Today's debate is on one of the most important subjects for Parliament. The health of our democracy should be, and is, a real source of pride to us all. Hard-won freedoms such as freedom of speech and association, free movement, religious freedom and the right to vote are important principles, and they have all helped to create our democracy. However, there is a real sense of unease—a sense that all is not well and that something must be done. There is a feeling that alienation from the formal political process is growing, and nowhere is that alienation more acute than among our young people.
We must confront the context in which the debate takes place. The turnout in the 2001 election was appalling. Involvement in politics is not just about voting, but the record level of apathy, especially among young people, is a challenge to us all. Only 59 per cent. of people voted in the 2001 election compared with the 71 per cent. who voted in 1997, but that was 10 per cent. lower than at any election since universal suffrage was introduced in 1928. One cannot help comparing that figure with the number of people who voted in the "Pop Idol" competition. That may seem a trivial point, but it shows what can happen when people are motivated and interested. When it is easy to vote, people become more involved. I do not want to be a part of a democracy in which a minority vote in a Government; that is unhealthy for democracy.
What do some of those young people say? In a book published by Demos in 1999 called "The Real Deal", some disaffected young people gave their views. I shall quote some of them. A 21-year-old white British man said:
"I've got no plans to vote on any elections or anything. I don't feel that it makes much difference. I haven't noticed any difference in my life in the change of government. The only change of government that's been while I've been alive, I've not noticed any difference. I don't think that there would be any difference."
A black British woman said:
"No. Not really. I'm just not a political person. I don't really care one way or the other. Although some people get really upset when you say that, they think, 'Oh you should care, it's your world, your country too' but you know, I never think what I think is going to make any difference at the end of the day, I'd rather use my energies thinking about something else that matters for me."
We need to listen to what young people are saying. I reject emphatically the argument that young people are not interested in politics, that they are selfish and are therefore unconcerned about what is going on.
The word "apathetic" implies laziness. I believe that we, as politicians, need to ask why it is happening; we should ask whether we are to blame rather than trying to externalise the problem. We need to consider how we should respond to young people's disaffection. I believe that they are concerned and interested, but they want to feel that their voice, their vote, their view, can make a real difference to the decisions that are made. They want to feel that their involvement can change things.
We should consider the passion with which young people involve themselves in single issues. When we visit schools or youth clubs, young people tackle us about issues such as the environment, rights at work, poverty at home and abroad, animal welfare and drugs. They challenge us on the issues of fairness, equality and ethnicity—the whole range of social issues that confront us. Those young people have a real point to make about those issues, and we should listen to them.
The MORI poll cited in the "The Real Deal" states that 84 per cent. of young people consulted by MORI said that they did not trust politicians, and 70 per cent. said they had never been consulted about their needs by politicians. I tend to feel defensive when I read such statistics; my immediate reaction is, "Well, I do this and that, and I try to do my best"—but we should confront the issue and recognise that a real challenge lies before us. To overcome that apathy, disaffection and mistrust, we need much more direct contact between politicians and young people and more direct consultation on the issues. We need to break down the barriers. The media have a fundamental role in that, not only by holding us to account and but by concentrating on the real issues.
My hon. Friend may be surprised to hear that when I consulted young people under 24 before the last election, I had a far better response rate from them than from the rest of the population. More than 33 per cent. of those who were asked questions responded, which shows that young people are interested in the issues. However, the most significant point that emerged was that they did not have enough information to make key decisions on the issues that we were trying to consult them about.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and confirms my belief that when one has direct contact with young people, they have opinions to express. Young people simply want the opportunity to express their opinions.
My hon. Friend referred to the need for information, and I shall deal with the question of citizenship education later. It is important to ensure that people have information, but the key point of my argument is that young people's view of the political process and of politicians changes for the better whenever we consult and involve them directly, and make them feel that their voice is not only listened to but acted on, and that they are informing the decisions that are made.
The media have a role to play. A debate is currently taking place about the dumbing down of the media, which is an important issue. We would not want that to happen, but we should bear it in mind that the media play an important role in representing politics and providing a connection between politicians and the general public—not least with young people. The media's attempts to find new ways of programming, rather than defeating the desire of politicians to inform people, may have the opposite effect if they are successful in helping to engage young people. Although no one wants there to be any dumbing down, we need to consider how programming might help, especially with respect to young people. The BBC, independent television, radio and the newspapers are considering that issue.
To reinforce the importance of direct consultation, I shall quote the views of a young person who attended a consultation event in Cardiff. Some hold the view that we are not real people—to the extent that when we go out shopping in the supermarket, people say, "What are you doing here?" and we have to explain, "Actually, I'm shopping." Some people seem to think that we do not do normal things such as shopping. The young person in Cardiff said,
"Yeah. We've got this thing about politicians being all prim and proper, no family problems and when we was at one of the meetings we were saying, like we had to go round in circles saying something about ourselves and like who our idol was. And we had to say about our mothers and one politician turned round and said it would have to be my sister because she's a single parent mother and all her kids done really well in school and it made me realise it isn't two parent families and stuff like that. Which was good to realise."
That is an important point about a part of the process that somehow, when we talk about our democracy, we have to generate. We have to ensure that people realise that politicians are also human beings who live in society and the community, and use the hospitals and schools, as others do. Direct contact and consultation can help break down those barriers. However, young people will say that consultation must lead to action and change, and not merely be a talking shop.
As my hon. Friend Mr. Reed mentioned, the introduction of citizenship education in our schools is crucial. It should not teach facts alone, although facts are important and people have to understand how Parliament works, how Members of Parliament are elected, what a council does and how councillors are elected. Young people must also be given a feeling of how the system can be used to try to change things. In their schools, they must be involved in decision making, so that they have real experience of democracy in action as well as factual knowledge about how it is supposed to work. Alongside citizenship education, the capacity of schools to change in response to what their young people say is important, as is the development of school councils and other such bodies.
