I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We have just had a very important debate on mental health. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed on bringing forward his Bill on that important issue, and I reflect on the quality of the contributions made. It was, though, apparent that some Members were keen to talk at great length in support of that Bill, no doubt to reduce the amount of time that was available to discuss this Bill.
Order. If any Member was speaking in this House in a way that was inappropriate or out of order, then the occupant of the Chair—who was not me at the time—would have stopped them from so doing. I am sure that when any Member is making a speech about something about which they feel passionately, they sometimes do go on for rather longer than they might, but if it is improper, they will be stopped.
I absolutely take the point about the passionate way that some Members made their speeches. I also reflect that some people found it easier to hide their obvious passion but still went on at great length, and I respect them in the same way.
There is a moment in time when the time comes for reform. If a democracy is to be relevant, it must take into account where it is, listen to the mood of the public and reform. This Parliament is nothing if it is not the voice of the people we represent. After many years of debate and campaigning, it is my strong belief that now is the time to extend the franchise. Now is the time to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I feel as though I have been accused of taking up a lot of time by speaking in the last debate. I made two short interventions, and I have been in the Chamber for a number of hours; the hon. Gentleman has not been. Do you think he should apologise?
No. I appreciate the point that the hon. Lady is making, but I have already dealt with the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised. It is up to each Member of this House to judge when they speak, how they speak, the amount of passion they use and the length of time for which they speak, except when I tell them not to.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on that point of order, which makes her a shoo-in for an amateur dramatic society. [Interruption.] Today is not about the egos of people in this place; it is about people outside this place.
Thank you for that helpful assertion, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In my maiden speech, I felt the importance of contributing in the Chamber, but this is the first time I have felt a great weight of responsibility on my shoulders. That is not because of the grandeur and the status of this place, but because the subject of my private Member’s Bill—votes at 16—has been selected by Oldham youth council. I am pleased to say that members of the youth council are here in the Gallery today. I am very proud of the town where I live and that I now represent in Parliament, and the Oldham youth council make me extremely proud of the young people who are growing up in our town. If anyone believes that young people do not have political views, that they are not well-informed or that they have not educated themselves about the issues of the day, I urge that person to contact their local youth council and get their own education.
Our democracy and our franchise have always evolved. Two hundred years ago, working men and women marched to Peterloo, demanding the right to vote. Next year, we will reflect on 100 years of women’s suffrage—100 years since women were first given the right to vote. Less than 50 years ago, 18, 19 and 20-year-olds were still denied the right to vote. Our franchise has always been in evolution, and we have always had to take into account the mood of the public. Importantly, the evolution of our franchise has always been about expanding democracy to make it as inclusive as possible, so that it is not an exclusive club in which power is held by the few.
There are different approaches to that. I would respect it if the Government said, “We have heard the debate, we have taken into account the points that have been made and we have seen the evidence base, but ultimately we have arrived at a different conclusion.” I would respect that. I do not respect the Government working in the shadows, scared of having a parliamentary vote because they know they cannot win it. The Government are not in charge; they are weak and cannot even control their own Members.
I pay tribute to Government Members who have listened to the debate held by our young people who want a voice in our democracy. Shame on the Members who have not pushed for that in their own party. At a time when we have the weakest Prime Minister in generations and when the Cabinet is in shambles, Back Benchers could have stood up and moved this issue on with the Government of the day, but they think it is far better to stay in position and hope that at some point the greasy pole will be theirs to climb. I hope that it is and that they get their just reward for acting in the way they have.
In the Labour party, we are confident in our policies, and in our arguments. We believe that the best way to win an argument is to go and speak to people— to convince, inform and hear back—and, if need be, to change position.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is not giving way. There is no need to shout. Mr McMahon may consider giving way, but he does not have to if he does not want to.
There are two ways of running a Government and a country. One is to narrow the franchise and squeeze it as much as possible. How could that be achieved? It could be done by excluding people from the electoral register; by forcing people to show an ID at a polling station when there is no obligation even to hold a photographic identity card in this country; by gerrymandering the boundaries; or by filling the second Chamber with mates and donors. There are plenty of ways of manipulating the system.
We believe that the best way to run a democracy is by extending the franchise and including people. This is not about gaming the system; this is about including people, hearing what people are saying, and importantly—taking into account what people told us during the Brexit debate—listening to their demand to take back control. The very fact that today has gone the way it has means that we may not even get to a vote. I think Government Members ought to be very concerned because 16 and 17-year-olds might be denied the right to vote today, but in two years’ time they will be 18 and they will remember who blocked their democratic rights only two years earlier.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to remind the House how out of touch the Conservative party is becoming. On the serious point of votes for 16-year-olds—I have voted for that in this House on several occasions—Scotland is moving progressively towards it and the Welsh Government are undertaking a consultation on 16 and 17-year-olds voting: it is time this House caught up. I fully support my hon. Friend. I am right behind him, as are the people of Wales.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I do not know if he is making a leadership speech, but I would like to ask him for clarification. He said he would not take interventions from Conservative Members because we had had our time. It was not our fault that nobody from the Labour Benches decided to speak in the previous debate. Will he clarify that point for me?
Order. We are not debating the previous Bill, which has just been given its Second Reading. We are debating this Bill and that is what we will talk about.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think the hon. Lady will find that on the Labour Benches the matter of who is leader and who is not is settled. It is the Conservatives who should be considering which way they want to go with their leadership. I fully expect a delegation to knock on the door of No. 10 in the coming weeks, but let us leave that there.
We have heard how the mood in Scotland has changed. The way that 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds came out to vote in the 2014 Scottish referendum was inspiring.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in places such as Bradford, which by 2020 will be the youngest city in the country, this issue is imperative for our young constituents? I congratulate him on bringing the Bill forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, a view that is now shared by the Scottish Conservative leader, who says she is a fully paid-up member of the votes at 16 club because she has seen the benefits it can bring. We have heard that the young people of Wales may soon be given the right to vote at 16 and 17.
