Clause 1: The referendum
Moved by Lord Hamilton of Epsom
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations under subsection (2) must appoint a day at least 10 weeks from the day on which the regulations are made.
( ) A draft of regulations under subsection (2) must be laid before each House of Parliament at least 16 weeks before the day to be appointed thereby.”
My Lords, the two amendments in my name in this group were put down in the five working days we have had since Committee and I tabled them just to ensure that they were on the Marshalled List. Since then, my noble friend the Minister has very much met the concerns of these amendments, particularly in terms of the 10-week period for the regulations to come out leading up to the referendum day itself.
I also accept that the period of six weeks previous to that for the other regulations that have to be approved has proved to be rather too complicated, so I am basically happy with what my noble friend has done and I thank her for the amendment that she has brought forward, which meets the concerns. They were, of course, that until we had this provision in the Bill, the Government had the ability to call a referendum with 28 days’ notice, but now this will not be possible since we will have the 10-week period enshrined in the Bill itself. That is an important modification as far as we are concerned, and again I thank my noble friend for what she has done. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is in his place, but I am sure that he will be grateful to know that I am not going to speak any longer. I beg to move.
My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I speak now. I have amendments in this group and I have spoken to noble Lords who have amendments in this group—apart from the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. I apologise for not being able to mention the fact that I might intervene early to explain the Government’s position. It does not, of course, prevent me from answering questions later if noble Lords so wish.
In this group there are three areas on which the Government have carefully considered the views of Peers, as expressed in Committee, and have brought forward amendments in response. As my noble friend Lord Hamilton has kindly set out, we have sought where possible to respond entirely positively.
The Government’s position is that in order to ensure public confidence in the outcome of the referendum and an informed vote, it is essential that there is a referendum period of sufficient length to allow a full and thorough debate with appropriate controls on spending donations. It was never the Government’s intention to set a referendum period of less than 10 weeks. However, we listened very carefully to my noble friend Lord Hamilton, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and others around the House on this matter and we agree with noble Lords that a 10-week minimum referendum period should be set out on the face of the Bill. That is the effect of government Amendment 9. I stress that it is a minimum period of 10 weeks.
I hope that all noble Lords will appreciate that this should deliver the intent of Amendments 8 and 7B. It also, I hope, provides a little extra clarity over the referendum period itself by making it absolutely clear that the referendum period ends with the date of the poll itself. The amendments tabled by noble Lords did not make that clear.
Perhaps it is not right for me to rehearse the background to my noble friend Lord Hamilton’s amendment. He has been commendably brief, so perhaps I will follow his example in that regard. He has already made it clear that he accepts that Amendment 1 is unnecessary if the House were to accept the government amendment, which puts a minimum of a 10-week referendum period on the face of the Bill. My noble friend also said that he is content not to press ahead with the second part of his amendment, which would require regulations setting the date to be laid at least 16 weeks before the referendum can be held. Noble Lords will be aware that we have an established procedure for laying and making affirmative secondary legislation, and that will be followed in this regard. That takes some time in itself.
I very much thank my noble friend Lord Hamilton and others for their constructive engagement on these issues, and I hope that noble Lords will support government Amendment 9 and not press the other amendments related to these matters.
Amendment 10, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, relates to the time that the process of designating lead campaigners should begin. Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which provides the framework for national and regional referendums, the start date of the designation process is the first day of the referendum period. At the alternative vote referendum, where there was an 11-week referendum period, this caused some concern because it meant that lead campaigners were not designated until about five weeks before the referendum took place. Legislation for the Scottish independence referendum provided for a different approach whereby the lead campaigners were designated shortly before the referendum period.
While this does have the advantage of ensuring that the lead campaigners have sufficient time to use their benefits for any given date, it could restrict the time available for the referendum period, which is when the full controls on campaigning apply, or indeed could limit the choice of referendum dates. I know that that was not the intent of the noble Lord’s amendment—he is not seeking that technical route.
As the House is aware, until now the Government have not made a statement about the referendum period. We have not set the date of the referendum. We cannot say when the referendum period will start. Until we have completed negotiations and can indicate when a statutory instrument will be brought forward to invite both Houses to consider the date of the referendum, we are unable to get to that position. Setting the actual start date of the referendum period is therefore not something one can do now; we do not know when the referendum will be.
Accordingly, the Bill provides a degree of flexibility. As part of this, it decouples the start of the designation process from the first day of the referendum period. Instead, it is to be set by regulations. I hope that this is an advantage from the point of view of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby. While the date and referendum period remain uncertain and we do not have to commit at this stage to a particular time period for the designation process to take place, it means that the process provides for the referendum period plus designation. Designation does not come out of that referendum period, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, is trying to protect. Under his Amendment 10, the designation process could not start any later than six weeks before the start of the referendum period, which we think risks introducing unnecessary inflexibility, ruling out otherwise suitable dates. I do not think that is his intention; rather, I think he is trying to ensure that there is sufficient time, and I can assure him that that is exactly what is being achieved.
The Government’s approach ensures that the timing of the designation process can be responsive to the circumstances prevailing once those negotiations are complete, but there is still the parliamentary process, designation and then the referendum period. That will allow an appropriate balance to be found between regulating campaigners, providing sufficient time for campaigners to make their case and inform the debate, and, importantly, not unnecessarily delaying the time of the vote.
I turn to the next issue on which we have listened to noble Lords. Amendment 11, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, would allow the Electoral Commission to designate a lead campaigner on just one side. I wish immediately to signal the Government’s movement on this issue. I have spoken to the noble Lord, and the Government agree that this is an area where we need to consider amendments on Third Reading. The amendment addresses the concern, highlighted by the Constitution Committee, that under the current rules a campaigner on one side could deliberately not apply for designation in order to deprive the other side of the benefits of that status. This risk emerges because the current rules require the Electoral Commission to designate on both sides or neither side. The noble Lord tabled a similar amendment in Committee, which received support across the House. At that stage I committed that the Government would look into the proposals further.
The principle of the noble Lord’s amendment would certainly prevent gaming of the system. The difficulty is that, as drafted, it would introduce a new risk: one side may not be designated not by deliberate action, but because it fails to meet the statutory requirements the Electoral Commission must assess it against. The Government have looked carefully at these matters. Had everything been fine with the drafting of the amendment and the part of the Bill in which the noble Lord wants to place it, I would have liked to put my name to it and accept it. That would have been my first choice. Sadly, as I have explained to him, I am unable to do that because it has to be moved to a different part of the Bill and it has to take account of the extended risk. I have undertaken to return to this matter on Third Reading, and I will bring forward a government amendment. I very much welcome the opportunity to work with the noble Lord further on the shape of that amendment between now and Third Reading.
I now turn to government Amendments 23 and 24, which relate to the parliamentary process that will apply to the regulations that will set the start date of the process of designating lead campaigners. Again, this is a matter of the Government listening and responding, and bringing forward amendments to meet the points the House has made.
The Bill currently provides that the regulations setting the start of the designation process are subject to the negative procedure. Taken together, government Amendments 23 and 24 will mean that those regulations will now be subject to the affirmative procedure. These amendments give effect to the views of the House and to the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The Government are grateful to the committee for its careful consideration of the Bill and are happy to accept its recommendation. The committee also suggested that the House ask for a fuller explanation of the need to delegate this power to secondary legislation in any event. I hope I have dealt with that in responding to Amendment 10.
Naturally, I am ready to answer questions but I hope that noble Lords feel able to support the government amendments and will not press theirs.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply to my amendment, which would ensure that bodies need to be designated before the 10-week period. If the noble Baroness will repeat her assurance, I will be very happy to withdraw the amendment. I do not want to waste the House’s time. Everybody is well aware why designated bodies need as long a period as possible during which they are designated in order to campaign effectively, because of financial and other reasons. In the light of the noble Baroness’s remarks, I shall not press my amendment.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 11 and will respond to the Minister’s very full explanation of how the Government now intend to proceed. I express my gratitude to the Minister for listening carefully to our debate in Committee, when this amendment received support from all sides of the House, and for the courtesy with which she has consulted on the matter in advance of this debate. I am entirely happy to leave it in her hands, to be dealt with by a government amendment introduced at Third Reading. I hope that that amendment will cover not just gaming but pretty well any other happenstance that might occur. Heaven knows, it is probably an “unknown unknown” but the best way to ensure that it does not damage the referendum process is to make an amendment of this sort to the Bill.
I leave this issue in the hands of the Minister and the Government, confident that they will find a way to deal with it, in which case, of course, I doubt that the provision will ever need to be used. That would be very satisfactory, as it would be much better if there were two designated institutions slugging it out in what will be a vigorous national debate. However, we do need to make sure that this issue is addressed. With that, I state my intention not to press the amendment, and again thank the Minister for the efforts she has made so far and encourage her to go further down that road.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend for the way in which she listened to the arguments put in Committee. I hate to rain on this parade at this stage but after reflecting on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I have one or two worries which I hope that my noble friend will consider before she brings forward an amendment at a later stage in the Bill. As I understand it, this amendment would mean that if there was only one designated campaign, it would still get access to broadcasting time and taxpayers’ money to carry out the campaign in circumstances where the Electoral Commission had designated only one campaign. I entirely understand the concern the noble Lord had, which was reflected in the legislation for the Scottish referendum. Suppose two competing organisations wished to be the leave campaign, and there was disillusion with the decision that had been taken by the Electoral Commission and that was subject to judicial review, and that we got into a position where there was no clarity about the position of an opposition and therefore no alternative campaign. It would then clearly be absurd to put a quango—an unelected, unaccountable body such as the Electoral Commission—in a position where it could effectively ensure that only one side was supported with taxpayers’ resources and the ability to go to the broadcasters. It is highly unlikely that this situation would arise but, as the noble Lord has pointed out, his own worries, which the amendment is designed to deal with, are also highly unlikely. Has my noble friend thought about that, and what is the answer to my concern?
My Lords, I will refer first to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. He asked for further confirmation, just to be absolutely sure about the fact that the referendum period will be a minimum of 10 weeks and in advance of that is the designation period. The two cannot be conflated. I think that gives him the satisfaction he sought that there is no way of concertinaing it, if I can put it that way.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for his comments, but I recognise what he said about the importance of looking not just at gaming, although that will be at the basis of this. This leads neatly to the concerns rightly raised by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. As soon as one enables single-sided designation, one has to consider very carefully the inequity that may follow. That is why I was not able to put my name to the text of the amendment, even if it had been in the right place in the Bill. That is what I commit to look at between now and Third Reading.