The Government are to be congratulated on some of their actions to give young people a more effective voice locally and nationally, and the Minister will no doubt build on that point. For example, the UK Youth Parliament is an exciting initiative aimed at bringing young people into the heart of Government. I hope that we can build on it, and I shall speak more about it later. Youth councils are being established locally, and regional assemblies are linking up with the UK Youth Parliament. Sue Mansell, a citizenship co-ordinator, is working extremely hard to establish youth councils throughout my county of Nottinghamshire.
The children and young people's unit has been established and is encouraging Departments to consult and involve young people. Recently, the Department for Education and Skills held a consultation event with young people from all over the country. They spoke to the Government about what they thought should be in the Education Bill, what they thought was wrong with it, how they felt that it should be improved, and what differences they would make if they took the decisions. Those young people were invited to another meeting a week ago, and were met not only by Members of the House, including me, but by Members of the other House. We talked to them about some of the changes to be made in response to their comments. More such involvement is important. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has organised many open days for young people, to encourage them to see it as an important part of Government and to encourage a wider diversity of applicants for jobs there. Across Government, changes are being made.
I recently visited the Monty Hind centre in Nottingham, which is the Nottinghamshire base for the National Association of Clubs for Young People. We need to ensure that all the changes that the Government make, whether in terms of resources or of policy consultation, reach down to the grass roots and the children at the sharp end.
You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as will many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, that many MPs are trying new and exciting ideas to involve more young people in their constituencies. They are meeting young people and setting up websites and e-mail addresses, among other things, to try to engender links. However, we also have to recognise that the disengagement from the formal political process is real, and that there is a growing demand by young people for quicker decision making, faster change and more direct access to the process.
It was interesting to note that a poll conducted by Charter 88 in conjunction with the YMCA in August 2001 stated that a significant number of 16 and 17-year-olds—47 per cent.—said that voting could have a lot of influence, but that the figure for 20 to 22-year-olds dropped to 35 per cent. I do not think that 47 per cent. or 35 per cent. are necessarily significant figures for those who say that voting can make a difference. They do show, however, that we have an awful lot to do, and that an awful lot of change needs to take place.
There are a couple of issues that we need to consider. We must continue to think about the modernisation of Parliament. In the 21st century, we are still bound by tradition and forced to use antiquated language and procedures, which many young people see as irrelevant. I do not want change for change's sake, but Parliament must modernise itself if it is to be more relevant to the young people whom we represent.
Another important point is that Parliament should not be unnecessarily confrontational. The introduction of debates in Westminster Hall has resulted in an important change: some of the unnecessary party politicking has been taken out of our debates, which have sometimes been of a much higher quality as a result. Young people, in particular, are turned off by party political points being made just for the sake of it, rather than to advance a good argument. People understand that there are sometimes difficult issues, but Members of Parliament should seek solutions, not score party political points for no apparent reason.
We should also examine electronic means to enable young people to express their views directly to Parliament more easily. I am no great wizard with such things, but we should consider introducing interactive websites and chatrooms. We should explore the whole range of opportunities.
We must consult young people more widely on policy initiatives. We have heard practical ideas about how to make voting easier, and that will be important. I have said before that we need a debate about the age at which people are entitled to vote. We should change the suffrage, and the voting age should be reduced to 16. The age at which people may be elected should be reduced to 18, and the Electoral Reform Society and children's organisations such as Save the Children have supported a campaign to achieve that. Hon. Members will have heard it argued that although 16-year-olds can do a variety of things, such as joining the armed forces, marrying, and paying tax and national insurance, they cannot vote. We should deal with that anomaly.
We should also consider giving the UK Youth Parliament a budget. We can argue about the amount, but why not tell the young people involved, "We will consult you, and you will have a budget to spend." Why not give them £10 million and say that they can spend it as they deem appropriate? Why not give the Parliament's youth committees a budget to spend? Why not make councils establish youth committees and give them budgets that they must spend? There would be real decision making, real responsibility and real money to spend. Of course, those involved will waste money, but we ourselves cannot honestly put our hands on our hearts and say that we have never spent a few pounds that, in retrospect, we know could have been spent more wisely.
We should see young people not as a problem, but as a solution to many of the problems that we face. We have problems with crime on the street, drugs and poor behaviour in schools; indeed, there are a host of problems right across society. Why do we not involve young people by asking them, "What solutions can you suggest?"? If our young people were more involved in developing policies to deal with problems, we would make better policy changes.
There can be no greater challenge confronting individual Members of Parliament, or Parliament itself, than to rejuvenate and regenerate our democracy; it is crucial to re-engage the many young people who have lost confidence in the formal political process. The question is whether we are brave enough to make the decisions that need to be made.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker. I have shared an office with him for nearly five years—although I have not been shopping with him—but this is the first time that I have taken part in a debate alongside him. Many hon. Members will know that he has been consistent in speaking and listening to young people, both in the House and outside. He has taken part in a number of initiatives, to which he has referred, and he and I are well acquainted with Save the Children.
What motivates people most strongly to participate? It is when they feel that they are going to lose something, or are going to have something imposed on them—that is a psychological motivator. Leon Festinger talked about the cognitive dissonance theory: if we feel that a force is threatening our balanced view of the world and what we perceive to be right, we will act. However, if we feel that our participation will have no effect, it is likely that we will not engage. An example of that would be compulsory voting. If any political party said that if it were elected it would impose compulsory voting, turnout would rise; people would not want to have that imposed on them and any political party that suggested it would be either voted out of office or not elected.