My hon. Friend mentions Wales. There was a survey of 10,000 15 to 25-year-olds in Wales. Only 29% opposed votes at 16: a clear majority were in favour. Many of them are far more mature and capable of taking part in politics than others, considering some of the nonsense we have heard today.
I take on board my hon. Friend’s point entirely. If we continue as we are, young people in Scotland and Wales will have a right to vote in elections that will be denied to young people in England and Northern Ireland. If we believe in a United Kingdom then we must have democratic equality, united by common rights and responsibilities, and with an equal voice in our democracy.
As much as the Bill seeks to extend the franchise, the lion’s share of the Bill is about education in schools. We recognise that there is a disconnect between politicians, politics and the people we say we are here to serve. We see it in voter turnout, we see it in the public mood and we hear it in the Brexit debate. People want to take back control of their country, but do not quite know how to achieve that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He mentions the members of the Oldham youth council in the Public Gallery and he mentions education. Does he not think that it would have been a better education if he had adopted the tone of Mr Reed, who sought genuine cross-party agreement to achieve progress for his Bill, rather than spending the opening 10 minutes of his speech in the most egregious partisan tirade I have ever heard? Might he reflect on the lesson he is giving to the young people in the Public Gallery?
Obviously I respect the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, but I have to say that I was quite pleased with my performance up until then. [Laughter.] I am disappointed that that view is not shared by all Members across the House, but you can’t win them all.
I will make progress, because I know Members have put in to speak and it is only right that we hear them.
This is not a party political issue. The way the debate has gone has been partisan, but the Bill is supported across the parties: it is supported by the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Green party, the Scottish National party and some Conservative Members who believe the time has now come to extend the franchise. If we educate young people in schools and give them the vote at 16, I am absolutely convinced they will carry the voting habit into later life. That will increase turnout and participation, and place a greater value on our democracy.
I hope that there is a proper debate on this Bill. Despite my belief that its time has come, parliamentary time might not allow for that to happen today. But the mood in the country is changing. The mood across the United Kingdom is now very divided, with Scotland and Wales having different powers from England and Northern Ireland. For the future of our United Kingdom, and for the future of our democratic equality across our country, let us take the steps we need to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.
Order. Whether an intervention is taken by the Member who has the Floor is entirely up to the Member who has the Floor, and is not a matter for the Chair. If the hon. Lady feels aggrieved, I can understand that, but it is not a matter for me.
The production of explanatory notes is a fairly new procedure in the House. That might come as a surprise to Members who have not been here for long, but not so long ago we simply had to sit down and read Bills until we could understand them—a practice that I am used to. Whether to produce notes is a matter of choice for the promoter of the Bill, whether the Government, a private Member or anyone else. If the Member in charge of this Bill has decided not to produce such notes, it is entirely up to him. He might think that the Bill is fairly straightforward, but that is also not a matter for me.
I congratulate Jim McMahon on scoring in the ballot. In recent years the question of whether the voting age should be lowered to 16 has attracted a deal of interest and comment, including in inquiries by the Howarth working party on electoral procedures in 1999, the Electoral Commission in 2003, the Power commission in 2006, the Youth Citizenship Commission in 2009 and most recently the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in 2015, to name but a few. The latter Committee has now merged with the Public Administration Committee to become the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I chair, although I speak in this debate in a personal capacity.
The issues considered by those inquiries have been wide-ranging, and include comparisons of the voting age in other established democracies, the level of support for lowering the voting age among the electorate, the political maturity of 16 and 17-year-olds, turnout among younger voters, and the age at which people should become entitled to different rights and duties.
Any voting age is somewhat arbitrary. However, there are strong arguments in favour of retaining the status quo, and the arguments in favour of lowering the voting age are, at best, somewhat muddled and inconsistent. A line must be clearly drawn somewhere and the present age of 18 is widely accepted across society, and, indeed, across the vast majority of countries in the world; only a tiny fraction of countries have a lower voting age than the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman might not realise that this debate has been pursued by the Scottish National party for some years, including in Winnie Ewing’s maiden speech in November 1967. There has consistently been an argument for reducing the voting age. Does he not agree that it is now time to act on those demands rather than continuing to kick the issue into the long grass?
Without wishing to introduce a partisan or discordant note, it is possible for another party to be consistently wrong for a very long period of time, and I believe that that is the case in the matter that the hon. Lady has raised.
The Electoral Commission’s consultation paper on the voting age in the UK was published in 2003, and it examined the voting age in other countries. At that time, all EU member states had a minimum voting age of 18 in national elections. The voting age has subsequently been lowered to 16 in Austria.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is possible for one party be consistently wrong, but does he accept that it is unlikely for four parties to be consistently wrong and that the two parts of the United Kingdom that have found the policy to be successful might be right?
This is a new concept of democracy that I have never previously considered, in which we do not count the number of people who vote in elections but instead count the number of political parties. I am afraid that that is not the way we decide issues in this country. We are elected by voters, not by political parties. It is interesting that the only country in the European Union to have lowered the voting age is Austria, which has just elected a rather unexpected head of state.
Would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the latest research shows that most young people in Austria voted for the moderate parties, and that they were a moderating force rather than a radicalising one?
What we must avoid getting drawn into—I apologise for this on my behalf as well—is choosing who should have the franchise on the basis of whether we like the way they vote—[Interruption.] That is not the basis on which we should choose who votes in general elections or in any other forum.
We take our children out campaigning with us, but that is not an argument for giving them the vote. Indeed, it is arguable that if we take 16 and 17-year-olds out campaigning with us, we have a duty of care to them because they are not yet adults. I will come to that point in a moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and express my pleasure at the fact that he is at least putting an argument out there, which I think is essential. Does he agree that engaging young people in politics is extremely important and that the element of the Bill that is highly significant is the part that covers citizenship and constitutional education? Does he also agree, however, that lowering the voting age to 16 is not necessary in order to bring about what I and many others in this House see as the important engagement with young people about the business of politics?
