My Lords, I pay tribute to those from all parts of the House who have encouraged me to introduce the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, from the Conservative Benches, who is going to be here shortly, has pioneered discussion of the issue in your Lordships’ House. Then there is the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, from the Cross Benches, who is on the speakers list, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, a very distinguished Member from the Labour Benches who is, unfortunately, not able to be here today, but has indicated to me his strong support. I am very encouraged to see a number of colleagues from all sides of the House who intend to speak in this debate, most notably the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I am very grateful, given her very busy life, that she is able to be here today. No doubt she will be able to report to your Lordships’ House that our Bill, with cross-party support, has also now the official support of the official Opposition.
I do not intend to speak at great length, not least because I am very well aware that esteemed colleagues on all sides of the House are anxious to make progress on the two important Bills that follow. I hope that we can complete this stage of our Bill as quickly as possible, for that reason. I am especially encouraged by the presence of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who will give the ministerial response to our debate. He has an enviable reputation for integrity, logic and rational analysis, which may stem more from his academic background than from his political allegiance. He will, I am sure, be the first to see the inevitable case for this Bill. Whatever ministerial brief he has been handed, I invite him to apply these invaluable assets to the situation that we find ourselves in.
Whatever others may say, my noble friend will recognise that the Government have in principle accepted the case for the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds. I pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister—and I never thought that in 50 years of public life I could say that—and to my right honourable friend Michael Moore, for their role in achieving the Edinburgh agreement. The proper role of these young people to decide on the future of Scotland was accepted in that agreement; they will now be entitled to vote in next year’s referendum. It was acknowledged by the coalition Government that in such far-reaching decisions, which could affect their whole lives, the whole nation would benefit from their opportunity to participate.
Of course, as those of us who are committed to the maintenance of the union must agree, it would intolerable if our citizens in different parts of the United Kingdom were to enjoy totally different basic civic rights or civic responsibilities. That would not be a united kingdom. Other minor matters—some quite important, perhaps—may be devolved; but surely we cannot sustain the argument that the franchise, the most basic building block of our representative democracy in the UK, should not be approached on a coherent and cohesive basis? The Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House has frequently urged the Government to be consistent and to avoid ad hoc change in this field. I trust that it will itself be consistent in this respect.
In our debate in the Grand Committee in the Moses Room on
“in accordance with their constitutional responsibilities of fairness and equal treatment”.
If that applies north of the border, it must surely also apply south of the border. I very much hope that we will see that recommendation if the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House looks again at this issue.
Let us suppose this enfranchisement is denied to 16 and 17 year-olds in future referendums—for example, on the continued membership of this country in the European Union. I cannot think of any issue with more long-term implications for this age group than that. If that happened, I suspect that the Joint Committee on Human Rights would have something to say. It will surely be bad enough for this age group in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to be disfranchised in the general election in 2015, but what will Ministers say to 17 year-olds who have voted in 2014 in Scotland but cannot do so a year later? And what if there is a local, Scottish Parliament or even Westminster by-election in a Scottish area on the same day as the independence referendum? How could the Minister’s impeccable logic explain to this group that it was mature enough for one decision but not for the other?
I am delighted to see a number of noble friends on all sides of the House—and I mean that sincerely—who are going to speak today. I am sure that they will be able to spell out the extent to which that age group has become much better informed and able to deal with decisions of this sort. That was very much the theme of our debate in the Moses Room on
A number of other organisations have also made general or specific recommendations in support of this change: for example, the British Youth Council, Bite the Ballot and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Voter Registration. That last group is especially relevant. As I pointed out at Question Time yesterday, it was found in Northern Ireland, when the new system of individual electoral registration was piloted there, that the anticipated catastrophic collapse in registration among younger age groups was averted by attaching preparatory processing of registration to the citizenship syllabus in secondary schools. I hope that that will occur in this part of the United Kingdom. It is surely a natural and practical end product of these courses in schools and colleges that when students achieve that greater understanding they can then have greater impact in practical terms as they will be prepared for registration to be full electoral citizens in our country. It is far easier to do that at that age group than when many people have left their home environment for work or further education at 18.
I have in mind particularly a very interesting conclusion of the so-called Kenny report entitled How Do Politics and Economics Affect Gangs and Serious Youth ViolenceAcross the UK?. When it was published, its author Kenny Imafidon, who has direct personal experience of that side of life in south-east London, came to see me and drew my attention to the following recommendation. Under the heading, “Lowering the voting age for young people from 18 to 16”, it states:
“Why is it possible for young people to go to prison at 10, give full consent to medical treatment at 16, leave school and enter work or training at 16, pay income tax and National Insurance at 16, obtain tax credits and welfare benefits in their own right at 16, consent to sexual relationships at 16, get married or enter a civil partnership at 16, change their name by deed poll at 16, join the armed forces at 16, but they cannot vote at 16? … Because there is no right to vote at the age of 16, many young people are disenfranchised before they even get a chance to vote. The political system is weighted in favour of those who are eligible to vote at the expense of young people who cannot. The impact of young people not being able to vote regarding critical services that affect their life chances are highlighted in the recommendations below”.
Of course, this Bill will not solve all those problems. How could it? It is not a cure-all for such deep and formidable difficulties in our civil society, but it could make a useful contribution. It is in those terms that I and colleagues from other parts of the House wish to make progress on this issue. The Kenny report sums up that case admirably.
In the interests of brevity I will say no more except to add that this is a very modest, brief and positive Bill, so I trust that my noble friend’s response can be all those things too, and that he will just say yes. I beg to move.
My Lords, when I had the honour of joining your Lordships’ House nearly three years ago, I rapidly discovered that it possessed no stronger advocate of the need to enhance the extent and quality of our democratic processes than my noble friend Lord Tyler. He is known above all for his desire to extend the blessings of democracy to this unelected House.