Many hon. Members see that involvement at local level, particularly over controversial planning applications—mobile phone masts are topical for all of us. The community comes alive when people, young, old and middle-aged, want to resist something. They work hard for their communities and put in a lot of time and effort because they feel that they can affect something that matters to them. If we try to galvanise the same level of support, volunteering and community action for an environmental project, people are not so forthcoming or eager.
Consider the 1992 general election, when participation was higher than in the subsequent two elections. People felt that there was a real competition, and that there was something to lose if they did not vote. In 1997 and in 2001, particularly 2001, the press told us that the result was a foregone conclusion. How many doors did we all knock on to be told, "They're going to win anyway," even if we eagerly spoke of our majority and urged people to go out and vote? That is part of the equation.
I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the press dumbing down. We also heard at the last election that it was fashionable not to vote; people said, "Don't bother." That does not necessarily have an impact on which party people support, but it does affect whether they participate. People have argued about whether there was a golden age of participation and turnout, and from the 1920s until 1997, the percentage turnout was in the mid-70s, so the golden age, if there was one, ended in 2001.
The issue is important for my constituency, which is the youngest in Kent in terms both of its creation and of its population. It might surprise hon. Members to know that it also has the youngest Member of Parliament in Kent. Time has not been that kind to me, but even more depressing than my hairline is the fact that my constituency also had the lowest turnout in Kent. Although it is not the most affluent area in the country, it is far from being the kind of deprived inner-city area normally associated with low turnout.
All the political parties try to portray themselves as youthful organisations. Tune in to the party conferences and the leaders come on, the camera pans round, and—funnily enough—the two or three front rows are full of young people. The average age at the Labour party conference seems to be about 19 or even younger—although at the Tory party conference it is about 90. We have tried text messaging, birthday cards and first-time voter cards, but those measures have not had much effect.
Although young people's voting participation has gone down, as has that of the rest of the population, it is a question of more than just apathy and disillusionment. We need to recognise the potential seriousness of the situation, as my hon. Friend said. However, the news is not all bad—there have been advances in involving young people in politics, which will not necessarily increase participation, but will lead to the better formulation of policy.
Before my election to the House I was a social worker working with young people leaving care. For me, one of the proudest achievements of the Labour Government is the assistance that we have given young people through the quality protects programme. That programme involved a huge and worthwhile consultation process right across the country, which culminated in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. There was a great campaign among young people and interested non-governmental organisations to raise the statutory age for leaving care to 21. That was implemented, and the Government went further, ensuring that if young people were in education or training, they could stay on until the age of 24.
That was an example of cause and effect. Young people were involved in consultation, had their say and affected the outcome. Directness is the key. If there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, young people will engage—as will the rest of the population.
The youth parliaments are an excellent example of the involvement of young people in politics. My hon. Friend referred to his, and I am bound to refer to my own in the Medway towns. The Ofsted report on the local education authority in my constituency reported that
"The youth parliament is an impressive organisation for involving young people directly in good citizenship. It is rapidly gaining respect for its contributions to the social debate. It includes representatives of all the schools and other organisations for young people".
Patrick Gearey, the public relations member of the cabinet drawn from the youth parliament, sent me that passage from the report. He seems to be getting his act together very well. The council has provided the parliament with £20,000, and it takes care of its own administrative costs with that money.
As my hon. Friend said, if we want young people to be involved, we should make it real by giving them money to make decisions about. They should have to tackle the sort of tough decision that we wring our hands about, such as those we have to make when trying to find solutions to the problems presented by young people.
The citizens curriculum is long overdue. School life has been dominated by academic performance, and although that is important, it has not assisted young people to cultivate ideas about the community and the wider society. We need thinkers as well as people who can pass examinations.
I took part in an exercise with sixth formers, talking about the events of
Focusing on academic performance alone has led to the sanitisation of education. I have great hopes for the teaching of citizenship. I left school in the 1980s. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has referred to pop idols, and in the 1980s, pop bands were singing about unemployment: "I am the one in 10." I will not rehearse all the lyrics, but pop bands were talking about social issues and there was a rawness, which, like my hairline, has receded, so we must find new solutions.
I endorse the point about giving 16-year-olds the opportunity to vote. My hon. Friend referred to several things that people can do at 16 and 17. We are giving out mixed messages and we must be bold. My hon. Friend talked about entering the armed forces and getting married, but at 16 a young person can also enter and live in a brothel—I did not know that until I did some research. We allow people of that age to take considerable risks, and surely if we would allow them to live in a brothel, casting a vote for a Member of Parliament will not be beyond them.
It would be wrong to introduce such a measure without having a national debate. Young people's participation almost needs electric shock treatment. I suggest that we should have a referendum, which would bring alive young people's issues as never before. Unless we reverse the apathy we shall have minority elections, as my hon. Friend said. None of us wants that. For the sake of the institutions that make up our democracy, which we cherish, we must find bold solutions. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the issue today.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on initiating the debate. I know that he has a long-standing interest in issues that affect young people. Much of what I want to say will illustrate the points that he has made.
During the recent parliamentary recess, I visited two schools in my constituency, Easthill and Newfield. I met groups of about 12 young people between the ages of 14 and 16 of varying abilities and, no doubt, varying interest in political issues. The issues that they raised were of great interest to me. They ranged from the role of a Member of Parliament—one young person asked, "What time do you finish work at night?"—to general questions about fundamental issues. I was asked, "What are taxes for?" and "Why can I get my glasses free until the age of 18 but have to pay for them after that?"