I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend, who is a colleague on my Committee. The Bill definitely conflates two issues, and I suspect that one is trying to be a carrier for the other.
The point is that the voting age is 18, and in some cases higher, in the vast majority of countries around the world, including the greatest democracies such as the USA and in countries similar to our own such as Canada. The UK’s voting age is therefore in line with the norm, and that does not suggest any need for change.
I am going to make some progress now, I am afraid.
It is worth noting from many of the countries with a lower voting age, including Brazil, Cuba and North Korea, that the lower voting age does not guarantee a better democracy. Polling shows that this position is supported by the public, and I think that that is the really significant point. Polling carried out by YouGov in 2013 found that 60% of British adults were against reducing the voting age to 16. Only 20% supported the idea, while 16% neither supported nor opposed it and 4% did not know. That majority holds among young people, with 57% of 18 to 24-year-olds against reducing the voting age.
The findings of opinion polling conducted by ICM for the Electoral Commission’s review of the voting age back in 2003 were even starker, so it may be that opinion has shifted a bit. When asked to choose between a minimum legal age of 16 or 18, 78% said that the minimum voting age should remain at 18, while only 22% said that it should be lowered to 16. Of those who said that the voting age should remain at 18, 33% cite insufficient life experience as being the primary reason, and 30% cited immaturity. Now, those are of course only opinions.
Let us put to bed today the myth that 16 and 17-year-olds are uninterested in or uneducated about politics. It is not that young people are uninterested in politics; it is that politics has traditionally been uninterested in young people.
I have a son who was interested in politics from about the age of six, but that did not entitle him to a vote. It is perfectly reasonable for 16 and 17-year-olds to be very interested in politics, but it would not necessarily be wise to give them the vote.
Evidence taken by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the 2014-15 Parliament also reinforced the findings I mentioned earlier. The Committee reported that it received
“extremely mixed responses to the idea of extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, with somewhat more respondents opposing the change than supporting it…
A strong theme in the comments from those opposed…
was that people under the age of 18 lacked the knowledge, maturity and life experience necessary to participate at elections.”
The question of maturity was rightly regarded as a fundamental issue by the Electoral Commission when determining an appropriate minimum voting age. The lack of a single definition of maturity, its multifaceted nature, difficulties identifying indicators that are capable of measurement, and the variation in levels of maturity among young people mean that this is a challenging issue to grapple with. However, a paper by Tak Wing Chan of the University of Oxford and Matthew Clayton of the University of Warwick published in 2006 sought to address that point. Chan and Clayton found that survey data consistently shows that young people are less interested in politics than older individuals. Young people also know less about politics than older people and their views are less consistent. Interest in politics, level of knowledge about politics and consistency of views are all observed to increase with age.
I have been a teacher throughout the 10 years since that report was published. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that politics has changed since then?
I am not sure that it has, but it is for the hon. Lady to present the evidence that things have changed. Anecdotal evidence is not enough. The evidence we have clearly suggests that young people are less politically mature than older people. Therefore, the voting age should not be lowered to 16.
An argument often put forward in favour of lowering the voting age is that it would increase levels of voter turnout and the participation of young people in politics. Indeed, concerns about declining participation rates in UK elections were a key reason why the Electoral Commission launched its review of the voting age in the first place. The commission also believed that young people’s disengagement with politics might be explained in part by their belief that politicians do not listen and engage with young people’s concerns.
I have given way to the hon. Lady once already.
Encouraging and supporting young people to engage with politics is clearly of great importance, and I do not for a second seek to undermine any concerns. However, lowering the voting age to 16 will not boost voter turnout, because young people have always turned out to vote in elections in lower levels than older people. Extending the franchise to 16-year-olds will therefore serve only to lower the overall level of voter turnout.
I want to make two brief mathematical points to my hon. Friend. First, the turnout now for 16 and 17-year-olds is zero, but if they got the vote and their turnout was 60%, there would be an increase in turnout, not a reduction.
Secondly, we can be registered to vote at 18 and the average age of voting in a general election is 20, but if we could be registered to vote at 16, the average age of voting in a general election would be 18. Does he agree that that would be a sensible thing to do?
I am reminded of Disraeli’s dictum that there are statistics and statistics—I put it that way to avoid being unparliamentary. The point I am obviously making is that the overall turnout would be diluted by the lower turnout that would tend to be delivered by younger voters.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that extending the franchise should be linked to turnout. He will be well aware that turnout in local government elections is sometimes between 25% and 30%. Under his argument we should scrap elections for local government entirely.
I am not making that argument at all. I am simply defeating the argument, rather successfully, that lowering the voting age will increase voter turnout—it will not.
There are many ways of increasing young people’s engagement with politics that do not involve lowering the voting age, which alone will not boost engagement. Of far more importance are the ongoing efforts under our reformed national curriculum to improve citizenship education, which aims to ensure that all pupils understand the UK’s political system, understand how citizens participate in our democratic systems of government, understand the role of the law and of the judicial system, and develop an interest and commitment to participating in volunteering and other forms of responsible activity—incidentally, participating in the activities of political parties is very much open to people below voting age—to ensure that they are equipped with the skills to think critically and to debate political questions.
Our fantastic Youth Parliament, which was founded by the former Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, Andrew Rowe, aims to give a voice to young people in the UK between the ages of 11 and 18, and such initiatives also have an important role to play in increasing the participation of young people in politics. According to the Youth Parliament’s website, more than 1 million young people have voted in its elections over the past two years. This is a success story. The Youth Parliament gives young people in the UK an opportunity to be involved in the democratic process at a national level and empowers them to take positive action in their local communities to tackle issues of concern.
I feel myself strangely transported to a costume drama set about 100 years ago, when those who resisted women’s votes came out with exactly those arguments about women’s immaturity and lack of interest, and about how women would not know what they were talking about. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who resisted the enlargement of the franchise then were wrong and that those who persistently made the case for extending the franchise to women were right? This is a similar argument.
