Votes at 16 — [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 3rd April 2019.

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Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution) 9:30 am, 3rd April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered votes at 16.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. In November 2017, I brought this subject forward in a private Member’s Bill, which sought not only to modernise the age at which people can vote, but to reform political education in schools and much more. After many years of debate and campaigning to extend the franchise, the time has now come to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.

I feel a great deal of pressure, not because of the grandeur of this place, but because of the young people from my town who inspired me to present my private Member’s Bill and to continue the debate after that, because they believe so passionately in this issue. When I presented my private Member’s Bill, I had the pleasure of having members of the Oldham youth council in the Public Gallery. They were disappointed that the Bill did not proceed, but I am continually inspired by their faith, spirit and continued vigour as they seek to achieve their aim of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Across all age groups, people in Oldham generally say, “I didn’t know what I was about when I was 16 and 17, so why should we extend the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds today?” It strikes me that we are setting the bar much higher for 16 and 17-year-olds than for over-18s when it comes to taking part in our democratic exercise. If we wanted to be completely flippant about it, we could say that the only test at the moment when it comes to our franchise is whether someone believes what is plastered on the side of a bus. The truth is that there is no real age test when it comes to participation in our democratic and civic institutions. It should be about spirit, commitment and making the effort to be an active citizen taking part in our democracy.

I am always impressed at the quality and tone of the debate in my local youth council and the Youth Parliament. I am also impressed at how much research goes into everyday issues that we might take for granted. These young people are thinking about their lives and what the future brings, so certain issues mean much more to them.

Extending the franchise is not about left or right. Some Conservatives are concerned that a lot of 16 and 17-year-olds will be more left-leaning, and they think, “They’re not going to vote for us, so why on earth should we prioritise giving them the franchise, when it could be to our detriment at the ballot box?” I do not believe that that is a robust argument, but it has been used.

When I go to my sixth-form college, Oldham College or my local youth council, there is a genuine range of views across the spectrum of political opinion. It is not the case that all young people are Labour left voters; there is a richness of debate and challenge when they take part in political exchanges. I genuinely say to our Conservative friends that there is nothing to fear. However, we all need to make an effort to reach out and to convince young people that we are worthy of their vote. That is healthy for democracy.

The fact is that our democracy and our franchise have always evolved. Some 200 years ago, men and women marched from my town to Peterloo in Manchester, demanding the right to vote—no taxation without representation—and for us all to be treated equally. A number of those people did not return home: five people from my town were killed at Peterloo demanding the right to vote. Last year we reflected on 100 years of women’s suffrage. In my town, we fought for two years to raise funds for a statue of our heroine, Annie Kenney, not only to remember her contribution, but to remind us that what we too often take for granted today was hard fought for by generations that went before us.

We are not just the beneficiaries but the custodians of those rights—they are fragile, important and precious, and we should value them. However, they come with a responsibility to take on reforms in our generation too. Extending the franchise to be more inclusive is the democratic challenge of our generation, and it is one we should take up. Let us bear in mind that less than 50 years ago, 18, 19 and 20-year-olds were denied the right to vote. Our democracy and our franchise have always been evolving, and we have sought to expand them, rather than to narrow them down, and to include and engage people.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

The hon. Gentleman makes the point about extending the franchise and about democracy being a progressive, ongoing process. On that basis, would he rule out extending the franchise to 13-year-olds? What is it about 16 that means it should be the limit? Why not go lower still?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

That is a fair challenge. At what point do we draw the line? I would say it is at the point at which young people take an active interest in politics, which is generally when they go to sixth form or college or they begin their life as an apprentice in the world of work. That is also the point at which they begin to pay national insurance, and there is that fundamental point about those who pay direct taxation wanting to have a say in how the Government spend that taxation on their behalf. No taxation without representation—that matters as much for 16-year-olds as for 18-year-olds.

In truth, this is not about 16 and 17-year-olds at all. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, if we gave people the right to vote on their 16th birthday, it would be another five years until they could vote in a general election. It does not mean that, at the point at which they turn 16, they will elect a Government; it is the point at which they become part of the franchise, taking part in local, mayoral and devolved elections.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

In terms of devolved institutions, the Welsh Government are currently consulting on extending the franchise to 16-year-olds in local government elections and the next National Assembly for Wales election. That is being done collectively, across all parties in the Assembly. It is interesting to see the different approach taken by Government Ministers here, compared with the cross-party approach taken in the Assembly. However, does my hon. Friend agree that we must have a franchise across the whole United Kingdom that goes right across the age range, starting at 16? As he pointed out, paying national insurance is quite significant, and people should have a say from the time at which they are required to pay tax.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

That is a fair point, and I will come on to how diverse the franchise is becoming across the UK.

How many of us, as parliamentarians, receive emails about local council issues, such as street lights not working, potholes and bins not being collected? That shows a basic lack of understanding on the part of people who are currently part of the franchise about where power and responsibility sit. In some cases, they do not know what the council or the Government are responsible for.

Many people also do not understand the role of the judiciary in our politics and democracy. That is why some newspapers can put pictures of three judges on their front pages, calling them “Enemies of the people”, and the general public swallow it. People do not necessarily understand the important role the judiciary plays in terms of checks and balances in our democracy.

A key component of my private Member’s Bill—it was not just about extending the franchise—was about providing democratic and civic education in schools so that every person who has gone through our school system on their route to becoming an adult is fully equipped to hold us all to account. If they do not know who is responsible for what, they do not know who to hold to account. It is easy for politicians, in whatever tier of government, to pass the buck and not take responsibility. That basic education was an important component of my Bill.

Throughout the campaign, we have heard many of the same arguments that prevented the vote from being given to women, the working classes and 18-year-olds in the past. “How on earth will they know what they are voting for?” “Surely if we extend the franchise to women, it will bring down democracy.” There is a common thread between the arguments that were used in times gone by and those used today to deny 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.

Photo of David Linden David Linden SNP Whip

Is the problem not the inconsistency of that argument? In respect of the 2016 referendum, Brexiteers, who are, by and large, in favour of keeping the franchise as it is, often say, “Oh, people knew what they were voting for.”

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

There are lots of inconsistencies in the arguments that took place during the Brexit referendum and that continue to take place. In the political debates we have in schools and colleges with 16 and 17-year-olds, there is a richness—they explore ideas. We all hold street stalls and sessions where we engage with members of the public, and I would say that that education and willingness to reach out should not be restricted when it comes to 16 and 17-year-olds. If politics is to be renewed—we are in quite a depressing state when it comes to trust and faith in our democracy—that will require a different approach.