Some of those young people were beginning to link up the elements of what it means to be an adult, such as paying taxes and receiving services, with issues such as why young people get certain things free while others do not. They were also interested to know what the Government were doing about the theft of mobile phones. There was a lovely moment in the discussion when the teacher in the group confessed that he did not quite understand what the young people were talking about, because he was not familiar with the things that were important to them, such as SIM cards. That was an opportunity to ask young people for their ideas about how to reduce the problems that they face every day after school and when they are out with friends.
The young people also raised many current issues that we debate here and on the Floor of the House, such as the MMR injection. They wanted to understand why the Prime Minister took the stance that he did about his family. There was an interesting debate about the change of classification of cannabis, with people saying, "I won't get into trouble if I've got cannabis. I can't sell it or acquire it from anyone, but if I'm carrying it, I'm only going to get told off." The participants were trying to work their way around those ideas and to raise some of the issues that affect young people today.
It will not be a surprise that student grants were discussed. So was the royal family and my views about it—and why, given those views, I was not prepared to do something about them. Foxhunting was of course discussed. The issues raised were those that were on our own agenda last week and will be there for months to come.
I was impressed by the fact that each group had been well prepared for the event. They had been well prepared by their teachers, but they had also prepared themselves. One group had spent the previous afternoon using the internet to research statistics, using them effectively and investigating the background of issues. They talked from a position of strength, having marshalled their facts. Some of them could give Jeremy Paxman a run for his money. If I am ever invited on "Newsnight" I shall definitely ask those young people to put me through my paces beforehand, because I am sure that his questions would be no tougher than theirs.
As part of my campaigning as a politician, I enjoy running street stalls, even in cold weather. People often say, "I'm not interested in politics," which is not the sort of thing that politicians want to hear. However, by that people often mean that they are not interested in us or what we do, and do not feel connected to it. They are not interested in what is written about in the newspapers, and strangely, they—unlike us—do not want to spend large parts of their lives attending meetings and sitting around talking about issues or leafleting. It may seem odd to us, but that is not the life that most people choose.
People are, however, interested in the stuff of their own lives. Just like young people in schools, they are interested in issues that affect them, such as their children's schooling. We have all experienced the phenomenon mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Shaw: when something is about to be taken away from people, they turn out to meetings. There is no doubt that a proposal to close or merge a school will result in a room full of parents—and sometimes a room full of children and young people. People are interested in everyday issues, such as who is collecting the rubbish, but they also care about other issues, such as the wider environment, cruelty to animals, war and poverty.
It is up to us to engage with people about the issues that we care about—but we, and the institutions of politics, are often seen as not relevant or not accessible. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling that politicians are not seen as real people. It makes a real difference if a Member of Parliament has the opportunity to meet people and tell them, for example, "I used to come and play hockey at this school when I was your age," and to explain that their backgrounds are perhaps not dissimilar—perhaps there may be a connection with parents, or some other connection.
People feel disempowered and unable to influence policies or decisions. Changing those feelings is not easy. If we had the answer, we would be busy providing it already, but today we have heard good examples of what can be done. Real opportunities exist now to start work with young people. Citizenship education is being introduced. However, I also agree with my hon. Friend that it is crucial that young people should be involved from an early age in influencing their own lives and that they should be consulted about what affects them. Where better for that to happen than in school? We have heard examples of school councils, and other mechanisms are available too.
Meersbrook Bank primary school in my constituency has a school council. I recently worked with several schools, inviting them to collect old European coins that were no longer of any value, and give them to Save the Children. We raised several hundred pounds from that. When I went to the school to pick up the coins, I found out that the issue had been put to the school council. I was relieved to learn that the council had voted that it was a good thing to do; the children had decided that they wanted to take part. Children as young as five, six and seven were making decisions. Four members of the school council gave the coins to me and I asked what they talked about in the school council. They told me that it was problems that were experienced in the school—whether with teachers, with the tuck shop, or with running in the corridor. Young people were involved at an early age in helping to resolve issues, and I thought that that was an excellent example.
We have to make the issues relevant. We should make an effort to meet young people from an early age and should encourage our colleagues in local councils to go out and do the same. Young people might not have the vote, but they are still citizens and members of the community in our constituencies. We should encourage schools to involve pupils in appropriate decisions within their schools so that they learn about discussion and compromise, about the art of the possible—as we should perhaps call politics—and about democratic processes.
There are real opportunities in councils and there are good examples around the country of councils that involve young people in best value reviews and in looking at the development of local plans. That practice should be spread. The UK Youth Parliament is a good place for young people to pass information among themselves. They might say, "We are doing this in our area, why not get in touch with your council and ask to be involved as well?"
We should involve them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has said, in consultation on legislation and Government guidance that affects them. Politics is about people's daily lives; they need to know how to have their say—it can and does make a difference. One way for us to help with that is to engage with children and young people outside the voting system as well as encouraging them to take part in that system when they reach 18.
It is a pleasure to take part in what has not yet become a debate—the excellent contributions from my three esteemed colleagues have been along largely the same lines. However, this is a vital issue and I congratulate my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on securing the debate. He will remember—neither of us will ever forget it—our trip to Angola in September. In the desperate circumstances of one of the most difficult places on earth for children to grow up in, some of the most powerful messages that reached us came directly from young people—astoundingly, from members of the Angolan youth parliament. That country, which has had one election in the past quarter of a century, manages to sustain a youth parliament, and I received an e-mail from one of those young people the other day.
I had an excellent evening on Saturday. I was put through my paces at a regional meeting at Charnock Richard of all the newly elected members of the Youth Parliament from the north-west, from Cheshire to Cumbria. Their contributions were polite, extremely articulate, well formed, challenging and to the point, and came from a perspective that no one in this Room has. They talked knowledgeably and passionately about the problems of education, access to public transport and young people living in rural areas. We discussed a range of issues and one speech was about care.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Shaw, as he and I have shared many moments in this Parliament of good discussion with young people on the all-party group on children and young people in care. Any Member can join the group and come along, generally on the third Wednesday of the month at 6 pm, to be challenged by young people whom many in the House and the country would, to be frank, patronise.