I am afraid that I disagree with the hon. Lady. This is a completely different argument. Members of my family, and of everybody’s family, were involved in pursuing the franchise for women, and we celebrate the fact that we have more women in Parliament today than ever before. She is having a go at possibly the one Conservative MP who thinks that we will have to take legislative action to get 50:50 equality of men and women in this House. I really believe that will happen one day, and I hope she also agrees that such action will be necessary.
I will not be drawn on that point.
The National Citizen Service, established under the coalition Government, is a more recent initiative that aims to promote social cohesion, social mobility and social engagement by running a three to four-week experience for 15 to 17-year-olds.
Not at the moment.
Another argument put forward in favour of lowering the voting age is that young people aged 16 to 17 can drive, join the armed forces or marry but cannot vote. Those facts are, at best, only half truths. For example, people can drive from 17, not 16. Although young people can join the armed forces and marry at 16, they can do so only with their parents’ consent, and in the armed forces they cannot be deployed to frontline combat.
There are a great many other things that young people cannot do before 18. For example, they cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes. Are the other side arguing that they should be allowed to do so? Young people are also not treated as adults by the law, for they are dealt with by youth courts if they commit a crime, they are given different sentences from adults and they are sent to special secure centres for young people, rather than to adult prisons.
Voting sits alongside another great civic duty, jury service, and yet young people I speak to overwhelmingly reject the notion of 16-year-olds sitting in judgment over close friends or family. Does my hon. Friend agree that lowering the voting age would create a bizarre and unconscionable discrepancy in that regard?
No, I am not giving way. They make it clear that society does not view 16-year-olds as full adults, and denying them the right to vote is therefore not some gross injustice akin to denying the rights of women to vote—such a suggestion is clearly absurd—but a consequence of their level of maturity and the role they play in society.
The point my hon. Friend is making is that the point at which we reach maturity and come of age is a process. As a society, there are a range of things that we say people need to be 18 to do . Some of these things are quite trivial, such as watching an “18” movie at the cinema. Are we saying in this debate, “You should be able to choose your representative and the Government of the country, but you can’t go and watch ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ or ‘The Terminator’ down your local cinema”?
There is another argument, and I agree with my hon. Friend.
One of the arguments put forward by Votes at 16 is that there should be no taxation without representation. That is an important argument, upon which an entire continent was liberated from British tyranny. However, I must point out that the number of 16 and 17-year-olds paying income tax in the UK is extremely small, and most are students, so those who are working are usually earning only small sums in weekend or holiday jobs, and are not over the income tax threshold. The vast majority of 16 and 17-year-olds are financially dependent on their parents or guardians.
My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but a far higher proportion pay national insurance. I agree with him that the taxation issue is the most important point, which I why I support it and why I was so frustrated that Jim McMahon was so unwilling to take an intervention from a Conservative Member. You are asking someone to support the welfare of the country at that point and take much wider responsibilities once they contribute to the national insurance system.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I also point out that there is absolutely no reason why there should be a single age at which people become entitled to take up all their rights and duties, across the wide range of areas these cover. There is no inherent relationship between driving, voting and buying alcohol, and none are directly comparable. There is objectively no reason why someone should acquire the right to participate in all these different activities at the same age. Surely the important question is: what is the age at which people should acquire the right or duty concerned?
It would be a great mistake to lower the voting age to 16. Most 16 and 17-year-olds do not have the level of political knowledge or maturity required to vote.
The hon. Gentleman was just praising the youth councils that were voting and had their own private vote— so at least they did not affect the adult vote! But in that vote, they voted almost unanimously for votes at 16—this was 1 million young people. It does feel as though the Conservatives are patronising young people. May I also say that during seven years of austerity, young people have had things taken away from them? This is a chance for us to give them something—to give them hope and to empower them.
Interestingly, when young people become older—when they become 18 to 24-year-olds or 25 to 35-year-olds—they tend to change their mind on the question of whether young people should be allowed to vote. Older voters are overwhelmingly against giving younger people the vote. I think that puts that matter to bed, and I repeat the point I made earlier: whatever the particular political agenda may be of 16 and 17-year-olds, that does not necessarily entitle them to the privilege of the vote.
What is more, lowering the voting age to 16 would put the UK out of line with the position in almost all other established democracies in the world, in addition to it not being supported by the public. [Interruption.] The Opposition seem rattled by that argument.
The arguments put forward in favour of lowering the voting age are weak and confused. Contrary to what some have argued, there is no inherent relationship between the various voting-age-related rights. Voting age is not the key factor in the fostering of young people’s interest and engagement in politics, and efforts should instead revolve around things such as how we can improve citizenship education and expand the Youth Parliament. The evidence shows that when the current generation of 16 and 17-year-olds become adults themselves, a majority of them will support keeping the voting age as it is.
It is a pleasure to speak from the Front Bench in this debate and set out the Labour party position, particularly given the fact that so many young people are watching our democracy in action from the Public Gallery. I worry what message we might be sending to them through the behaviour of some Members in the Chamber.
The Bill is a historic opportunity to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds—to the 1.5 million young people who are affected by the decisions taken in this House but who are currently denied a vote in our democracy. The Opposition will be voting to extend the franchise because we believe that young people should have a say about their future. But the Bill is not just about that. It is also about education, because we believe that an educated electorate can make informed choices—and who could argue with that?
I have only just started.
If history has taught us anything, it is that our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote. As we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage, we have an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come as a country and to look to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The case has never been stronger. Within the United Kingdom, in Scotland, 16 and 17-year-olds can now vote in local elections, but a 16-year-old who votes in such an election this year would subsequently be denied a vote in a general election next year. That cannot be right.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree that we have a vital opportunity to mend our democratic system, which is currently letting down the very people who will live longest with the consequences of the decisions that are being made in their name now, many of which absolutely undermine their futures?
