Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I beg to move, That this House
disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
Since this House gave the Bill its Third Reading in September it has been thoroughly and extensively scrutinised by the Lords, and I should begin by paying tribute to them for their diligent and considered approach. For the most part, their scrutiny has been fruitful, and the Bill returns to the Commons improved in a great many ways. However, on one issue the Lords made a decision that differs fundamentally from the view of the Government and, indeed, of this House. The Lords amendment would lower the voting age for the referendum to 16. This topic has been debated and divided on repeatedly since the general election in May. This House has twice rejected a lower voting age in the Bill, and did so for a third time yesterday, with a healthy majority in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. We have had this debate many times since May.
Other colleagues wish to speak, so I shall be brief. In short, the Government are not at all sure that it is right to lower the voting age, and even if it were, this is not the right way to do so. The voting age for UK parliamentary elections is set at 18, as it is in most other democracies in Europe and around the world. The age of majority is a complex issue.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections is rightly devolved and is a matter for Holyrood. This decision is to be taken in the House across the UK as a whole: it is not a devolved matter but a reserved one. While it is entirely open to the Holyrood Parliament to make decisions on its franchise—and we all honour its ability to do so—it is an inevitable result of devolution that there are different views in different parts of the country, locally nationally, if I can use that phrase, on different franchises.
Notwithstanding the answer that the Minister has just given, does he not accept that the participation of 16 and 17-year-olds in the referendum in Scotland went well and that voters behaved responsibly? We ought to take advantage of the interest of 16 and 17-year-olds and their knowledge of these matters to support the coming EU referendum as well.
That is an entirely justifiable point, and it is noticeable that the Scottish referendum resulted in an upwelling of democratic engagement, not just by 16 and 17-year-olds but right across the age spectrum. I do not think that democratic engagement and involvement are the only tests that we should apply, but they are a factor that may weigh on other people’s minds—the right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. I do not think that that is enough on its own to justify changing the franchise either in the Bill or in other measures.
Several hon. Members rose—
Let me make some progress and perhaps I can explain a little more.
As hon. Members will appreciate, a patchwork of restrictions applies to young people from the age of 16 all the way up to 21. There is no clear point at which a person becomes an adult, but it is at 18 that society usually draws the line. Even at 18 there are things young people cannot do. They must wait until 21 to adopt a child, supervise a learner driver, or drive a bus. In general, although I accept that this is not perfect, more things require parental consent for people under 18 than for people over 18. Joining the Army, getting married or having a drink in a pub at 16 need parental consent and approval. The vast majority of other decisions, where the consequences demand a careful, responsibly considered view, from serving on a jury to being tried as an adult, to holding a tenancy or mortgage, or buying a house all happen at 18. The Labour Government even raised the age for using a sunbed from 16 to 18. It surely cannot be right to argue that someone aged 16 cannot be trusted to decide on the risks of getting a tan, but can be trusted to choose who should govern the country.
There is no defined age at which it would be reasonable for someone to be able to vote, but my hon. Friend Patrick Grady made the point that in Scotland people aged 16 were given a vote and they will have a vote in the future. Accepting that there is different decision making in the two places, how does the Minister explain to that young person that it is utterly legitimate for them to vote in Scottish Parliament and local government elections and in a referendum, but not in the EU referendum?
My answer to such a hypothetical voter in Scotland is the same as I gave earlier—a consequence of devolution is that the Holyrood Parliament is allowed and perfectly entitled to take its decisions on devolved matters. The Holyrood franchise is a devolved matter, but the EU referendum franchise and the general election franchise are a reserved matter for the entire country to decide and will cover the entire country as a result.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the European Union referendum is a once in a generation opportunity, and that for young people the outcome will have a direct impact on their rights as European Union citizens to live, work and study in other EU member states?
The hon. Gentleman is right; the referendum will affect all of us, but the argument that he is advancing applies equally to 15-year-olds and 14-year-olds, and to 55-year-olds and 64-year-olds. So he is right, but I am not sure there is a compelling argument for reducing the age just to 16.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. May I caution him, though, against invoking the somewhat patrician instincts of the Labour Government with regard to the use of sunbeds as a reason for denying 16-year-olds the vote now? He has given us the full list of links, but surely the one link that matters because it comes to the heart of what it is to be represented in this place is that at 16 people pay their taxes.
That idea has a long and distinguished history. People were throwing tea into the harbour in Boston, saying “No taxation without representation” a long time ago. However, the argument has grown weaker over time for a number of reasons. First, the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who now pay income tax, though not zero, is a great deal lower than it used to be, partly at least because this Government and the previous one raised the threshold for income tax and also raised the school and training leaving age, so the number of people involved in paying income tax is significantly lower than it used to be. Secondly, there are now many more indirect taxes, so any six-year-old who buys whatever it may be will be paying VAT, among other things. Therefore the advent of indirect taxes rather weakens the logical foundations of that argument, one which I used to cleave to myself. I found myself in slightly uncomfortable positions as a result, because I realised that it was an eroded position.
Even if we were convinced that lowering the voting age was the right thing to do, this Bill would not be the place to do it, for two reasons. First, changing the voting age should not be applied to a single vote, even—or perhaps especially—if it is as important as this referendum. It is something that should be considered for all elections collectively and in the round, not piecemeal on an ad hoc case-by-case basis. Given the understandable sensitivity surrounding the EU referendum, making such a fundamental change to the franchise for this vote alone would inevitably and perhaps justifiably lead to accusations of trying to fix the franchise in favour of either the “remain” or the “leave” campaign. That is why we have chosen to stick with the tried and tested proven general election franchise. If it is good enough for choosing the Government of this country, surely it is good enough for the referendum too, and we should not jiggle around with it for a one-off tactical advantage either way.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has in his own party people who are concerned and who will be on one side of the issue or the other during the referendum campaign. Equally, my party has people on both sides. There are huge sensitivities, even if they are not being voiced especially loudly at present, which need to be understood and honoured. We must make sure that this is seen as a studiously fair referendum which will therefore settle the issue for a very long time to come.
It is worth pointing out that young people themselves, the very people whose enfranchisement we are debating today, are not at all sure that that would be a good idea. The most recent polls show that although there is a reasonable majority of 16-year-olds in favour of this change, 17-year-olds do not support it overall, and just 36% of 18-year-olds are in favour. What that says about 18-year-olds’ opinion of their younger selves two years earlier I shall leave others to conclude. There is a solid majority against the change among all other adults over 18.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way even though he said he could not. Does he agree that in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum, young people below the age of 25 were resolutely opposed to extending the franchise to under-18s. After the referendum they and almost everyone else in Scotland, including the leader of his own party in Scotland, very nearly unanimously agreed that it was the right thing to do: the doubters have been persuaded.
I hope I can come on to that point in the next part of my remarks. The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a solid majority across the country against this change among all adults, as well as among 18-year-olds and, to a lesser extent, 17-year-olds. That shows that this is not some great progressive cause where an oppressed minority is waiting to be liberated by enlightened public support; quite the opposite. The risk is that for those watching our debate outside the Chamber, it will seem like a Westminster bubble issue, a trendy obsession for an out of touch political class, rather than a burning social crusade with widespread democratic support. Even worse, there may be a suspicion that some are supporting the proposition because they feel that they could gain some tawdry tactical party political advantage from it for one side or the other. None of these reasons would strengthen or help us as we decide on an issue as important for our country’s future as whether we stay in the EU or leave. We should have no part in such suspicions.
Finally, I want to touch on the financial implications. Mr Speaker has certified that this Bill engages the Commons financial privilege because extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds for the referendum would cost extra. Cost is far from the only reason the Government disagree with the amendment but, for procedural reasons, the House is not able both to waive privilege and to disagree with the amendment, so I want to be clear. The Government disagree on principled as well as financial grounds with the proposal to lower the voting age.
This is probably the most novel aspect of our debate today. It is, of course, for the Speaker to certify whether financial privilege is invoked or not, but it is for the Government to decide whether they are to take advantage of that. The Government did not take advantage of that in relation to the 2014 Wales Bill for exactly the same issue. What is different now?
I think I have just addressed that point. We cannot waive privilege and disagree with the amendment for other reasons. We therefore need to engage financial privilege, but I am taking the opportunity of this speech and this debate to make sure that those other issues are given an airing as well. I hasten to add that there is nothing new in this. There is a long-established precedent in this House. I shall leave it to the procedural experts to lecture us all on the historical antecedents of financial privilege. We are not creating any sort of unusual precedent here.
I have not sought to repeat or rebut every argument. As I said, the subject has been debated many times in the Chamber already. I have, I hope, given everybody a taste of the issues and stated the Government’s position. The House has expressed its view on this matter many times, and I ask us all to repeat that once more.
I rise to oppose the Government’s proposal to reject Lords amendment 1 and to support the amendment passed by their lordships which extends the franchise for the European referendum to 16 and 17-year-olds. There is an ongoing, more general debate about franchise extension, but today I want to concentrate on the case for extending the franchise to younger voters for this particular referendum. Constitutional referendums are not like general elections, which come about every five years, or local elections, which come about every year. It is 40 years since this issue was voted on in this country. Major constitutional referendums are a once-in-a-generation choice, perhaps a once in a lifetime choice, about the country’s future direction. Our contention is very simple: it is that the young people of this country deserve a say in the decision that will chart our country’s future.
There are basically two points to be made: the argument for young people to have a vote, and the practicalities of implementing that decision.
We moved it both in Committee and on Report, so I think that the hon. Lady’s memory fails her on this occasion.
On the first point about younger people having the vote, every British citizen, by virtue of the passport that they hold, has the right, as my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne said, to live, work and study anywhere in the European Union.
That right has opened up opportunities for millions, and it is used by the many British people who live and work elsewhere in the European Union. Those driving the argument that the UK should leave the EU have at the heart of their proposal the idea that the free movement of people should be stopped and withdrawn. Whatever they are for—it is often not easy to figure that out—they are certainly against that. However, if we do withdraw and go down that road, then reciprocal action will be taken against British citizens. Therefore, the rights, opportunities and futures of our young people are on the ballot paper.
In my constituency, people aged 15, 16 and 17 are telling me that they will vote in the next general election, that it is very important to them whether we are in or out of Europe, and that they want this vote because it determines their future. Next door in Gower, where the majority is only 27 votes, people are telling me that if their MP does not vote for them to have a vote, they will vote against him, so this will have a far-reaching impact on the general election as well.
I entirely agree that young people have an interest in this issue, for the reasons I have been setting out.
The argument is not only about the legal rights that we hold. This referendum, one way or another, will affect future trade patterns in our country. It will have an impact on investment, on funding for our universities, on our farmers, on regional spending, and on very many other areas of national life. It will say a huge amount about how we view ourselves and how the rest of the world views us. This is very much about the United Kingdom’s future, and we believe that young people, including young people aged 16 and 17 at the time of voting, should have a say in that future.
Then there is the question of practicalities. We already know from the experience of last year’s referendum on Scottish independence that 16 and 17-year-olds can successfully take part in a national poll. Young people there were able to engage in discussion and debate and to exercise their democratic choice in the same way as anyone else. Arguments about their lack of capacity to understand or engage were proven not to be the case. The post-referendum report by the Electoral Commission said:
“109,593 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland were registered to vote at the referendum and 75% of those surveyed after the poll said they had voted.”
Importantly, it continued:
“97% of those 16-17 year olds who reported having voted said that they would vote again in future elections and referendums.”
So we know that young people can take part and that, given the chance, many of them will do so; the issue is whether the Government will give them that chance.
This should not be a partisan choice. There is nothing intrinsically Conservative, Labour or nationalist about extending the franchise. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives has described herself as a
“fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”.
Some Conservative Members, as far as I recall, supported this proposal when we debated it in Committee and on Report, yet Ministers are still standing in the way.
The Government have said that extending the franchise in this way will cost £6 million, which has been enough to define the proposal as engaging the financial privileges of this House. But of course Ministers could ask this House to waive our privileges and accept the amendment. That is what has happened many times in the past when the Government have supported amendments. It could also happen now, and it is a course of action that we would support. In the end, this is not about the proposal being unaffordable; it is about the Government not wanting to do it. According to the autumn statement, total public spending in the next financial year is estimated to be £773 billion pounds—£773,000 million pounds, and the Government want to deny young people a vote for the sake of six of them. They would not even have to spend that amount every year; after all, this is a once-in-a-generation choice.
Let us be clear what this is about. Let us not make a constitutional crisis over a small amount of money or use an argument about what is, in the end, a straightforward policy choice in the Government’s wider campaign to neuter the House of Lords. The issue is this: do we believe that 16 and 17-year-olds should have the vote in this referendum because they have a right to have a say in the future direction of our country? We do, and that is why we support the amendment that was added by their lordships and will vote for it when the House divides.
I rise to support the Government in this matter. I do not think it is reasonable that their lordships should decide to open the chequebook of this House for whatever amount. I am surprised that Mr McFadden seemed to think that this is a fiddling amount of money of no consequence. I think he is missing the point somewhat. It is important that the will of this House is seen to be done, and the will of this House, as we have debated many times, is not to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.
I listen with interest to the regular contributions of Scottish Members who say, “We gave young people the vote in the referendum on whether Scotland should be independent, but this House is not giving them the vote in the wider referendum on the EU. If it’s good enough for Scotland, how do we explain to them that they cannot have it in this situation?” I remind Scottish Members that they cannot have it both ways. What they choose to do in Scotland is up to them, but they cannot then use it as a wonderful precedent to insist that we operate in the same way. Something that has just been done in Scotland with which I fundamentally disagree is the provision in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 whereby every young person under the age of 18 must have a “state guardian” appointed who will be expected to assess a child’s wellbeing under eight key indicators, including their being safe, healthy, included and respected.
I will finish this point and then give way. On the other hand, I sometimes think that they take up a huge proportion of time in debates that concern the whole House, so I will not keep giving way every time I say the word “Scotland” to somebody who jumps up and down about the matter, if they will forgive me.
I want to make two points. First, it is a point of principle that 16 and 17-year-olds should get the vote. Secondly, when the hon. Lady refers to Scottish Members, I think she means SNP Members.
I am more than happy to say that I meant SNP Members. It seems that whenever the word “Scotland” is mentioned in this place, an SNP Member feels that he or she must stand up and speak on behalf of the whole of Scotland. The Holyrood Parliament has introduced things in Scotland that I would not support in this House. I do not want to jump up and down and argue that everything should be transported across the border. The SNP’s argument that this House should automatically follow its lead in the Scottish referendum is bogus.
Surely the distinction is that it was this House that gave the Scottish Parliament the power to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish independence referendum. We gave it that power knowing exactly how it was going to be used. We may not have made the change ourselves, but, as the hon. Lady’s noble Friend Lord Dobbs puts it, we acquiesced in it. What is the difference now?
The majority of Members in this House do not support extending the franchise, as has been shown in numerous votes. As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, if every 16, 17 and 18-year-old is allowed to do one thing, there is no obvious logical extension that allows them to do something else. We accept that some bizarre rules apply. On voting, however, many of us believe that it is a step too far to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds while at the same time exempting them from other things. I have not heard an SNP Member arguing for 16-year-olds to be Members of Parliament. For me, that is the logical extension of extending the voting franchise to them. I do not believe that a 16-year-old would have the experience, life skills or maturity to represent a constituency.
On the matter of logic, does my hon. Friend agree that many of the Opposition Members who are arguing for this change are the same people who only a few years ago increased the smoking age from 16 to 18? If they think that 16-year-olds are not capable of making a decision as simple as whether or not to smoke, how on earth can they think that they are capable or mature enough to make a decision on the EU referendum or on how to vote in a general election?
My hon. Friend makes a key point. Indeed, I wrote that exact thing in the notes I made before the debate.
Many of us accept that there are anomalies. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East said that this is a once-in-a-generation vote. I have never voted on it, so I accept that: as someone in her late 50s, my time has come and I am looking forward to voting in the EU referendum. However, if the logic of the argument is to be based on this being a once-in-a-generation vote, what about 15 and 14-year-olds? Where do we stop? This House has accepted that there must be an age limit for voting in UK parliamentary elections. That age is 18, and therefore those young people below that age will live with the consequences.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the proposal would be a huge change and that it therefore should not be made for just one type of vote, namely the referendum? If we are going to do it, we should consider it properly and address all the anomalies. It is ridiculous that 16-year-olds would be able to vote but not buy a cigarette. We should look at the issue as a whole and get it introduced for a general election, if that is what Parliament wants.
The hon. Lady, who is well versed in these matters, is absolutely right. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister alluded to that point.
