New Clause 5 - Reduction in voting age to be a reserved matter

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 16 July 2013.

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‘In Schedule 3 (Reserved matters) to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, after paragraph 7 insert—

7A The alteration to any age between 16 and 18 of the minimum voting age for elections to the Assembly or local government elections in Northern Ireland.”.’.—(Mark Durkan.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause relates to a reduction in the voting age, a matter that the whole House has discussed a number of times. I have voted for the reduction of the voting age in amendments to various Bills, and I have supported private Member’s Bills on the subject. The option is always to reduce the voting age to 16, but the Committee may have noticed that the chosen band in the new clause is between the ages of 16 and 18. I have chosen that band because I am conscious that in the south of Ireland the Constitutional Convention recommends amending the Irish constitution to reduce the voting age to 17. There will probably be a referendum next year.

I will not rehearse all the reasons why I believe in reducing the voting age, but if the age was 16 in the north and 17 in the south, some people might be happier to support the same age for north and south. The reason the proposal is to reduce the age to 17 in the south, rather than 16, is that the age of consent in the Republic is 17. In opting for 16 the Constitutional Convention did not want to be seen as opening up the issue of reducing the age of consent, as it felt that the arguments might get conflated and create tactical opposition to reducing the voting age to 16. People might have felt that the age of consent could similarly be reduced as well, and that 16 would then become the going rate, as it were. That is why the recommendation has been made for 17 in the south. I am still comfortable with the fact that I voted in this House for 16 as the voting age, because that is on a par with other things. However, I am conscious that under Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances, some may say that if they were to accept the option of reducing the voting age, they would not necessarily want the only option to be to reduce it to 16.

Again, this is a situation where, given the scope of the Bill in other parts, I thought that it was relevant to raise the issue. I will not rehearse all the arguments for and against voting at whatever age. Others can do so if they want, but again, the proposals lay down a marker indicating that many people support a reduction in the voting age. The Northern Ireland Assembly has voted with a majority for a reduced voting age, so the Assembly has expressed a will in that regard. I have been told, in relation to other amendments, that we have to be duly sensitive to the Assembly, that we have to take account of things that might be considered there, and that we have to consider the wishes of the institutions and the other parties, but I reflect that the Assembly has voted on this matter. I am not saying that it was overwhelming, or that the vote did not have its own divisions, but in that regard, we in this House essentially have a working prompt from the Assembly that it is open to the voting age being looked at. The new clause is a reply to that expression of interest on the Assembly’s part.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I know that that is the hon. Gentleman’s view, and I am aware of the vote that took place in the Assembly, but the Government do not feel that it is a matter for this Bill; it is a matter for United Kingdom  legislation. No other part of the UK—the devolved Assemblies—would have the powers to reduce the voting age from 18. I agree that further debates are needed, but elsewhere and not on this Bill. With that in mind, if the hon. Gentleman does not withdraw the amendment, we will oppose it.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am very tempted not to withdraw for once, but overall, I think it would be sensible to do so, simply because I do not want to put hon. Members on the spot or in any difficulty. I know that other hon. Members have found other ways to give, express and record their views in relation to other Divisions that have taken place on private Members’ Bills and other initiatives over the years. I do not wish to detain the Committee on the matter, which is why I did not get into all the arguments on the merits of reducing the voting age.

However, I make the point that the Assembly would have the power only in respect of Assembly elections and local government elections, but nothing else. Given the significant powers that we are entrusting to people on the possible future fixing of boundaries and other very sensitive electoral matters, I do not see that it is a particular jump to give the Assembly latitude over the voting age. The House has previously given latitude over the voting age to the Scottish Parliament, for instance, for the referendum in Scotland. I do not see that it is a big jump from that point of principle, to allowing devolved democratic institutions some latitude to widen their franchise, particularly for younger people.

I believe that younger people voting would be a very positive addition in Northern Ireland. Think of the positive impact, the visuals and the very clear statements that came from so many of the young people who gathered to hear President Obama, yet the vast majority of them would not have a vote. They might have more of an impact on political life in Northern Ireland and a more beneficial influence on the political parties and the political process if they were equipped with a vote earlier. They could make a bigger and better difference to our politics if they had the vote, but I will not to press the new clause to a Division to secure a negative or a discouraging result for those many young people in Northern Ireland who would like the voting age lowered.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.