I do agree with the hon. Lady, who is part of a coalition of five Opposition parties that agree that the time has come for votes for 16 and 17-year-olds.
Does the hon. Lady not see the inherent contradiction in the Bill? Part 1 says that 16 and 17-year-olds are ready to vote, but part 2 implies that because they are in full-time education and need to be taught about citizenship and the constitution, they are not actually ready to vote.
I do not believe that there is any contradiction in our using an opportunity to education the young people of the next generation about politics. In fact, were we to look for any contradiction, it might be found in the fact that Conservative Members are arguing against votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, yet allowing 16-year-olds to join the Conservative party and potentially vote in the next Tory leadership election, and thereby for the next Prime Minister, when they cannot vote for their local MP.
The experience in Scotland has shown how successful extending the franchise can be. In the Scottish referendum, we saw 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds turn out to vote. With the Welsh Labour Government looking to extend the franchise to young people there, we will soon be in the ridiculous position of having a 16-year-old who lives in Wales or Scotland being trusted to vote in their local elections but not a general election. It is vital that we have equal rights throughout the United Kingdom, not only for referendums but for the devolved Assemblies and local government. As we have heard from the Oldham Youth Council, votes at 16 is a clear priority for young people. Now is the time for the House to support them.
It is a pleasure to follow soon after the evidence-packed speech by my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin. I had come here today to have a serious debate about a complex and difficult issue that we have to examine from time to time, but I was disappointed by the boorish approach of the Bill’s promoter, Jim McMahon, who sought to create division in the House rather than to be persuasive. Over the past few years, I could possibly have been persuaded on this issue, but I have certainly not been today. I therefore speak in opposition to the Bill, because it kicks off a process about which we should be concerned.
As far as I can see, the Bill confuses the complex issue of capacity—what young people should be able to do, what they are capable of doing and what we should allow them to do. This is a complicated and difficult area that a number of us in public policy have struggled with over the past two decades. The problem with the Bill is that it works against the broad thrust of public policy around young people over the past two decades.
For instance, it is generally accepted that gambling is bad for young people, in recognition of the two stages of brain development in young people: the first prior to six, when 95% of the brain is formed, and the second during adolescence, when enormous changes take place and when we have to take extreme care over how young people develop. The science is with us on this. This is a period when the operation of the brain, people’s practice and habits, are formed. It is important that we look at that. It was decided some years ago that forbidding under-18s to gamble was desirable in order to inculcate and educate and to get their brains functioning in a way that meant they were less likely to do it in older age. The Bill would create the ridiculous situation whereby a young person could vote but not then place a wager on the outcome of the election in which they had just voted, which seems extraordinary.
There are all manner of areas where the same would be the case, which is of concern to those of us who have worked closely with charities in this area such as the Children’s Society, which identifies 16 and 17-year-olds as a particularly vulnerable group who require protection.
My hon. Friend has used a very good example. Does he agree that another might be the purchase and consumption of alcohol? We have also increased the age at which people can purchase cigarettes. Such important changes have been proved beneficial to people’s health.
I think the hon. Gentleman knows that that is exactly what I am not saying; the main thrust of my concern is that the Bill kicks off an inevitable process that might expose 16 and 17-year-olds to harm. I cannot see how we can give someone the vote at 16 and then deny them all the other capabilities and abilities of adulthood.
Did my hon. Friend, like me, see the reported comments by Jim McMahon— he could have told us if they were not true, but he appears to have disappeared from his own debate—in trying to explain away the comments of his then hon. Friend Jared O'Mara? He said that he was young and silly and too immature to know any better—when he was in his 20s. And this is the man who is now proposing a Bill to reduce the voting age to 16. Does my hon. Friend see some inconsistencies between those approaches?
My hon. Friend rightly puts his finger on the broad point I am trying to make, which is that the Bill injects yet more inconsistency into an already confusing area of public policy—one where a number of Governments have struggled and where lacunae have opened up, exposing young people to harm and developmental experiences that might not be in their best interests. This is part of the problem. I would have more respect for the Bill and the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton had he tried to bring some regularity, logic and evidence to this, rather than just assertion and emotion.
I have commanded an infantry battalion going on operations, and I have had soldiers plead with me to allow them to come. They were 17 years and three quarters, and I had to turn them down—because the law said that no one under 18 should go to war. I agree with that. I do not agree with 16-year-olds being able to send over-18s to war but not being able to go themselves.
My hon. and gallant Friend makes a strong point. We must think carefully in this House about the consequences of what might seem like relatively small legislative changes. For instance, I cannot see how we can give the vote to a 16-year-old and deny them the ability to buy a knife, drink alcohol, buy cigarettes, buy fireworks, watch an “18” film, access pornography, leave school, get a tattoo, access credit, and get a mortgage, a property or a tenancy. They cannot do jury service, be a magistrate or a councillor. Critically and possibly most importantly, how can we give someone a vote in an election in which they are not themselves able to stand as a Member of Parliament?
As my hon. Friend knows I am a passionate advocate of no taxation without representation. Does he agree that it is perhaps time to consider stopping the taxation of those under 18 whom we wish to stay in education or training, which is part of the policy that he talks about?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. As I have said repeatedly, this House needs to look at this issue in a much wider context and much more consistently. Members have jumped up and down in this place—I have heard them time and again—talking about greater protections for 16 and 17-year-olds. The problem with extending the franchise to them is how we maintain the idea that they are still somehow a second-class citizen having made them a first-class citizen through allowing them to vote.
The latest protection we have seen is around the rise of e-cigarettes. This House decided in its wisdom that people under 18 could not buy e-cigarettes—they are not allowed to vape. More than that, adults are not allowed to use an e-cigarette or smoke in a car with somebody who is 16 or 17 because it is bad for their health. I just do not see how, logically, we can maintain that position. We can give someone the vote and they may vote for somebody who will campaign and enact legislation that will bring those harmful things to bear on them. That is the fundamental inconsistency.