There are two very different approaches in this place. On the one hand, there is the sense that, if we restrict the franchise to the fewest possible people, it will be purer. We see that in individual voter registration, in the need to produce ID at polling stations and in several other cases. On the other hand, there is a contradiction, because a couple of weeks ago we considered the Overseas Electors Bill, which seeks to give indefinite voting rights to people who do not live in this country but who live abroad as British citizens. There is an inconsistency in how we apply these things.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. On the issue of women being given the right to vote, the first woman to take her seat in Parliament was elected in 1919. She represented Plymouth, Sutton, which is the same seat that I represent. In many cases, the same arguments were used against her standing for Parliament as are used against the fantastic young people who protested outside my office during the climate strike. Does he agree that these young people are passionate and determined and want to take part because they realise that the changes that take place here and in local councils affect them?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

I absolutely agree. The world of information and knowledge-sharing has changed so much in the time I have been involved in local and national politics. Social media, and the self-organisation that takes place across social networks, are huge, and they connect people across the world, so issues and protests that take place on the other side of the world can be relevant and spark activity here too. I am not sure that our politics has got its head around what that means for our democracy, politics and activism or how we might respond to that. The general sense is that we should expand the franchise, rather than narrowing it down to its purest possible sense, which is what the Government will say they believe in. I believe that our democracy is enriched by having the most participation possible.

In many local elections, only one third of the voting public turn out. If we consider the numbers, not just by ward, but by polling district, in some cases the turnout is 10%. Whole communities are self-selecting to be disconnected from our political process, but that is not their fault—it is ours. We have collectively turned our backs on communities that have chosen not to vote, because we narrow down the type of people we speak to, canvass and reach out to. The debate is about not just extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, but renewing our democracy more broadly.

The evidence is there. In Scotland, 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds turned out to vote in the 2014 independence referendum. Such was the passion of young people during that campaign that the leader of the Scottish Conservative party professed to being a

“fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”.

So this is not a partisan issue. When people take the time to search out and understand the evidence of what is taking place in the UK, it is compelling.

In Wales, young people are due to be given the right to vote too, so if we fail to modernise, young adults in England and Northern Ireland will be denied that which their Scottish and Welsh neighbours have by right. For our United Kingdom to be truly united—by common rights and responsibilities, and with people having an equal voice in our democracy—we must have democratic equality.

Educating and empowering people will have positive and long-lasting results, and will equip future generations with a refined understanding of our politics, our Parliament, the judiciary and how our country is governed. That knowledge will be carried through a person’s life and across generations, and the habit of voting, too, will be instilled at a young age. Extending the franchise will help to increase voter turnout by inspiring young people to participate in political life from an early age.

The Labour party is fully committed to making votes at 16 a reality for 1.5 million young people in our country. It has been included in our three previous manifestos, and there is a real determination to make it happen. Support in Parliament does not stop there, however, because hon. Members from the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green party are also fully behind votes at 16, as are many Conservative Members. It is a genuinely cross-party issue; we just need the time to make it a reality and bring people together.

I strongly believe that defending and extending the franchise go hand in hand, so now is the time to stop talking about giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote and to provide time in Parliament for a full debate to make it a reality. If we believe in a United Kingdom, we have to have a united say and a united stake in our democracy. Let us give young people in England and Northern Ireland the same powers, rights and responsibilities that young people in Scotland have, and those in Wales will soon have, and genuinely bring our country together.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. In view of the number of hon. Members who want to take part, I will impose an informal time limit of five minutes. If hon. Members stick to that, we should be able to get everybody in.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 9:47 am, 3rd April 2019

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I commend Jim McMahon for securing the debate and for all his work to promote votes for 16 and 17-year-olds.

I come to the debate as a convert. In my past life as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I voted against lowering the voting age in Scotland, along with my Scottish Conservative colleagues. We objected not because we opposed a discussion about extending the franchise, but because we did not support singling out the Scottish independence referendum for the trial.

Time has moved on, however, and 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the independence referendum, the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections and our local council elections—indeed, some in the Scottish borders even managed to vote for me. In the last few years, I have spoken to many young voters in the borders at school debates, at hustings, on the doorsteps and on polling day. I have been hugely impressed by their political engagement and understanding. It is clear that they take the responsibility seriously.

There are perfectly valid reasons for keeping the voting age at 18, as there are for lowering it to 16, but many of those arguments miss the point. In this country, there is no single age at which all responsibilities and liabilities are imposed; where we draw the line is largely arbitrary. At 18, we can vote, but we cannot adopt a child or supervise a learner driver.

The argument is not about when we become adults—there is no fixed age at which that happens, and of course, not all 16 and 17-year-olds are equal—but I find it convincing that when the voting age has been reduced, the turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds has been comparable to the electorate at large, and higher than that of 18 to 20-year-olds. If lowering the voting age helps to encourage voter participation in our democracy, that alone is a compelling reason to consider it.

The reality is that 16-year-olds can already vote in Scotland and will soon be able to vote in Wales. Like it or not, the decision has been made in other parts of the United Kingdom and now we have an uneven system across the United Kingdom, which is not satisfactory. I accept the UK Government’s position that the voting age should stay the same; that is a perfectly coherent position to take, even though on balance I think it is the wrong decision.

I understand that some colleagues from both sides of the House are looking at this issue from a purely party political angle. Most people—wrongly, I believe—think that young people are more likely to vote for Labour or, indeed, the Scottish National party in Scotland. I would say that, first, if lowering the voting age is the right thing to do, party politics should not come into it. Equally, I point out to my Conservative colleagues that it was the accepted wisdom that 16 and 17-year-olds would overwhelmingly support Scottish independence in 2014, but that was not the case.

In my view, the Conservative party should lead on this issue. We are the party of personal responsibility, and what better way for someone to demonstrate their personal responsibility than by making their mark on the ballot paper? Extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds would make a significant difference to these young voters; it might even convince them to vote Conservative as they grow older.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to point out that I believe that the other parties are being slightly hypocritical about this issue. Labour made it illegal for 16-year-olds to buy a cigarette when it was last in power and, similarly, the SNP wants the age at which someone can buy a cigarette to be raised to 21 in Scotland. Indeed, the SNP Scottish Government are trying to appoint a state-sponsored guardian for all children up to the age of 18. The message from those parties is, “We trust you enough to vote but we don’t trust you enough to make decisions about your health.”

Photo of Danielle Rowley Danielle Rowley Labour, Midlothian

Does the hon. Gentleman think that smoking and voting pose the same risks?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. This issue is not about risk; it is about personal responsibility and about when people are able to make decisions about whether to vote or how to vote, or decisions about their health. It is about being consistent. How on the one hand can we say, “You have the responsibility and are able to vote,” and on the other hand say that we want to take away young people’s ability to make choices about whether or not they buy a cigarette?

This is an issue that I believe the Conservative Government should take the lead on and I will continue my campaign to persuade them to change their policy.

Photo of David Linden David Linden SNP Whip 9:52 am, 3rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate Jim McMahon on securing this debate and on piloting his private Member’s Bill. It demonstrates how ridiculous the processes in this House are that although, in my view, there is clearly a majority for votes at 16, because of the arcane private Member’s Bill system the hon. Gentleman’s Bill will not pass.