An election manifesto, produced jointly by the Conservatives and the Liberals, states that,
“it will be one of the objects of the Government to create a Second Chamber which will be based upon direct contract with the people, and will therefore be representative enough adequately to perform its functions”.
The manifesto in which these words appear provided the platform on which Lloyd George and the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, fought the 1918 election together in coalition. It was written by one the great 20th century historians, HAL Fisher. If my noble friend had been around at the time to assist him, the course of British constitutional history might conceivably have been different. Today my noble friend keeps the formidable cause of radical Lords reform constantly before him while seeking other more immediate means of improving our democratic system. His Bill, about which he has spoken so powerfully today, would bring about a significant enlargement of our electorate.
The arguments for and against the lowering of the voting age to 16 have been amply rehearsed both in Parliament and outside it. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have committed themselves to making this immensely significant change. Some in the Labour Party believe that it should be made compulsory for newly enfranchised young people to vote at their first election. This would be in open defiance of our established democratic traditions in this country.
Even more deeply unsatisfactory has been the unilateral decision by the Scottish National Party to enfranchise 16 year-olds for the referendum on independence next year. This disreputable initiative springs solely from a desire to increase support for independence. I hope very much that it rebounds on those responsible for it when the referendum comes, with the votes of young people helping to reinforce the union. Conceived in opportunism and expediency, it represents entirely the wrong approach to profound democratic change. It is often said that the irresponsible Scottish decision has reignited debate on this subject. Debate is indeed what we need, but the proper basis for it is my noble friend’s Bill, founded on respect for democratic principle.
There is at present no widespread public clamour for change in our country. A recent opinion poll found that just one person in every five supported a voting age of 16. After detailed consultations, the Youth Citizenship Commission, established by the last Government, included no recommendation in its report of June 2009 for a reduction in the voting age. It found that while,
“a majority of 16 and 17-year-olds were in favour ... all categories from the age of 18 upwards were opposed to change”.
Subsequent surveys have produced similar results.
As regards the population as a whole, my noble friend’s Bill would seem to embody an idea whose time has not yet come. Even among young people interest in the idea would not seem to be matched by enthusiasm for actually exercising the right to vote. Enfranchised 16 year-olds could be expected to follow the example of their immediate seniors who have the vote. According to this year’s Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society, of which I have just had the honour to become a trustee, the proportion of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are certain to vote at the next election now stands at 12%, down 10 points in one year. The Hansard Society poses the central question:
“Given the degree to which the current cohort of young people are increasingly turned off by the idea of using their vote, what exactly is going to be different about voting and politics generally that is going to engage their younger 16 and 17 year old brothers and sisters?”.
This is the heart of the matter, which is so familiar to all those who share my noble friend Lord Tyler’s dedication to the cause of democracy and, at the same time, so difficult to address successfully. Young people and politics today seem to inhabit different worlds. Long gone are the merry, colourful days of organisations such as the Young Conservatives, with a membership of close to 1 million in the 1950s, which combined politics and fun. Today, far-sighted reformers such as my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, look to schools to play a central part in helping to rebuild political commitment among the young, without which the good government of our country will be impaired. If the young do not vote—whether at 16, 18 or 24—policies in a democracy will favour unduly the older sections of society who turn out in substantial numbers; and I very much agree with what my noble friend said about the importance of action in schools. Citizenship education introduced as a statutory subject in the national curriculum by the previous Government could mark the beginning of a significant change of attitudes if it is taught with flair and imagination. Carefully prepared debates on the principal issues of the day and mock elections could prepare the way for registration at 18 or even 16, and then participation in real elections.
In addition, it is tempting to think that efforts to promote a change in attitudes among the young might be assisted by some powerful new initiative. Do we need to make the issue far more prominent in the consciousness of the nation? Could there be a case for convening a Speaker’s Conference to stimulate national debate on the implications of my noble friend’s Bill and galvanise ideas to secure its successful implementation? Mr Speaker Bercow has often proclaimed the deep fervour he feels for associating the young with the processes of politics and government. A conference might be a suitable sphere for his not inconsiderable energies. It was, after all, a Speaker’s Conference in the mid-1960s which prepared the way for the reduction in the voting age from 21 to 18.
No responsible Tory should reject out of hand for all time the case for votes at 16. Disraeli declared famously that,
“the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity”.
If this extraordinary timeless character were alive today he would be deeply shocked at the state of political interest and commitment among the nation’s youth in the democracy that Britain has become since his death. We should work towards the day when, in a phrase much used in the 19th century, young people could be brought fully within the pale of the constitution by being given the right to vote from the age of 16, as long as the nation had confidence that they would exercise it. My noble friend may find at some future point that his Bill’s time has come.
My Lords, I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has brought forward the Bill. It is a rare and giddy moment that we find ourselves on the same side of a debate, and I suspect the mood will pass. However, today I am pleased to support his Bill. I come to this debate with perhaps the zeal of a convert.
The right of citizens to vote at the age of 16 is an issue about which I have become passionate, and I was delighted that the Labour Party’s leader, Ed Miliband, made his and our party’s commitment so clear. That said, I do not agree with all the arguments often made in favour of such a move. The claim that it will somehow improve, for example, the percentage turnout is not at all relevant to the debate—I have no idea whether it will do so. I suspect that initially a significant proportion of 16 and 17 year-olds will not take up that right, but it is a matter of principle as to whether it is the right thing to give them that right. I should like to make three points that changed my view and convinced me that this is the appropriate way forward.
First were the views of young people themselves. As a member of the other place, I would regularly engage with school-aged students and young people. At one particular event with around 60 or 70 school students of around 15, 16 and 17 years they quizzed me and discussed a whole range of issues: the environment, jobs, education, the economy, animals, and local, national and international issues. The students were of different ages and abilities, and from different parts of town but few did not engage in some way in that discussion. They were interested and knowledgeable about issues that affected them, and in issues that involved their families, neighbours and communities. Some were involved in and were members of local and national groups and organisations.