A number of Members have talked about gradations of development. It is certainly true that different people develop at different times. We all know that the brain develops strongly during adolescence. It starts at the back and moves to the front. Those who are medically minded will know that the science proves that. Our system of capacity has evolved over the years to recognise that we have different capacity at different ages. This whole idea is illogical and makes no sense to me. I welcome the idea that we should decide on a line, but we should level everything up to it, and for me that age is 18. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex said, 18 is generally accepted across the world and we should have the same.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. His tone of reasonableness and balance is a big contrast to what we heard at the start of this debate. If we level everything, that would include the age of consent with all its implications. Is he also saying that we should remove national insurance payments from the under-18s, and that if we keep them those under-18s must have a say?
No. Under-18s should not participate in the taxation system at all. Many are low paid and do not. There is only a very small number who pay tax. In broader social policy terms, because they are among the lower paid, they should not necessarily pay tax as other people do. The current system is very confusing. It indicates that at some stages they are adults, and at others they are not. That might be a reflection of reality: those who have lived with a teenager will know that from time to time they appear mature and then, for no possible explanation, they will be illogical, impulsive or emotional. That is part of the developmental process through they are going through.
Is the hon. Gentleman actually listening to some of the arguments he is making? To be honest, his side of the argument is sounding increasingly desperate. It really reached a nadir when Bob Stewart said that we should not have 16-year-olds sending people to fight because they cannot fight themselves. On the same principle, presumably people over the age of 65 should not be able to vote either, because they are not going out to fight. Will the hon. Gentleman please be at least a little bit more reasonable?
I am not desperate particularly; I am just trying to illustrate to the House that we need to take care with the process we are kicking off. If we allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to have the vote, it would become much harder to place restrictions on what they are able to do, what people can expose them to and what their capacity is.
My hon. Friend is making a cool, calm and logical speech. It is a shame that Opposition Members are not affording him the courtesy of a fair hearing. Did he, like me, read the article by our hon. Friend Will Quince, who spotted some inherent contradictions from the Opposition? The Labour party raised the age limit from 16 to 18 for all sorts of things—some sensible, some less sensible and some peculiar, such as the legislation on sunbeds.
Absolutely right. It was a remarkably good article, which I recommend that everybody read. It points to this issue of policy confusion. There will be Labour Members shouting at me today about lowering the age of the franchise to 16 who actually voted to stop these very people lying on sunbeds. My hon. Friend is exactly right. The problem at the crux of this is that it is not as simple as extending the franchise. There is a much wider policy framework that we must consider. We cannot extend the franchise and still deny all the baubles of adulthood to people whom we have allowed the vote when they are 16 and 17.
I rise today as an honorary president of the British Youth Council, a former president of the National Union of Students and—just about—a millennial. I will be brief because people watching this debate should know that there is a desperate attempt to prevent people from moving to a vote on this motion. I want to nail the fallacy that young people aged 16 and 17 do not have the maturity to vote. We have already heard about the things that 16 and 17-year-olds can do, but we have heard voting compared with gambling, drugs and alcohol. Now, I know that it is customary for Government Members to gamble with the country’s future when they put their Bills forward. In fact, people sometimes look at various Government policies and wonder whether people have been taking drugs when producing them.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just want your advice on whether it is in order for the hon. Gentleman to misrepresent what I said in my speech. He said that I was comparing granting the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds with gambling, which I absolutely was not. I was merely saying what I was saying, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening to what I was saying. He is my colleague on the Treasury Committee and normally does listen to what I have to say, albeit with a grin, but—[Interruption.]
Order. I have the gist of the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is not a point of order; it is a point of debate. Wes Streeting is interpreting what Kit Malthouse said, and there is disagreement with the hon. Gentlemen. That is what I would expect in a debate of this kind. The hon. Member for North West Hampshire might have an opportunity to put the record straight about what he said, but it will be in Hansard for everyone to read.
I was saying that, in general terms, people have compared the risks of voting at 16 and 17 to gambling, drugs and alcohol. The point I was making was that Ministers may well gamble with the country’s future when passing votes. When people look at the quality of the judgments, they may wonder whether we were smoking something, and I know for certain that hon. and right hon. Members have occasionally been downstairs in the bar before casting their votes. But however dangerous voting Conservative may be from time to time, I hope that we would all agree that voting, in and of itself, is not a risk to public health in the way that any of those things that have been described are.
I want to quote a notable member of the Press Gallery, who this morning tweeted:
“Hope Parliament passes #votesat16 today. I was against it at 16, on grounds half the people I knew were idiots. But age doesn’t change that.”
I think that that is a perfectly reasonable point. Finally, on the turnout fallacy, no one is reasonably suggesting that voting at 16 and 17 in and of itself increases turnout and participation in democracy, but it does improve turnout in one important way. It is not about whether 16 and 17-year-olds turn out and vote for us but whether we as Members of Parliament finally begin to turn out and vote for them, for their interests, for their education, for their rights to access housing, and to close the disgraceful gap in power, wealth and opportunity between the oldest in our society and the very youngest. That is what we are debating. This is a measure that is long overdue and I hope that today is the moment at which introducing votes at 16 finally has the opportunity to pass into law.
I am delighted that we are having a robust debate about democracy. May I tell Jim McMahon that he has caused me to change my speech? I was going to talk to the House about Roman democracy, the influence of the Napoleonic code and so on. Instead, I am disappointed that he spent 13 minutes speaking nonsense and on partisan speechifying, rather than dealing with the substance of the argument. It is a great shame that young people watching the debate in the Public Gallery and on television have not seen the House at its best, as it was in the previous debate—I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman took part—in which there was a great feeling of consensus on the need to improve mental health and on the treatment of mentally ill people in mental health units. Yesterday, there was a debate—again, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman took part—with a consensual tone on the issue of child refugees. Today, he chose to hijack the issue of the representation of young people with a partisan speech. That is not good politics.