It is a great pleasure to follow John Lamont, who made a very thoughtful speech up to a point, and then, as is typical of the Scottish Tories, there was the bingo tick box where he bashed the Scottish National party. In many respects, I think that the road to Damascus has been walked by people such as the hon. Gentleman, and although it is tempting for someone whose party has supported lowering the voting age since the 1960s to take the high ground on these matters, it is important that we build a coalition around this issue. I genuinely welcome the tone that he adopted in making sure that there are Conservative voices in this place arguing for votes at 16.

The reality of the parliamentary arithmetic is that if someone put a proposition to the House on legislation for votes at 16, it would pass, so it is very much the case that votes at 16 are coming, which is a good thing.

The issue of votes at 16 is pretty much the first thing that I ever spoke about politically. When a young person speaks at a party conference, they always want to avoid looking like William Hague, but I remember back in 2006—I think it was in Aviemore—that I was a very young delegate to the SNP conference. I spoke about the importance of votes at 16 and I did not do so from an ideological point of view. I did so because I left school at 16 and, as some weird child who had been out campaigning in elections since I was 11 years old, I always found it very difficult on polling day, particularly after I had left school. The night before polling day—I was working at Glasgow Credit Union at the time—I was sitting on the subway, having just been given my pay slip, and I looked at the part about net pay and tax paid, and I thought, “I’m heading out tonight to deliver poll leaflets for an election and I will spend all of tomorrow out campaigning, but I have paid tax to a Government that I can’t actually vote for.”

That is the ridiculous situation we are in: we ask young people to pay tax to a Government who spend it on the health service or going to war, but they do not have the ability to influence that Government. That is where there is an inconsistency.

I will just take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Scottish Youth Parliament, which has done a sterling amount of work in Scotland to campaign for votes at 16. In particular, I commend the four new members of the Scottish Youth Parliament who were elected to my seat: Lewis O’Neill, Stacey McFadyen, Jason Black and Mashaim Bukhari. Those young people will all try to take forward their views and represent our community. However, in many respects those young people will be limited to doing so in the Scottish Youth Parliament and for some of them that will be as far as they are able to interact with democracy, at least in terms of the Westminster Parliament. That is because, as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk outlined, we have an inconsistency in Scotland, whereby young people can vote at 16 in elections to community councils, the Crofting Commission, health boards, local government and the Scottish Parliament, but then it stops, because they cannot take part in a Westminster election.

Quite often, I am faced with a situation where I go to schools—I do a huge number of school visits—with local councillors or the local Member of the Scottish Parliament, and the kids who we speak to at a high school will be able to question me, Ivan McKee or Annette Christie, and they can vote for Ivan or Annette, but they will not be able to vote on whether or not I am their elected Member of Parliament. There is an inconsistency there and, as is natural with matters relating to devolved competences and reserved competences, my view is that if Westminster will not do something, it should devolve the matter and we will do it in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk spoke about the need for consistency on this issue. I just think that allowing voting at 16 is the right thing to do. Of all the things that I have encountered in my time in politics, it is the one thing that I just cannot get my head around. Why in 2019 are we still debating this issue and having ridiculous interventions, like the one we had earlier on about 13-year-olds? This is a matter of principle and it is up to this Parliament to set things right.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 9:56 am, 3rd April 2019

Thank you very much for calling me to speak, Mr Howarth. It is a real pleasure to follow David Linden. If I may say so at the outset, what a pleasure it is to hear this matter being debated in a responsible and uplifting atmosphere, because there will be young people watching this debate and those are the sorts of qualities that have been in short supply recently.

However, I am afraid that I take a different view on this issue to other hon. Members and I will explain why. One of the points made by Jim McMahon that resonated me was that democracy is enriched by having the widest participation possible. That sounds unanswerable, but it begs a question: what is the widest participation possible? Should 13-year-olds be allowed to participate? I have met some 13-year-olds who speak with great authority on political issues. However, the fact is that we in this House have to make a decision about what the cut-off point for such participation should be.

What should be the underlying principles for that decision? The first principle that we have to grapple with is whether we take the view that it is only adults who should be able to vote, or whether we say that people who are not yet at the age of majority should be able to vote. I take as a starting point the UN convention on the rights of the child, which is absolutely clear. It says that young people have the right to be treated as children, and by the way that means that they should be afforded the rights they should enjoy as children up to the age of 18. That manifests itself in issues such as service on the frontline, and so on and so forth.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment; let me just develop the point a fraction.

That acknowledgement of the age of majority at 18 is, in fact, reflected across the overwhelming majority of countries that are signatories to the United Nations. We could be forgiven in this place for taking the view that, “Well, actually, the world is moving towards 16,” but that is simply not the case at all. The United States, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain—in all those countries, the voting age is 18. In other parts of the world, things differ; for example, in Singapore the voting age is 21. It is true that some countries are moving in the direction of allowing voting at 16, Austria being one, but they remain overwhelmingly in the minority.

If we want to take the view that adulthood begins at 16, it is critically important that our country does so consistently. Otherwise, we would have the very odd situation where someone would be perceived to be old enough to vote in an election, but when they came out of the polling station they would not be entitled to walk across the road and go into a betting shop to “vote” on the outcome of that election; that would be odd. Alternatively, what about the situation where a 16-year-old, having voted in a general election, would not be entitled to sit on a jury to decide whether or not one of their peers was guilty of a serious crime, such as murder, manslaughter or rape?

My final point about inconsistency is that under the proposals, someone might be old enough to vote but not mature enough—so the law says—to use a tanning booth or buy fireworks. I am not saying for a second that there is not a legitimate argument to be had, but I think the electorate would find it extremely curious if we were to say that a person has the maturity to decide who should be the Government of a country that spends collectively £842 billion every year, yet does not have the maturity to decide to use a tanning booth.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

Of course, they can join the Army, but they are not entitled to serve on the frontline in a way that might put them at risk of losing their life. In some ways, I respectfully suggest that the hon. Lady’s point makes the argument for me. Part of the reason why 16-year-olds cannot serve on the frontline and be at risk of losing their life is that under the UN convention on the rights of the child, child soldiers may not serve on the frontline. That is in recognition of the fact that we take the view that children are children and adults are adults.

I am not suggesting for a second that this is not a legitimate argument to have, but people watching this debate might take the view that there is a broad consensus in Parliament to move towards votes for 16-year-olds. I do not sense that there is such a consensus and, critically, that view is not echoed in the court of public opinion. Polling tends to suggest that there is not a majority in favour of reducing the voting age.