Perhaps most important for this debate, they were really interested in issues that affected their futures. If it does not sound too grand to say this, I sensed that they were interested in the future of the country and the world—in the decisions that were being taken now that would affect the world in their lifetimes. It was a lengthy wide-ranging discussion. I then asked if they thought they should be able to vote at 16, and noble Lords may expect me to say that they said that they should be able to do so. I certainly expected that response. However, I was staggered that the overwhelming majority said that they did not think that they should have the vote at 16. Given the debate that we had been having, I thought that I should probe and challenge that view. What were their reasons for not wanting the vote? They said, “We don’t think we know enough about it”, and that they were not interested in politics, despite having discussed a range of political issues, because they did not have enough information, hardly ever read a newspaper, and did not know much or much liked political parties.
All those views could equally apply to many people who already have the vote, so I found myself playing devil’s advocate. These bright, lively, some slightly stroppy, kids were engaged with issues and interested in their communities but were not at all confident about how much they knew. Yet they had views—often strong and some not yet fully formed—but were working their way through them, like the rest of us do. They were worried about not being able to vote at 16 not because they did not care about issues but because they cared too much. They thought they should know more, have more information and engage more before they voted. How impressive is that? If only every voter would want to be as well informed and concerned about issues that affected them.
Political engagement is not just about voting and then leaving it to those who are elected for the next four or five years. These young people were engaged but had not yet connected that engagement—that campaigning and caring about issues—with voting. Too often the young think they cannot engage or contact their elected representatives because they do not vote. In 1958, Eddie Cochran said in his hit “Summertime Blues”:
“I’m gonna take my problem
To the United Nations.
Well I called my congressman
And he said, whoa
I’d like to help you son
But you’re too young to vote”.
Perhaps more Members of your Lordships’ Chamber will recognise that than would Members of the other place. Politicians should always try to be consistent. It would be completely inconsistent to encourage voting at an earlier age, want to increase the number of people engaged enough with their communities to recognise the value of voting, and then support the Government’s appalling lobbying—or gagging—Bill, which seeks to disengage campaigning from the political process of elections. We want young people to engage and we should oppose measures that then put inappropriate and undemocratic boundaries on that engagement. Many people I meet start to engage in politics, even if they do not recognise it as such, through campaigns and issues, and we should encourage, not curtail, that.
The second experience that led me to think that this was a way forward occurred in May on local election day. I was out and about in part of my former constituency doing what the politicians call “knocking up”—encouraging voters to come out and vote. Some did, as always, but some preferred to stay at home. I met a young woman who was walking along the street. She was about 18 or 19 and she had a baby in a pushchair. I asked her whether she was going to vote. She recognised me as I had spoken at her school a few years prior to that, and I think that she felt confident that she knew me and was able to talk to me. Her comments were ones that I have heard before and I think that they are very relevant to this debate. She said, “I want to go and vote. I’ve been looking at such and such, and I’ve seen this in the paper. I want to go and vote but I’ve never done it before. I don’t know what to do”. It was not that she did not have views or was not engaged but she did not know, practically, what to do in order to vote. That was all that was holding her back. She did not know whether her friends would vote and she did not have anyone to go with. It struck me that if, at the age of 16, young people were given the right to vote while still at school, collectively they would engage and find out what to do. Schools could support them with that basic knowledge in, for example, citizenship classes. I am not talking about how to vote or necessarily why they should vote but the simple mechanics of what to do and how to do it.
The third reason is perhaps the one used most often. It is a nonsense that young people of 16 can go out to work, pay taxes, join the Armed Forces and have children, with all the responsibility that that entails, but that they cannot have a say in their own future when it comes to choosing their Member of Parliament, their Government or members of their local council. Yesterday, I spoke to councillor Andrew Gordon of Basildon. He said to me, “If you can pay taxes at 16, you should be allowed to say how those taxes are spent”. Andrew is the councillor for Nethermayne ward on Basildon Council. He is the first Labour councillor in that ward for 20 years, and that in itself is something of an achievement. He lives in the ward he represents. The very first time he voted it was for himself, and he won that election. Andrew was only 18. Did he suddenly, on his 18th birthday, become interested in issues that affected his community? Did he suddenly, at the age of 18, decide that he wanted a bigger role politically? Of course he did not, but like many young people he had views, he cared and he wanted to do something.
If I am honest, despite the fact that he won the seat, there were those in his community who were sceptical that one so young could represent them. However, when he spoke out recently at a public meeting, supporting more than 200 people on a very important local issue, it was clear that they had made the right choice. Whether or not they agreed with his politics, here was a young man fully engaged with the community and understanding local issues, and he did a first-rate job of representing them. He got a standing ovation at that meeting—the only councillor who did.
I am not advocating a whole council of 18 year-olds any more than I would advocate a whole council or parliament of 50 year-olds or 70 year-olds, but too often councils and parliaments are full of older people like us. Decisions taken today affecting our futures include the futures of 16 year-olds, and they will be here long after I have gone. Therefore, should we not be engaging people under the age of 16 and those of 16, 17 and 18 in the democratic process and decision-making?
There is a lot of discussion and there are many press reports about politics being more representative, and that usually refers to women and black and Asian people, but there are two issues that we have shied away from for too long—class and age. Now we have the opportunity to rectify one of those. The Bill has my total support.
My Lords, I, too, strongly support the Bill and am delighted to take the opportunity today to put some of the reasons on record.