Those young people have missed out on educational opportunities and had dreadful life experiences. Regrettably, their peers often end up homeless, in prison or in other bad circumstances. Those who come along to meet young people in care, who often make journeys of hundreds of miles to reach this place, find that they know the subjects that they are talking about better than we do. We know that from debates with all young people. They are strong, powerful, articulate, intelligent, have important points to make and want action from Members of Parliament.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling was right when he described how we should try to attend to issues about which our young people are passionately concerned. We should afford them the opportunities to use discrete and realistic budgets, and have the confidence to allow them to make the mistakes that everyone makes in handling money and other such matters.
The Youth Parliament is extremely important, but we should avoid any sense of tokenism. It is in the hands of every Member of Parliament to build good links with their local Youth Member of Parliament. If my local YMP wants to be part of my constituency team and share office resources in order to carry out his work, there is no reason why he cannot do so. He could shadow me as I engage with local issues and, as a quid pro quo, he could help me enormously in engaging with the local youth forum and local young people on the issues that matter to them. The contribution of YMPs and young people in general can enrich the work of MPs and the way in which the House operates in terms of the interests not only of children and young people, but of our whole society.
I do not completely buy into the argument that we should have voting at 16, as it could be tokenistic. We must enrich and deepen our political culture so that the engagement and participation of children and young people is much more fully developed. Why should we talk only about 16-year-olds? I vividly recall a visit to a local primary school on which a boy aged nine—chronologically, at least—looked over the top of his spectacles and solemnly asked precisely what were my party's recycling policies. Let us not be ageist; many children have important points to make.
Before we change voting ages, we must appoint a children's rights commissioner. He would be known to children and be appointed and involved at the highest levels of government. He would embody and promote a culture in which children's voices were heard in every Corridor in this place, in every corridor in Whitehall and in local government. It is important that a commissioner is appointed along the same lines as in Wales, and I sincerely hope that there will be commissioners in Northern Ireland and Scotland, too.
I commend the Government's work on children in care and helping children and young people to participate: the children and young people's unit is doing exciting work; the Department of Health has played a vital role by bringing in young people to work on issues such as the quality protects programme and the new standards for children in care; and the Government have set up the children-led organisation, A National Voice. That is another major development, but we must extend such initiatives and build on the efforts to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling referred.
I refer hon. Members to the work of the all-party group on children, which I chair jointly with my noble Friend Baroness Massey. We are working with the Youth Parliament on ways to enable a discrete group of trained and supported YMPs to take a full part in all our meetings. Again, I recommend that hon. Members come along, because those young people have important points to make, know a great deal and are extremely challenging. The whole process is very enjoyable.
The participation of children and young people in the work of government is the next big idea, and this country must take it on board. Only when we fully listen to and engage with young people and act on their needs and wishes, and only when they see developments taking place, policies being promoted and resources going into the aspects of life that they regard as important, will we start to build the strongly participative culture that our democracy needs.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on securing a debate on this important issue, which politicians must tackle. One of the greatest difficulties for politicians is that many young people see us as on the outside and not connected to the issues that concern them in their everyday lives. I refer to a recent Centrepoint survey in which young people were asked why they see no reason to vote. Some said that it is because they are not registered to vote. Others did not know how to register and were not registered at their current address—the mobility of young people causes problems with voting. Young people also felt that their vote was irrelevant and would make no difference to what happened. That is one of our biggest problems. We need to tackle it in terms of the whole community, but especially in terms of young people.
How do we make the connection between young people casting their vote and what is delivered and makes a difference to their lives? We could all name initiatives that we know to have made a major difference in our communities, but our problem is that we do not get that message across enough. That is not a question of party politics and whether Labour or another party is in power; it is about ensuring that people feel a real connection and know who is responsible for what. That is why citizenship studies are crucial.
We have lost a generation of young people who have little interest in the political process. I do not say that they have little interest in politics—the real issues that affect their everyday lives—but they are not interested in party barracking, whether a Minister is in trouble or whether someone has resigned. They want to know what we are doing that will affect their everyday lives. We need to examine how Parliament and the Government can devise a process of education that empowers young people.
Young people do not want to express their opinions, whether in debate or through voting in elections, because they do not understand what difference it will make. They do not understand who is responsible for what. How many times have Members of Parliament been confused with local councillors? How many of us deal with issues that are the responsibility of local councillors? The difference between those responsibilities is misunderstood not just by young people, but by the population in general. We need to get more information about the system across, so that people feel empowered to make their voices heard.
We also send out confusing messages about young people. We say that we want them to participate in the political process, but we also see them as the problem. When we talk about crime, we often refer to young people, but in the vast majority of cases they are the victims. They are more likely to be attacked, whether in a mobile phone theft or an assault, than people from any other section of the community, but we see them as the problem because some hang around estates in the evenings and are considered a threat. We need to engage to find out what we can do to help them to gain some control over their lives.
The opportunities available to a young person of 20 have expanded and are much more advanced than those available to someone of similar age 20 or 30 years ago. A 20-year-old is now likely to be better educated and to have more disposable income and more employment opportunities, but although they have all those material things, they often lose community and family support and the sense of knowing where they fit in. We need to tackle that issue.