Photo of David Linden David Linden SNP Whip

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

Let me make one last point. Before I came into this place, I spent a lot of time as a barrister, and when I go into schools in my constituency such as Pate’s Grammar School, Balcarras or Bournside and ask, “If you were accused of a crime you had not committed, would you be happy to be put on trial with a jury made up of 16-year-olds?”, the schoolchildren often say, “Perhaps not.” Just imagine the inconsistency. The trials that I have prosecuted might involve post-mortem photos—really grisly and explicit photographs—and we take the view as a society that people aged 16 are not old enough to watch a film in the cinema such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Silence of the Lambs”, or to see those kinds of explicit photographs in a jury trial. If those people were considered old enough to vote, that would be a troubling inconsistency.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman is making a point about how we need to follow opinion polling. Does that mean that, based on opinion polling, he will be making representations to legalise capital punishment again?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

No, I do not think that. Of course, it is right to recognise that opinion polls do not determine everything that happens in this place, but I would hate for the impression to somehow be given that there is a groundswell of popular support for votes at 16. That is not the case at all. By all means, let us have the argument in this place and try to shift public opinion if that is where some Members want it to go, but it would be wrong to create the impression that public opinion is with them. I simply do not think it is.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

There is a strength to the hon. Gentleman’s argument about consistency, although I detect a change in the overall direction of travel of Parliament on this issue. Could I ask him to return to his point about consistency, reflecting that there is now a lack of consistency with Scotland and Wales?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

There is, and one could take the view that because the position has changed in Scotland, we should reflect that throughout the entire United Kingdom. That is a legitimate argument, but if one takes the view that the decision in Scotland was an aberration, why would we want to continue it elsewhere? I want to make it crystal clear that Scotland has a very large measure of devolution; it is a country, to a very large extent, and it is important to recognise its differences. [Laughter.] Well, it is a country.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

If Scotland wants to introduce votes at 16, that is a matter for Scotland, but I do not see that it is an argument for doing so across the United Kingdom. Of course, one recognises the injustice of some 16-year-olds not being able to vote—I have met some extremely sophisticated and politically astute young people—but there has to be a dividing line somewhere. If we want to make the age of 16 that dividing line, it has to be consistent across the piece. It is not consistent now, and unless we are going to change our fundamental assessment of when adulthood begins, the case for changing the voting age has not been made.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

I do not want to inhibit people from intervening, because I accept that it is a useful way of conducting the debate. However, the more interventions that are made and accepted, the less likely it is that I will get everybody in. I am going to reduce the informal time limit to four minutes.

Photo of Danielle Rowley Danielle Rowley Labour, Midlothian 10:05 am, 3rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. My apologies for laughing; I am just glad that this debate has confirmed that Scotland is a country. I thank my hon. Friend Jim McMahon for securing this debate, and for the huge amount of work that he does on this issue. I imagine that it is an honour for his local young people to have such a great representative who stands up for their causes and beliefs.

I will not focus my remarks on what can and cannot be done at certain ages, because I find that argument reductive; it often limits the discussion. Instead, I will focus on what can be made possible, and the huge opportunities that lie in extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. One of the reasons why I am so passionate about extending the franchise is that it would be a huge step towards ensuring that young people and the issues that matter to them are properly represented in this place, in policy and in practice. Young people and their diverse insights are hugely missing from this place. As Labour’s youngest MP, I was very aware during my first year here of the gap between my age and the average age of other MPs, and I am sure that others present will have had similar experiences.

One key reason why young people are under-represented is that far too often, their creativity, energy and focus are not captured by politics at an early enough age. Many young people are not encouraged to see their interests in political terms, or taught about the opportunities that they have to influence the political system. If young people were able to vote while still in an educational setting, engagement with the electoral process would be encouraged and supported, as we saw during the Scottish independence referendum. Currently, the majority of young people leave formal education without having an opportunity to vote, and being able to vote while receiving proper political and civic education is a fantastic opportunity that we are not taking advantage of.

There is much that we can learn from how young people engaged with the electoral process during the Scottish independence referendum. I have covered that topic before, so I will not go into it in depth, but I will point out that during that referendum, the younger age bracket accessed information from the greatest variety of sources and looked at the most information. Research has shown how engaged they were, and some 97% of 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland who voted in that referendum say that they would vote in future elections. That is evidence of how turnout can be increased through engaging at a younger age.

Clearly, young people are deeply engaged with political issues, and in some cases are a driving force behind change. In the past few months alone, young people have been a leading voice on many issues, most notably climate change. Thousands of young people across the UK have been taking part in climate strikes. Those young people are informed and articulate, and have a clear idea of the scale and urgency of the problem—a far clearer idea than some colleagues in this place. Their generation is being let down on the issue of climate change by generations of decision makers before them, and they understand how urgent these key issues are, yet they will not be able to vote on them.

One of the signs at the recent climate protest said:

“If you don’t act like adults, we will.”

That bashes out the argument that young people are not mature or intelligent enough. I know loads of adults, including a lot of my pals, who are not really engaged in politics and would be quite happy to admit that they do not know the issues inside and out. It is not about how mature or intelligent someone is; that cannot be the test of whether someone can vote.

As a young and newer Member of Parliament and a campaigner, I have felt more affinity with young people out on the streets, taking up placards and shouting about issues they care about, than with some colleagues in this House, especially on the Government Benches. In her initial response, the Leader of the House said that the climate strikes were truancy. It baffles me that someone who cares about democracy, politics and engagement could look at young people taking action and think it is a negative thing.

I will round off my remarks, but there is so much that could be said in this debate. These are turbulent times in politics. We have decisions going on that will have lasting effects not only through the next electoral cycle, but for years and years to come. It is crucial that young people have a say. I congratulate the young people who have been making their voices heard, the Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament in my constituency and all the young constituents who regularly write to me to let me know their thoughts.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:11 am, 3rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. The Labour party values our young people. We value their thoughts, determination and wisdom. Some of the best, most informed contributions I have ever heard have come from young people. Their values are well thought through. They hate injustices, and they want a fairer, different kind of society. For this place not to hear their voice is a huge mistake.

I recall my frustration when I was young that other people were making determinations that were so removed from the world I was growing up in, and young people feel that today. We have to heed their voice. For the past few weeks in Westminster, the Government have been putting party and self-interest above the country, and young people can see right through what they are doing. I spoke to some 14 to 16-year-olds, and they understood how the Government are not listening to them.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport)

No, I will not; the hon. Gentleman has spoken long enough. The Government are not listening to young people. They have not had a say and the Government have not even tried to reach out to them at such a crucial time, yet those young people, all being well, will live a lot longer than most people in this place. We are debating their future and they cannot understand why their voice just does not count.

When I meet young people, the issues they want to discuss are the burning injustices across our society. They advocate their points with passion, deep understanding, thoughtful political processing and reasoned arguments that are outstanding and well researched. They also look to the longer-term consequences of decision making, which is rare in this place. I am inspired that young people have such thought, and it gives me real hope. They re-energise me and recommit my focus on the important issues we are here to fight. It is arrogance that denies our young people a voice. They rightly put this place to shame. They put many in this place to shame for not wanting them to have their franchise. The Labour party values that voice and the challenge young people give us all. We will give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote.

Another side to politics that arises from this issue—people should not patronise by saying we need to educate young people first, although I am a massive advocate for political and citizenship education—is that today, it is the young people who are educating politicians. While the Government are self-absorbed in their survival, the young people who they have denied a vote are finding an alternative political voice. It is not a cross on a piece of paper, but something far more powerful. They are taking to the streets and challenging this archaic monument. They are showing Westminster that they have a voice and are going to use it. They hold the power, and they will make the change and use it to highlight the biggest political issue of our time. The climate strikers have just started their campaign, and they will take power and show up this place if it does not respond to the most pressing issue on our planet, which is causing so much conflict in our world. It is causing people to move from their homes. It is causing floods and famine on our Earth. I was overwhelmed by the determination of the 200 climate strikers in York, and I expect far more to come out a week on Friday.