I have the pleasure today of hosting two constituents who work in a university in my county teaching politics to young people. I am interested to hear their views on how the debate has gone.
It was more than the partisan nature of the speech; I did not hear the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill make a substantive argument in favour of changing the law. Is that not what most disappointed my hon. Friend, as it did me?
Absolutely. After 13 minutes of the speech by the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton I gave up hope of hearing any substantive, persuasive argument to support his case.
I shall try to move on to what I hope will be a point of consensus. The hon. Gentleman is welcome to intervene if he wants to have an argument with me about that. He is shaking his head. We all need to encourage young people—I am talking about not just 16 and 17-year-olds but 18, 20 and 35-year-olds—to take an interest in politics. There are many ways in which we can do that. One of the best parts of our privileged role as MPs is to invite schoolchildren and young people into Parliament. When they see the Chamber and the magic of the building in which people have good, frank debates it brings politics alive in a way that I wish we could extend to the whole population.
It is important to visit schools. I made a promise in the 2015 campaign that I would visit every single school in my constituency—all 54 of them—by the time of the next election. Sadly, it was a promise that I could not keep because the election came a little sooner than I had hoped, but I have reiterated that promise. As elected representatives, we should reach out to people in our constituencies and discuss their problems, answer their questions and involve them in that way. A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to welcome St Michael’s Church of England Primary School from Coningsby. Seven, eight and nine-year olds on the school council came to Parliament. In a couple of weeks, children from North Somercotes are coming to visit. I am going to send them copies of Hansard so that they can see the important role that they play in this House, as far as I am concerned.
Eighteen is the age at which all the civic rights and responsibilities that we all enjoy fall upon our shoulders. At 16, yes, a person can get married, but only with the permission of their parents. Yes, they can join the armed forces, but only with the permission of their parents. They cannot even leave school—the law requires them to stay in education or training. At 16, they cannot buy a house, a knife, a cigarette, alcohol or fireworks, nor can they place a bet or use a sunbed, and adults cannot smoke in a car in which they are present. That is because we, as a legislative body, have said that people under the age of 18 need extra protections that they do not need over the age of 18.
I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to seek imaginative ways of involving young people in politics. Does she agree that the contributions we saw from 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish referendum were among the most informed, enthusiastic and incisive, and brought a whole new spirit to the debate and many more young people into politics? Is that not what we should be seeking to do?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has raised that point, because it is going to be my final point, and I will deal with it then.
At 18, with civic rights, such as the right to vote, comes civic responsibility. At 18, for the first time, a person can sit on a jury in judgment on their peers. An 18-year-old can be called up to the Old Bailey, just down the river, and sit in judgment on a teenage peer accused of murder. How on earth can we give 16-year-olds the extraordinary privilege of voting in our democracy—and it is a privilege; we could, frankly, be a bit tougher about requiring people to vote—and then say, “You have that right and yet you do not have the responsibility of sitting on a jury”?
When the United Nations drew up the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which almost every country in the world—other than the United States, I think—has signed up to, there was a debate on the issue of child protection and when a child becomes an adult. Every country in the entire world other than the United States—with very different cultures, as one can imagine—came to the conclusion that 18 was the right age for declaring a child to have become an adult. That was in 1989. It has been debated many times since by the United Nations, which has always concluded—while it is difficult to judge—that 18 is the appropriate age to consider that a child turns into an adult.
I completely agree. That goes to the point about protection. I am not saying for a moment that 16-year-olds are not capable of forming judgments, and I hope that no Labour Member tries to misrepresent me, because if they do, I will intervene on them. My hon. Friend is exactly right—it is about a gradation of protections moving away until the person reaches the age of 18.
I am inclined, in part, to agree with the hon. Lady’s model of civic republicanism that allows for responsibilities and rights to be earned. However, at the age of 70 people are no longer allowed to serve on a jury, so is she suggesting that those over 70 be disenfranchised because they no longer have those responsibilities to go with their rights?
Order. This is not acceptable. If the person who has the Floor cannot hear an intervention from someone on the other side of the House, then, de facto, there is something wrong in this Chamber and people must be quiet so that we can debate properly. Would the hon. Gentleman like to remake his intervention?
I think, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the hon. Lady already understands my point. As somebody aged 70 can no longer serve on a jury, I am suggesting that, according to her argument, she might want to consider reducing the franchise.
I am sorry. The hon. Gentleman said “over 70,”; I thought that he said “over 17”. I do not agree with him. First, it would be a brave politician who wanted to take votes away from people aged over 70. Perhaps some of my colleagues will send out press releases about that after the debate. On the hon. Gentleman’s point—this is also applicable to service in the armed forces, and so on—by the age of 70, an individual will have been available for civic duty for more than 50 years. [Interruption.] This point also applies to those who have been discharged from the Army. Someone who has had more than 50 years’-worth of civic responsibility does not lose any rights. That is the difference between 16 and 17-year-olds and people who are aged over 70.
A point has been made about taxation. My hon. Friend James Cartlidge made an interesting and fair point about national insurance; some 16-year-olds pay national insurance. At the risk of worrying the Chancellor in the run-up to the Budget, I can see merit in the suggestion that if people do not have the vote before 18, that element of taxation should be taken away from them. I appreciate that that is an uncosted proposal, and I am not suggesting for a moment that we adopt it, but I can see the merit in it. Indeed, 16 and 17-year-olds are exempted from paying council tax, so there is already a precedent, which could be extended further.
My final point—to answer the intervention by Christine Jardine—is that I do not see how we can say that someone can vote to elect their representative in this place and yet not have open to them the privilege of standing for Parliament. We would effectively be saying, “You cannot vote for yourself. You may have been born in your constituency and spent your entire life there, but you cannot stand for Parliament to represent that constituency.”