The all-party youth affairs group wants to involve more young people in the parliamentary and political process on the issues that concern them in the manner used by my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson in the all-party group on children. We want them to be able to make a difference. Recently, my hon. Friend Phil Hope and I were involved in taking a group of young people from a YMCA around the House of Commons on an interactive tour. Instead of us dictating to them what we thought they should know, they were asked what they wanted to hear about the House of Commons, the workings of Parliament and the work of a Member of Parliament.
Rather than engaging a small number of people in the current process, do we not need to change our politics? We want to encourage young people to get involved, but the current process turns off young people and other constituents. Do we not need to modernise the way in which we do things?
My hon. Friend is right. I hope that more hon. Members come up with ideas about how to engage young people's interest and listen to what they have to say.
Time is moving on, so I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling for obtaining this important debate. We need to begin talking to young people, not just in our constituencies, but as a Parliament and a Government. I fully support my hon. Friend's idea that the voting age should be reduced to 16. I realise that it is not universally popular, but it sends out the message that we are interested in young people voting. We know that Members of Parliament spend time with pensioners because pensioners vote, so perhaps politicians would be more interested in listening to young people if they voted in greater numbers.
I, too, congratulate Vernon Coaker on obtaining the debate, not least because it gives me the opportunity to make my first speech as Liberal Democrat youth spokesman.
At 23, I was elected and became the youngest ever member of South Shropshire district council, having become involved in politics only 12 months before. I contacted someone with whom I had been at university. She shared a house in a different part of the country with another girl, with whom we had also been at university. After our conversation, she said to her friend, "Matthew's just been elected a councillor." Her friend, a graduate and an intelligent young woman, said, "But I thought Matthew was honest." That is an aspect of the problem: the perception that we change as soon as we enter politics and are no longer ordinary members of society. We need to go some way to break down those barriers.
I have noticed, as I am sure other hon. Members have, that people who turn up to surgeries tend to be older. Indeed, when I take up an issue for a younger person, even someone in their 20s, it is often because a parent has visited me. Such a parent might say, "My daughter lives in a council house that is not up to standard. Will you try to sort it out?" That is part of the issue that we have to deal with. Young people do not even see us as a potential solution to individual problems.
"Radio 1 believes that its target audience of 15-24 year olds are not disinterested or depoliticised. But they are fed up with the sterile and formulaic Westminster political coverage—men in suits"—
I am guilty of that—
"shouting at each other in parliamentary jargon across the dispatch box. Every time we ask for their opinions online on paying higher taxes to fund the NHS, tuition fees or foxhunting, we get a massive, passionate and thoughtful response. So this isn't about de-politicised youth—it's about Westminster not being relevant."
For a long time, young people have thought that we do not discuss their issues. For instance, the biggest step forward in debating the problem of drugs was taken by the previous shadow Home Secretary who, in what may have been a moment of madness, suggested even tougher penalties for cannabis use. The result was that half the shadow Cabinet suddenly spoke up to reveal that they perhaps had somewhat different experience of cannabis. That freed up the political debate on cannabis, which young people have been discussing for years, believing that we are completely out of touch. The House was afraid to discuss the issue as it is discussed on the street, but ironically, the previous shadow Home Secretary took a significant step forward.
We must accept that although some solutions are in the Government's control—I am keen to hear the Minister's response on those—some are not. I am afraid that we are all guilty. There is a tendency to patronise young people and the attitude is that we know what is best for them. We should be asking them for their views, and in the case of 16-year-olds, their votes.
We have heard about making voting easier by allowing it at supermarkets or on the internet. Those suggestions may be welcome and sensible, but they will not solve the problem, because they are window dressing. The difficulties go much deeper. We have also heard about better education. I welcome that and the teaching of citizenship at schools. I particularly welcome the Youth Parliament. I have been invited to join the board of trustees, and I am delighted to do so. The Youth Parliament is a key to increased youth involvement in politics.
Organisations such as the YMCA have undertaken a number of interesting initiatives that try to get young people to debate the issues, and at the last general election it was able to increase young people's participation in voting. I must praise other initiatives such as the Westminster day, which is a cross-party event organised by Liberal Democrat Youth and Students that took place a few weeks ago. I was delighted that the Prime Minister, who was joined by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders, became the first Prime Minister to speak at the event. That shows that they are perhaps taking the issue more seriously and highlights the fact that the Prime Minister's response to my question on votes at 16 was surprisingly out of touch.
The key is making young people respect society more so that they want to be involved in it, and we can generate respect for our society and our system by respecting young people more. I am afraid that we tend to patronise them. We must reduce the voting age to 16. I shall not bore hon. Members on the point—I hope that they were in the Chamber when I introduced my ten-minute Bill before Christmas—but I must draw out a couple of points.
The Charter 88-YMCA poll result was referred to by the hon. Member for Gedling, who cited two figures, but did not give the age bands. The 47 per cent. figure is for 16 and 17-year-olds and the 35 per cent. figure for 18 to 22-year-olds. Interestingly, people aged 16 and 17 think that voting is more important than do those aged 18 to 22.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, allied with what he has just said, introducing citizenship teaching is crucial? If we introduce structure and coherence to young people's curriculum diet and then tell them that they must wait until they are 18 to put it into practice, the impetus will be lost.
I agree entirely. The hon. Lady must have read my notes, as that was my next point. Perhaps as a sign that we are not the only ones who patronise young people, after I put my question to the Prime Minister, "Westminster Live" decided to do a vox pop in my constituency—a bit of a sting to show that my constituents are not interested in votes for 16-year-olds. The most interesting vox pop came from an 80-year-old woman, who said that 16-year-olds should have the vote, but that she could think of a few 80-year-olds who should not.