In fact, it is not the only radical reform in our voting system that I would like to see. I should also like us to adopt the Australian system of compulsory voting, accompanied by the ability to exercise a positive abstention on the ballot paper. It may not seem at first sight that this has any connection with reducing the voting age to 16, but I believe they are linked. I have never been persuaded by the argument that the reason the turnout among young people is low is that they are apathetic about politics. I think that a much more likely explanation is that their non-voting is a rational expression of dislike of all the options on offer and that, if they had the chance to put a cross beside a box that said “None of the above”, a great many of them would. That itself would be a genuine form of political engagement and would send an important message to all the political parties that they had some serious thinking to do.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that I have absolutely no intention of spoiling the simplicity and brevity of his Bill by seeking to amend it—not that I would even expect a measure such as compulsory voting to qualify as an amendment to the straightforward proposal to give the vote to 16 year-olds. However, I hope that I can add to, or at least support, the arguments as to why the Government should look favourably on the Bill and make the most positive and progressive change to the electoral system since the voting age was reduced to 18 in 1969.
The first argument of course—and we have heard it already—is consistency. Why should a 16 year-old be regarded as capable of consenting to medical treatment, be old enough to fight and die for his or her country, or be required to pay income tax and national insurance, but not have the right to vote for a representative in Parliament?
Secondly, despite assertions that 16 and 17 year-olds know nothing and have too little experience to contribute their say as to who runs the country, we should remember, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, pointed out, that since 2002 we have had compulsory citizenship education in schools, so we could argue that this age group is likely to be better informed, better educated and more thoughtful about this issue than some older segments of the population. As well as citizenship on the curriculum, 85% of secondary schools have school councils. There are also 600 elected members of the Youth Parliament, which was established in 2000, and each member serves for 12 months and is voted in by their peers. I think that not having the vote at 16 undermines compulsory citizenship education at key stages 3 and 4 and that it is unfair to make school leavers wait for what could be several years before they are allowed to exercise their right to vote for the first time. I certainly know from my experience of speaking to teenagers at schools through the Peers in Schools programme that very many of them have a level of understanding and a wish to participate and engage in the democratic process, which signals to me that they are more than ready when they are 16.
Thirdly, given that the general demographic is an ageing one, you could argue that young people have more of a stake in participating in elections. It could be said that 16 and 17 year-olds should have the vote in order to balance out the interests being expressed at the ballot box. Some studies have shown that 16 and 17 year-olds are more likely to vote than certain other age groups—for example, the over-70s and those between 18 and 30. Therefore, the argument that the UK would end up being embarrassed by an even lower turnout if we gave the vote to 16 year-olds cannot necessarily be substantiated. Even if it could, I agree with what the Power commission said in 2006: that the potential embarrassment of politicians is no reason to reject reform.
One objection that we sometimes hear is that 18 is the most common voting age around the world and that there is no public support in the UK for going out of line with that norm. All I can say to that is that not so long ago the norm was that only men could vote, so keeping things as they are rather than making a logical and progressive change cuts absolutely no ice in a sensible political debate.
A case study of Austria, where the voting age was reduced to 16 in 2007, concluded that democratic quality was not jeopardised by extending the franchise and that the votes of the under-18s reflected a range of political preferences just as much as those of the over-18s. However, the study also pointed out—I think that this is an important general point—that voter turnout in elections is by no means the only expression of political engagement, and that under-18s demonstrated just as much engagement as the under-30s when it came to activities such as contacting politicians on specific issues, collecting signatures on petitions, campaigning, going on demonstrations or working for an NGO, to give a few examples.
The right to vote at 16 is supported by a huge range of organisations. It would take far too long to list them this morning but they include the British Youth Council, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, the NUS and the Scottish Youth Parliament. I, for one, sincerely hope that the Government will take their head out of the sand on this issue and do the right thing for 16 year-olds and the right thing for democracy.
I believe that young people should be allowed to vote at the ages of 16 and 17, a view which I came to some years ago. Elections were on the way and as a candidate I went to school meetings about those elections. Most of those schools were state schools. I went to the constituencies where I had a political interest—first, North Kensington and, later, Oxford West and Abingdon. With the exception of just one of these schools, boys and girls at these meetings were interested, sharp-minded and challenging. In one school, one of the politicians talked as if the boys and girls were 12 years old. The 16 and 17 year-olds simply took that candidate apart.
Very few of the young school people were old enough to vote in the then current election. In later years, when they had left school and were old enough to vote, probably not many of them voted for several years. But if the boys and girls aged 16 and 17 at the meetings at their schools had been allowed to vote in the next few days, a large number of them would have voted. Having voted once, they would have continued to do so in elections which occurred after they had left school.
As it is, most of the young who have reached the age of 18 do not vote for several years to come. I believe that if young people aged 16 and 17 are allowed to vote, most would do so in a justifiable way. They will not vote simply as they are told to vote by their parents. I have a granddaughter aged almost 16. It is very likely that her judgment would be better than mine at the age of 80, although of course I have no power to vote in a parliamentary election.
When I was young, no one could vote until they were 21 years old. It is now unthinkable to go back to that age to start voting. Nowadays, the young of 16 and 17 are independent enough to be voters and should be allowed to vote in order to be so.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for bringing us to the point of a Second Reading of this admirably focused Private Member’s Bill. I do not want to rehearse the various anomalies regarding the age at which it is possible to marry and to join the Armed Forces, et cetera, as these have been covered. Examples of countries with a voting age of 16 were given in a very good speech by my noble friend Lady Coussins.
I shall focus on maturity and political understanding. A number of noble Lords have mentioned the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18. In 1969, Lord Somers, speaking to his proposed amendment to the Representation of the People Bill and arguing against this move, made the following interesting comments. He said:
“Mental maturity can come only from experience. Recently we have seen some of the efforts of those who are 18 and over at the London School of Economics. I wonder how many of your Lordships would feel that they would be suitable electors for the Government of our country. I certainly do not. I do not think that they are more mature mentally. They are far more ready to voice their opinions; they are far more ready to question the wisdom of those who are older and wiser than they are. But that does not mean that they are more mature”.—[Hansard, 6/2/69; col. 214.]
Those are very telling remarks, which underpin a lot of people’s opposition to giving 16 year-olds the vote. As a number of noble Lords have suggested, maturity does not necessarily come with age and can diminish as we get older. It is unhelpful to generalise on the basis of age in this context.
For those noble Lords who have not seen it, perhaps I may recommend viewing an interview on YouTube with a 12 year-old Egyptian boy, Ali Ahmed. To date, it has had more than 3 million viewers. A reporter asked him to explain why he was participating in a demonstration last October. He stuns the reporter by referring to his opposition to a “fascist theocracy”. When asked by the interviewer to define this term because she did not know what it meant, he gives a critical analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party at that time in power. He does not mince his words. He said that he was there to, “protest the confiscation of the constitution by one single party”. When asked about the progress the country has made, he asks right back, “Do you mean politically or socially?”. After a critique of the lack of equality for women, Ali Ahmed states that he has read the country’s draft constitution on the internet and declares that, “what is built on falsehood is false itself”. When asked how he knows all this, his reply is telling and simple. He says, “I listen to people a lot and I use my own brain. Plus I read newspapers, watch tv and search in the internet”.
Even if noble Lords have not seen that impressive interview, or watched a 14 year-old Kenyan, Richard Turere, explain on a TED talk how he developed a device that uses solar power to prevent lions from attacking his community, or missed 16 year-old Jack Andraka responding to a family death by inventing a cheap, effective test for pancreatic cancer, they surely will be familiar with the hugely impressive 16 year-old Malala Yousafzai, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and a heroine and role model for young people everywhere.
Of course, I am not trying to argue that these young people are the norm for their age. However, what they, and many more, have in common is the good sense not to think that because they are young, they have nothing to say about their world, the way it works and, importantly, how to improve it. Unsurprisingly, the internet is an important factor. Without it, awareness of their skills, knowledge and activism would have taken much longer to penetrate our consciousness and the capacity to spread the word on their achievements would be so much less. But, importantly, for many of them it is a learning tool.
As we all know, trawling the internet does not necessarily give the surfer wisdom. Often the opposite is true but newspapers and other older media do not always confer wisdom or knowledge on the reader or viewer either. However, the internet and social media offer the opportunity and the potential to gain an in-depth knowledge of the world around us across national and cultural borders that was unimaginable 20 years ago. Instead of putting down our young people for being glued to screens in what we might see as unproductive, harmful ways, we could harness the power of social media to encourage them to engage with the democratic process and to transform it, for it surely is in need of change.
Like many other noble Lords have said today, my experience of visits to schools is that most young people will profess to be ignorant of and uninterested in politics. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, we need to challenge that view rather than throw our hands in the air and claim that all is lost. I have found that they are not interested in party politics, which again echoes what other noble Lords have said, and the stale, rehashed speeches and positions that are constantly presented to them. If you get the right subject and teach it well, help them to learn about it in a way that enables them to see the relevance, and to develop their confidence, they will get involved, even if initially it is about very local or even personal issues. That is not a problem either. I do not see that level of activity as a problem at all.
As my noble friend Lady Coussins has said, many 16 year-olds are familiar with our political structures through citizenship studies, participation in mock elections at school, schools councils, the UK Youth Parliament and so on. There are more than 1.5 million 16 and 17 year-olds in the UK, many of whom feel very strongly about the issues that directly affect them, as well as educational opportunities, and poverty here and overseas. We often refer to young people as being disfranchised and alienated. In terms of driving the agenda for enhancing their lives, they are. But are we seriously suggesting that they should not have a say in shaping their, and our, world? Many would say that they do not want to have the vote and would agree that they should not be allowed to do so. But we are not suggesting that they should be compelled to vote, or at least some of us are not; simply that they are enabled to. Enabling entails enhancing their education in civic responsibility and improving their understanding of how power works through political processes and mechanisms.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was emphatic about this issue during the Question for Short Debate we had earlier this year. He made what I think is an interesting point:
“Every school with a sixth form and every further education and sixth-form college should have a polling station, and young people should be registered to vote there—instead of there being the perversity that some schools are actually closed on polling day so that the adults can vote undisturbed”.—[Official Report, 27/2/13; col. GC181.
I heartily agree with that. Young people should be involved in a meaningful way in the political process as early as possible in order to create a basis for greater political engagement in later life. Though it should not be regarded as a universal panacea for our political culture and the state that it is in, votes at 16 could be just the impetus we need to reinvigorate that political culture. Once we have left education, few of us, young or old, are likely to be exposed to a discussion as to why it is so important to vote, and those leaving school at 16 may have to wait six or eight years before they can cast their vote. When the voting age was lowered to 18, to my frustration I had to wait for several years until I could exercise that right.
The lament of Lord Somers in that earlier quotation from Hansard is a familiar one and is often at the heart of arguments about the voting age. Yes, young people will challenge our habits, thinking and actions, as well as our judgment of what is right for the country and what is wrong. That is their job and I hope that, through agreeing to progress this Bill, we will let them get on with it.
My Lords, as others have said, central to this debate is the question of maturity: whether a young person of 16 or 17 is mature enough to take on the mantle of independent thought and wise enough to play their part in the democratic process. I will not repeat what has already been said in the debate, but it seems that we have not categorically decided when a child becomes an adult, and therefore it is of little surprise that the interests of the young are woefully unrepresented.
The reality of the current political process is that the concerns of those who vote become the concerns of the political class. As a result, the young are suffering the worst employment rates, have a full-time wage that cannot meet the ever increasing costs of housing, utilities and transport. They have become burdened with debt for their education. We have consigned them to be poorer, to live at home for longer, and to look forward to bearing greater responsibilities for looking after the old. They endure a lack of representation that is positively deforming of their interests, so unless all of our citizens participate in the political process, the “political market” will always favour those with votes to spend. And yet we ask this under-represented group to make life-defining choices before the age at which they can vote, choices that tacitly require investment in a future over which they have no purchase. In doing so, we demand high levels of those same qualities that we doubt they own, those of maturity, commitment and wisdom. If we demand so much, perhaps we also owe them the tools to help shape the future we are asking them to invest in.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to the positive relationship between citizenship lessons and registering to vote in Ireland, while others have also talked about citizenship. However, in September this year the statutory requirement to provide citizenship education was, I think, disapplied. The only formal entry point to the democratic process was loosened from the statutory offer in our schools. Next spring will see the introduction of individual electoral registration, legislation that disproportionately affects young people as many of them move to educational institutions and new towns and cities in search of work. Would it not be a much more equitable state of affairs if every young person left school with a full set of jabs, a national security number, a decent education, already registered to vote and—as other noble Lords have commented—confident to vote?
The habits that are formed in youth “stick”, whether they are smoking or reading, sports or debating. A voting habit in the next generation would be transforming to our democracy. We are leaving it too late to invest political power in the young, to make participation a norm, and to give them agency over their investment in the future. We are leaving it too late for them to have the right to demand a world that meets their needs adequately. Some people assert that a 16 year-old is not mature enough to vote, but the right to vote, as others have suggested, is not contingent on maturity or wisdom. If it were, many of us adults might be considered unfit. Voting well or correctly is not a consideration here.
In the Library note that has provided us with the background to this debate, I was amused by the ever changing statistics on the voting patterns for “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor” versus electoral turnout. Having a right and exercising it are not material; they are two separate issues. In my capacity as co-founder of an educational charity, which is declared on the register of interests, I have been privileged to have visited scores of schools and talked to hundreds of young people over the past decade. Scratch the surface and they display wisdom, energy and foresight in copious quantities. The arguments about introducing an unfit cadre into the electoral equation sounds suspiciously like other arguments of exclusion made at other times.
The question that should frame this debate is not about their suitability, but ours. We have allowed a crisis to develop—a lack of engagement and faith in the political process that threatens its legitimacy. We have failed to deal with many of the most intractable issues of the day and we have left for the next generation a multitude of fiscal, environmental and political debts. Lowering the voting age is not a question of our altruism. The political class needs some votes to spend on behalf of the long-term interests of the young, and for that we need to allow young people to participate in our democracy.
My Lords, speaking in the gap, I should like briefly to turn this into a debate. We have had a series of speeches extolling the virtues of my noble friend Lord Tyler’s measure. We heard half a speech expressing some equivocation from my noble friend Lord Lexden—eloquently expressed, but certainly not opposed to the Bill. I am surprised that no one has mentioned Malala Yousafzai, that extraordinary young woman—
If someone mentioned her, I apologise for missing the reference. She is an extraordinary young woman of great courage. I was born in Grimsby, where one of the great heroes of the First World War died. He was Jack Cornwell, who was awarded a posthumous VC at the age of 16 for his incredible bravery at the Battle of Jutland. And yet I believe that the case is not as simple as has been suggested. It is not a question of wisdom or maturity, although it is a question of some degree of experience. I believe that to have a cohort of voters who are still under the influence of their schoolteachers is perhaps something that one ought to question a little more than some colleagues have today.
I also believe in the rites of passage. There are certain things that one should be aspiring towards. Yesterday I had the great privilege of taking a group of Members of your Lordships’ House from the two major parties and the Cross Benches to discuss with my noble friend Lord Nash the desirability of better citizenship education, in particular a ceremony when young people become citizens, based on the ceremony that those who obtain British nationality now go through. There is a great deal to be said for that, but I strongly suggest to noble Lords that it is not as simple as my noble friend Lord Tyler has been seeking to suggest.
My noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Lexden both referred to the decision that young people of 16 will be able to vote in the Scottish referendum next year. I have a granddaughter who will be among them. That was, as my noble friend Lord Lexden said, a bit of shameless expediency on the part of the leader of the Scottish National Party. When it was raised in this House, I made the point that a precedent would have been created that it would be difficult to argue against. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made that point in his speech. However, I believe that it is incumbent on those of us who have real reservations to argue at least for caution.
I do not speak as somebody who has no contact with the young: I was a schoolmaster for 10 years before I entered the other place and have maintained my contacts with schools and universities throughout those years. I conduct seminars in this place for young people from America who come over. I have a passionate belief in the young. But to argue that because the referendum on Europe will affect 16 year-olds more than others is a false—a specious—argument. It will affect 14 year-olds and 12 year-olds more than others. There has to be a right age and I believe that 18 is the time. Although many are, of course, going on to universities and colleges, full-time education is over and they are outside the confines of the school. It is the time when they are allowed to buy alcohol and cigarettes. It would be a pretty odd situation if 16 year-olds could vote but could not smoke or drink.
It is wrong to exploit the gap, but I believe that there are issues here that noble Lords ought to consider.
My Lords, I do not doubt the noble Lord’s passion for the young or his experience. However, he is adamant that 18 is the right age to vote and I believe very strongly that 16 is the right age to vote. The noble Lord cited the importance of experience. I suggest that there are many people in our country now over the age of 18 who have very limited experience of life. Equally, we all come across extraordinary young people, some of them cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who face the most enormous challenges in their lives. There are hundreds or even thousands of them. They have wider life experience than I will ever have, in terms of the difficulties that they confront in their lives. I believe that those young people, at the age of 16, should have the right to vote.
I often disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, but as he lives in Stroud, where the excellent David Drew, who is a believer in votes at 16, is our prospective parliamentary candidate, I thought that there must be other issues on which the noble Lord and I could agree. Votes at 16 is, indeed, one of them. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for introducing what I believe is an excellent short Bill, which has my full support.
Like my noble friend Lady Smith, I did not used to be in favour of votes at 16 but, over the past few years, I have met and exchanged views with hundreds and hundreds of young people, the majority of whom I found to be in favour of votes at 16. More importantly, those who are not in favour express concern that they do not have enough knowledge to equip themselves to vote and do not want the media—whether written media, television or social media—to be their only guide. If only many of the millions of people who do vote had the same concern.
