New Clause 4 - Voting age for parliamentary elections to be 16

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 26th October 2021.

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“In section 1(1)(d) (definition of voting age for parliamentary elections) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, for “18” substitute “16”.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 8—Voting from age 16 in parliamentary elections—

“In section 1(1)(d) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (definition of voting age for parliamentary elections), for “18” substitute “16”.”

This new clause would lower the voting age to 16 in UK parliamentary elections.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

It gives me enormous pleasure to move new clause 4, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North. The SNP believes passionately in this and has supported lowering the voting age for all UK elections since the 1960s.

Winnie Ewing, our first Member of Parliament, spoke about the franchise for 16 and 17-year-olds in her maiden speech way back in 1967, so we come at this as early adopters of the idea. It was with enormous pride that the SNP Government introduced the franchise for 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. That gave us all an enormous sense of pride.

To give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote is to say that they have an equal say and as much of a stake in the future of the country as any other age group—[Interruption.] Sorry, was there an intervention or was that just a general murmur? That Scottish independence referendum set a precedent: it said that 16 and 17-year-olds should have a say on all constitutional issues that affect them. Subsequently, their voting record in Scottish parliamentary and local elections has proven that they are no more or less capable than any other age group in society of making an informed decision. We are absolutely delighted that the Scottish example was followed very quickly by the Welsh Senedd. Now, Welsh 16 and 17-year-olds can vote in elections for their own national Parliament.

The same young people, however, alongside their peers in England and Northern Ireland, cannot have a say on which Government is elected to this place. It is striking that the issue has become so divisive and partisan, particularly given that the last UK-wide lowering of the voting age—from 21 to 18 years old back in 1967—attracted little or no attention or controversy. It is even more remarkable not only because the UK was one of the first democracies to lower the voting age to 18, but because there is now overwhelming proof that lowering the voting age to 16 and 17 years old works. Scotland has shown that it works, so this is not a step into the darkness or a wander into the unknown, but unlike the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years old, it has become hugely controversial, divisive and partisan.

Even though it has demonstrably worked in Scotland and Wales, for some unfathomable reason, this Government are implacably opposed to extending the franchise to young people. Why would a healthy, confident, robust and functioning democracy fear more people having the vote? The point of a democracy is that we all bring different things to it. We all have different perspectives and opinions and different things to say. If someone is allowed the responsibilities that come with citizenship, they should have the same rights.

The Government’s position is indefensible. Decisions are made daily in this House that directly affect and have an impact on young people’s lives. I almost crave an intervention from Government Members. Why is there such opposition to lowering the voting age to include 16 and 17-year olds? I wrote my notes as a challenge in the hope that somebody would explain and put on the record why they are so distrustful of 16 and 17-year-olds.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Indeed, but we have been arguing throughout the Bill that the Government are trying to suppress democracy, and this just goes to show that they are not even willing to allow their Back Benchers to engage with such a fundamentally important proposition. Is it not even more ironic that the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament supported votes at 16? Perhaps what that demonstrates is that the Government view the devolved Assemblies as lesser places, so they can have strange experiments and expand the franchise if they want to because they do not have the supremacy that this place enjoys.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I admire my hon. Friend’s powers of provocation, and still the Government Members slumber. Still nobody gets to their feet—[Interruption.] I will take that intervention. No, it was not an intervention. It was just a chuntering from a sedentary position. Perhaps the Minister could speak for them all. Can she explain to us why this is okay for Scotland and Wales? Why, when it has been so demonstrably successful in both of those devolved Administrations, are the Government so absolutely opposed to extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds? The Conservative party in Scotland is okay with it. Someone will tell me if the Conservative party in Wales is not, but, as far as I am aware, it did not oppose it. Why is it okay for Scotland and Wales, and not okay for young people in England and Northern Ireland?

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

I rise to speak to new clause 8, tabled by me and my hon. Friends. It was good timing for the SNP spokesperson to open the debate on the age of enfranchisement. The Labour party would extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The Welsh Labour Government have done it, and we have seen it work well for a number of years in Scotland. We know that the record of voting in the Scottish parliamentary and local elections proved that 16 and 17-year-olds are more than capable of casting their votes and making informed decisions.

Since this year’s Senedd elections, Welsh 16 and 17-year-olds can now vote for their Members of the Senedd. The experience of the Scottish referendum showed that, when given a chance, 16 and 17-year-olds have a higher rate of turnout than 18 to 24-year-olds, with 75% voting, and 97% say that they would vote in future elections. Only 3% said that they did not know. That flies in the face of some of the arguments that I have occasionally heard in opposition to this idea, although we have not heard any yet today, that say that young people would not be well informed. We know from analysis of the referendum in Scotland that 16 and 17-year-old voters accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age group, so, arguably, they are incredibly well informed and not necessarily biased towards one political persuasion.

A lowering of the voting age has been called for many times over the years. I have called for it many times since I was elected. It would enable young people to have their first experience of voting, often when they are still in full-time education. I know from studies that I have read over the years that if an elector votes the first time that they are eligible to vote in an election, they are far more likely to go on to develop a lifetime habit of voting and engaging in democracy. Again, it comes back to security in elections. One of the best ways we can make our elections safer and more secure is by increasing turnout. A good way of increasing turnout in the long term is to maximise the number of people whose first opportunities to vote come when they are still in full-time education, when they are still very much supported to vote.

At the moment, with the voting age for England and Northern Ireland coming in at 18—it has been 18 for UK general elections, and in Scotland and Wales as well—for many young people their first vote comes at a time of great change in their lives. They might be starting out in the world of work, might have gone off to university to study, or might have recently moved out of the family home. It is far better that we give young people an opportunity to vote and give the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds so that we can increase the chances of an electorate that is engaged in the process and that votes. That is better for the security of elections.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, who is clearly suffering from significant amnesia if he claims not to have heard the arguments on votes at 16. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, the subject has been debated time and again, certainly every single year since 2010. There is no need for me to rehash the arguments. I ask him to ask his parliamentary researcher to research Hansard. Given our manifesto commitment to maintain the current franchise at 18, and having been elected on that principle, the Government have no plans to lower the voting age. We will not support the new clause.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Yet again the Minister is outrageously dismissive. A part of her job is to answer questions in Committee. This is an important Committee. To say, “Go and ask an SNP researcher” is an absolute outrage. Minister, you have a responsibility to this House to answer direct questions and I am afraid you have been sadly lacking in doing that. We will not push the clause to a vote this afternoon, but we will test the will of the House on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.