If denied a vote, young people will find another way of doing politics that will surpass this place. They are determined, defiant and demanding change. We all have power, young and old. The question is what we do with it. In order for the climate strikers to have climate change at the top of the political agenda, Labour will not only give young people a vote, but will listen to their voice.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 10:15 am, 3rd April 2019

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim McMahon on his passionate speech and his tenacious pursuit of the objective of votes at 16 in this Parliament. To Scottish MPs, it feels a bit of an antediluvian argument, because the practice is normalised in Scotland in pretty much every election apart from general elections. Wales is soon to follow, if it has not done so already.

It feels like the direction of travel and momentum is very much in favour of the objective. It is great to see the level of consensus in the all-party parliamentary group’s report on votes at 16. That is welcome, and it is great to see the journey and reasoning of John Lamont on supporting votes at 16. I do not necessarily agree with his point about libertarian decisions on cigarettes and so on, but it is welcome to see that level of consensus developing in the House.

Thinking of my journey, I was probably quite precocious as a young person. I read newspapers quite young. I used to watch political TV shows. I remember when Andrew Neil started presenting “This Week”, and now it is finishing. When I was 12, I was sitting watching those programmes. I was always a bit of a nerd when it came to politics. When I visit schools and speak to young people, I am impressed by their level of engagement with and passionate views about the political system. They are passionate about championing their objectives for life and society and passionate about trying to improve the world around them.

I have seen nothing more moving since my election than the effort by young people at Springburn Academy when two of their school-friends who were asylum seekers were threatened with deportation. Somer and Areeb Bakhsh were children and had lived in Glasgow for years. They had been there all the way through school with their school-friends, and the entire school mobilised to go down and support them outside the Home Office. Thousands and thousands of young people signed petitions to keep their friends in school. That was a powerful expression of the agency of young people. Even though they did not have a vote, they were willing to engage with the political system and fight for their friends. That is the reality of what we are looking at.

We are talking about young people, and their education is not simply about slavishly following a curriculum; it is about championing their understanding and passion, and giving them an opportunity to follow their passion and give it expression in as many ways as possible, including in the political system. That is why votes at 16 is such a positive measure. If we can implant and embed the idea of voting and participating in a democracy while young people are still at school and in an educational environment, that would go a long way to establishing and normalising that behaviour for the rest of their lives. There is clear evidence that is the case in Scotland, particularly when we look at the referendums that have taken place and subsequent elections. The engagement from young people has been incredibly positive. I am fully convinced, as are most people in Westminster Hall today, that it is the way to go. I encourage the Government to look at the evidence in that regard. The APPG’s report is compelling.

One of my biggest challenges is that my constituency has the lowest turnout in the UK. Only 51% of my constituents voted in the EU referendum, and only 53% participated in the general election. Looking at the wider issues in society, it is about engaging people generally in our democracy. Why are we so hung up on extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds? There is a much more urgent crisis in our democracy, and that is engaging people, particularly those from working-class and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, in our democracy. The measure would be a small but positive step forward. In light of developments in other parts of the UK, votes at 16 would certainly be an entirely reasonable step to normalise and make things consistent with what is clearly established in the rest of the UK.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

To get the final three speakers in, I am imposing a formal three-minute limit on speeches.

Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 10:19 am, 3rd April 2019

Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim McMahon on securing it.

Over the past two decades our politics has been marked by a decreasing turnout among young people at elections, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy where political parties focus their campaigning efforts and policy proposals on the older voters who are more likely to turn out at elections. However, I would argue that although young people are not engaging in traditional party politics, they are quite clearly a political generation. I am regularly contacted by young people in my constituency who campaign on the issues that matter to them, such as Brexit or climate change. I regularly meet young people who engage in political activity through trade unions, campaign groups or charities; and I regularly help young constituents who suffer as a result of political decisions, such as the botched roll-out of universal credit.

All the issues that matter to young people and impact on their lives are influenced by decisions taken in this House. That is why we need to look at increasing turnout among young people and extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. As the Member of Parliament for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, I have already witnessed the positive impact on turnout and engagement that can be achieved by extending the franchise. When the decision was taken to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, there was a large degree of scepticism about whether it would have any notable impact, yet 89% of 16 and 17-year-olds registered to vote and 76% turned out to vote.

Since the referendum, 16 and 17-year-olds have also voted in elections to the Scottish Parliament and for Scottish councils. In the recent Scottish council elections, I was challenged on why they could vote for me in a Scottish council but not vote for me as an MP. It is good to see that the Welsh Government are expected to legislate for votes at 16. It is the Conservative party that stands as the roadblock to bringing about change. They wanted to filibuster when we were in the other Chamber, so I pay tribute to organisations such as the Labour party, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party and all the other parties who get involved in supporting 16-year-olds.

Votes for 16-year-olds are important. Working men had to organise and mobilise through the labour movement, and even lay down their lives in the first world war before securing the basic democratic right to vote. Women from all classes and backgrounds had to organise and mobilise in the suffrage movement, as suffragists and suffragettes, with many struggles in the face of a hostile Government that used the full force of the law against them. There is a reminder in this House of their struggle for democracy: a plaque to Emily Wilding Davison resides in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in this Parliament. It was placed there by the late Tony Benn with assistance from the Leader of the Opposition. It should serve as a stark reminder to all of us in this House of the individual and collective efforts that brought about the democracy that we now often take for granted. In the proud tradition of the Chartists, suffragists and suffragettes, we will not stop campaigning until we finally secure votes at 16.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces) 10:23 am, 3rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Mr Howarth.

Alex Chalk has displayed all of his skills as a Wykehamist and a barrister to argue that black is white, but that is what they are taught to do. Should I find myself in an English court, I would look no further than the hon. Gentleman to defend me. He would make an extremely good job of it—not that I agree with one word of what he said.

I am probably the person here who is furthest away from the age of 16. My first point is that times have changed. Years ago, when I was at school at Tain Royal Academy in the highlands, the idea of a politician or an MP visiting the school was absolutely impossible. Politics did not enter our lives. We knew nothing about it, and it was not encouraged at school. How very different things are today. Mr Sweeney has visited schools and he interacts with classes. We all do that and we all see how sophisticated the 16, 17 and 18-year-olds are in discussions.

During the independence referendum, as John Lamont said, classroom discussions with voters were extremely sophisticated. All of us who were involved north of the border came away thinking, “My goodness me; they really do know their stuff.” When they came to cast their votes, we must not think for one second that they were ignorant votes; they knew what they were doing. As I gaze around all corners of the House of Commons, I see gentlemen and ladies of much older ages who do not make such intelligent decisions as did the young that I saw during the independence referendum. The same is true, as other Members have said, of local government and Scottish Parliament elections. I have complete confidence in the wisdom of that electorate. I have no problem with it at all. It is absolutely refreshing to see them engage in the process in the way that they do. The UK should be of good heart; it has nothing to fear at all.