Crikey! To turn the argument around, are we really comparing 16 and 17-year-olds to bankrupts? No. In the case of bankruptcy, certain civic responsibilities and rights—for example, the right to become a director of a company—are taken away from an individual because of their behaviour. I am not saying that 16 and 17-year-olds do not deserve the right to vote because of their behaviour. I am saying that having the right to vote would not be consistent with their civic responsibilities. That is my argument.
This is a wide-ranging debate—
On this side—no, that is unfair. I hope that, if nothing else, young people watching the debate have seen the intricacies of the arguments between the two schools of thought. I hope very much that we will continue to debate the matter in the years ahead. I have a word of advice for the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton. If he wants to persuade Members of the House of the strength of his arguments, he really must do it better next time.
I am honoured to speak in this debate, because when I came here after I was elected in June, it was not my first time in this place. I was here in 2009 during the UK Youth Parliament debate, in which we argued for votes at 16. As a 27-year-old, I have not changed my mind on that issue.
I was recently at Lasswade High School in my constituency, and I asked young people there if they agreed with votes at 16, and why. They told me that the question was very important to them, because they are growing into society and this Government—if they last the year—will make decisions that affect those young people’s job prospects, their safety net if something goes wrong, how their taxes are spent and how their society works, but they cannot elect the Government who will make those critical decisions about their lives.
I would love to refute some of the horrendous allegations that Conservative Members have made against young people, but there are so many that I simply do not have time.
On the accusation that young people are not ready, are not clever enough or do not have political knowledge, I ask Members whether everyone they know has such political knowledge.
I made this point in an intervention, but I think it is well worth making again. This is an important issue. It rightly goes to the heart of what it means to live in a democracy. It goes to the heart of what it means to be an active member of a democracy. I would imagine that a debate on votes for 16 and 17-year-olds would, unsurprisingly, be keenly watched by people of that age and perhaps by those who are even younger who have an interest in politics.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 16 and 17-year-olds watching this debate in the Public Gallery or at home will feel thoroughly patronised by the end of this debate?
I invite James Cleverly to withdraw that remark. I have said nothing patronising. My point is that the tone of the debate from others who have spoken is patronising. I invite him, as a gentleman, to withdraw the remark.
As far as I can make out there is nothing to withdraw. The hon. and learned Lady put forward the idea that young people in the Public Gallery or watching at home might feel patronised by the debate. I simply made the point that I had no intention of patronising them, and I merely asked whether they might feel patronised by her. It was not an assertion.
Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. An hon. and learned Member is making sedentary interventions, and I cannot hear what she is saying. If she would like to intervene, she should stand up and make an intervention.
I asked the hon. Gentleman how I had been patronising, but I think it would be much better to return to the issue at hand. Why should the young people of the United Kingdom aged 16 and 17 not get the vote as they have done in Scotland?
I will address the implicit question in the hon. and learned Lady’s intervention, which is about the differential between certain voting rights north of the border and voting rights in England, Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom. Scotland has for many centuries since the Act of Union had a number of differentials in law. The classic one, which we have debated in the Chamber, is about the age at which someone can get married. Gretna Green is famous as the place in Scotland where runaway brides and grooms went to get married without the need for parental consent. I certainly would never want to impose English will in the form of marriage laws on Scotland, and I would ask her not to do such a thing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we have seen from several interventions and speeches in the House, age and wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand? For the referendum in Scotland, we extended the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. As a pragmatic Conservative, I saw that as a valuable test, and does he not agree that they passed that test with flying colours? We should be a united kingdom and give rights right across our country.
I have a huge amount of respect for my Caledonian colleagues and Opposition Members from north of the border. I have to say, however, that I just do not agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to why I do not agree. It has already been mentioned that there are a number of differentials between—
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point of order and that he begs to put the motion before the House, but at this stage in the debate I will not allow a closure motion. We have been debating this really important constitutional matter for only one hour and 23 minutes and I would normally expect a longer debate for matters of this importance. The House is full of people who still wish to contribute to the debate and we have not as yet had a chance to hear from the Minister or Front-Bench spokesmen from the Opposition parties. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman will be disappointed that I will not allow him to put the motion to the House at this stage, but I am sure he will understand that it is for the Chair to protect the position of every Back Bencher in the Chamber. [Interruption.] There really should not be this much noise when I am speaking from the Chair.
I have not finished this point of order.
It is my duty to protect the position of everybody who wishes to participate in a debate on a matter of some considerable importance. I am ruling that it requires more than one hour and 23 minutes for a debate.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am not challenging your ruling in any way, but can you give me guidance? Many of my constituents have contacted me to support the two Bills today and to hear the third Bill, promoted by Mr Bone, which is coming up. Can you tell me when that is likely to happen? Can we extend time in any way? I genuinely do not know.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not know, but for the sake of clarity let me explain. I do not know when the next Bill will come forward because it depends on how many Members wish to speak, but I do know that we have only two-and-a-half minutes left before this debate is finished. Whatever happens, I will stop the debate at precisely 2.30 pm. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware of that, but I am happy to clarify the situation.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not bizarre that Labour Members were happy for the previous debate to last for about three- and-a-half hours before they thought the debate should be curtailed, and yet for this one they think it should be curtailed after only one hour and 23 minutes?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I respect the ruling of the Chair and I am not challenging it, but what advice can I give to people who are watching this debate and cannot understand why, when more than 150 MPs have come to support the Bill, we cannot move on to a vote?
The advice the hon. Gentleman can give is that the Bill will of course come back on another day. The fact that debate is curtailed because it is nearly 2.30 pm does not mean there will not be another opportunity.
Conscious of time, my intention had been to wrap up my comments relatively quickly. However, looking up at the Annunciator I can see that the various interventions and points of order mean that I have hardly been able to make any progress at all. I know that it is never a good idea to try to apply pressure on the Chair, but I would hope that—as I now have very limited time to make my points in what is an important debate—when this Bill returns to the House on a sitting Friday, as it will, you, Madam Deputy Speaker, or Mr Speaker if he is in the Chair, will look favourably upon me and call me early so I can make my points.
The debate stood adjourned (
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday