make better policy as a country, because, as my hon. Friend Chloe Smith said in her fantastic speech, there is a growing intergenerational divide. She talked about the one nation idea, and I worry about the situation. We can look at how difficult it is for us to address older people’s benefits—that is a psephological fact. Once those benefits have been handed out, they are hard to claw back, because people will vote accordingly. It might be easier to do something about benefits, public spending and so on for young people, because they do not have a say to the same degree. That is not a cynical point, just an observation on the polity as it is today, and it is my key reason for wishing to lower the voting age to 16.
I know that points are made about bringing adulthood to a younger age, as was mentioned earlier, and I do worry about that. I have four children—my eldest is eight—and I would worry about anything that made young people less innocent, but I do not think that comes into effect when we are talking about public policy.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. For me, 16 and 17-year-olds have a stronger right to vote in the referendum, because it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Notwithstanding the fact that people sometimes do not like the results of referendums, there might not be another one for 40 years, given that the last one was 40 years ago, whereas a general election is every five years.
I will come shortly to my reasoning for not extending the franchise for the referendum, but I want to share one particular experience related to the speech by Thangam Debbonaire, who is no longer in her place. She talked of her experience on the campaign trail. In my constituency we had a unique interaction with young people. We had a mock election at the biggest secondary school, Thomas Gainsborough school in Great Cornard, including a question time at lunch time that the whole school attended. It was filmed by ITV Anglia, with the result announced live on the 6.30 regional news, giving it extra credence. Interestingly, UKIP won—
No, but nationalism was represented and was victorious on the day. The 16 and 17-year-olds took it incredibly seriously. They did not make fluffy, young person’s points: they talked about Europe, the nuclear deterrent and so on, just like anyone else would. We are in danger of being patronising by saying to young people, “You couldn’t possibly understand these big issues.” They want to talk about the big issues and they are especially interested in the issue of Europe.
I would not lower the age limit at this time because there is no mandate for it, and that is an important point. We have just had a general election, in which the Conservative manifesto won the day.
In Scotland, where we were of course in favour of votes at 16, the SNP won an overwhelming mandate, as a look at the Benches behind me will confirm. In the UK as a whole, the Tories got the support of about one in four voters—hardly an overwhelming mandate. Is not this a great opportunity to reach out to the whole of the UK for the benefit of democracy?
The mandate is based on the manifesto of the governing party. We are not in coalition, so it does not have to be watered down. Our position was that we would hold an in/out referendum on membership of the EU before the end of 2017. The manifesto did not say that the voting age would be lowered, so the clear tacit understanding is that the referendum will be held on the current franchise. More importantly, the general election was held on that franchise—
But does the hon. Gentleman agree that the franchise will be changed for the referendum, because the Government are seeking to allow unelected Members of the Lords to participate?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the strong constitutional reason for excluding serving peers from parliamentary elections is that they serve in the other House? That is not the case for the referendum, so the normal basis for their disqualification should not apply.
I am indebted to my hon. Friend for answering the question superbly.
I made a point earlier about European citizens, and I tried to do so as objectively as possible, but the reason Europe is so high on the political agenda is because of immigration. There is no doubt about that. People across the country are concerned, rightly or wrongly, about the sheer number of people coming into the UK. On the campaign trail, I always made the point that this country is dependent on large numbers of foreign workers—
I am not going to give way again, as other very fine hon. Members wish to speak.
We have to recognise that many people in Britain are concerned about the sheer number of people coming into this country. If we extended the franchise to people from the rest of the European Union and if their vote were decisive in keeping us in, that would be inflammatory for those who want to leave because they want to control their borders and would leave a lasting feeling of injustice.
To conclude, I believe in votes at 16, but we should refrain from having that now. We should have a full consultation and, if we decide we want to do it, it should be in our manifesto, so that we can achieve a mandate from the British people to have votes at 16 in elections and referendums thereafter.
I rise to support the amendments 18 and 19 and new clause 2, which are in my name and those of my colleagues on the SNP Benches. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Stephen Gethins and commend his excellent opening speech on 16 and 17-year-olds, who demonstrated a supreme ability to participate in the independence referendum.
Chloe Smith, who is no longer in her place, made some excellent points about why young people should participate in the EU referendum, but went on to say, “Yes, but not now.” What I would say to her is, “But if not now, when?” Mrs Main made the point that Scotland had “made a lot of comments in this debate”. I would like to remind the House that we are elected Members of this Parliament, and the House will be hearing a lot from us in this Parliament in the days and weeks to come, because that is why we have been elected. It is also worth reminding the House that Scotland did not vote Conservative in the last general election.
Politicians should not pick and choose their electorate. I do not believe that that should happen in the EU referendum either, and the franchise should absolutely be fair. The issues at stake in the referendum are serious and fundamental to the future of the UK and its constituent parts, so it is essential that all those living in the UK who will be affected by these decisions are given an opportunity to vote. With that in mind, we tabled amendment 18, under which EU nationals who live in the UK would be included in this franchise. Foreign nationals from Commonwealth countries who live in the UK will be able to vote, so why not EU nationals?
We have heard that there is already division, unsurprisingly, on the Tory and Labour Benches on this vote. Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader in Scotland, is in favour of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, and a Labour leadership candidate, Kezia Dugdale, is in favour of EU nationals having a vote. I am pleased to see that there has been a slight increase in the number of Labour Members participating in this debate. They were rather thin on the ground—much like the Labour party membership in Scotland, but that is perhaps a debate for another day.
Over and above that, the Bill proposes to extend the franchise to Commonwealth citizens who would be entitled to vote in European elections in Gibraltar. I do not oppose that measure by any means, but surely if the Government agree with the principle of widening the Westminster franchise for the referendum, they should consider including this additional group—EU nationals—who make such an important contribution to our society and economy. By excluding them from the vote, we would be excluding constituents of mine in Ochil and South Perthshire, such as my friend Mireille Pouget, who lives in the village of Glendevon. In a message to me this week, Mireille said:
“I have lived, worked and paid taxes here for nearly 40 years. Staying in the EU is important to me as an EU and French citizen. I should have a voice in this referendum. It’s outrageous that EU citizens cannot vote.”
Hear, hear to that.
It is equally wrong that the Government propose to extend the right to vote to Members of the House of Lords—a place not known for its democratic foundations —without taking measures to ensure that all Members of the Scottish Parliament have the same right. Mention has been made by a number of hon. Members of my colleague Christian Allard, who came to Scotland to open an office in Glasgow for a European seafood logistic group in the 1980s. He subsequently met his wife and moved from Glasgow to the north-east of Scotland, to Aberdeenshire, with his three young daughters 20 years ago. Mr Allard has been chosen—elected—by the people of North East Scotland to represent them in the Scottish Parliament. He has undoubtedly made an enormous contribution to our country and the community that he and his family live in. I believe that he has earned the right to vote in this referendum.
In the Scottish independence referendum last year, the UK Government agreed in principle with the Scottish Government that the franchise for the vote should be as wide as possible. It is clear from the turnout and scale of political engagement across Scotland last year that seeking a wide inclusive franchise was one factor in encouraging a vibrant debate on Scotland’s future. By accepting our amendments, the Government have an opportunity—one that Government Members should not pass up—to use this new referendum to ensure that this wide-ranging inclusive debate is open to all people. It is so important for the UK’s future in Europe.
It would indeed be unfortunate if this Government sought to pick and choose the franchise for this vote, whether for 16 and 17-year-olds or EU nationals, in a way that could be considered as excluding a significant proportion of those who live and work here on the basis of how the Government think they will vote, rather than of taking measures to add depth to the national debate as a whole. I urge the Committee to accept the amendments and to be progressive, if that is what they plan to be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. It is interesting to follow some of the speeches of hon. Members, and I will start by dealing with why the parliamentary franchise is as it is. Let us be clear. When we first joined in 1972, we did so on the basis of the parliamentary franchise and this House’s sovereignty. We then continued, and only a few weeks back, some were arguing that our membership should continue on the basis of the policies agreed in Parliament, based on those who voted in favour then. It is therefore interesting to see how those who were arguing a few weeks back that the referendum would be disaster or a “reckless gamble”, as one hon. Member said last week, now seem so enthusiastic for everyone to have a go with it.
Put simply, we cannot have a pick and mix on the franchise. The reason for peers having it is that it is decided en masse by Parliament that Members either have a vote in the other place or elect a representative from this House to exercise it on their behalf. That is why it makes sense to allow those who would not be able to exercise their vote in the other place on this decision to vote in the referendum. It also makes sense to extend the franchise to Gibraltar, which is a member of the European Union via the UK’s membership of it, so its citizens should have the ability to vote as if they were resident in the UK itself.
Today’s debates have flagged up a whole range of issues about the franchise, but we do not need to have these debates on individual elections. Given that Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are so dependent on decisions taken in this Parliament, it is right to reflect on how they can have a voice in future. Again, however, that is not a debate for today. Given that our membership is based on the UK state being part of the European Union, which is not a sovereign state in its own right, it is right to grant the vote to UK citizens on the basis of the parliamentary franchise, plus those who have benefited historically from the extension of the parliamentary franchise in the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland.
On the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds, I am a supporter of votes at 16. Experience where it has happened, as in the Scottish referendum, has been positive. It is not very helpful, however, to bandy around the different ages at which people can do various things. I am not sure how many hon. Members have read the pages on the Government website about learning to drive a tractor. It lists all the different ages that people need to be to drive different things. Anyone wanting to drive a road roller can do so at the ages of 17 to 20, unless it is a steam-powered road roller, for which one needs to be 21, while a mowing machine can be driven at 16. There are all sorts of anomalies in our law, so citing individual ages does not necessarily justify what the franchise should be. I support providing 16-year-olds with the opportunity to vote, but it needs to be done through a substantive debate on the franchise as a whole, not as an amendment tacked on to a Bill.
We have heard several Conservative Members argue that they are in favour of votes at 16, but that allowing it in this referendum would somehow be a form of premature emancipation against which they would have to vote. That is not a very convincing argument.
It is all about inconsistency. Another referendum is being considered in my constituency about the future of the elected mayoralty of Torbay Council. It would be somewhat bizarre, assuming these amendments are passed, if a 17-year-old could decide on the future of Britain in Europe, but could not decide who is going to run the local council because the franchise remains at 18. That is why I do not support a pick and mix.
The Prime Minister has said that he will not opt for a third term. If he resigns before the end of the current term, the Conservative party will, in effect, choose the Prime Minister. What is the age of eligibility for members of the Conservative party to choose the Prime Minister? It is certainly below 18, and it is not confined to United Kingdom nationals either.
The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that it is not any particular party that chooses the Prime Minister. It is a question of whether the Prime Minister enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons. That is the constitutional position.
I think that we should stick to the present age limit because we should not set a precedent that might be abused by future Governments. We do not want a pick-and-mix franchise. When referendums are held on issues that would normally be decided by Parliament, it makes sense for us to use the parliamentary franchise rules, while also including Members of the other place who currently cannot vote directly because they have the opportunity to elect a representative here. I shall therefore vote against the amendment, although I have some sympathy for—indeed, I strongly support—the idea of 16-year-olds being able to vote. [Interruption.] The heckling from those who want to deny everyone a vote on this matter is laughable. Last week, they walked through the Lobby to vote against the Bill, apart from one Member who seemed to get a bit lost. This week, they are demanding a vote for everyone who could possibly live here.
We keep hearing about residency. What about citizens of the United States of America, one of our oldest allies, who are resident in this country? We know the answer: the system is based on citizenship and on the parliamentary franchise, and it is right for it to continue on that basis. I shall vote against the amendment, but I hope that Front Benchers have been listening to the debate, because the amendment has raised a legitimate point. In the not too distant future, we should have a proper debate about our franchise, so that we can deal with some of the numerous anomalies that we have discussed today. We could then set a franchise for the 21st century, and give Members who are in favour of reducing the age to 16 the chance to vote for such a move.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, and to hear so many points made so well by Members in all parts of the House. We have a Bill before us, but I have not heard much about it today. The issue is whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. Efforts by other parties to pile other issues on to the referendum will only make the question and therefore the result less clear. I believe that we owe the British public something better.
On the doorsteps in my constituency, people were crying out for a say on Europe. It has been too long since we last consulted the people on the very sovereignty of their own Parliament. I am proud that the Government have introduced the Bill and are answering the call from our nation. I do not support votes for under-18s, or, indeed, electronic voting. This referendum is simply too important for that. The question must stand alone, and I reject any attempts to hijack it. Young people should be encouraged to take an interest in politics from an early age, but let us have that debate on another occasion. It should be separate from the huge constitutional question that is before us.
I was very disappointed that the single one of my hustings that was cancelled was the one in which 16 and 17-year-olds were to have taken part. Perhaps they were too busy voting for candidates in “The X Factor” or “The Voice”. However, we already have a youth parliament and mock elections, and they can become involved in those.
The hon. Lady has made an interesting point about her experience in her constituency. In my constituency, I had completely the opposite experience. At Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College—known as BHASVIC—people aged 16 and 17 experienced a whole week of democracy. They recalled me there seven times. There were multiple hustings with different Members of Parliament and their candidates. The passion and erudition with which they spoke was inspiring: indeed, it was one of the most inspiring aspects of the general election campaign. Why does the hon. Lady think that Hove is so different from her constituency in that respect?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I know that college, being from Sussex.
I had visitors from my constituency recently, and we were in Westminster Hall. They were 15, and I asked them, “How does it feel to be here? Do you want to be involved in voting?” Lots of people’s eyes glazed over; they were not ready. So let us get people involved in youth parliaments and let us look at the issue more broadly.
I am delighted that Commonwealth citizens will be able to vote in the referendum. The Government are right to use those electoral qualifications. I, as someone with a critical eye towards the EU, am delighted to see the symbolic recognition and involvement of this other greater community of nations—the Commonwealth—but I recognise and respect what happened in the Scottish referendum. We did not agree to or accept the decisions that were made, but they were devolved powers.
I refer to my previous point and the question whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. That is what we are going to let the people decide, and we need to let the Prime Minister get on with negotiating a better deal for the UK. This is the Prime Minister who delivered a reduction in the EU budget, so I absolutely believe we have the right person to do it.
On the hon. Lady’s points about 16 and 17-year-olds, if young people in this country are not interested in what is happening in politics, that is a failing not of them, but of everyone else who is involved in politics in this country. It is also rather disingenuous to suggest that they might be watching television programmes, when there are probably more people much older than them doing so. We should give the young people of this country the respect that they deserve—and we can expect them to return that respect to us when they vote positively in this referendum.
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point—those programmes are wide ranging and many people vote in them—but I return to my earlier point that we should look at the issue in the round. Members will see that we on the Government Benches are happy to consider the matter, but it dilutes the question before us. Ultimately, it is about the sovereignty of this Parliament and about the people being able to decide for themselves about the future of Europe. I believe that 18 is right at the moment, but I am happy to look at the issue more roundly in a separate arena. I believe also that Ministers are listening to us on that.
Celebrating our magnificent Magna Carta highlights just how much our democracy has done for our islands and our nation. By giving the people—all the people—the chance to have their say on their own future and our constitution, we are delivering on our promises and paying tribute to this country’s long record of democracy. I believe that we in this House will go further and look at all the arguments in the round, but I do not believe that diluting this question and franchise—picking and choosing—is the right way to do so.
I am very grateful to you, Sir Roger, for squeezing me in towards the end, my having sat here for the past few hours listening to this excellent debate. I am open minded, which is why I have been so delighted to hear the excellent arguments from Members in all parts of the House. I am open minded about the voting age, and I seek to be persuaded by the arguments, but I agree with my hon. Friend Kevin Foster that listing ages as hooks to hang voting on does not work, because there are so many different ages when one might be seen to be turning into an adult.
I do, however, find myself influenced by international comparisons. The voting age for national elections in EU countries is 18, except for in Austria, where it was reduced to 16 in 2007. Internationally, there are only seven countries where 16 and 17 years olds are able to vote, and there are considerably more where voting starts later than 18. We should take international comparisons into account—and it is to “international” that I make that reference.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether his figures are completely up to date? Does he appreciate that as of midnight tonight another nation will be added to the list of proud nations that allow 16-year-olds to vote?
If I may, I will make a little more progress. Recent laws have moved more towards having 18 as the start point; I refer not only to smoking, but to the requirement to be in further education. I wish to pick up on the point about the University of Edinburgh study on the participation in the Scottish referendum of 16 and 17-year-olds. That study is persuasive in a way, but it also makes me concerned. If the voting proportions were high for 16 and 17-year-olds and for those above 24, there are younger voters in between who have not been engaged. I am concerned that 16 and 17-year-olds may have been more persuaded by their parents to vote.
I do not say that in a patronising manner, because I could use myself as an example. At 16, coming from a family of trade unionists and socialists, I dare say I would have been following their lead and voting in that way. Thankfully by 18 I had seen the error of my ways, and I now find myself on the Conservative Benches. That point should be considered, because at 16 people are persuaded by family pressure. It is important that when people vote they do so on the basis of their own views and conscience, which they have developed over the years as they mature.
I must declare that I am an advocate of 16-year-olds having the vote. I am slightly surprised that Opposition Members have not decided to use the example of Austria, in that it spent a long time going through a proper process and having a proper debate to decide whether votes at 16 or 17 should be considered. I wish they would look at that example and take it on board before coming before this Committee with more amendments.
If I may, I will make progress because I am conscious of the time.
I tend certainly towards using 18 for the EU referendum, because there is a danger that if we start to change the rules for it, there will be a feeling in this country that there is a taint, with people trying to get a certain outcome. I am so pleased that there is an EU referendum because we can at last lance the boil that is Europe and bring this matter to an end. If we start to change the rules beforehand, certain parties who feel sore from the result will try to make out it has been fixed in a certain way. That is why the status quo should remain.
Let me briefly deal with the matter of voter citizenship, which has somewhat been lost in the debate, albeit it is part of the amendment standing in the name of Stephen Gethins. On that matter, I am not open minded at all: I support the decision to use the general election register as the referendum basis. I recognise that the Scottish referendum was based on a different arrangement, but it was for the Scottish Parliament to form those rules and it did so. This is a matter for this Parliament to form the rules, and I believe the rules set are the right ones. I also take the point about many residents who work and study in this country and contribute greatly, but they are citizens of another country in Europe and their country governs their relationship with Europe.
I will not give way because I believe I must end my speech. Changing the rules on which citizens can vote in the referendum would lead certain electors to accuse the House of taint and of trying to fix the outcome one way or the other. The way to get a successful referendum is to leave it as uncontroversial and to leave the rules on voting in place.
I thank all Members for yet another constructive, interesting and well-informed debate. Members from all parts of the Committee have spoken in some depth about the important matter of who can take part in this referendum.
Before I discuss the amendments, let me say a few words about why the general principle, which underpins the Bill, sets out the entitlement to vote. I will try to be brisk, because I want to leave a few moments for the SNP Front-Bench team to have a few words at the end.
As a vote of national importance, the Bill starts with the parliamentary franchise. It extends it to Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar—I will say a bit more on that in the next group of amendments—and to Members of the House of Lords, who do not vote in general elections. There have been suggestions that one franchise or another would favour one result or another. Even though the Whip in me finds that strangely appealing, it would be neither principled nor right to change the franchise to try to get a certain result. Instead, we should follow the precedent set in 1975 and again in 2011 when UK-wide votes on membership of the European Economic Community and on the alternative vote were put to the parliamentary franchise. This is the franchise that we use for big questions that will determine the future of our nation—I am talking about not just for referendums but for who should form the Government and lead the country. It is right that we apply it again here.
Alex Salmond and Mike Gapes tabled a number of amendments seeking to use the local election franchise rather than the parliamentary one. Their aim is to add, “EU citizens resident in the UK”. The Labour Front-Bench team made some helpful comments, opposing the point in principle.
A few EU citizens have long been able to vote in UK parliamentary elections. Citizens of Malta, Cyprus and Ireland are already able to vote if they are resident in the UK, because of our historical connections to those countries and their citizens. But for the rest of the EU, British citizens living abroad do not have voting rights in their national elections. The only exceptions of which I am aware are in Ireland, where voting rights here are reciprocated, and in the upper chamber of Slovenia’s Parliament—I suspect that not many people here knew that they had that right. I doubt anyone will be dashing over there to set up residence in Slovenia, but if they do, they are of course welcome to vote when they get there. I am not aware of any national referendum in the EU that allowed citizens from other member states to take part.
Is not this the crucial point rather than arguments about ancestry or length of residence? Is it not the case that in any recent referendum on a European question held by a member state—whether that was the Austrian referendum on accession in 1994, the referendums held more recently in France and the Netherlands, or the frequent referendums held in Ireland on various EU treaty changes—residents from elsewhere in the EU have not been given the vote?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It would be lopsided indeed if we were to take a different approach for our nationals than has been done elsewhere in the EU. As I was saying, British citizens were not entitled to vote in the Dutch or French referendums.
Finally, switching from the parliamentary to the local elections franchise would block British citizens living abroad from voting at all, because they are not entitled to vote at local elections. The net effect of the amendments would be to deny British citizens living abroad the right to vote on their own country’s future while giving that right to other Europeans who are living here but have chosen not to become citizens. That strikes me as fundamentally unfair and inequitable. I hope that the hon. Members will withdraw their amendments when the time comes.
We have also heard about the need to give the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds for the first time in a UK-wide poll. There are a number of amendments to that effect, in the names of Ms Harman, Stephen Gethins. This is a referendum about an issue of huge national significance, and the starting point for determining who is entitled to vote must therefore be the franchise for parliamentary elections. Members will be aware that the voting age for parliamentary elections is set at 18. The voting age was 18 in the 1975 referendum on EC membership and the 2011 alternative vote referendum.
Let us not forget, as a number of Members have pointed out, that the voting age in most democracies, including most member states in the EU, is also 18. Only Austria in the EU currently allows voting at 16, although we have heard that Scotland is now heading in that direction, and that it is just hours away from extending its franchise for Holyrood elections as well, as is their devolved and democratic right. I salute its ability to do that.
Hon. Members have pointed out the precedent of the Scottish independence referendum, which was of course based on the devolved right, as we have heard. It is also right that the decisions about the franchise for elections and referendums that take place throughout the United Kingdom should be taken by this Parliament, in the same way as decisions taken for the franchise for elections to Holyrood are taken by the Holyrood Parliament.
I recognise that this Parliament will take the decision, but will the Minister explain why he is so keen to follow the example set by other EU countries, which so many of his colleagues want to cut us off from, and why he will not follow the example of a country that his colleagues suggest should stay attached to the United Kingdom?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments made by Mr McFadden. There is a degree of symmetry here and it would be bizarre indeed, as my hon. Friend Kevin Foster pointed out, to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote on an issue of such national importance when they cannot vote on their local council and on who collects the bins. This needs to be done on a broader basis, and I shall come on to that point in a minute.
Hon. Members have also said that young people are engaged and politically active. That is absolutely true, but it is also true of many 15-year-olds and not of some 50-year-olds. Political engagement is not a strong enough justification in and of itself for giving or denying the vote. Another argument that we have heard is that people can marry or join the Army at 16, and we have heard of a series of other activities that can or cannot be done at 16, 17, 18 or 21. I think the examples given included driving steam tractors. The important point is that in this country we have always viewed attaining adulthood and majority as a process rather than an event. It is not neat—I do not think it can be—and it varies from person to person and by activity to activity. If we want to compare different activities, the list on the parliamentary website that has been mentioned of things that are allowed at 16, 17, 18 or otherwise includes body piercing and having a tattoo at 18. I do not think that those are necessarily fruitful or relevant comparisons. We need to accept adulthood as a process, not an event, and that it is therefore tricky to deal with.
A number of my colleagues have said that they agree with, or are at least sympathetic to, the principle of votes at 16, but are concerned that it should not be done just for this election. I agree with that point. Many Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for Colchester (Will Quince), for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Bath (Ben Howlett), felt the same way and said that this is an important decision that needs to be taken for the franchise as a whole rather than for an individual election. I believe that that is right and I do not believe that this Bill is the right place to make significant changes to the franchise.
Is it not reasonable to make the case that if the Scottish Parliament, Government and the then First Minister had not legislated to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the Scottish referendum, the current Scottish Administration would not be in a position to legislate for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in next year’s Scottish election? Is it not time to start the process?
I am coming to the timing in a minute, if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me.
Although I do not think that this Bill is the right place to make significant changes to the franchise, the debate on the voting age is important. The Prime Minister himself has said that he thinks that it is right that it should take place, but making a change on this scale for a single specific vote will simply invite criticism that we are choosing a franchise that has been deliberately skewed for a low and partisan party political advantage. It is far better to hold the debate when the long-term question of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds at all future elections can be properly and soberly debated, and a moment’s glance at the Conservative party’s election manifesto, something that I am sure is bedtime reading for everybody on the Opposition Benches, will show that there should be opportunities to do just that during the course of this Parliament.
I now come to the amendments proposed by my hon. and learned Friend Stephen Phillips—I am never sure whether that is pronounced “Hickham” or “Hikeham”, and I apologise to his constituents if I have mispronounced it. He asks why the Bill does not enfranchise Irish citizens resident in Gibraltar. It is extremely hard to identify Irish citizens in Gibraltar on the voting register, and it is not something that is done currently. At present, we do not have agreement from the Government of Gibraltar to do that, because it would clearly impose duties and work on them. It is also true that no one is quite sure how many Irish citizens there are in Gibraltar, although most estimates are pretty low. Although I cannot predict the outcome, I promise my hon. and learned Friend that we are already discussing the matter in some depth with the Government of Gibraltar and will continue to do so.
My hon. and learned Friend also asked about the definition of Commonwealth citizens. For the purposes of elections, schedule 3 to the British Nationality Act 1981 sets out the list of relevant countries. Two are not currently members of the Commonwealth, and citizens of those countries would be affected by the amendment. The first is The Gambia, which withdrew from the Commonwealth in October 2013. The Government have not yet removed The Gambia from the list of countries in schedule 3, but will do so at the next suitable opportunity. Once we have made that change, citizens of The Gambia will no longer have Commonwealth voting rights. Crucially, the second is Zimbabwe, which left the Commonwealth in 2003. At the time, the Government decided to maintain Commonwealth rights for Zimbabwean nationals, based on the view that Zimbabwean people should not be punished for the actions of a Government that the UK did not consider democratically elected. Given our serious concerns about the 2013 elections in that country, this view remains.
Amendment 52 deals with votes for life. I think the hon. Member for Ilford South is trying to be helpful by tabling an amendment that is closely in line with my own party’s manifesto, and I thank him for that. I am not sure how his party’s Front Benchers feel about it, but he has not let that stop him and I salute his courage and determination. I am now hoist on my own petard, though, because having made the argument that this is the wrong Bill through which to deal with 16 and 17-year-olds voting, I must abide by my own logic on this point. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman the same assurance as I gave my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston, who was worried that we were kicking the question of 16 and 17-year-olds voting into the long grass. There will be opportunities in this Session of Parliament to vote on the matter, because we will be introducing our own Bill on votes for life, which will apply to all franchises, to make sure that British citizens who live abroad who are not currently able to vote and exercise their democratic rights, even though they are citizens of this country, are able to do so. I look forward to having the hon. Gentleman’s support, even if not that of those on his Front Bench, on that very important matter.
I thank you, Sir Roger, the Minister and my hon. Friend Peter Grant for making time for me to sum up this good debate on a significant issue. I hope you will not mind my saying that it is good that we are discussing our relationship with Europe on this, the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. We remember those on all sides who fell on that day.
Norwich North (Chloe Smith), seemed to be all for 16 and 17-year-olds having the vote—but not just yet. There is overwhelming evidence from the Scottish independence referendum—I presented it, my hon. Friend Ms Ahmed-Sheikh presented it, my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard presented it—that extending the franchise to 16-year-olds is a good thing for democratic participation from an early age. As the Electoral Reform Society said: vote early and then vote often throughout life. The University of Edinburgh agrees. I pay tribute to Dr Wollaston, who in an excellent speech made some outstanding points on the contributions made by 16 and 17-year-olds, drawing from her own experience.
We all have a responsibility to try to increase young people’s participation. This is a good place to start. My right hon. Friend Alex Salmond made a pertinent point when he said that everyone talks about when we start, but there is no time like the present, folks. We have all been elected here to make decisions, so let us make a decision, tonight, to give young people the opportunity to vote in next year’s referendum, to get involved in the debate and to make their voice heard in that democratic process.
On EU nationals, I was astonished to hear Conservative Members run off European examples of EU nationals not being allowed to vote. This must be the first time we have heard the Tories telling us that they will not do something because other European countries do not do it. I am glad that they are opening up to learning from our neighbours and other members of the European Union.
As somebody who represents the University of St Andrews, I know that European nationals make a significant impact on the life of all the nations of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire reeled off some excellent examples. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East made the very strong point that EU nationals living in our countries are here not as backpackers or tourists, but as an integral part of our society. What emerged powerfully from the Scottish independence referendum was the significant impact that our debate had on different communities—Polish communities, our Asian communities, people from almost every country in the world, who make up part of the fabric of Scottish society.
Scotland is a “mongrel” nation, which counts many peoples as Scots. We want to see them as an integral part of our country. What better way to say that they are an integral part of our country than by giving them the vote and putting them in a position to decide? Tom Brake and others made the excellent point about Christian Allard, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, who has set up his business in Scotland and makes very good decisions in the Scottish Parliament, most of which I agree with, but he will not be allowed to vote in the European referendum. Yet Cypriots and Maltese will be allowed to vote. As was pointed out, Greek Cypriots may vote, but Greeks may not. It is a ludicrous situation.
There is so much that the House can learn from the Scottish Parliament, and it will do so over the next five years. The Scottish Parliament has sent out a strong message that we are an open, inclusive and democratic country by lowering the voting age to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. I urge this House to follow the lead of the Scottish Parliament, as it should do on so many issues.