I am proud that my own party is now in favour of votes at 16. The policy was not plucked from the air, as some have suggested—not in today’s debate, I hasten to add—but is the result of a clear policy-making process by which it was agreed that the voting age should be reduced but that it must, in parallel, be accompanied by improved citizenship education, including active citizenship.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, spoke of compulsory voting, which would be an interesting issue to debate on another day. One idea that is currently being discussed by some people inside and outside political parties, inspired by a very good IPPR paper, is whether first-time votes should be compulsory.
Habits formed in youth, as has been said, do stick and there is clear evidence that once a person votes, they are likely to continue voting. Does the Minister have a view on that?
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, told the House yesterday that we should look forward to what she regarded as the wonderful new citizenship syllabus. I hope it will be wonderful, but one of my concerns is that there are not enough teachers who are qualified to teach citizenship. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, wrote me a helpful letter on
“Data published in the School Workforce Census in January 2013 shows that in November 2012 there were around 8,200 Citizenship teachers teaching in publicly funded schools in England. Of these 7.7 per cent were recorded as having a post A level qualification in the subject. The School Workforce Census showed that there were around 10,000 citizenship teachers of whom 6.2% had a qualification in the subject”.
That was in 2010. I must ask the Minister why there has been such a huge decrease. What are the Government going to do to ensure that there are more qualified citizenship teachers and who is going to teach the new citizenship syllabus? I hope that the aspiration of my Government will be for at least one teacher in every secondary school to be qualified to teach citizenship as well, perhaps, as some other subject. I have seen some shining examples of best practice in citizenship teaching—for example, in the Bethnal Green Academy—but it is usually where there is at least one teacher with the appropriate qualifications. Citizenship lessons should enable our young people to understand politics, but not just in an academic way. They want to know how to vote and what policies are being pursued and developed by political parties. On the issue of how to vote, there was a salutary example during the local elections earlier this year when a UKIP candidate standing for election went to the polling station and had to ask the council official present how to vote.
Young people want to have an input into politics. In the past, too many schools have been wary about inviting politicians into schools to talk politics, but the young people I meet want that. They do not just want to hear from me, they want to hear from the Conservatives and the Lib Dems and from local councillors, MPs and MEPs. It can be no surprise that they have got strong views about health, transport, EMAs, policing, crime, their communities and poverty.
A few weeks ago, I was in a primary school in Bradford, talking to a small group of nine and 10 year-olds who face challenges in their lives that you or I could never imagine. I asked them what one thing they would like to happen to make their lives better. One of them talked about broken bottles in her street, which made it difficult to play. After a chat, she decided to write to her local councillor, but the group also decided to ask the fantastic Joshua Project, a community project for young people, to help them sweep the streets in question, get rid of broken glass and nettles, and plant flowers. I have no doubt that this is now happening. That is what citizenship is all about: understanding where power lies—in this case, with the council—and how to influence it but also being active in shaping communities. That is why we are in favour not only of good citizenship teaching but also active citizenship.
I could cite many examples but draw special attention to the Prendergast-Ladywell Fields College in Lewisham, where the students have been instrumental in creating the CitySafe Haven, and to the Bethnal Green Academy again, where, having undertaken local surveys, the students worked with local police to cut crime in the immediate area. Both schools work closely with London Citizens, which does a stunning job.
These young people are now active citizens who want, or will want, to take an active part in our democracy by voting at 16, and they should do so. I agree with all that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said this morning and in her speech during the Second Reading of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. We demand much of our young people and should give them the tools to do what they need to do. Young people are often involved in single-issue campaigns, which can be the start of a broader political understanding and a journey towards democratic engagement. So why are the Government seeking to stifle the voices of campaigners and curb their capacity to campaign in the year before an election? The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, whose involvement in the Hansard Society I warmly welcome, gave us some dreadful figures about democratic engagement. I suggest that that is exactly why campaigning is so important to young people and why it must not be constrained in any way.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioned Bite the Ballot. I am a huge supporter of that organisation, and of Michael Sani and his colleagues, who do a brilliant job. They aspire to reverse the pattern of poor electoral turnout—a shameful 44% of 18 to 24 year-olds at the last election—and, in giving young people a voice, they hope to make their votes and opinions count in the political arena. Having seen Bite the Ballot in action, I want to clone its energy and inspirational work. I was present at one session with my noble friend Lord Bassam and my honourable friend Tristram Hunt MP, before he became our shadow Secretary of State for Education. We were at the Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College, where citizenship is thriving. However, at the start of the session, only two or three students had registered to vote. At the end of the session, students were clamouring for voter registration forms so that they could ensure that their voices were heard at the next election.
This is not about hunting for votes or telling young people how to vote—I have no doubt that many of those students will vote Conservative, Lib Dem or Green at the next election—but it is important that young people are equipped to vote. What plans do the Government have to make registration forms available in schools, sixth form colleges, FE colleges and universities as a matter of course? Like the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Adonis, I am very much in favour of having polling stations at all schools and colleges where people should be eligible to vote.
As we know, the introduction of individual electoral registration will disproportionately affect your people, so I am delighted that Bite the Ballot is collaborating with many organisations and educational establishments to ensure a robust and reliable electoral register before the transition to IER in 2014.
We all have a responsibility, from all political parties and none, to ensure that as many people as possible are registered to vote so that they can exercise their democratic right. One of our biggest democratic challenges in this country is lack of trust in the political system, a strong anti-politics feeling and apathy. It is a lethal combination in a democracy, and it means that, too often, those who most need a voice do not have a voice. Votes at 16 is a great way of energising the debate, ensuring that all young people, not just the privileged few, are informed and empowered. It is also the right thing to do.
In a debate last night at the Oxford Labour Club, everyone recognised that this Government’s policies have had a profoundly negative effect on the lives of young people. It is therefore right that young people should have a say in who makes and implements those policies. I am very pleased to support this Bill.