My noble friend is absolutely right to point out that only the designated lead campaigners are entitled to a referendum broadcast. Where there is only one designated campaigner, it would indeed raise questions of partiality rather than impartiality if only one person had access to that. These are matters on which the Government have already been reflecting since Committee, and need to reflect on further. Designated lead campaigners are entitled to an equal grant of up to £600,000. It is not immediately clear how that would operate with just one lead campaigner. The Government have been reflecting and will reflect further and consider the views of noble Lords, but we need to consider how to incorporate or otherwise these benefits into a system where it will end up being possible for only one lead campaigner to be designated.
My noble friend has raised an important matter. In the light of my response to that and my commitment to work further with noble Lords before Third Reading, I hope that when the government amendments are called the House will feel able to support them, and that noble Lords will not press their amendments.
I think I have made it quite clear already that I am more than happy to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 2: Entitlement to vote in the referendum
Moved by Lord Green of Deddington
2: Clause 2, page 2, line 9, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
“(a) if the day appointed under section 1(2) is before
(aa) if the day appointed under section 1(2) is
My Lords, Amendment 2 concerns just over 1 million potential voters. Its purpose is to establish a clear principle for the franchise at what most people agree is a historic turning point. At the same time, it would bring us into line with all our EU partners and all Commonwealth countries except New Zealand. I will speak very briefly, first to comment on the Government’s response in Committee; then to explain the changes that I have made since then; and, finally, to summarise the case for the amendment.
In response to my amendments in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said that,
“the purpose of these two amendments is to restrict the franchise for the EU referendum so as to prevent Commonwealth citizens … and Irish citizens who are resident in the UK, from voting”.—[ Official Report , 28/10/15; col. 1269.]
That is not quite the case. Let me stress again that these amendments apply only to Commonwealth citizens who have not become British citizens, roughly 1 million people of voting age. Those who are British citizens—roughly 2 million—would be entitled to vote, which is a vital distinction. I have since added in the Irish citizens, which I will explain in a moment.
The Minister also prayed in aid historical connections with the Commonwealth, which might indeed have relevance to a general election although only a handful of Commonwealth countries reciprocate. But this is not a bog-standard election, if I may call if that, whose results can be reversed five years later. It may be, as the
Prime Minister put it last week, the most important decision that we will make in our lifetimes. The public may therefore be forgiven for questioning why more than 1 million people who have decided not to become British citizens, or who have not yet qualified to do so, should be able to vote in this historic decision.
Secondly, on the changes that I have made, I listened carefully to your Lordships in Committee and have revised my amendments in two important respects. In Amendment 2, I have included the Irish in the electorate lest there be any conflict with the Belfast agreement, a matter raised by the noble Lords, Lord Davies of Stamford, Lord Kerr and Lord Hannay. The other change stems from an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. He pointed out, correctly, that the present electoral register flags up EU citizens but does not indicate which voters are Commonwealth citizens nor which of those have become British citizens. That practical difficulty could be dealt with quite easily in the coming year in the annual revision of the register that takes place between August and November. My revised amendment to Clause 2 therefore proposes that that change be brought into effect on
This second change, the postponement until
They would have to be resident in the UK, of course, in which case they would have the right to vote. That is buried in the reference to the British Nationality Act.
Finally, on the case for change, the effect of these amendments would be to establish a clear principle for the franchise, namely that only British and Irish citizens who have become British citizens would continue to be able to vote in the referendum, as would 340,000 Irish citizens. What is clear, as I mentioned in Committee—where I think there was no disagreement about it—is that whatever the result of this referendum, there will be deep unhappiness on the part of those who consider that they have lost it. A period of reconciliation will be needed so it is absolutely vital that the arrangements for the referendum, especially the franchise, should be above reproach, as the Minister himself made clear.
This matter seems to have slipped through the cracks in the other place. Very few Members of Parliament will have realised that the adoption of the franchise for the general election would include something like a million potential voters who are not British citizens, nearly all of them from countries that do not allow our citizens to vote in their general elections, let alone in their referenda—this when our referendum is so critical for our future. Indeed, the matter was barely mentioned, let alone discussed.
It is surely the duty of this House as a revising Chamber to adopt these amendments and invite the other place to give this important question the consideration that it deserves but has not yet received.
I am sorry to interrupt again, but the noble Lord needs to make clear which countries he is referring to. Could he spell out the number from each country and the countries in which we do not have a reciprocal right? Unless we have that information from him, we may not understand why he is moving the amendment.
Yes. The number is of the order of a million—it is actually 1.2 million—who are Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK but are not British citizens. Their nationalities vary—I do not think there is any information on which nationalities they are—but they are the ones who have not become British citizens.
The noble Lord has a lot of experience in these matters. Surely he could give us an indication of the number, in rough terms, from each country—from India, from Pakistan, from Australia and from Canada. It would be helpful if he could.
That would be possible—you can take that information from the Labour Force Survey—but it is not relevant to the purpose of the amendment. The purpose of the amendment is that only British citizens shall be entitled to vote in a British referendum. It does not matter to me what their citizenship happens to be, nor does that affect the principle.
My Lords, first, I apologise to the House that I was not here in Committee. I was overseas and therefore unable to speak to the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Green, is quite right: I indicated to him that I was sympathetic in principle to his amendment, and I will explain why. I preface that by making clear that my personal position about the EU is that I very much hope that everyone will vote to stay in, but that is for another day.
After I had left office, I was asked to produce a report on citizenship by the then Prime Minister, the right honourable Gordon Brown. It became clear to me as I did that, with the assistance of people in government, that the concept of citizenship today is very blurred. That is because rights that once upon a time belonged to citizens only now belong to others, and because we have few ways to distinguish citizens in the way that some other countries do. In a report that dealt with a number of recommendations, I looked at whether there were reasons to be clearer as to what being a UK citizen meant.
In saying that, I want to make clear that one thing that came across to me was that, despite that lack of clarity, many people were enormously proud of the fact that they were UK citizens, particularly those who had become UK citizens. I attended a number of citizenship ceremonies, and it was very moving to see how proud people were of the fact that they had become British. I tried to hold a ceremony at Wembley Stadium, which was a great success but for the fact that, apparently, rights to pictures of the stadium itself had been sold to commercial enterprises, so we had to keep the curtains closed during the ceremony.
It is for that reason—it is a matter of considerable importance in principle—that we should be clear about what are the rights and responsibilities of our citizens, and that I recommended we should phase out some of the anomalies that enabled people who are not UK citizens to vote in general elections.
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Green, has dealt with the question of Irish citizens, because that was one qualification that I made in my report, and that his amendment, as it now stands, also has a form of phasing out, because that was also a recommendation that I made. But the principle remains right, and I am sorry that no Government have yet taken it up; this may turn out not to be the occasion for it to happen. But it is right that we should look at our citizenship regime and look at what being a citizen means so that people can feel not just proud but inclusive, not just because they have a closeness to this country but because they belong and are a part of it. At the time of the tragedies that took place in Paris—and we have seen similar things—nothing could be more important than that people feel a very strong affinity to their country.
Would the noble and learned Lord agree that, if the next amendment were to be passed, it would change the franchise so that 16 and 17 year-olds, probably permanently, were entitled to vote in general elections as well as this referendum? Are we not saying that this is as good a moment as any to change the franchise on this one as well?
Could the noble and learned Lord confirm my own impression from reading the report he wrote and to which he referred, that the phasing-out approach that he took bears no relation at all to the phasing out in the amendment before the House now, which is not a phasing out but a guillotine at the beginning of 2017? If I remember rightly—he will correct me if I am wrong—he proposed that those Commonwealth citizens who currently have the vote from this country should not have it removed from them. That is a very different proposition indeed.
My Lords, since the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, mentioned our conversation, perhaps I may say one or two things. We all recognise that our current franchise and our concept of citizenship are a mess and need attention. We are about to debate under some of the following amendments how much attention we should give to tidying up our franchise now, or whether it should be addressed more broadly later. On citizenship, I am very struck by the extent to which dual citizenship extends across Britain and elsewhere. I asked several times when in government how many dual citizens there were scattered around the world, and the answer was always that we do not know. I recall a visit to northern Cyprus in which my driver told me that he was a British citizen, a Turkish citizen, a Greek-Cypriot citizen and a Turkish-Cypriot citizen, and he enjoyed choosing between them as he travelled as to which passport he might take. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said, the question of citizenship is extremely fuzzy.
The question of when we would have the referendum is addressed in the amendment. I hope we have it before
Finally, I congratulate the noble Lord on his argument that we should use this as an example of where we might harmonise with other member states. I assume that that comes from his commitment to ever-closer union.
My Lords, it was my privilege to participate in presenting to your Lordships’ House the citizenship Bill in 1982, so I am sorry to think that it is all in a mess—but these things happen sometimes. I was inclined to think that, in principle, this was a sound amendment, as it would be right that only British citizens should have a vote in this referendum. That is my position in principle, and I am glad to hear that there is some way in which that can be met. However, my difficulty now is that, in a sense, the franchise will depend on the date on which the referendum is called, which is an unfortunate consequence of the practical need for the changes. Therefore, I am very willing to listen to my noble friend when he explains why I should not support this amendment.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith on raising his excellent report. It will help us in future debates because not only did he touch on this subject, but he went through all the definitions of citizenship. The issue has arisen over a number of years because there was a separation between being a British passport holder and having the right to reside in Britain. That complication grew historically from our imperial past. The issue here is that we have a report that recommends something in principle that most of us would agree with but, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, that is not what this amendment is attempting to do. In his report, my noble and learned friend made it clear that there should be transitional arrangements. Simply put, people residing here should not have the vote taken away. This amendment will, in effect, say to people who reside here and have the right to vote here that they will no longer have the right to vote in a referendum because of the date of the referendum. We cannot accept this amendment, even though there may be principles in it that are worth consideration, because it would be wrong. Someone mentioned extending the franchise. This is about not extending the franchise but taking it away from people who already have it. That is why we cannot possibly support it.
