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5.30 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 69, in page 1, line 19, leave out "18" and insert "16".

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 70, in page 2, line 8, leave out "18" and insert "16".

No. 71, in clause 6, page 8, line 22, leave out "18" and insert "16".

No. 83, in schedule 2, page 28, line 5, leave out "18" and insert "16".

Mr. Hughes: The amendment is important and would change the voting age from 18 to 16, and alter the substantive Act--currently the Representation of the People Act 1983--to effect that.

I was between 18 and 21 when the law that reduced the voting age from 21 to 18 was passed in 1969. I became entitled to vote on 1 January 1970, and it was lucky that a general election took place in that year, when I could exercise my right to vote.

Mr. Bercow: Where?

Mr. Hughes: In Tanygrisiau in Meirionnydd. However, that is not terribly relevant to the debate. I remember the occasion well. We had moved away by then, but my dad and I made the long journey back and ensured that we voted.

Having the right to vote was important to me. [Interruption.] How did I vote? I voted Liberal. I do not believe that more of my biography is required for the purpose of the argument. However, it shows a consistency that is greater than that displayed by some other hon. Members in Committee. One last bit of biography: in those days, we did not win the seats in which I voted, but now we often do. That is progress.

Reconsideration of whether 18 is the right age for people to be entitled to vote has been undertaken on several occasions. In January 1985--International Youth Year--my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) introduced the Youth Charter Bill under the ten-minute rule. One of its provisions was the reduction of the voting age to 16 and a reduction of the age for eligibility to stand for election to 18. Although the Bill did not make progress because it fell under the usual ten-minute rule procedure, it was quite widely supported.

Since then, the proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 has appeared on the Order Paper several times. It was tabled as an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill in 1985; it was a provision in private

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Members' Bills in 1991, 1992 and earlier this year. It has also appeared in several general election manifestos. The policy was included in our 1992 general election manifesto and the Scottish National party included it in its 1997 manifesto. When the Liberal Democrats were created, we adopted that policy. It has remained our policy ever since.

I was a relatively belated convert to reducing the voting age to 16. I got into trouble with some of my colleagues and some people outside the House when, a few years ago, I argued for the lowering not only of the age of consent but the age of majority to 17. There is a need to simplify the law on when people become entitled to specific rights. However, for several reasons, I have been persuaded that, just as a majority believes that the right age of homosexual consent should be 16 to bring it into line with the age of heterosexual consent, there is a growing body of opinion in favour of reducing the voting age to 16.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes: Of course I will give way to my erstwhile opponent.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the considerations that apply to the age at which people have sexual relations are similar to those that apply to the age at which people can vote? They are rather different activities.

Mr. Hughes: We could discuss for how long people think before doing each and the pre-planning involved; I shall have to be careful not to get into linguistic difficulties as I nearly said "foreplanning". Of course those activities are different, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will travel this road with me. In this country an enormous number of entitlements are given at 16 and some, although not many, are given at 17. Another batch is given at 18 and some are given at 21. I say to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who has almost silently substituted for the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), that I hope that the Home Office will consider the legislation as a whole and review the age of majority--or the age at which people gain rights--because it is muddled.

That brings us back to the point that I made in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow): if the people of this country are to learn about their rights, it is better for the legislation to be simple and for there to be as few ages of entitlement as possible, not as many as there are at present. The law changes every year in this respect, but the most recent briefing I have is last year's from the Children's Legal Centre, based at Essex university.

Mr. Bercow: It is a great university.

Mr. Hughes: Indeed it is. The briefing sets out 33 different entitlements or types of entitlement given at 16, eight entitlements or types of entitlement given at 17, and 34 entitlements or types of entitlement given at 18. To deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), I shall say in a

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moment why my colleagues and I believe that, on balance, it is right to consider changing the voting age to 16, although I should like that to happen as part of a wider consideration of the age of entitlement for young people. I hope that the Government have that on their agenda, too.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Is he saying that the age of majority should be 16 for most purposes? Some of us might feel that, because of certain aspects of legal responsibility concerning majority, 18 may be a better age. I should be grateful for his thoughts on that.

Mr. Hughes: It is proper for the Committee to consider exactly such issues and there is no theology or absolutism involved here. Other countries have different views: some use a voting age that is under 18, although the majority use 18, and I understand that it is above 18 in some countries. We should have this debate periodically.

Mr. Hogg rose--

Mr. Hughes: I shall give way in a moment, but before I do so I shall list the entitlements currently given at 16 to provide the backdrop for my comments. People can leave school or stay in full-time education, which is free; they can work full-time, but not in betting shops or bars, which are exceptions; they can receive a national insurance number; they can receive income support; and they must pay prescription charges unless they are in an exempt category.

The list provided by the Children's Legal Centre carries a slightly odd description, saying:

I think that 16-year-olds "probably" can leave home and that word is probably otiose. They can also enter into a contract for housing--we all have constituents who are tenants from the age of 16 onwards--and are entitled to be housed on their own if they come within one of the priority categories outlined in the Housing Act 1985. Girls aged 16 can consent to heterosexual intercourse and 16-year-olds can marry, although that requires parental consent.

Furthermore, 16-year-olds can join trade unions; consent to surgical, medical or dental treatment; agree to donate organs, which was discussed yesterday in Westminster Hall; and agree to give blood. They can make the most far-reaching decisions about their medical treatment, and they are entitled to have access to their records. They can apply for a passport and get legal aid and assistance, and they have a right to an offer of training under the Government's training schemes.

Under criminal law, 16-year-olds move into a new category in respect of what they can be convicted of and the sentences that they can receive. Importantly, they can sign up for the armed services and serve our country--there is a debate about the international conventions and where they can serve. They can hold a driving licence for certain purposes, although not yet to drive a motor car on the roads. They can buy cigarettes and tobacco, and have beer, cider or perry with a meal in a restaurant. They can buy liqueur chocolates--not a law I knew about.

Mr. Bercow: That is useful at Christmas.

Mr. Hughes: That is true--and a reminder to 16-year-olds to do their Christmas shopping. They can

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buy fireworks, they have to pay full fare on trains, and they can buy premium bonds; they may take part in public performances without a local authority licence, become a street trader, sell scrap metal, be used by another person in order to beg in the street, act as a pilot in command of a glider, purchase a knife, blade, razor or axe, and, lastly and somewhat bizarrely, they are allowed to enter or live in a brothel.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): That is a relief.

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