The SNP may well feel that it had it just right in Scotland, but it was its privilege to do that. I fundamentally disagree with the SNP argument that we should explain to the young people of Scotland why they cannot do it again. Frankly, that is ridiculous and bogus. This House has voted on numerous occasions that this Parliament does not wish to extend the franchise. The back-door method of using their lordships’ overwhelming majority to outvote this place is a very dangerous precedent to follow. To simply tack on such a fundamental change—as Kate Hoey has so wisely referred to it—is not the way to do it.
There is a £6 million bill associated with the proposal and I object to their lordships simply writing a blank cheque. Perhaps, like the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East, they do not care where the money comes from. The main principle for the many Government Members who have voted against extending the franchise is that this is not the way to do it. I agree with the hon. Lady: if we were to do it for the referendum, we would then inevitably have to lower the age for major nationwide UK elections. We should consider all the eventualities of extending the vote, including extending to 16-year-olds the right to represent a constituency, but, given the short amount of time available today, we are not in a position to do so or, therefore, to accept the Lords amendment. I hope the House rejects it.
It is something of an irony that it is the unelected upper Chamber that sent the issue back to this House. If Government Members are unhappy about that, we have a very simple solution: they should scrap the upper Chamber. In this instance, however, I am glad that the other place has given us the opportunity to debate this. When we previously debated the issue back in June, a number of Members, particularly Conservative Members, said that at some point the time would come but that now was not the time. I hope they took the opportunity to reconsider their position over the summer.
This is a question of democracy. The Minister said that this is a Westminster bubble issue, but I do not understand how giving more people the vote and the opportunity to participate in the democratic process is a Westminster bubble issue—in fact, it is quite the opposite. Those who will be 16 on the day of the European referendum will, I am afraid, have to live with the decision for longer than most of us in this Chamber. As we have noted, 16 and 17-year-olds can pay tax and get married, although I concede to the Minister that they cannot drive a bus.
On a more sober point, a 2010 Demos report showed that some of the first troops to lose their lives in the conflict in Iraq were too young to have cast their vote. This House recently voted on a similar issue, so it is worth reflecting on that.
We think that 16 is the right age, and that is why we have drawn from the experience of the Scottish independence referendum. It is a good age for participation and people pay tax at that age, although the Minister talked about six-year-olds paying tax. We think 16 is a good age to start voting.
The question of participation should always be high on the agenda of this House. We should always look at different ways to encourage more people to be involved in the democratic process. Evidence suggests that the earlier we involve young people, the more likely they are to stay involved. As the Electoral Reform Society has found, if people vote early, they vote often. Conservative Members might not like that very much, but we think it is positive.
Not at the moment. The United Kingdom has a tale of two legislatures. On
“fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club now”.
I welcome that, along with the fact that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now for votes at 16. In a rare show of unity—I hope I am not jinxing this—the most recent former leader of the UK Labour party, its Scottish leader and its current leader all appear to back votes at 16. I hope that I have not spoken too soon.
Given the comments made about the views of 16 and 17-year-olds on this issue, is my hon. Friend aware that both the Scottish and the UK Youth Parliaments have endorsed votes at 16?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Electoral Reform Society has said that the
“UK Government should follow Holyrood’s example” for the EU referendum and all other elections. SNP Members have a little bit of experience of referendums, and we should follow the gold standard set by the Scottish independence referendum. It is a shame that the issue of EU nationals has not come back to the House, but we are able to debate the vote for 16 and 17-year-olds. It is a shame that people from other European countries —EU nationals make such a huge contribution—will not be able to vote.
It is easy why politicians from across the spectrum—Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats—have been won over by votes for 16-year-olds. In the independence referendum, turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds was 75%, and 97% of them said that they would contribute by voting again. They accessed more information and were much better at accessing information than any other age group, which makes all of us much more accountable.
One wonders what we ever did before the SNP arrived with its 56 seats in this Parliament, but obviously we struggled on manfully. The hon. Gentleman will know that the franchise was extended to 18-year-olds in 1969. Since then, very rarely has turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds gone above 50%, although for the over-70s the percentage figure is in the high 70s. With more information available—we have never had so much information about policy and politics—why does he think that young people across the UK are so disengaged?
The hon. Gentleman is not of course the only person who is delighted to see so many new SNP Members bringing their wisdom to this Chamber. We refer to the independence referendum because we have the facts and the evidence to show that if we include 16 and 17-year-olds in the process, they get involved. To make the argument that Westminster elections did not inspire people to get involved in elections in the past is more of a reflection on Westminster politicians than on the public at large. We have the evidence that 16-year-olds got involved. It was good that they campaigned—good for those who got involved on the no side as well as for those who did so on the yes side. It was a positive thing all round, and I pay tribute to those people.