My Lords, this has been a short but informative debate. This is the first of a number of amendments concerned with the franchise, the majority of which are concerned with extending it. This amendment is concerned with restricting the franchise. It was considered in a different form, but it is in principle the same and is about whether Commonwealth citizens should be excluded from the franchise. I take the qualification of the noble Lord, Lord Green, that it would be if those Commonwealth citizens are not British citizens. In this amendment he has specified that should the referendum be held on or after
Noble Lords will be aware that the franchise for this referendum is based on that used for parliamentary elections, but I reiterate that it includes Commonwealth citizens who are citizens of a country mentioned in Schedule 3 to the British Nationality Act 1981—there is quite a number of countries—so long as they are resident in the United Kingdom. It is worth emphasising those words. As I have emphasised in previous debates, the Government think this is fair and consistent with the precedents taken from previous referendums. This franchise was used in the alternative vote referendum in 2011, and it is the franchise that was set out in the European Union Act of that year. Noble Lords will remember that a referendum would have been triggered in the event of the transfer of powers or competence to the European Union.
As I have said to the House before, “Commonwealth citizen” is a broad term. It is set out in Section 37 of the British Nationality Act. It includes British citizens as well as those who hold other types of British nationality, including British overseas territories citizens, British subjects and citizens of those countries listed in Schedule 3 to the Act. In order to be entitled to be registered in the register of parliamentary electors, Commonwealth citizens must have leave to enter the UK or to remain under the Immigration Act 1971 or must not require such leave. While in many democratic countries eligibility to vote is based on citizenship, I set out in Committee that it is our historical ties with Commonwealth countries that justify this approach.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, addressed your Lordships’ House with reference to his report, which was indeed cited in Committee. He assisted the House by explaining that he was asked to review the difficult question of British citizenship, and that the quotation perfectly reasonably relied upon by the noble Lord, Lord Green, had to be seen in the context of a general review of what it meant to be a citizen and what, if anything, we should do to clarify the nature of citizenship or to record it. It is correct, as was elucidated during his remarks to the House, that he suggested that if the franchise were to be restricted to British citizens then those with an existing right to vote should have that phased out. I respectfully adopt the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that what is contained in the amendment is really not a phasing out; it is effectively a guillotine, albeit a somewhat delayed one—a sword of Damocles, as it were.
I would like to be able to assist my noble friend and say that there are specific plans—I am sure that at this time the question of citizenship above all else will be a matter well in the mind of the Government—but I cannot pretend that there are any immediate plans that I am aware of to implement the suggestions made by the noble and learned Lord.
I should add that on occasions when Parliament has considered the issue of Commonwealth citizens’ voting rights, it has taken the view that the situation should remain as it is at present. We consider that this referendum is not the place to address the franchise issue again. While the amendment rightly acknowledges that it would take time to implement a change to the franchise by stating that this would apply only if the referendum were to be held on or after
On the point about the happenstance of date, does the Minister think it reasonable that someone could just have arrived in this country and after as long as it took them to get on the register, which would be a matter of days, they would then be entitled to vote in a referendum that is of such crucial importance to our country?
If they are resident in this country then they are entitled to vote. Of course in an extreme example, which I think is probably unlikely to happen, someone could arrive and then immediately attempt to register, however long that might take. However, I respectfully suggest that we cannot require those who are entitled to vote to remain in this country for a specific time before they become entitled to vote in the way that Parliament has hitherto always decided that they should be allowed to. I respectfully suggest that this is not the moment to change that franchise. Whatever may or may not be considered appropriate to do by changing the nature of citizenship or endorsing the importance of it, this amendment is not an appropriate vehicle to bring that about, nor to change the franchise. In those circumstances, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, this matter has now had an airing and a response. I am grateful to those noble Lords who have contributed to that, especially to the noble and learned Lords, Lord Goldsmith and Lord Mackay of Clashfern. The only point that I would challenge in what has been said is the question of the guillotine, or of taking away something that people have. That would be the eventual effect but let us be clear that they would have a year in which to become British citizens, so it would be their decision not to become British citizens that would mean they could not vote. However, I think we have had the debate. It is now clear that all three parties are opposed to these amendments, and there are other matters to be pursued. Accordingly, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Moved by Baroness Morgan of Ely
3: Clause 2, page 2, line 10, at end insert “and persons who would be so entitled except for the fact that they will be aged 16 or 17 on the date on which the referendum is to be held,”
The Labour Party agrees with the principle of allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the EU referendum and in elections more generally. Who can forget the enthusiasm and intelligence with which the 16 and 17 year-olds in Scotland engaged with that referendum debate? More 16 and 17 year-olds voted in that referendum than 18 to 24 year-olds, and evidence from Austria and Norway, which also have votes for 16 to 18 year-olds, suggests that they are more likely to continue to vote if they start at a younger age.
At 16 and 17, many young people still live at home. They are a part of the community, have their family around them and have a sense of belonging to that society. We know that now civic education has been introduced into every school in the United Kingdom. Any noble Lords who have children or grandchildren will know that at that age they are constantly looking at some kind of screen and have access to information in a way that no previous generation has had.
It is important for us to understand that young people are and can be enthusiastic citizens who take that responsibility seriously. At 16, they are taking life-changing decisions on the future direction of their lives, deciding which A-levels to take or which vocational courses to follow, and if they find someone they want to marry, they can even do that. If they are responsible enough to deal with that, why should they not have a say in the future of their nation? I therefore hope that it is clear that we agree with the principle of allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote. However, the question is then: is this the right place to introduce it?
We have already discussed the issue of franchise, and it is clear that this needs and merits a much broader discussion. We therefore propose an amendment just to this referendum. This is a very exceptional situation, because it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for them to vote on this significant issue. It is different from other elections, because within two years’ time they will be able to take a position on who they want to run their country; in this instance, they will possibly never again get a say on their country’s future relationship with the EU. However, they will have to live with the consequences of that decision for longer than any of us. With the current system there is also a danger that we are sending mixed messages to young voters in different part of the country, which is of course particularly true for Scotland, where they have had this opportunity to vote before.
There have been suggestions that introducing this amendment would force a postponement of the EU referendum vote. I will refute that and will address some of the technical issues relating to this amendment. Many have deliberately misinterpreted the fact that the Electoral Commission pointed out that this exercise took a year in Scotland. However, at no point did it suggest that it would need to take that long. It has confirmed that this is a matter for Parliament. We accept that there would be a need for some lead time to register these young people, who are not currently on the register. However, the Electoral Commission has stated that other options are available to help get as many voters on the register in the available timeframe. John Turner, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, has said that while it would be difficult to do this within a shorter timeframe, it would be possible, given adequate resources, to undertake this registration by September. Let us be clear: it would not be the struggle—
Is the noble Baroness aware that, in Scotland, the reason it took so long was because it was necessary to have a separate register, which included 14 and 15 year-olds and which had to be kept separate from the main register for reasons of confidentiality and child protection? Is she suggesting that it would be a quick job to register every 14, 15 and 16 year-old on a new, separate register for this purpose?
I was coming on to that, but I absolutely accept that it is imperative that data protection measures are put in place to ensure that people under the age of 18 are protected.
I think that we would need to introduce a separate register. I have spoken to electoral registration officers, who suggest that this would not be a problem. They say that in fact that kind of system is already in place to an extent for what they call “attainers”—those who are likely to reach voting age in the next few years. It would mean expanding the current registration system with the creation of a separate system. It is also important to recognise that it would not be the struggle that many people have made it out to be. Once Royal Assent had been granted, electoral registration officers could simply get on with the job.
I shall outline the current situation regarding the registration of 16 and 17 year-olds. Electoral registration officers in every county have been given additional grants this year to drive the move towards individual voter registration. Sixteen and 17 year-olds are already sent an inquiry form in recognition of the fact that they will come of age in the next few years, so most of them are already on a system. The task would therefore be to follow that up with a registration form and then to focus on getting 14 and 15 year-olds to register—those who may reach the age of 16 in the next year, known as attainers. We would need a separate registration initiative—which Scotland more or less already has—and a more comprehensive strategy in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
We have a huge advantage here, which is that we know exactly where these young people are—they are in school. Most schools have their own data controls, and the Government could easily request that electoral registration officers should be given access to this information. Of course, data protection measures would need to be in place. We would need a separate electoral registration form for 16 to 18 year-olds, which would not be made public. It is true that we may have missed the annual canvass—
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for allowing me to intervene. This is a question that may reveal great ignorance—if so, I apologise—but is there an issue with individual registration requiring social security numbers? I believe that they are required. I have just reregistered myself and had to produce my social security number. I do not believe that most 14 and 15 year-olds have a social security number. Would they need a number to be issued in advance of registration?
It is correct that they would need to be provided with national insurance numbers, but I understand that that is also possible. None of this is rocket science or difficult, and we have a period of time within which to do it. My understanding from the Association of Electoral Administrators is that it is possible to do so within the timeframe that we foresee.
Is the noble Baroness aware that 16 and 17 year-olds amount to 1.5 million people? If you add in the attainers, you are probably talking about another 1.5 million people. That amounts to 3 million. Is she perhaps making light of what is involved in this registration process?
I am absolutely not making light of it. In fact, I have spoken directly to electoral registration officers within some of the counties where this would have to be done. They recognise that an increase in resource would be needed, but it is not impossible to do. We know where these people are and we would have their names, so the process of identifying them would not be difficult. It would be different from, for example, trying to find British citizens in the EU who are over the age of 15. That would be a difficult process. This is not a difficult process—we know exactly where these people are.
Will the noble Baroness please tell me how many people this affected at the time of the Scottish referendum? How many millions, thousands or hundreds were there? How does that compare with the 1.5 million who would have to be included this time?
It was not millions in Scotland —there is no question about that—it was thousands, and they were able to do it in the timeframe that they were given. It is important for us to understand that it is possible to do this. We know where these people are. The electoral registration officials have said that this is a possibility, and we should accept their say.
With the leave of the House, may I pursue this question? The noble Baroness said it was probably thousands. But how many thousands? Was it 99,000, 3,000 or 5,000? I just want to get this straight in my mind.
It was proportionately exactly the same as it would be in Britain. There are about 5 million Scottish voters and in the UK there are 60 million voters. The noble Baroness is probably better at maths than I am, but if we know that it is 1.5 million for the UK then we can work out what that would be as a percentage of the 5 million voters in Scotland.
What a great relief—no need for me to use my maths.
We have to understand that this is not a static process but a rolling register. Let us not forget also that the timetable for the referendum was not one of our making. During the discussion on the Private Member’s Bill, we warned the Government of the difficulties of holding a referendum in 2017 due to French and German elections and the UK presidency. It is the Government who have backed themselves into a corner and are trapped in a very narrow window for when they can realistically hold a referendum. That is a situation that we did not create.
We believe that the Prime Minister would like to go for an early referendum vote, but he cannot put the referendum wheels in motion until he has finished the negotiation on UK membership, and that has only just started. It is clear that member states will be distracted by the rather more urgent task of keeping their citizens safe. So the probability of us coming to any agreement in December is, I suggest, extremely thin.
We know that the Government have agreed to a four-month minimum period from setting the date in regulations to the vote. Therefore, if the electoral registration officials could get started as soon as Royal Assent were granted, that would allow them plenty of time to get ready for September.
It is also worth drawing the attention of the House to the fact that noble Lords have previously supported a similar amendment on reducing the voting age to 16 in the context of the local government Bill before the summer. The principle of changing the franchise for the European referendum from the Westminster franchise has already been breached. The Government have allowed Peers, residents of Gibraltar and Commonwealth citizens of Gibraltar to have the right to vote.
I urge the Minister to take note of the strength of feeling on this issue, not just in this House but in the country more generally. I respectfully suggest that it is time to allow these young people—
I do not quite see why the noble Baroness stops at age 16. What is wrong with including those who are 14 and 13? There is a very real question as to why she defines the limit at that point.
I will tell the noble Lord why we should start at 16: civic education finishes at the age of 16. By the age of 16, young people have been equipped to deal with these measures; that education has not finished by the time that they are 14 or 15. There are also several examples of them taking responsible decisions at that age, such as being able to get married, choosing their vocation and choosing their A-levels. Those are responsibilities that they take seriously, and that is why we would introduce it at 16 and not at a younger age.
I am not getting into this debate now. There is a much broader discussion. I think that what 16 to 18 year-olds are allowed to do is a dog’s breakfast, frankly—the fact that you can have sex but not watch sex is completely ridiculous. Obviously, we need a broader debate on these issues. I do not think this is the place to have that. Let us take note of what the people in this House are thinking, take note of what the people in the country are thinking and take note of the fact that young people in this country, if given the responsibility, will take it seriously. It is time to give them their opportunity to have a say in the future of their country and the future of this country’s relationship with the European Union.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said that we should not get involved in wider issues. I think that is one thing we should be getting involved in because this is clearly going to move effortlessly and seamlessly into a general election. We are talking about changing the franchise in general elections as well. This, I believe, needs a much wider debate than just latching it on to a European referendum Bill. I do not think we should allow this through like this because it will change our franchise altogether on a permanent basis, and that is something which should be discussed at some length.
My noble friend Lord Cormack makes the point that people are not allowed to smoke and drink and so forth at the age of 16 but they can vote. There are a lot of complicated issues here. I also have a slight suspicion, seeing the names of the people who tabled this amendment, that it is designed to improve the position of those people who want to stay in the EU.
I hear people saying no. Let us suppose that an opinion poll came out on 16 and 17 year-olds that was 70:30 in favour of pulling out of the EU. Would we be looking at this amendment now? I can tell you we would not. Let us not fool ourselves. This is all part of trying to tilt the playing field even more in the direction of those who want to stay in the EU. It is already tilted because the Government have the option of choosing the day the referendum will be held, and this is clearly an effort to tilt it even further.
My Lords, the noble Lord is not alone in his opinion about finding a coherent solution to this age of responsibility. He kindly provided me with the Hansard Society’s submission of evidence to the report conducted by the Youth Select Committee last year, in which it said that,
“a wider debate about the age of maturity” with a view to addressing the largely ad hoc nature of the decisions that have been taken in this area in the past,
“ to reach a coherent settlement rooted in principle” is necessary. That is very much along the lines of what the noble Lord has said.
I spoke on this in Committee and when this issue has been raised in the past. I feel it is a very important debate, with strong merit on both sides. I thought the noble Baroness put the case very well. It is really important that young people are encouraged to vote and that they get engaged in voting because there is the hope, at least, that politicians will pay more attention to issues important to young people if young people are voting. There is a lot of merit to what the noble Baroness and others are arguing for. However, I also have serious concerns which have not yet been answered. I am grateful to the noble Lord for the paper that he sent me, but the concerns that I have raised on a number of occasions have still not been answered, and I really would like those to be addressed. I will put them quickly as we are on Report.
My questions are principally about increasing the vulnerability of young people and the risk that legislation that is intended to protect young people may be eroded if we lower the age of voting to 16. On vulnerability, we know from what we have learned about the sexual exploitation of children and young people that the internet can be adeptly used by adults to persuade them to do certain things. The noble Baroness referred to young people being at their screens much of the time nowadays, so that unscrupulous people who wish to influence the way they might vote can access them fairly easily. I am told that, during the last election, there was a caricature of the leader of the Opposition with a pair of donkey’s ears behind his head which was very popular. That sort of approach by an unscrupulous politician might have more influence on a 16 or 17 year-old than on an 18 or 19 year-old.
We are talking about these matters in a context in which nationalism is on the rise across Europe. There was a meeting with the ambassador from Hungary a couple of weeks ago. He spoke about events last summer, when there was such concern in his country about the rate of immigration that there was a risk of the right wing coming to power. We know that there are serious worries at present about immigration pressures and about terrorism. We have found in the past that these sorts of things have opened doors to extremist politicians. For instance, in the 1930s, Hitler came to power in a much more extreme economic climate. We are in difficult times and one can see the rise of unscrupulous politicians who can reach towards young people—one thinks of the Hitler Youth in Hitler’s time and, in China, of the way in which young people were targeted during the Cultural Revolution by those who were able to influence them easily. We now have this wonderful tool, the internet, for such people, so we have to be really careful to think about those issues.
Your Lordships have worked long and hard to increase protections for vulnerable young people over many years, during the Labour Government and the previous Government. The most recent example is the protection of 17 year-olds in police custody. To prevent them being held in police cells over the weekend, they now have to be put in children’s homes. So a lot of work has been done to protect young people. In his evidence to the report that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, gave me, Professor Russell said that if young people of 16 or 17 become homeless there are certain duties on local authorities to protect them. Should those protections continue if we lowered the voting age to 16?
We need to think very carefully about these concerns. Neither of them has been addressed so far and I would appreciate it if those who are advocating this measure would do so. Therefore, I am afraid that I cannot support the amendment before us today. I worry that there is a project here to lower the franchise—it is not just about the specifics of this referendum; there is a project to expand the franchise and it needs more thought.
The noble Earl referred to previous considerations of this matter. Three commissions have looked at it. They disagreed about whether the age should be lowered, but they all agreed that there was a great gap in the evidence as to whether young people would be sufficiently responsible in weighing up their vote to take care to be informed about the issues. But is not the evidence now clear, because we have had the Scottish referendum where all those questions were answered?
My Lords, I support the amendment. As a Scot involved in the Better Together campaign last year, I saw first-hand 16 and 17 year-olds taking this responsibility very seriously. I had robust debates probably more with 16 and 17 year- olds than with their parents. They were not necessarily on our side, so this is not about manipulating the position. They were one of the most knowledgeable groups because they had literally done their homework. As your Lordships have heard, more of them voted. The facts are that 75% of them turned out and voted compared to 54% of 18 to 24 year-olds.
We often criticise young people for not getting involved in the political process but I think, having spent many years in television, that we, too, were part of that problem. We could not get young people to engage in the political process but now we have a great opportunity. However, surely we are putting out mixed messages. We want them to engage but we do not want to give them the vote.
The Scottish referendum showed that young people are knowledgeable and can be trusted with the vote. They take this new responsibility seriously. This House has already decided to lower the voting age for local government elections to 16; 16 and 17 year-olds will be given the vote in the Scottish Parliament and I believe that Wales will follow suit. Do we really want to say to 16 and 17 year-olds that they are old enough to be involved in the debate but not old enough to be involved in the election. These elections will have more impact on them than they will on any of us.
My Lords, perhaps I may step into the lion’s den and say that I strenuously oppose these amendments and believe that we should stick with the current age of majority of 18.
Two arguments have been advanced by the proponents of 16. The first is that this decision may last for another 40 years and will affect a whole generation of young people. That is true. However, in that case, should we not push the age down so that people younger than 16 and 17 can vote, because it will also greatly affect 15 year-olds, 14 year-olds, 13 year-olds and 12 year-olds? There is an argument that it could go down to as low as 10. I am not suggesting that it should, but if one adopts the logic that this decision affects young people disproportionately and that young people should have a say, at 10 years old they have reached the age of criminal responsibility and, if we can assume that from that age onwards they have that reasoning ability, there may be no reason why they should not be able to vote. Logic dictates that there is nothing magical about lowering the age to 16 and sticking at 16.
The second argument is that young people are much more mature these days: they are more sophisticated; they understand politics and the world; and they would be enthusiastic voters. I do not deny their enthusiasm but that is not a good enough ground per se for extending the franchise. If we change the voting age based on maturity, I suspect all the behavioural experts would give the vote to girls at age 10 and to boys at age 25. Making a judgment on who is mature enough to vote is more subjective than picking an arbitrary age.
However, my main objection is that everything we have done in Parliament over recent years has involved raising the age at which young people can do things because we, in this House and in the other place, have concluded that under 18 year-olds cannot be trusted to do things on their own and do not have the maturity to make decisions. With the assistance of our wonderful Library, I have looked at the minimum ages we have set for young people to do certain things. This is in accordance with English law, I stress. Those who favourably quote Scotland should be aware that Scots law has traditionally permitted young people to do some things at an earlier age, such as marry without parental consent. That is perhaps one reason why lowering the voting age in Scotland was not such a big issue.
We know that young people under 18 can marry in England only with parental consent.
Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord one simple question: what arguments and rationale is he going to use when explaining to the young people of Scotland aged between 16 and 17 that they are not going to be able to vote in this referendum, when they have voted previously? I would like to hear the persuasive arguments he is going to use with these young people.
They did not have the right to vote in a referendum previously. They may have the right to vote in Scottish elections but this is a United Kingdom referendum. I would be quite happy to explain to young Scots that while they may have the right to vote in Scotland, it does not automatically follow that they have the right to vote in a United Kingdom election.
No one under the age of 18 can gamble: we passed that law in 1934. No one under 18 can get a tattoo: we passed that law in 1969. No one under 18 can serve on a jury—a 1974 Act. No one under 18 can watch a violent or pornographic film—a 1984 Act. In 1985 we banned anyone under 18 from buying solvents. No one under 18 can buy alcohol. Interestingly, the Scottish NHS and Government have been trying to push the age up to 21. They tried that in 2008 and are keen to do so again.
Under a 1987 law, no one under the age of 18 can sign a property agreement. In 1996 my noble friend Lord Howard of Lympne and I increased the age at which one can buy a knife from 16 to 18. In 2003 we banned anyone aged under 18 from buying paint stripper, and in 2005 we banned anyone aged under 18 from possessing fireworks in a public place. In 2007 we raised the age at which someone can buy tobacco to 18, while in 2010 we banned anyone under the age of 18 from using a sunbed.
I beg to differ with the noble Lord. I have almost concluded my remarks on the timescale on which we ban things and I am trying to show that, over the years, this House and the other place have been raising the age at which young people are permitted to do things. It is quite incongruous to suggest that, as we raise the age bar every year because we do not trust the ability of young people to make certain decisions, we should suddenly say that we will lower to 16 the age at which people have the right to vote in this referendum.
I conclude by saying that if under 18 year-olds are not fit to serve on a jury and judge the fate of an individual human being, I submit that they are not fit to decide the fate of a nation.
My Lords, I tabled a detailed amendment in Committee to make this provision, but I am very happy indeed to support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness.
Against the background of the constitutional referendum in Scotland last year, it strikes me that a principle has been established that we as a House and the Westminster Parliament are willing to consider, at the very least, that in constitutional matters, this may be appropriate. The rationale as I understand it in Scotland was that the decision was so far-reaching with regard to the future of Scotland that everyone who could make a reasonable contribution to that decision should be encouraged to do so, and that 16 and 17 year-olds were seen in that context. Surely the decision we are about to take with regard to the future of the United Kingdom, inside or outside the European Union, is equally far-reaching. It is going to affect those young people and people of all ages for the rest of their lives.
Of course we have to draw a line somewhere, but saying that it is all right for people aged 16 and 17 to vote does not mean that we must then necessarily say,
“What about 15, 14 and 13 year-olds?”. That reduces the argument ad absurdum. The principle has been acknowledged, not only in Scotland but also in Wales with regard to some of the changes to the powers of the Assembly that we may make. How on earth can we say that it is all right for young people in Scotland and Wales to vote, but not for young people in the context of the United Kingdom? Is the relationship of the United Kingdom with the European Union going to be seen as something that looks to the past and to a type of Britain that some people might identify with, but I suspect that the majority, both in this Chamber and certainly in these islands, might not? If we are looking forward, if we are outward-looking and positive and if we want our young people to play a role in that sort of community, surely we should trust them with regard to this vote. I hope very much that this Chamber will give them that opportunity.
My Lords, I do not know what I think about this issue any more. I was trying to think of the phrase and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, helped me out as always. What is it about consistency? Consistency is the hallmark of small minds. I should like to say that I have been completely consistent on this matter. When the Government decided in their wisdom to allow the Scottish Parliament to introduce votes for 16 year-olds, I argued against it on the grounds that it would set a precedent and we would end up having to have votes for 16 year-olds in general elections and every other thing and that we should not go about these matters in a piecemeal manner.
When the Government decided to allow 16 year-olds to have the vote, not in Welsh elections but in a referendum in Wales to decide if the Assembly should have tax-raising powers, I argued that there was no consistency in this matter and asked why they were making a distinction. I have consistently argued that these matters—the matters of the age of majority—should be looked at as a whole and not on the basis of piecemeal changes. Here we are again with the amendment of the noble Baroness seeking to make another piecemeal change.
I do not want to repeat the brilliant arguments that were put by my noble friend Lord Blencathra—
Well, I will repeat them if you like.
The best argument I have seen in support of not changing the law for 16 year-olds can be found in the article that was written by the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the papers this morning, in which he argues that it is hypocrisy to argue against votes for 16-year-olds. He says that you are able to fight in the Army when you are 16—not true. He says you can marry when you are 16—not true. He says that anyone who pays tax should be able to vote. Noble Lords opposite all laughed when my noble friend said, “Why not 13 and 14 year-olds?” Every seven year-old pays tax when they buy a bag of sweets or an ice cream. It is VAT.
Well, it is an argument. I am not surprised that the Liberal Democrat Benches are wincing because that argument was put forward by their leader this very day.
Then we have had the argument about Scotland. We are told that Scotland has led the way in this revolution, recognising the rights and responsibilities of 16 year-olds. Well, in April Scotland will introduce legislation that requires every child in Scotland from ages nought to 18 to have a state guardian to check up on whether their parents are looking after them. So, the state guardian will need to make sure that 16 year- olds, presumably in exercising their votes, are being properly dealt with. How can we have a state guardian to protect you from your parents and at the same time argue that you are able to vote? We all know why the SNP wanted 16 year-olds to have the vote. It is true that they came out very enthusiastically and voted for independence.
They did indeed. Those noble Lords who are saying they did not did not spend much time campaigning in Scotland.
The turnout was certainly higher: 75% of 16 and 17 year-olds voted in the referendum of Scotland; only 54% of 18 to 24 year-olds voted. The funny thing about 16 year-olds is that they turn into 18 year-olds. Is it not extraordinary that the turnout fell to 54% as against 92% of people who are over 55, and 85% of 35 to 54 year-olds?
I like my noble friend’s idea of what constitutes a compromise. The Scottish position arose out of sheer opportunism by the SNP. We can argue whether or not it worked for that party, but that is why it wanted to give votes to 16 year-olds.
Having said that, the Government are all over the place on this. The Prime Minister gave an undertaking to the First Minister that he will do all he can to ensure that 16 and 17 year-olds can vote in the next Holyrood elections. Indeed, he has been as good as his word: 16 year-olds will be able to vote in the Holyrood elections in May, just as they voted in the referendum. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, who is in her place, is right that this is a rather embarrassing thing to deal with in Scotland—to explain why they could vote in the referendum on independence and will in the Scottish elections, but they will not in the referendum on our membership of the European Union. I agree that it is embarrassing, but it was the party opposite who decided to grant devolution and to devolve these powers. We are discussing a United Kingdom issue. It is very embarrassing that every 16, 17 and 18 year-old in Scotland will have a state guardian, unlike people in England. That is the consequence of devolution, which the parties opposite supported with so much enthusiasm.
My answer to the 16 year-old who says, “Why do I not have a vote in Scotland on this matter?”, would be, “Because we have gone through an idiotic period of piecemeal constitutional reform”. The proper thing to do is to consider all the issues that have been mentioned. Why can you not—
I will give way in a moment. Why can you not buy a packet of cigarettes and do all the things that my noble friend mentioned? We need to look at the age of majority and make it as consistent as possible throughout the United Kingdom in respect of every area of activity, and not to say, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to add to the confusion by making a change in a Bill of this nature?”.
My Lords, I am very happy to have waited that moment—more than one moment—to ask about the noble Lord’s use of the word “piecemeal”. I find it very ironic, coming from the Benches opposite and from a Government who have consistently refused attempts to get a constitutional convention together to look at a non-piecemeal way of effecting constitutional change, that in this instance and on this matter “piecemeal” is what he is afraid of, when his Government have consistently—that word again; a small mind—been throwing piecemeal constitutional change at us, expecting us to toe his line.
If the noble Lord were a more frequent attender at this House he would know that I harry the Government almost every day on the issue of not having piecemeal reform and that I support the idea of a constitutional convention. I certainly am speaking not for the Government, but for those of us who believe that we should not make constitutional changes. Indeed, the noble Lord makes his own point. The Labour Party’s position is that we should have a constitutional convention to sort all these matters out, but here it is doing the opposite of what it says that it wants and making a piecemeal change. If I may say so, the noble Lord has made a point that has come back to hit him like a boomerang.
Interestingly, in moving her amendment the noble Baroness said in her defence that it would apply only to these elections and that she was not making a general change to the franchise. I did not really understand that. She also said that we need a broader debate. Presumably she was trying to cover this point about the constitutional convention and the need to look at these things as a whole. I am sure the noble Baroness will forgive me for pointing out that she elided the issue of 16 to 18 year-olds. Only four countries in the world allow 16 year-olds a vote in general elections. They are Austria, Nicaragua, Brazil—where it is voluntary for 16 year-olds and compulsory for older voters—and Cuba. I do not think that Castro is a great symbol of democracy—although with the current leadership of the Labour Party I can see the attraction.
I have a serious point to make. In an article, the leader of the Liberal Democrats had a real go at my colleague in the other place David Nuttall. He said in a mocking way that people who are against votes for 16 year-olds even suggest that somehow it could result in sexual exploitation. To be fair to the noble Baroness, she accepted the point that a register of young people which will allow 16 year-olds to vote has to be a carefully drawn-up, separate and confidential register. I listened to all the arguments about how all this could be done very quickly and wondered whether these were the same people who, not a matter of weeks ago, were telling us that individual registration could not be done in a year because it was too difficult and there was not enough time to get people on the register. Can these be the same people? Suddenly, we are told that it is all very different. When my noble friend Lord Ridley made his point about national insurance, they said, “We will just give everybody a national insurance number”. That is the most extraordinary statement. How much will all this cost, and for what purpose?
Someone is saying “democracy”. Democracy involves having a consistent and well-thought-through attitude towards the franchise. It does not consist of giving young people the vote and dressing it up as some kind of liberty for them, when actually the reason some want to give 16 year-olds the vote is because they are hoping they will vote for them. That is what is behind all this and it is no way in which to determine our franchise. Therefore, I have to say, I am not in favour of this amendment.
Will the noble Lord let me try again on this? I recognise that he finds it very embarrassing to have to explain his stance to the 16 year-olds of Scotland, but will he give it a go and tell us how he will do so? I am not sure that they will be taken with the arguments that he has given us at length over the last 10 minutes, because they have voted willingly and in numbers. I think that they will take a pretty dim view of those arguments. Will the noble Lord tell us the argument he will use with the 16 year-olds—not the ones we have heard because I do not think they will cut a lot of ice with them?
I am very concerned about the public image of the Conservative Party in Scotland after the tartan obscurantism of two or three noble Lords sitting close to me. It is important to remember the official position of the Conservative Party in Scotland. Ms Ruth Davidson, the leader of that Conservative Party, is strongly in favour of this amendment. She argues:
“We deem 16 year olds adult enough to join the army … get married, leave home and work full-time. The evidence of the referendum suggests that, clearly, they are old enough to vote too”.
That was the deduction I drew from the Scottish referendum. It had lots of very unpleasant aspects but the one really good thing was the engagement of so many young people in politics. They got interested and involved. That is a strong argument for this amendment. There is a small Scottish argument for it as well. The question that flummoxed the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, which I thought also sort of flummoxed the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is: how do you explain to the Scots young people that Holyrood was prepared to give them a vote but Westminster is not? I think we all know what deduction Scots young people would draw from that, and it is unhelpful to those of us like me who favour the union.
My Lords, I had not intended to participate in this debate but the arguments I have heard are interesting and in some cases bizarre. I have just come back from Paris and the reaction of people, including young people, to the terrible atrocities there has in my view a bearing on what I want to say. The arguments we have heard are quite interesting to a historian—namely, that some people in our society need protection, perhaps because of their immaturity or lack of public awareness. To my mind, many of them had a strong ring of the arguments presented strongly in this House against giving the franchise to women a long time ago, and many of the same patronising and ill-informed observations about categories of our society have re-emerged.
I was fascinated by the speech of a noble Lord who I greatly respect for his expertise, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who spoke against this amendment. His line was that young people needed protection, and that this is recognised in a variety of ways, because they were vulnerable to particular kinds of ideas, including racial and cultural extremism. My own view is that in key areas young people need rather less protection than their seniors—rather less protection, I venture to observe, than some noble Lords who have participated in this debate. There is every indication in countries across Europe that young people, while necessarily having a brief experience of life, are less prey to religious and racial extremism, and that they have a more outward-looking view towards the cultural admixture of society, the aspects of society concerned with immigration, and so on. It could be argued that, far from being in need of protection, they might serve as an example to others.
The various racialist movements that have emerged in continental Europe are broadly groups or bodies of opinion which appeal most strongly to older people. It is older people who supply the bulk of support for the Front National and a variety of national and extremist groups. My conclusion, therefore, is that young people would be more likely to look at these matters rationally and dispassionately.
Finally, the terrible events in France of course have provoked an enormous public debate. What seems to be emerging is that younger people are more inclined to take a broad view of these atrocities—not simply to indulge in an instant response of a punitive kind but to see the broader relationship between these terrible events and the social and other inequalities that have inured in France in this period. Comparatively, we have every basis for having faith in young people, not dismissing them—not using the fact that, as many noble Lords have rightly said, the law is inconsistent and perverse and treats categories of our society in different ways; as my noble friend behind me observed, so does our constitution, which is similarly fragmented. It would be in every way an educative and civilised thing if we supported this amendment.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, but I cannot agree with him. I am one of those who hope that we will have a referendum with an emphatic result in favour of remaining within the European Union. Unless there are some extraordinary events between now and holding the referendum, I believe that I shall be campaigning—I hope vigorously—on that front.
Last year, my 16 year-old grand-daughter, who will be 18 tomorrow, voted—with my encouragement—for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom. I was delighted that she did. She and her classmates took an intelligent and very sensible approach to the whole issue. But the fact that they considered it carefully does not, I believe, give your Lordships’ House the freedom to indulge in what my noble friend Lord Forsyth very persuasively called piecemeal change. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, pointed out, this House recently decided—on his initiative, and I gave him my strong support—decided that 17 year-olds should not be detained in police custody overnight. He made a quietly passionate speech in that sense and I was delighted to make a brief speech supporting him.
We are all over the shop on this one. It is not coherent or sensible to argue that on the one hand you cannot smoke or drink, or do all those things that my noble friend Lord Blencathra set out in his very amusing speech, but on the other that you can vote. We need to look at two issues and this Bill is not the occasion for so doing. We need to look at the age of maturity—what one can and should be able to do at the age of 16 or 18. Have we got it right? Have we been sensible in creating more and more impediments, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra pointed out, or have we been wrong? We also have to look very sensibly and coherently at the franchise.
I am grateful to my old friend, the noble Lord, for giving way; I would expect nothing less. I also applaud him for introducing to the debate a specific instance in the case of his grand-daughter to illustrate that fact that youngsters in Scotland voted with great responsibility and not a little insight in casting their vote in the referendum there. His grand-daughter may not be as grateful as I am to him for introducing her into this debate. Nevertheless, I am sure that she is a very grown-up young woman. Can he tell us what arguments he would deploy in convincing an 18 year-old who voted when she was 16 in the Scottish referendum, in good conscience and with good judgment, that she should not now be able to exercise the same right to vote in this referendum—presuming, of course, that she had not reached the age of majority at that time? What argument would he have used, say, on the day before her 16th birthday when she would have been entitled to vote? Can he impart those arguments to us now?
As I have already said, my grand-daughter is 18 tomorrow and she will be entirely free to vote, as I hope she will, in this referendum and every other election, and at every other opportunity when she can vote.
There was nothing inconsistent—the saying of course refers to foolish consistency as the hobgoblin of small minds, not the hallmark—in saying as I did at the time of the referendum, “You have been given this responsibility; I hope that you will exercise it responsibly; but I do not believe in general that what is being done is right”. I argued that in this House when we discussed the matter. No one who was present when I argued on these things before would be at all surprised by what I am saying. My noble friend Lord Tyler—I still call him that—and I clashed several times on this issue when we were talking about the Scottish referendum and other things. The fact is that it is perfectly possible to say, “If you have been given this responsibility, exercise it, but I do not believe that we are wise”. I certainly did not believe that the Prime Minister was wise to concede this in the case of the Scottish referendum, any more than I think that he was wise recently to say what he did about 16 and 17 year-olds voting in the Scottish general election. One wonders whether they will have to be accompanied by guardians—but that is another matter entirely.
I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I am getting bids for alternatives, and the latest is that consistency is the bugbear of a mediocre mind. Perhaps I can help my noble friend with his granddaughter. Surely the point is that his granddaughter would have been able to vote in the Scottish referendum but not in the general election that we have just had.
Yes, indeed: she thought that was inconsistent, and I agreed with her; of course it was. I do not think that one needs to prolong this argument. We should be getting the Bill on to the statute book as soon as possible. I hope that we will have a referendum in which I will be able to campaign for membership of the European Union by the middle of next year. This thing is dragging on far too long. We should look separately at the question of the franchise and the question of maturity and decide whether we have got it right.
My Lords, I am a signatory to Amendment 3, in common with not only the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, but Members on the Conservative Benches and Cross-Benchers. It is genuinely across the House that we now feel that this moment has arrived. Having deployed the argument for this extension of the franchise so often in the past, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, so kindly said, I can be very brief. I certainly do not need to repeat the noble Baroness’s excellent exposition of the advice we have now had from the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators about the practicalities.
In Committee, I thought that the most persuasive contribution of many was from the Conservative Benches, from the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, who said:
“So the question I am struggling with is: how can it be right to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in a referendum on Scotland but not in a referendum on Europe? There has to be some sort of consistency”.
We are back there again, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has so admirably emphasised. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, went on to rubbish the official explanation that somehow the extension of the franchise in the Scottish independence referendum did not originate with Conservative Ministers. He said,
“although the coalition Government and the Prime Minister did not specifically approve votes for 16 year-olds, they did acquiesce in votes for 16 year-olds”.—[ Official Report , 28/10/15; cols.1227-8.]
He and others, notably now an increasing number of Conservative MPs, have warned that we simply cannot pretend that Scottish young people are somehow more mature, well-informed, responsible or capable of exercising common sense than their English, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts. Several colleagues from this side of the House have challenged anybody from the other side to produce that argument, without any success.
The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, referred to the United Kingdom. He is right: in the long term, we have to address the consistency of the franchise, the bedrock of our representative democracy across the United Kingdom, but we have a particular issue at the moment. We have a Bill. We have a referendum coming. It is on that issue that we need specific consistency. That was very much the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, and he had no problem whatever with my quoting his contribution in Committee. As an avid fan of both versions of his “House of Cards”, I am very disappointed that he is not able to be here today. I do not know whether I am being as cynical or conspiratorial as some of the characters in those great productions, but I wonder whether there has been some encouragement for him not to be here today. I wonder whether the Government Whips may have encouraged him to stay away, reassuring him that nothing controversial was to be discussed or decided.
One of the key lessons of the Scottish referendum was that the 16 and 17 year-old age group registered—well over 100,000 of them—and voted in larger numbers than those aged 18 to 24. Why? It is very interesting. The reason why that has been identified is that the younger cohort were often still at school and in their local, family environment, where they had much more encouragement to take the issues seriously. When they got away from home to their first job or further or higher education, they lost touch with some of the issues and concerns that might otherwise been part of their consideration.
There is hard evidence—looked at very carefully by Bite the Ballot and others—that there is a good case for a direct link between citizenship courses and electoral registration. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, there has been a successful pilot in Northern Ireland in that regard.
On the numbers, it is certainly true that 75% of 16 year-olds voted—of course, it was a novelty—but that is not very different from the figure for 25 to 34 year-olds, which was 72%. It is true that there was a fall-off for voters aged between 18 and 24, but then a lot of those people had gone off to university and were not able to vote. So there is no evidence whatever that somehow or other, this increases participation in elections.
That is simply not true. I have worked with the Electoral Commission over the years and there is good evidence that, once you start voting, you tend to continue to vote. The cohort that is missing out at the moment is very much the 18 to 24 year-olds. The turnout for them was down to 54%—it dropped dramatically. Therefore, the noble Lord is simply wrong on that point.
I wonder whether the Minister has come armed with the same wholly inadequate response that was employed in Committee, when I moved a similar amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, then extracted a very short quote from the advice given by the Electoral Commission:
“The Commission’s view is that any changes to the franchise for the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union should be clear in sufficient time to enable all those who are eligible, to register and participate in the referendum”.
Today we have some additional advice from the Electoral Commission:
“Recent media reports have indicated that the Commission believes there must be 12 months between legislation passing through Parliament to change the franchise and the first electoral event to which this applies. This is not the case”.
It then says, in heavy type:
“The Commission has been consistently clear that a change to the franchise is a matter for Parliament, and that we will advise on the practical implications of any such change”.
I hope that the Minister will not now pray in aid the commission.
I have worked with the Electoral Commission for some years, and it is very careful in the words that it uses in advising Parliament. It is responsible to us—to Parliament, not to government—and its advice is to Parliament. It is a statutory commission, with very considerable responsibility. Noble Lords should note that clarity of intention is what it is worrying about, not whether Royal Assent has actually been granted. It can start preparing for this change, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, mentioned earlier. In other words, this is an argument not for doing nothing with this change to the franchise, but for getting on with it as soon as possible.
On the evening before the day in Committee to which I referred, the Minister’s ministerial colleague systematically rubbished the Electoral Commission and all the advice given to us, in the context of the Government’s acceleration of the electoral registration change. We should be absolutely clear now that there is no practical objection to this extension of the franchise, assuming that the referendum is not held before June 2016. For all the other reasons that have already been explained in Committee and today, it is very unlikely that the Government would contemplate a referendum before that date. Six months is acknowledged to be an adequate minimum period for the preparatory work, based on the Scottish experience. So for Ministers to drag their feet while so many in both Houses are urging them to recognise the strength of the case would be irresponsible, frankly. Indeed, trying to postpone it for as long as possible in the hope that that will make the change more problematic would be a failure of good governance.
What the noble Lord is saying, as others have said, is that the decision to reduce the voting age for the Scottish referendum is a precedent that has to be followed for all elections of all kinds. That makes it a very important matter indeed, which clearly the Westminster Parliament as a whole needs to pronounce on. Can he remind us by what majority the Westminster Parliament decided that this should happen in Scotland?
My Lords, it did not—but I quoted specifically the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, who identified precisely that the Cabinet of the previous Government actually agreed with that change.
I am not arguing today for the extension of the franchise in all parts of our electoral system. That is not what is on the Order Paper. What we are debating is very specific. I have an expert witness—I will come to him in a moment—who says that this is an exceptional circumstance in which it should be done.
I simply do not understand on what basis the Government, without a principled or practical objection, are continuing to resist—assuming that they are.
The noble Lord said that the Electoral Commission’s advice is based on the experience of Scotland. Does he accept that when the franchise was extended to 16 and 17 year-olds in Scotland, we still had household registration without the requirement, as I said earlier, for national insurance numbers and so on, and that the process would be much more complex now?
I have had that discussion with the Electoral Commission. It does not regard that as a particular obstacle in this case. I am grateful to the noble Viscount for helping me in that respect.
Any reference to the disadvantages of piecemeal constitutional change is frankly absurd, particularly from that side of the House. When female suffrage was extended, that is exactly what we had: piecemeal changes. I used to be a historian. It was Disraeli who started this process. The Conservatives have been at it ever since. They always tell us that they want change on an incremental basis. That is constantly what we are told. It was the same with female suffrage. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, who said that he heard some of the arguments we have been hearing today before, at the time of the extension of female suffrage. My wife and I went to see the excellent film about that subject, and there were occasions when I thought I was listening to the present-day House of Lords.
I have been reflecting on this issue and the piecemeal way it has been done. Presumably when David Cameron decided that he wanted to make sure that people aged between 16 and 18 did not have a vote, it must have been because he considered, or feared, that most of them would vote to leave.
I do not follow that because I do not think that at this stage the Conservative Party has collectively made up its mind. It will be very interesting to see what happens, because a large number of Conservative Members take the view that this is an inevitable change. That was reflected in the contributions of a number of Conservative Members in the Bill Committee.
The evolution of our constitution has always been piecemeal. Indeed, down the other end, the Government are currently changing the constitution, through English votes for English laws—EVEL, or evil, as some would prefer it— on a piecemeal basis. It may be that before Christmas, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will come forward with another piecemeal change to our constitution. Are noble Lords going to be against that? Some may be, but I do not think that others will be. It is frankly absurd to argue that we cannot make a change because it is piecemeal and ad hoc.
I have a great deal of sympathy with those who say that we should in the longer term have a constitutional convention. I have no problem with that—I have always thought that—but here and now we have a Bill before your Lordships’ House, and we have to deal with the franchise. We have already agreed some changes to the franchise, not least to include your Lordships in the electorate for this referendum.
I do not understand the argument that somehow, it is not the right time. That was what they said about female suffrage before the First World War, and some went on saying it after the First World War. We have a Bill before us and a big decision for the citizens of this country to take in the near future. Those young people who will be so affected by the outcome—just like their colleagues and compatriots were in Scotland a year ago—should be given the opportunity to participate in the choice about their future.
I was challenged earlier about why this situation is exceptional. I have an expert witness. Last week, David Cameron described this vote as,
“a huge decision for our country, perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes. And it will be the final decision”.
That is the strongest argument I have heard for extending the franchise to this particular group. The Prime Minister is absolutely right, and it must surely follow that this group of our fellow citizens cannot be denied a say in that decision.
My Lords, I wonder if I could set out on a very brief quest which I fear most of your Lordships will regard as hopeless. That quest is to prick the conscience of Liberal Democrat Members of your Lordships’ House if they are thinking of supporting this amendment and thus voting it through. I do so by reminding them of their policy before the last election of appointing Peers to your Lordships’ House in accordance with the votes cast in the previous general election. I take the opportunity of reminding the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and his colleagues that the percentage of their votes in the last general election was 7.9% of the votes cast. That would give them 43 Peers in this House whereas at the moment they have 112—69 more Peers than they ought to.
We have heard much from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and Liberal Democrat Peers about democratic legitimacy and all the rest of it, but I recall our debate on
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, with Labour and with others that we need a constitutional convention to restore our democracy because not only is the position of the Liberal Democrat party in your Lordships’ House absurd but so is that of the Labour Party—and indeed that of the Government in the House of Commons, where the Government of the day, the Conservative Party, got a mere 24% of the electorate, 37% of the votes cast, yet that gave them 330 seats and an outright majority. I am sure that your Lordships would be disappointed if I did not compare that performance to the UKIP result in the House of Commons, where we got a big percentage of the electorate—one-third of the electorate of the Government of the day, 12.6% of the votes cast—but that gave us just one Member of Parliament. Still, I do not want to labour that point now. I simply say to the Liberal Democrats: are they wise if they are going to use this position to vote through the amendment? Otherwise, I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Hamilton and Lord Forsyth, who say that this is a transparent attempt to rig the referendum in favour of those who may wish to stay in the EU. As for the amendment itself, I oppose it and I hope it fails.
I will be brief, not least because I agreed with much of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. That might surprise some of my noble friends. I cannot agree that it is right to argue that the giving of access to rights and civic rights to young people is analogous to the age at which we protect them from harm and abuse. They are different things, and the noble Lord, Lord Blair, was quite right in making the point that he did. We should not construct this vote, on this issue, on this Bill as determining or seeking to determine the franchise for general elections.
My personal view has been for some time that 16 and 17 year-olds should be able to vote in local government elections but not yet in general elections. I think that what this comes down to—and I have not yet heard this point expressed—is that this is not just a singular election, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said by reference to the Prime Minister’s view about the singular nature of the referendum as an occasion upon which votes are taking place, but it is singular in terms of its impact on those young people. Of course that would be true for younger people, but we have to make a judgment where we can. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, was right to say that we know from recent experience in Scotland that we have young people who are well equipped to take a decision on an issue of this kind in a debate of this kind, so in my view we should support them in doing that.
The singular nature of this is that these 16 and 17 year-olds of whom we are speaking will be able to vote at the next general election—but at the next general election they will not be able to change the outcome of the referendum. So often in the past, one of the reasons that has been adduced for not extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds is that, “You will access your civic rights and will have your chance to vote, and at subsequent general elections you will have the chance to change the Government if you don’t like it”. On this referendum they will not have that subsequent chance. If they do not like it, I am afraid they are stuck with it. In the course of what I hope will be next year’s extensive debate about the future of the country in which they have to live, I, for one, would not want to argue to 16 and 17 year-olds that they should not participate in that election.
My Lords, Amendment 3, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, would extend the referendum franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds in the United Kingdom. As I think a number of noble Lords will appreciate, the amendment is incomplete, because it would not enfranchise 16 and 17 year-olds in Gibraltar and does not make provision for the technical legislation and time-consuming operational work that would be required to register these young electors. The question of principle, however, has been roundly debated in Committee and here today. There has not been a great deal of agreement, but I hope that there may be some agreement about the House that it is essential that this referendum should be seen to be fair—and that it should be fair. We should avoid any action that could be seen as some attempt to push towards a particular outcome. That is a significant reason why, with the small changes to enfranchise Gibraltar electors and Peers, both of whom are already entitled to vote in certain elections, the Bill adopts the parliamentary franchise. We want to avoid any allegations of interference and we fear that changing the franchise, including this particular change, could be seen as doing exactly that and could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the referendum.
Much mention has been made of the Scottish independence referendum: how that came about, whether it was opportunism by the SNP, or whether the Conservative Government were somewhat asleep on the job. It took place, and noble Lords have pointed to it and suggested that we should learn a great deal from it. However, just as the franchise used in Scotland was a matter for the Scottish Parliament to determine, I suggest that the franchise for elections and referendums that affect the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a matter for this Parliament to decide. As I am sure noble Lords would accept, a decision of the Scottish Parliament does not and should not prevent this Parliament taking a different approach; the example of Scottish guardians is a particularly vivid illustration.