There is an idea in society that young people do not have views or that their views are not properly formed and that they are insufficiently educated. With citizenship teaching, they will be educated about how to vote and about other aspects of politics, but then there will be a two-year gap, which makes nonsense of the whole idea. If the Government are serious about it, they should also be serious about giving 16-year-olds the vote. I hope that the Electoral Commission makes a positive announcement about that in the next week or two.
We do not give 16 and 17-year-olds full benefit entitlements, but we should either treat people as full members of society or not. One element of getting young people more involved in the political system is treating them as full adults at 16. However, the single-room rent restriction reduces their housing benefit entitlement. That restriction should be ended for people over 16, and I entirely agree with remarks made earlier about the mumbo-jumbo that we speak in Parliament. That must change.
One solution is not in the hands of the Government, but in ours: personal contact with Members of Parliament to show that we are human and interested. Recently, I went out with young people from Ludlow youth forum and held a surgery in a pub on a Friday evening. I did not dress down, but went in my suit. I did not turn my cap around or drink 14 pints, but young people raised all sorts of issues with me, such as skateboard parks and other matters. Using such methods, the issues are just as much in our hands as in the Government's.
I congratulate Vernon Coaker on securing this important and timely debate, and the extent of the media coverage in recent weeks shows that he picked the subject of the moment. I agree with his assessment of the problem and that of other hon. Members. I also agree about the seriousness of the problem and with most of the hon. Gentleman's conclusions, although I disagree on lowering the voting age. I agree with Mr. Dawson that it smacks of tokenism and takes our eye off the real challenge, which is how to get more young people who are already able to vote to participate in the electoral process.
Excellent research by MORI, in conjunction with the Adam Smith Institute, and by the BBC into why people do not vote makes stark reading. Only 60 per cent. of those aged between 18 and 24 are registered to vote—when one takes into account low turnout, the figures are even worse—and of those, fewer than 30 per cent. of first-timers voted in the last election. The researchers investigated what percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds participate in local elections: 12 per cent. said that they always participate, 13 per cent. that they usually participate and 8 per cent. that they sometimes participate. That is a third of that electorate, which means that two thirds of first-time local election voters rarely or never vote.
Some 51 per cent. of 15 to 24-year-olds said that they were not interested in politics at all. That gives some indication of the problems that we must address, but none of those people would be helped by reducing the voting age. That distracts us from our task of getting people to turn out when they are entitled to do so. The book "Political Systems of the World" says that the voting age is lower than 18 in only seven countries, including Iran, Cuba and North Korea. The message in those countries is that people are allowed to vote at 16, but only for the one party that is allowed to stand. Changing the voting age does not, therefore, necessarily advance the democratic process.
Only 6 per cent. of young people said that they did not vote because voting was inconvenient. So, what are the reasons behind the disillusionment and apathy? The first is a lack of understanding of the key issues. Four fifths of young first-time voters said that they knew hardly anything or nothing about Parliament, the work that we do or the work of European Union. That figure rose to nine out of 10 when they were asked about the role of local government. That lack of understanding is, therefore, a key issue.
The second issue is trust. According to a BBC survey of younger voters, only 16 per cent. trust politicians to put the needs of the country before those of their party. That is down from 39 per cent. 30 years ago, so there has been a dramatic decline. When asked, "What does politics mean to you?", 39 per cent. gave negative answers, using words such as crooks, criminals, corruption, boring and liars. When people say that they will not tolerate lying by those in ministerial positions, the lesson that we in politics must draw is that something must be done if young people are not to become even more disillusioned.
The third point relates to changing attitudes. Only half 26 to 35-year-olds felt that they were neglecting their civic duty by not voting. That shows how attitudes have changed, and we must urgently tackle the issue. As Mr. Shaw noted, people said that they would not vote in the last general election because they could see no difference between the parties. That issue came up on doorsteps, where people would say, "You'll win anyway" or "I can't really see the difference between your parties." We must make the differences between us clearer.
There is also a feeling of disempowerment, because younger people do not feel that their votes will count. There is a general indifference to the political process. We must make sure that 2001 is an exception, not part of a downward trend, and we must consider how to change things.
Young people can be given a positive attitude towards voting. An analogy was made with "Pop Idol", although it is not totally relevant. Nine million people voted in that programme, which is more than voted for my party and the Liberal Democrats combined in the general election. Some 10,000 people applied to be considered for the programme, which is three times the number of election candidates. That shows that young people love to vote when they are enthusiastic.
Another lesson that we can learn from "Pop Idol" relates to the fact that it was a positive programme. The contestants did not argue with each other and the negative contributions were made by a panel of judges, whom one was free to despise. The contestants kept it positive and spoke about their strengths and the strengths of the others.
I agree that our job as politicians is to enthuse young people, and we cannot expect them to find politics interesting if we do not change some of the ways in which we address issues. We must show them that we are dealing with their concerns. It is easy to take a patronising view and say, "Young people are only interested in drugs, music and clothes." As Ms Munn made clear, they are interested in issues across the board. If one talks to them in depth, one finds that they have strong views over the range of issues that we discuss in the House.
When I became my party's youth affairs spokesman, I was slightly dismayed by the number of television and radio interviewers who told me that, because I was representing young people, I would have to know who was No. 1 in the charts, who would get a Brit award and who played the lead in a particular film. Fortunately, I knew the answers, but I was disappointed that those commentators trivialised young people's views on important issues by saying that we must talk to them about pop music or films.
When we talk to young people, we find that they have concerns about education, transport and housing. They are worried about crime, and, as Ms Ward said, they are often the victims rather than the perpetrators. They are concerned about the environment and even about taxation. Some students who were here recently said that they could not believe how much tax they pay on the wages that they earn to pay their way through university. We should take more account of young people's views on the range of issues that we deal with in the House.
Barclays bank recently surveyed younger self-employed entrepreneurs aged under 24. The main frustration cited by 40 per cent. of them was "not being taken seriously"; we must take that into account. Young people starting out in work are not the only ones who find that they are not taken seriously. The young want account to be taken of their views, but often we follow rather than lead. Younger people's views on the environment are often well ahead of those of Governments, politicians and international organisations. We should listen to them more—our policies on the environment, above all, determine the sort of world in which they will live.
We must also show that Parliament can do more to deliver genuine outcomes. First-time voters are an immediate generation—they are used to getting things done quickly, they go on the net to buy things, they have instant access to information. We must show that we can deliver outcomes as well as talk. Too often, they hear people say that, for example, it will take 20 years to sort out the health service. If they have only been alive for 20 years, they cannot relate to that time scale. We in Parliament must be concerned less about the spin and the politics and more about the substance.
Young people belong to a confident generation. They are entrepreneurial, they believe in themselves and they are outgoing. They do not like red tape and they are fed up with the idea of a nanny state telling them how they can and cannot live. As politicians, we must react to that. We must show that we are in tune with their ideas—first, to win their trust and, secondly, to get them to play a greater role in the political process. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling on securing the debate and on the way in which he opened it.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on securing the debate and on so ably setting the issue in context.
The participation of young people in politics is fundamental to the central tenets of democracy. Participation in the democratic process not only legitimises governance and the rules by which we live, but enriches civil society. It connects citizens to the wider community and gives the individual a sense of his role in determining outcomes as well as in the mechanics of decision making.
We had a useful debate on similar issues in Westminster Hall in November, but it is useful to focus on the role of young people. We are discussing not simply voting and membership of political parties, but increasing regular, active participation. Our core principles are to engage and involve the public, particularly young people, through better and more thorough consultation processes and by modernising and reforming the ways in which we interact and communicate with the public.
I do not have time to comment in depth on many of the points that have been raised. My hon. Friend Mr. Shaw spoke passionately about particular matters. I had not realised that he shares an office with my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, who talked about shopping. Judging by the shirt and tie combos that they are wearing, they went together.
Mr. Hendry touched on statistics and gave turnout figures from the general election. Of course, they are disappointingly low. There are no definitive data on age differentials, not least because of the secret ballot, but MORI estimates that the turnout of 18 to 24-year-olds was about 39 per cent. Too many young people say that it is likely that they will never vote. A high proportion of younger people have no party identification and 40 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds stated in a recent survey that they knew hardly anything about the way in which Westminster works.
The Department of Local Government, Transport and the Regions, which has sponsored research, is examining participation at local government level, young people's views and attitudes on local councils and their images and perceptions of local authorities generally. The Department's study is considering what initiatives are likely to have the most effect on encouraging participation, and I understand that the work will be published shortly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Ward on her work in the all-party youth affairs group. As she said, we should not get too depressed about the issue. Like her, I believe that young people are as naturally inclined to take an interest in the state of the community around them as those in any other age group. The challenge is to relate the decision-making processes more readily to those young people and to help younger people to appreciate the fact that, even as individuals, they can make a real impact on the direction that society takes.
On voting processes and mechanisms, the Government are undertaking a series of activities to consider the questions of e-voting and electronic democracy, as we want to harness the power of new technologies to strengthen the democratic processes. Young people are those most likely to be online, but least likely to vote, so my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has established a new Cabinet Committee under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to examine the issue in much more detail. The Committee will be helped by the office of the e-envoy in considering not only voting processes, but how generally we may increase public participation through new technologies.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford and others said, the Electoral Commission, as an independent body established by this Administration, is doing its own research into reasons for low turnout. It is working with the Hansard Society to consider the effectiveness of election literature and researching the accuracy of electoral registers.
It is appropriate that my hon. Friend the Minister is responding to the debate, because many of us consider him to be the Pitt the younger of the 21st century. Is there not a danger that we have left the world of work out of our discussion of this complex subject? Mr. O'Brien, who is sitting on my hon. Friend's left in more ways than one, was socialised through the National Union of Mineworkers, which gifted a generation of young people an attitude to politics and socialisation. We need to widen the debate to be able to understand why whole sections of young people are becoming atomised, individualised and depoliticised. Does my hon. Friend agree?
What an intervention! I am not sure whether to take my hon. Friend's comments as a compliment or an insult, but if I can live up to Mr. O'Brien's esteemed reputation, I shall have done very well for myself.
The Electoral Commission is doing good work, but the children and young people's unit should be mentioned, too. It was referred to by my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson and Matthew Green, who is also involved in the issue and whom I congratulate on his new Front-Bench post.
The unit focuses on encouraging young people to engage in the democratic process, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs, who is responsible for young people, is involved in a democracy project entitled "Y vote, Y not?", which promotes a young person's agenda for democracy and which young people helped to formulate in a series of workshops throughout the country.
My hon. Friends the Members for Gedling and for Lancaster and Wyre and others referred to the United Kingdom Youth Parliament. It is an independent, non-party organisation, but the Government are keen to support its activities. My right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for young people has responded to the organisation's agenda and the Government have given core funding for its activities, for the next financial year at least. We also welcome the work being done on the local parliament.
Our constitutional arrangement needs to include young people much more. I shall certainly pass those comments on to my colleagues.
Citizenship education is crucial, and I am glad that this fantastic piece of work will be in the curriculum from the new school year. Many other activities are taking place, but the issue involves not only Government services, but Parliament. We must focus on the role of MPs in reaching schools and ensure that we listen and evolve our political structures. Change must come from the grass roots as well as from the top down. That is a constant challenge, but one on which there is a rare all-party consensus. We need a step change in our efforts to increase the participation of young people.