I will close with a short anecdote about the one political event that crossed my radar when I was at school. My English teacher, a remarkable man called Jack Paterson, tapped me on the shoulder in my English class and said, “We are having a mock election. You will be the Tory candidate.” That might come as no surprise to Conservative Members. I stood in the Tain Royal Academy mock election. I made an impassioned speech in the hall as to why people should vote for me and I quoted at some length from Edward Heath’s leaflet. Unfortunately, I came bottom of the poll with 18 votes. Perhaps that shows that even then, although I say it against myself, the electorate were quite sophisticated and clever in the way in which they made their decision.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown 10:25 am, 3rd April 2019

As we have heard, 16 and 17-year-olds are knowledgeable and passionate about the world around them. Participation in free elections is a fundamental right. Despite what Alex Chalk says, it is a right enshrined in the convention on the rights of the child, which states that children have the right to participate in decisions about their lives and that it should be age-appropriate. Of course a three-year-old is different from a 16-year-old, but even the convention acknowledges that when young people—or “children”, if he insists on using that word—have capacity, they should have recourse to democratic participation. He was therefore right that we should heed UN and international agreements.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned countries that we should follow: Germany, Italy and so on. Germany, of course, has votes at 16 in its local elections. Italy does not allow people to vote for the Senate until they are 25, and it is even older for certain other roles, such as the presidency. If we are to benchmark from other countries, we will get into a worrisome position. This House should lead and not simply follow. It should take a moral stance and not just say, “What is the lowest common denominator?”

We can look at best practice around the world and in Britain, and at how young people participate. Often, the debate focuses on whether young people have the right capacity and on the group of young people who might not know. Let us talk about the 600-odd members of the Youth Parliament and the 85% of schools with school councils, where young people participate.

I also want to touch on the importance of democratic rights coming first. We should first engage in voting and then enable the other rights and responsibilities and age limits to come in. Eighteen is the worst age to start voting: people leave home and live a chaotic life. Starting earlier means that people will continue to vote for the rest of their lives. If someone votes in their first election, they are likely to vote continuously throughout their lives. An 18-year-old who does not vote is likely to be a 50-year-old who does not vote. A 16-year-old who votes together with the family is likely to be a 50-year-old who votes, and I want to increase voting for all.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Youth affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Children and Families), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Equalities), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Disabilities) 10:29 am, 3rd April 2019

I thank everybody for coming, and Jim McMahon for securing such an important debate.

Like most Members, I regularly meet youth organisations and youth representatives from different areas in Renfrewshire, including people from the university and local Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament. Two things always come out of any conversation. The No. 1 complaint is: “Why can’t 16 and 17-year-olds vote?” The second one is adults asking me, “How do we get young people involved in politics?” That is the one question that I am asked everywhere. It is very simple: we do it by accepting that politics affects them just as much as it affects us.

Surprisingly, I agreed with John Lamont that party politics should not have anything to do with this debate. Do not worry—we parted ways very quickly in his speech. I was unsure whether he wanted to lower the smoking age limit or abolish it altogether. All I knew was, as is always the case with Tories, it is all about personal responsibility until the rich are the ones breaking the rules.

Ultimately, I have to ask: why would any functioning democracy fear more people having the vote? The whole point of a democracy is that we have different perspectives. The same argument applied when I stood in this Chamber not that long ago to speak about the minimum wage. We talked about the fact that it is totally unjustifiable that, even though two people have the same tasks and responsibilities in a job, purely because they were born in different years they do not get paid the same wage. That does not make sense, and is in complete opposition to the idea of personal responsibility, which we are always hearing about from the Government. It is exactly the same when it comes to votes. If someone is allowed the responsibilities of life, they should have the same rights.

The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton correctly said that there is no age test when it comes to participation. In many ways, I serve as an example of that. After we lost the independence referendum, suddenly lots of people were encouraging me to put my name forward to stand for Parliament. My first reaction was: “Don’t be stupid—I’m 20. What a ridiculous idea.” What changed my mind was that so many older people who I respected, and whose views throughout their lifetime I respected, said to me, “If Parliament’s supposed to reflect society, why is nobody young in it?”

What has been normal for us has to change. I thought that I could not do this job. I thought, “No—politics isn’t for me; it’s for the adults. All we get is a little pat on the head, and told to go away to the Youth Parliament if we want to get involved.” We need to change that, because the decisions that are made in this House daily have drastic influences on the paths open to people in their lives.

Ultimately, politics is about perspective, and trying to understand as many different perspectives as we can. We cannot understand someone’s perspective if they are not even part of the debate. We have seen living, breathing examples of that, and heard about them throughout this debate. In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, 75% of young people used their vote. The quality of that debate was phenomenal, and it was wide-ranging. Honestly, I could not go anywhere without hearing people talk about the referendum—people of all different viewpoints, backgrounds and ages.

I was on the losing side of that referendum, and I am still banging on about the great influence it had because young people were involved. Compare that with the EU referendum, where roughly 1.5 million 16 to 17-year-olds were denied a vote. They are now seeing their opportunities to work and live abroad snatched away right in front of them. Fundamentally, if someone is old enough to get married, have sex, join the Army, leave home, work full time and pay tax, frankly they are old enough to hold a pen at the ballot box.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs 10:33 am, 3rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. We have heard a great many contributions from Members on both sides of the Chamber, and we have had quite a lot of consensus. It is notable that we have heard fantastic contributions from a number of Members from Scottish constituencies. There is a really strong argument that, where people have seen votes for 16 and 17-year-olds work successfully, they have warmed to it.

I thank my hon. Friend Jim McMahon for securing today’s debate. He campaigns tirelessly on this issue and is a great advocate for young people in his constituency. They have asked him to raise this issue in Parliament, and he has done so diligently. I enjoyed his comments about his constituency’s connections to Peterloo and about the Oldham suffragette Annie Kenney, reminding us that this is about not just extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds but extending democracy and increasing participation.

I shared my hon. Friend’s frustration two weeks ago when this House did not have the opportunity to debate his amendment to the Overseas Electors Bill—an amendment that had gathered cross-party support and would have been a significant step towards securing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. We can safely say that private Members’ Bills have not been an effective vehicle on this issue. I therefore welcome the opportunity to debate this important topic, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Many arguments have been made about the age of maturity. Alex Chalk argued strongly on that, and I disagreed with him on a number of issues. I enjoyed his comment that a 16 or 17-year-old is not eligible to serve on a jury. Of course, neither is anyone above the age of 75. Unless we are going to restrict the franchise at the upper end as well, his argument is somewhat inconsistent. Such arguments fail to capture the spirit of the debate. Above all, this debate is about strengthening our democracy, inclusion and how to involve all society in shaping a vision for our country. I believe our democracy would be made stronger by such an improvement to it.

A key reason why Labour is strongly in favour of votes at 16 is that it would help to increase voter turnout and develop lifelong voting habits. A recent study by Demos found that only 37% of young adults in the UK feel that British politics today reflects the issues that matter to them, which concerns me. No wonder we are seeing high levels of voter apathy and low turnout when voters are not directly engaged from a young age and feel unrepresented from their first point of contact with the political sphere.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

If the hon. Lady thinks that young people have the right level of political maturity to vote at 16, does she think that they have the right level of maturity to buy fireworks? If she does, why did her party vote in favour of banning that?

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two different issues. One is about our rights as citizens; the other is much more about society, welfare and protection. Basically, there are some things that a person can do that will kill them; however, voting is not known to lead to death, at least not directly. When people make such arguments regarding the right to buy alcohol, cigarettes or fireworks, it confuses two different issues.

It is fair to say that we agree across the House that there is no magic age at which someone becomes an adult; it is a spectrum. The majority of people of a particular age might be of a certain maturity, but we all know fine well that an 18 or an 80-year-old might lack the maturity to do many of the things they are legally able to do.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Youth affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Children and Families), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Equalities), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Disabilities)

In the hon. Lady’s experience, has she—as I have—met many 16-year-olds who have more life experience and understanding in their pinky than half of the people in this place?

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs

The hon. Lady makes the point that life experience is different for everyone, and all of us come here with very different life experiences. Many 16, 17 and 18-year-olds have experienced far more in their lives than a 40, 50 or 60-year-old, and she is right to make that point.

I must make some progress, because I am aware that I need to leave time for the Minister’s response, which we are keen to hear. It is fair to say that there is no silver bullet for improving participation in politics. The way that people come into contact with politics in their formative years is a crucial part of it, but that is not the only thing that we should focus on. Evidence from the Scottish referendum and the 2017 Scottish council elections demonstrated that turnout rates among 16 and 17-year-olds were much higher than among 18 to 24-year-olds. That point was made by my hon. Friend Danielle Rowley, who also highlighted that 16 and 17-year-olds were more likely use a broader range of sources to research how to use their vote, arguably using it in a much more mature way than older voters.

We know that an individual who has voted once is more likely to vote in future elections. The young people I mentioned were aided by the encouragement of their families and schools to become politically engaged, which should be a lesson for us throughout United Kingdom.

“Voting is a habit that is formed early, and we ought to treat it as such…It is important that we take…a progressive stance on these matters.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2015;
Vol. 597, c. 527-532.]

I hope the Minister agrees with those words, not least because she said them in this House in 2015. For that reason, I am optimistic that we will find there is a great amount of consensus between the two Front Benches.

The recent school strikes that my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell highlighted demonstrate that young people are aware of the world around them and are trying to take part in the democratic system, despite not having the right to vote. They have been inspired by a 16-year-old from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, who has risen to international fame for her work on the issue.

I believe that change is imminent. Across the United Kingdom, politicians have begun to recognise the changing tides. My hon. Friend Mr Sweeney mentioned the situation in Scotland, which has left us in the bizarre position where 16-year-olds living there can vote in local elections but are denied the right to vote in a UK general election. My hon. Friend Chris Elmore mentioned the Welsh Labour Government, who are seeking to extend the franchise in Wales to 16 and 17-year-olds. There is now a fundamental inequality of rights in this country, because the right to vote has effectively become a postcode lottery—a situation that is morally and politically unsustainable for this Government. It is time that 16 and 17-year-olds had equal rights across our country for all elections.

A cross-party consensus has emerged. I acknowledge the great work of the all-party parliamentary group on votes at 16, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian, which is about to publish a report highlighting the consensus across many of the political parties that have taken part in the debate. It is important for Conservative colleagues to realise that this idea is not a threat to their party. After the Scottish referendum, Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, described herself as

“a fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”, having witnessed its positive impact. Since then, various Conservative politicians, including George Osborne, have claimed that there is widespread support for the policy among Conservative MPs and have called on the Government to lower the voting age to 16 or risk losing the support of younger generations.

It is our duty as politicians to catch up with the modern age. It was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK, and exactly the same arguments were prevalent then that are used today to prevent 16 and 17-year-olds from voting. The Government are quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote. Given the Minister’s personal support for the issue, I hope she will have the courage and determination to convince the rest of her colleagues to do the right thing and give all young people the vote.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip 10:43 am, 3rd April 2019

I thank Jim McMahon for securing this debate; I confirm that I will leave a little time for him to conclude it. I also thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and all hon. Members who have taken part.

Voting age is a really important topic. Like all hon. Members present, I have followed the arguments closely over the years. I stand here at the age of nearly 37; I was first elected to this place when I was 27; and, like many in this Chamber, at the age of 17 I was taking part in youth forum politics. Crucially, the arguments are not being made only by young people; they need to be considered across age groups and across society, as we have done in this thoughtful debate.

I want to take on some of the arguments that have been made, furnish a little more detail and crystallise the choices that we face. I will come on to how the Government are setting out to engage and educate young people, which is very important, but let me start with the fact that the Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to retain the current franchise for parliamentary elections. In response to Cat Smith—my Front-Bench opponent but also, dare I say it, my hon. Friend, because we have shadowed each other in this brief for a while—let me say that if we are talking about the core concepts of democracy, one of them is manifesto commitments. Those commitments mean something to people who follow politics, and it means something for us to stand up and say that we should have faith in the decisions that we offer the electorate and expect to defend.

I will address some points that were made about public opinion and then move on to the issues that were raised about the standard age of majority. My hon. Friend Alex Chalk referred in passing to the state of public opinion, so let me furnish hon. Members with some detail. In 2004, in one of the most comprehensive reviews and consultations to date on lowering the voting age, the Electoral Commission found that two thirds of people thought that the right age was 18. Instructively for our discussion, it found that more than half of 15 to 19-year-olds agreed. In 2008, the then Labour Government established the Youth Citizenship Commission, which found that although the majority of 16 and 17-year-old respondents were in favour of lowering the voting age, all older categories of respondents were opposed to such a change—an interesting detail.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

The 2004 Electoral Commission report also recommended that a further review be carried out in four to five years, but that review has not yet taken place. Will the Minister commit to it now?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I almost misheard the hon. Gentleman and thought that he said “45 years”, but he rightly notes that the recommendation was four to five years. No, I am not in a position to commit the Government to such a review today, because the Electoral Commission’s own review concluded that the age should not be changed and, as I shall set out, the evidence still says so.

In 2013, a YouGov poll of voters of all ages and political views found that they opposed changes to the voting age—even the majority of young people did not want 16 and 17-year-olds to have the vote. More recently still, in April 2017, a very large poll of adults found that only 29% were in favour of lowering the age to 16, while 52% were against it.

The international state of play has been discussed, but I will not dwell on it because hon. Members’ examples were well given. The topic that I really want to address, and that the bulk of our debate has focused on, is the age of majority. We have to face up to the fact that 18 is widely recognised in this country as the age at which one becomes an adult. Rightly, we have a range of measures to protect young people below that age. It is a concept in our laws: there is a wide range of life decisions that entail taking on significant responsibility, for which this Parliament has judged that 18 is the right age.