During the course of this debate there was an interesting use of the concept of a precedent. It is said that this referendum is exceptional, and in one sense it is. However, at the same time the argument seems to be that the decisions of the Scottish Parliament after a referendum involving 16 and 17 year-olds provide a clear precedent and indicate that the franchise should be lowered for this referendum. Yet apparently, as I understand it, the Labour Party will not argue that this will therefore lead to any proposed change in the franchise for a general election. This sits rather uneasily with the argument in Committee, which was, essentially, that the genie was out of the bottle and that once you had allowed 16 year-olds to vote in the Scottish Parliament, the argument was all over. I suggest that we need to look at the argument carefully to consider whether it is right for this country.
Noble Lords have pointed to the difference, but surely, devolution by its very nature gives rise to the possibility of difference. It does not mean that we should necessarily harmonise. The fact that people may do certain things in Scotland aged 16—get married without parental consent, formally change their name, access their birth records if adopted—does not mean that the same rules must or should apply across the United Kingdom.
It is said, correctly, that the poll is exceptional and will affect 16 and 17 year-olds for longer. Noble Lords have suggested that, because the vote will—or should, in view of what the Prime Minister has said—affect everybody in this country for the rest of their lives, that means that 16 and 17 year-olds ought to have a say. But of course, without being frivolous in any way, it follows that 14 and 15 year-olds will have to live with the outcome for longer, and no one is seriously suggesting, except in order to illustrate the argument, that they should be allowed to vote.
We heard about the response of most democracies to the voting age. It is 18 in all the countries in the European Union except Austria. I leave aside Cuba and other interesting examples of democracies. It is also the voting age that has been applied in other exceptional circumstances. In 2011, when the public voted in a referendum with similarly lasting constitutional significance—namely, the voting system used to elect Members of the other place—where was the cry for 16 year-olds then?
Does the decision that we will make with this referendum outweigh in importance all other decisions that Parliament comes to? I suggest that the answer is: not necessarily. For example, there is the decision that in England all those under 18 must be in education or training, yet we do not allow individuals under 18 years of age to participate in parliamentary elections. We have to draw a line somewhere where the voting age is concerned, and I accept that there is always an element of arbitrariness about it. However, arbitrary though it is, it is one that hitherto has generally received approval.
It is said that young people have shown signs of engagement and political activity—for example, in the Scottish referendum—and that this indicates their readiness to vote. However, recent YouGov polling suggested that only 56% of 16 year-olds said that they would like to be able to vote, and that figure decreased to 42% of 17 year-olds and 36% of 18 year-olds. Using democratic engagement and the burst of enthusiasm that there seems to have been, or the lack of it, as the basis for giving or denying the vote would set a very odd precedent. There are of course many 50 year-olds who are not politically engaged, but that does not mean that we are going to disfranchise them. Simply lowering the voting age will not necessarily increase levels of democratic engagement among all young people.
I turn now to the complexity associated with the age of majority and the need to draw a line. Scientific study of the adolescent brain has yet to identify an obvious point at which we can distinguish between adolescents and adults. There is a considerably held view that it is not until the age of 25 that the adult brain reaches its ultimate state of maturity, so we look at the broader framework. A number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Ridley and Lord Blencathra, did not think that at 16 young people were ready to vote. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel—few have more concern about and knowledge of 16 and 17 year-olds—also took that view.
We should not underestimate the gravity of voting. One can say that it is all great fun, we can join in and it is good to enthuse, but it is a huge responsibility. It is a momentous occasion for every individual, and of course a 16 year-old, given the chance to vote, will and should take it very seriously. However, we have to ask ourselves whether, in our desire to enthuse 16 and 17 year-olds, we may be in danger of placing too great a responsibility on them.
My Lords, is it not extraordinarily patronising to young people to suggest that they will somehow regard voting as being like a university rag and not a serious intellectual and civil responsibility?
That is precisely the point that I am not making. The point I am making is that they will not, and should not, regard it trivially. The question is whether it is appropriate for us to burden them with a responsibility which they will no doubt take seriously. It is not a question of simply saying, “This is a good thing for them to do. Therefore, we should grant them that right”.
A person’s mental ability has never been taken into account when considering their right to vote, so is the noble Lord getting on to dangerous ground here? People who lack mental ability still have the right to vote. Surely he is not saying that they should not have the right to vote because they may not have that maturity.
The noble Baroness is right in the sense that we do not assess mental capacity before deciding whether somebody might vote. That is correct. However, when we take the difficult decision on where to draw the line—on whether the voting age should be 18, 16 or 21—we are entitled to inform ourselves generally about individuals’ state of development to see generally what a typical adolescent might be like.
Will the noble Lord tell us whether he has seen the film “Suffragette”? The argument that he has just been advancing was the argument for not giving women the vote until after the First World War and then for not extending it to those under the age of 28. Those arguments were deployed by his contemporaries, as it were, of that period.
I am afraid that I have not had enough time to see the film, but any argument about where you draw a line could be simply dismissed as one that has been used hitherto in different circumstances. I am concerned about whether giving these particular young people the vote is appropriate.
I am sure that the noble Lord does not wish to be offensive but the last time I heard arguments about brains and capacity was in Jackson, Mississippi, with the Ku Klux Klan showing me charts of the average Negro brain compared with a white brain. Does he not realise that arguments of that kind are deeply offensive?
I resent the noble Lord’s suggestion. We are engaging in an argument about whether to lower the voting age. Seeking comparisons with the Ku Klux Klan is entirely inappropriate and I reject it.
On the point about suffragettes, would it be worth reminding the Benches opposite that it was Asquith and Lloyd George who consistently denied women the vote, the reason being that they thought it would upset the men and lose votes. That was exactly the kind of opportunism that we are seeing here today from the Liberal Benches.
I said at the beginning of my remarks that I did not think it was appropriate to try to guess how 16 and 17 year-olds would vote. In fact, it would probably be a mistake even to begin to speculate—we would probably be wrong about it. Although I am grateful for the interruption, that is not the issue that I am trying to engage upon.
Does the noble Lord accept as fact that this cohort of 16 and 17 year-olds is extremely mature and culturally aware? More than 45% of young people in this cohort will go to university or on to further education, whereas 60 years ago 5% of them did so. We have an extremely developed and mature 16 and 17 year-old cohort.
I am afraid that I cannot accept facts baldly stated—engagingly stated though they are.
The answer is that many more people than before are being educated, and it is a different debate as to whether this is appropriate—
I am not sure that it is going to enlighten the House very much if we try to decide how well educated or not well educated these young people are. One of the arguments was that young people spend a great deal of time on the internet or go travelling. The answer is that some 16 and 17 year-olds are extremely intelligent and well informed; others are not. The bigger point is whether, looking at them as a cohort, they have changed radically since, for example, Parliament considered this matter in the round in debating the Representation of the People Bill.
This is my first ever intervention and I ought to explain to the House that I am a convert to the idea of 16 and 17 year-olds being able to vote. The great benefit regarding this particular cohort is that at least many of them, although not as many as I would wish, will have benefited from citizenship education in school, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of the population.
I am honoured to have been intervened on by the noble Lord, and I hear what he says.
I was endeavouring to address the House on the Representation of the People Act 1969, which was brought in by the party opposite when it was in power. At that stage, the question was whether to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. The debates in this House ranged over the issues that one would expect. Often, amendments were put forward suggesting that it be lowered only to the age of 20. There was no suggestion that it should be lowered to the age of 16. What has changed so fundamentally about adolescence between then and now?
I can tell the Minister what the difference is between then and now. The difference is that, now, we have a well-fed, well-educated set of 16 and 17 year-olds who are vastly more mature than I was at that age, and that was 40 years ago. Let us get on with the present.
Let me turn to something that may excite the party opposite slightly less, which is the question of what may happen in practical terms if there is a change of franchise. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said that with a fair wind these matters could easily be accommodated—I hope that she will forgive me if I summarise what she said. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was, I think, suggesting that I had in some way misquoted the Electoral Commission, but I do not think that that is a fair accusation. Let me make entirely clear what the Electoral Commission said in its publication yesterday. The commission states that it is not the case that there must be a 12-month period between a change to the franchise and the referendum, or indeed any fixed period. Reports in the media that refer to the 12-month period are incorrect.
I ask the House’s indulgence while I quote accurately one paragraph from that publication:
“It is important that Parliament is aware that if the annual canvass does not fall before the electoral event that a franchise change applies to, a key opportunity is missed to get the new group of voters registered. This does not mean, however, that other options are not available to help get as many voters as possible on the register in the available timeframe. Although the scale of the challenge presented by some of these options should not be underestimated—and it must be borne in mind that every voter is now required to register themselves individually—this does not mean that steps cannot be taken to reduce the risks presented by them with proper planning and funding”.
I have no idea of the answer to that question. The Electoral Commission will no doubt do its best, as I said in Committee, to follow what Parliament decides should be the franchise. It is also the case that, once the Bill receives Royal Assent, there are things that can be done, notwithstanding that there are various steps necessary to implement the legislation; for example, setting the referendum date and the start date. It is a very considerable undertaking involving a great many people.
I echo the point made my noble friend Lord Forsyth that being left off the register is considered a matter of considerable importance. Although there can be a campaign to increase awareness, there is a real risk that this matter would not be achieved in a satisfactory way, notwithstanding the willingness of the Electoral Commission to assist.
Legislation as momentous as this must command consensus in both Houses and the country as a whole. Reference was made to a recent amendment voted on in this House to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill to allow 16 year-olds to vote: that was reversed by the House of Commons yesterday by a substantial majority.
A change of this sort needs substantial legislation; it is a very important change. We have decided that the appropriate franchise is the one that has pertained satisfactorily in previous referenda and general elections, one that pertains in every country in the EU except Austria. There may come a time for change, when we lower the age to 16. There may be a debate to be had. This is not the moment for that debate.
I thank noble Lords for participating in this debate. I have listened very carefully to the arguments put forward by the Minister and by others.
The one thing that we can all agree on is the need for us, at some point, to generally tidy up the inconsistencies around when young people are considered legally responsible for various aspects of their lives. But that is not the point of this amendment. Young people are the future of this nation. This is their one chance to have a say in this country’s relationship with the European Union. It is an exceptional case. They will have to live with the consequences of the result for longer than anyone. Let us show them that we have confidence in them, and that we respect them and their opinions. Let us give them a vote in the EU referendum.
I am not convinced by the arguments put forward by the Minister. Therefore, I would like to test the opinion of the House.