My Lords, this has been a high-quality debate and I thank all those who have taken part. I have to say that there is no consensus within the Government on this change. This reflects differing views in society at large and the divergent positions on the topic within and across political parties. Having said that, let me bring one of the underlying issues out into the open; let us all be a little honest: the reason why the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party are in favour of votes at 16 is not completely unconnected with the hope and belief that young people are more likely to vote for those sorts of party, and the position of the Conservative Party for various reasons is not entirely the same. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is an enthusiast for making it easier for those who live overseas to vote. That again is an important issue in terms of democratic participation. It is not completely unconnected perhaps with the belief that those people might just be a little more inclined to vote Conservative. So we need a cross-party consensus on the franchise and we need to approach this as carefully and consensually as possible.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for continuing to push for this change; it is very much a debate that we need to continue to have. I was rather struck by the report of the youth council saying that there was a severe lack of evidence that there is a demand for votes at 16, so it is a discussion that we need to continue.
The debate has gone rather more widely than this issue. We have discussed the decline in participation in party politics, the shift to single-issue politics and disengagement and alienation from politics. Those are issues that all of us in political parties need to be concerned about. It is a long-term shift, having started in the late 1960s with disillusionment with the then Labour Government, and it creates real problems for all of us who are involved in the trade-offs which politicians, particularly those in government, have to address.
Single-issues campaigns always want 100% of what they go for. I recall one of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, a lawyer, saying, “When you give a particular group 80% of what they wanted, they attack you that you didn’t give the other 20%”. Government is very often about compromise and about realising that you cannot spend everything on everything, and single-issue campaigning can to some extent deteriorate politics. I do not want to edge over in the Transparency of Lobbying Bill beyond saying that I have a particularly painful awareness this morning of the new political technologies and the extent to which singe-issue campaigning can go into that area, because the Electoral Reform Society successfully crashed my computer last night in attack which was worthy of Russian technology in the way that it took place.
Perhaps I may comment on some of the issues that have been raised. To the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I say that the precedent in Scotland is one that has been brought about by the Scottish Government for the Scottish referendum; it does not necessarily affect where we go from here in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, listed the social dimension of party youth wings. The particularly close nature of that social dimension among young people of one sort or another is something that I remember well; indeed, I met my wife at a Young Liberal conference.
How to re-engage young people in politics and how far citizenship education relates to that seem to me to be at the core of this debate. My own personal view is that the need to make sure that citizenship education is taken more seriously in schools, with all the other pressures on the curriculum, is in many ways the most powerful argument for considering lowering the voting age. We are all of us here, I am sure, committed to more effective citizenship education and encouraging young people to vote. I am not myself persuaded, nor are the Government, that making the first vote compulsory would help in this regard. I was wondering, as the noble Baroness was suggesting it, how we would enforce it. Would we impose fines on young people for not voting or would we send them to prison? Would we have compulsory service of some sort? There are real problems in insisting on compulsory voting if we want to put penalties on it.
I strongly share the noble Baroness’s views about active citizenship. As I have said previously, having started as an initial sceptic about the citizen service scheme which the Conservatives initiated, I have become a convert. I have found that through that young people find that working within their own community and promoting projects to help others within it is something which 15 and 16 year-olds are capable of and can enjoy, and it gives them a sense of local engagement. I suspect that we need to spend more time working on community councils—really local councils, which we have lost—if we are to re-engage an awful lot of people with politics. There is a whole host of issues there which are not within the frame of this debate.
I think that I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, say that every young person should be equipped with a national security number.
All thoughts of shadows of the dominant state emerged there. For those of us who are concerned about the debate on data sharing, data protection and data privacy, I note that that is not a phrase that one would want to use lightly.
I have touched on citizenship education. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the delicate issue of taxpaying and voting. That relates particularly to the participation of overseas voters. We are unclear about the principles which would apply to voting as such.
Having welcomed the debate, the Government have no agreed view on how we should respond. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, well. I am glad to hear that the policy is in the Labour Party manifesto, and I hope that it will follow through on that commitment in its manifesto as vigorously as it did its commitment to Lords reform in its previous manifesto.
My Lords, this has been a very high-quality debate, and I am enormously grateful to all those who have spoken, and indeed those who have attended. I do not know whether this is the normal attendance on a Friday morning, but I think that all those who have listened to the debate as well as contributed will agree that this has been the House of Lords at its best.
We are sometimes slightly complacent about the quality of our debates, so I should perhaps draw to your Lordships’ attention that the other place on
Your Lordships have demonstrated a maturity of judgment this morning, but also that we are young at heart. I am grateful to all those who have taken part. I do not propose to comment on all the contributions, because there are other important Bills to follow, but I want to take up one or two points very quickly. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Lexden is joining the team at the Hansard Society, in which I am also involved. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and my noble friend Lord Goodhart pointed out that one of our problems about disengagement is that people get out of the habit of voting before they even start. That is a strong argument for combining this proposal with the natural thread of the citizenship programme.
I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for her commitment. She said honestly that she had changed her mind on this issue through a combination of principle and practical experience. Many of us are in the same position. I must say to my noble friend Lord Wallace that I suspect that his official brief was rather less equivocal than he was, because he is obviously having to tread a very careful path. I say to him, as a fellow historian, imagine if the great Whig Government of 1832 had said in preparing for the Reform Bill, “We will seek a consensus”. A very distinguished constitutional historian in my former college, Exeter College, Oxford, said recently apropos of the Lords reform process—I paraphrase, because I do not have his book before me, but I recommend it—that the search for consensus is a shortcut to a dead end. My noble friends should beware of the idea that we must always go at the speed of the slowest, with the lowest common denominator.
I shall not say more. I am very grateful to all those who have contributed but, in the interests of brevity and those who are to speak in the later debates, I now invite your Lordships’ House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.