Just as with the rest of the population, if we give young people a genuine opportunity to get involved in a meaningful democratic process, they will do so, and the European Union referendum provides us with such an opportunity. To give the Minister and the Prime Minister more of an incentive, I suspect that 16-year-olds will be better informed and give their Government a fairer hearing on the deal they are negotiating with Brussels than will their own Back Benchers.
This House has been left behind on votes for 16-year-olds. It is happening in Scotland, the Isle of Man and elsewhere. Let us not be left behind again. Let us back votes for 16-year-olds.
I rise to support the Government on Lords amendment 1. A number of arguments have been deployed for extending the vote to
16 and 17-year-olds in the European referendum. I have listened to them in this and other debates, and they can be distilled into two broad camps. The first argument—we have just heard an example of it from Stephen Gethins—is that what has been done in Scotland should be done across the rest of the UK. The other argument is that this about their future and, because this is a one-off referendum, they should be allowed to have a say in their future. I will address each point in turn.
I lived for a year on Deeside—in the Dee valley between Ballater and Aboyne—which is a truly beautiful and wonderful part of the world. From living there, I discovered that lots of things in Scotland are done differently from how we do them in England and Wales, but vive la difference: we do not necessarily want to create complete homogeneity across the whole of the UK. I suspect that one reason why SNP Members are so passionate about independence is that they want to do things differently from how they are done in England and Wales, so I find it slightly strange that, in their collective desire to be independent and different, they are suggesting we should all be the same.
The SNP spokesman’s point was that if we give 16-year-olds the right to vote, they become more valued and engaged, and there is increased representation. They become part of the fabric of democratic society and adopt responsibilities, which enriches our whole community. We should go ahead with it.
Part of my speech will address the very point that the hon. Gentleman makes. If he will indulge me, I will not concertina in that part of my speech in response to his intervention. However, I will come back to it, and if he is not satisfied by the rest of my speech, I invite him to intervene again later.
I want to return to what happens in Scotland. There is one long-standing difference between what 16-year-olds can do in Scotland and what they can do in the rest of the United Kingdom. Gretna Green is famous because it is the first place where runaway lovers can take advantage of the different attitude towards the age of marriage. To say that because something happens in Scotland it must therefore happen in the rest of the United Kingdom is a hollow argument.
I will give way in a moment.
I advise SNP Members to be a little careful about what they wish for. If their position is that any devolved power they exercise must then, by extension, be absorbed by the rest of the UK, that will create a lot of friction and disharmony as people in rest of the United Kingdom—
At least let me get to the end of my point.
Those people will feel aggrieved at the automatic assumption that devolved decisions made in Scotland are therefore going to wash across to the rest of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is somewhat missing the point. My hon. Friend Stephen Gethins talked about the engagement of 16 and 17-year-olds. We have found in Scotland—the evidence backs this up—that by giving the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, they remain engaged in the political process beyond the age of 16 or 17. Although the rest of the UK may have had low numbers voting in Westminster elections, we have had much higher numbers—above 70%—in Scotland.
I assume that the hon. Lady misunderstood the type of engagement I was talking about when I referred to Gretna Green. I will come on to her point later.
Kate Hoey made a very important point about the natural implication of extending the voting rights in the European referendum to other elections. In a previous life, I was the youth ambassador for the Mayor of London. I spent a huge amount of time dealing with young people across London, so I know that there are many very well-informed, engaged, articulate, thoughtful people aged 16 and 17. There are also some very well-informed, articulate, engaged 15-year-olds. Frankly, there are some 40-year-olds I would not trust to tie their own shoelaces.
We must recognise that, to a degree, the voting age is an arbitrary distinction, but there must be a line in the sand. A number of people have asked, “If 16, why not 15, and if 15, why not 14?” My two boys are the sons of a politician. We speak much about politics at home and they listen to the news. They are 11 and 13 years of age and I would suggest that they are better informed about UK and global politics than many people twice or thrice their age. So why not give them the vote?
That brings me to the second argument, which is that the referendum is about their future. However, it is my children’s future just as much as it is the future of a 16 or 17-year-old.
The hon. Gentleman might be surprised to know that I certainly do not support votes at 16. Over some years as the Chair of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, what worried me was the increasing pressure on childhood in our country. It worries me that people will be adults at 16. The implications of that have never been seriously looked at by my party. There has never been any investigation of the impact of bringing down the voting age to 16 on children and childhood. The Opposition, including the SNP, have never done a proper evaluation of the impact on children and on the protection of children, which should be our top priority.
That leads me neatly on to my closing remarks.
There is a natural extension of this proposal. People say that this is a one-off and that there will be no extension, but we have just heard a number of speeches and interventions from SNP Members saying that they gave votes to 16-year-olds in the Scottish referendum and that they then gave votes to 16-year-olds at Holyrood elections. They suggest that this is the most natural evolution of the democratic process. They are making exactly the point that Mr Sheerman warns against. This proposal will unlock the floodgates for the change of the mandate to 16 at many other elections.
By mandating that 16 and 17-year-olds are to remain in education, society has made an explicit comment that we do not feel that they are fully formed. If we did, we would not suggest that they had to stay in education, we would not suggest that they could not book their own sunbed and we would not suggest that they should not even be allowed to buy their own sparklers on Guy Fawkes night.
It is a ridiculous notion that in a one-hour debate, tagged on to the European Union Referendum Bill, we should make a decision as fundamental as changing the electoral mandate. I strongly urge all Members of the House across the parties to support the Government’s position and reject the Lords amendment.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. As Members can see, quite a few people still want to speak. The debate must finish at quarter to 2. If Members keep their contributions as short as possible, hopefully we will get everybody in.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
“Our young people are no longer children, and they resent being treated as such. Our view is that, if we entrust them with responsibility, they will act responsibly.”—[Hansard, 23 January 1969; Vol. 298, c. 1034.]
Those are not my words, but the words of the late Lord Stonham during the debate that led to the voting age being reduced from 21 to 18. That was in 1969. The world has changed since then and so must we.
This debate is about enfranchising young people in one of the biggest decisions that will affect their lives. I want us to go further. One of my first acts as an MP was to introduce a private Member’s Bill on this issue. The Representation of the People (Young Persons’ Enfranchisement and Education) Bill would give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote, while increasing political education. It is now unlikely to be debated and voted on. I sincerely hope that the Government will see sense today and support the Lords amendment. I have spoken with many Government Members who agree with me on this issue.
The European question is, quite simply, one of the biggest decisions we face. Do we want to live in a country that has strong links with its neighbours and that leads on issues such as roaming charges, health and safety, employment rights, food standards and climate change, or do we want to be more cut off from the world, existing purely to become a smaller and smaller influence on the world stage? Those arguments are for another day but, whatever the result, one thing is certain: it will have a long-lasting impact on this country.
The in and out campaigns have been launched and people up and down the country have started talking about this issue. However, there is one group who are talking about it, but who are being silenced. It is that group we are here to talk about today.
The Prime Minister is spending close to £1 billion directly on empowering young people aged 16 and 17 through the National Citizen Service. Like many Members, I took part in that over the summer as a dragon, judging community projects that young people had designed. The National Citizen Service teaches young people about community engagement and encourages them to play a role as an active citizen in their communities. Can the Prime Minister not see how ridiculous it therefore is to refuse 16 and 17-year-olds their say at the ballot box?
The case has been made time and again for why 16 and 17-year-olds should be given the vote, but I ask Members to indulge me. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can consent to medical treatment, consent to sexual relationships, get married, join the Army, Navy or Air Force, change their name, receive tax credits, receive welfare benefits, join a trade union and join a co-operative society. They can even do what many young entrepreneurs do and what London’s own Jamal Edwards did aged 16 and become the director of a company. Sixteen-year-olds who are in work are even required to pay income tax and national insurance.
As my hon. Friend Sarah Champion pointed out in a Westminster Hall debate last year, there is something fundamentally wrong about “taxation without representation”. Indeed, it was the cause of the American revolution. How long will it be before young people start to rise up? The last thing we need is more young people becoming militants. Many of my colleagues have called for more momentum on this issue. These are people, they have voices, they have opinions and they want to be heard.
Yesterday, I spoke to a year 12 politics class at Hatcham college in my constituency. I asked if there was anything they wanted me to contribute to this debate. They were amazing, articulate and inspired young people. One of the things that they asked me was what my view was on the abolition of the House of Lords. Had they asked me that two months ago, I would have given a very different answer to the one I gave. It is because of the fantastic work of the other place that we are here today.
I asked the class to tell me their thoughts on votes at 16. A young lad called Malaki told me that he felt unrepresented. He explained that there are 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds throughout the UK who have no say. He went on to explain that voter turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was just above 40%. He told me we needed the voices of 16 and 17-year-olds to be added to that figure to make sure that young people are truly represented. I checked those statistics with the House of Commons Library and he was bang on. If the Scottish referendum is anything to go by, we could see 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds voting in the EU referendum.
Malaki added that the number of MPs who have been in full-time education in the last decade can be counted on one hand. He did not pass comment on the intellect of Members, but he did say that we could not understand what things were like from the learner’s point of view.
Fabian pointed out that people can influence what happens about their own tuition fees only if they are lucky enough to turn 18 at the right time. Lizzie told me that her brother went on a march against increases to tuition fees. He was told that he should not go because he was not at uni, but he said that taking direct action was his only option. Charlie told me that there was a need for young people to be represented, and I will conclude with Owen who said four little words to me: “It just makes sense”—and indeed it does.
I will speak briefly to support the Government in rejecting the Lords amendment. It is not unusual to be patronised by the Scottish National party, but I notice that Alex Salmond is not in his place. I heard a rumour that he was unveiling a statue of himself made from chocolate so that he can first admire it and then eat it.
I am not opposing the amendment because I am against the substance of the debate. In fact, I am a floating voter on this issue, and over the past year or so I have begun to consider the experience of younger people. However, we need a proper debate and legislative framework, rather than have this tacked on to a Bill about an EU referendum.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I support lowering the voting age in principle, but when we want to make major constitutional changes we do not just have a vote in the Commons, we consult the public. The same should apply to this issue. We should have a national consultation, with all the other stuff that goes with that.
I agree with my hon. Friend. At the moment we have a gold standard template for the franchise that we measure at the general election. Over the years we have made changes to that franchise, most recently in 1969 and before that in 1924 and 1928, when we rightly enfranchised women as a result of the campaign by the suffragettes, which we celebrated only a few years ago. We accept all that, but let us have a wide-ranging public debate, not just through the prism of the Scottish referendum but across the whole country, because people have differing views.
Not for the first time, Kate Hoey put her finger on the nub of the issue: this measure must not be tacked on; it must be seen within the context of all the other age restrictions, and of whether young people are well-formed and ready to take big civic decisions when voting. I say to Vicky Foxcroft that I find it inconceivable that turnout would rise from about 45% to 75% just because 16 and 17-year-olds were included. Those figures do not stack up.
I cannot take any interventions from my Caledonian friends.
In conclusion, it is a constitutional outrage that the superannuated, unelected, unaccountable panjandrums in the House of Lords have told us what the elected House should be doing even though we have a settled view on this. They should learn their place. They must be subservient to the elected House, and it is high time that we had House of Lords reform.
After my experience in the previous Parliament, the irony of hearing Conservative Members arguing for reform of the House of Lords is never lost on me.
In the brief time available, the point I am making is that there is a fundamental inconsistency in the Government’s position. In the previous Parliament the Prime Minister gave power to the Scottish Parliament to extend the franchise for the Scottish independence referendum to 16 and 17-year-olds. We knew what they were going to do with it and, as Lord Dobbs put it in the other place, the Prime Minister acquiesced in it, and he did so for a number of reasons. He did it because it was the most important vote that we would ever face, because it was to be a once-in-a-generation decision, and because referendums are different. That is exactly the situation that confronts the House today.
On financial privilege, it appears that having lost the argument, the Government now want to play their trump card or pull out a joker to thwart a very laudable aim. Mrs Main said that we were opposing the use of financial privilege because we do not care about where the money comes from. We do care about where that money comes from because it is paid by—among others—16 and 17-year-old taxpayers. They pay it, so they are entitled to a say.
In the 20 seconds that remain to me—[Interruption.] It is now 19 and counting, so I will not take any interventions. I wish to argue that this measure makes sense. We need to trust our young people and empower them. Let us give them this vote and this chance.