Not only is the Government’s stance built on a bedrock of public opinion, from which we take our manifesto commitment, but there is a clear consistency to it. I do not think that the same can necessarily be said of all the arguments that have been made in this debate. Either someone is old enough or not—both cannot be true, so which is it?

Let me start with health. We generally seek to protect children and young people, who can be some of the most vulnerable members of our society, from actions—either by themselves or by others—that could be detrimental to their health. For example, Parliament has raised the age at which a young person can buy cigarettes; private vehicles carrying someone under 18 must now be smoke free; and we have introduced legislation to ban under-18s from buying e-cigarettes. As I suspect hon. Members know, the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health recommended only last month that the age at which someone can buy cigarettes ought to be raised from 18 to 21.

The arguments are fundamentally about health and damage; I wonder whether there are hon. Members present who voted against such measures, because they have an argument to answer about consistency. We as a society determine that young people need that additional support and protection. If we consider them to be minors in that area, why do we not in another area?

A further health example is sunbeds, which have been mentioned. Another, which draws on the point about how we differ in parts of our country, is that the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 raised the minimum age for getting tongue and intimate piercings in Wales to 18. That is a recent way in which the age has gone upwards. A non-health example is that of buying fireworks, which has also been mentioned.

There is a serious consistency point. Someone is either old enough or they are not, and that is not only an idea that is based on health examples—there are plenty of other areas where Parliament has made the same judgment. It includes the right to take out credit, to be able to gamble, to sit on a jury, to own land or property and to legally sign a contract. We could also look at the way the criminal justice system works, where young people are treated differently, with different types of courts and institutions.

Let us move on to the two areas that require parental consent: marriage, other than in Scotland, and joining the armed forces. Those concepts have been discussed in today’s debate. We have to be able to return to the central point of understanding whether someone is or is not old enough, and we should be honest on that point.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I have to continue as I must allow time for the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton to wrap up the debate.

The field of education and work is also relevant. At the age we are talking about, young people can choose to participate through full-time education, a job or volunteering combined with part-time study, or by undertaking further training—many young people choose to do so because it gives them good prospects. I think we would all argue that having people in education post 16 helps the economy and society more generally. If we determine that it is good for individuals and for young people collectively, we have to address that question to ourselves when we talk about their voting choices.

That leads to the question of when people work and pay tax. Some people—I think the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton mentioned it first in the debate—make the “no taxation without representation” argument. A minority of young people work—a small number—but not very many of them pay tax, in part at least because of the raising of the personal allowance. Those who earn least in our society, including our young people, will not be required to pay tax until they earn more.

I understand the argument that one could work and therefore one could pay tax and therefore one has an interest. It does not follow that the tax should be linked to the right to vote, especially if we turn the argument around. If we turn if from “no taxation without representation” to “no representation without taxation”, we would essentially be saying that those who are unable to work or the lowest earners in our society should not get the vote. That is the corollary of the argument, and it needs to be drawn out. If we want to make a link between tax and voting, we have to look at the opposite case as well. It is right that we should do so.

Parliament has determined time after time that we have such a thing as an age of majority, and we seek to protect people who are younger than that age. We have to confront that in today’s discussion.

I move on to what else we should, must and do do to improve citizenship education and expand the range of ways that young people can participate in our democracy. The Government absolutely recognise that point and have a record of action to prove it. We work in partnership with a range of civil society organisations, including the British Youth Council, to help young people be involved. The Government facilitate the UK Youth Parliament, and last year we saw the success of National Democracy Week. Of course, the national curriculum now rightly includes citizenship education.

I am so pleased that the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton reminded us of Annie Kenney, because that allows us to look at what the Cabinet Office did for the suffrage centenary last year. It delivered a range of things to help young people get involved in our democracy. I urge hon. Members to look at the toolkit, the democracy ambassadors scheme and the school resources, which are there for us all to use in our constituencies. Those resources help us to do the practical work in a way that makes a difference, and help young people to be in their rightful place in our democracy, as part of what we should all be doing to promote and improve the way that we do politics. We do that by including young people, but also by being respectful of the arguments that go with that: what public opinion really says; what minority and majority really mean; what commitments such as those in manifestos actually mean to people; and how we can consider all of those things together in a way that means that everyone is welcome in our democracy, at the right age. That is as it should be, and it is a good thing.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution) 10:55 am, 3rd April 2019

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate. It is more fundamental than extending the franchise; it is about our whole democracy and the value of our politics. I find myself not only coming to the conclusion that our politics is broken—repairable, I hope, but broken—but wondering how broken our United Kingdom is, and how little voice English residents have. Scotland and Wales have taken the initiative, because they have devolved institutions that want to take the lead. In England, we are being held back by the UK Parliament, which will not even facilitate a debate on the Floor of the House to test the will of Parliament on this issue. That is the frustration.

We know that there are different views—we take a different view on some of the arguments that are deployed—but we have been denied the opportunity to test the will of Parliament and have a vote on the issue. For me, that is the most scandalous part of how our democracy works. We have seen the private Members’ Bills process frustrated time after time. We have seen parliamentary gymnastics deployed to make sure that the Government do not have to face up to difficult decisions.

It is correct to say that the Conservative party manifesto is one that the Government seek to deliver, but let us be honest about the parliamentary gymnastics that were employed when the Overseas Electors Bill came to the Floor of the House as a private Member’s Bill with the Government’s support. They deliberately arranged for it to be talked out because they did not want to face a potential vote on votes at 16. Their own manifesto commitment was denied because they did not want to face a vote on this issue.

To be frank, some of the explanations that have been given on objections do not hold water. My son Jack, who is an apprentice, is old enough to pay tax on the income that he earns. He is affected by public transport when he goes to work, in the way that every other worker on that bus is affected, and he contributes to his taxes for that. He is old enough to have taken driving lessons and before he is 18, he is very likely to be driving a car. Where the age line sits is not an argument that really holds water, for the same reasons that have been explained around consideration being given for some public health issues moving from 18 years to 21 years. It would not follow that the age of voting is then increased to 21—that is a nonsense.

I would respect the Government more if they really stated why their objections on this issue are so firm. It is not about the age of maturity. It is not about a common age across public health and protection issues. It is because they just do not believe that 16 and 17-year-olds will vote Conservative. It is as cruel as that. It is the same reason that we are seeing ID being introduced at polling stations, denying the right of people to cast a vote in some cases, when the evidence base is flimsy. We have seen that with individual voter registration, where people are deliberately pushed off the register. We see it through the stuffing of the House of Lords with people who are more likely to vote the Government’s way—I accept that every Government does that, so it is not an entirely partisan point. We see it at every opportunity, including the proposal to reduce the number of MPs. Why? It is about gaming the system, rather than expanding our democracy.

I appreciate the debate that has taken place. I would like to have won the hearts and minds of the Government, but I have to accept that we are running out of time, and maybe it is a fight for another day.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered votes at 16.