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Ms Ward: I agree with a lot of what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has said. He was right to refer to the anomalies of young people gaining different rights at different ages. I have always thought that it was a strange way to bring children and young people into the world of adulthood. There should be one point at which we tell a young person,"You are now an adult. You take hold of your responsibility." Young people are expected to take responsibility at 16, then again at 18, then again at 21, rather than at one common age. I have always believed that the common age should be 16. That view is supported by the British Youth Council and, as the hon. Gentleman said, by many others, including Members of Parliament and other youth organisations. The issue has been raised in the House before and I have great sympathy with the arguments.

I have always found it strange that people are old enough at 16 to get married with their parents' consent, but not to vote. They are old enough to pay their taxes if they work and to contribute to society in a significant and adult way, but they are not old enough to vote for the politicians who determine what happens to those taxes and what they pay for.

Perhaps one of the most significant issues is the right to join the armed forces and fight for the country. A couple of months ago, I visited the Royal Marines training centre at Lymston and talked to 17-year-old men who will represent this country admirably. We will put our faith in those young men and they will go abroad to represent us and serve the country, but they cannot vote for the politicians who can put them in the firing line. It is a great sorrow for this country that we have been unable to make progress on that issue.

Young people of 16 can buy cigarettes and lottery tickets, but have to wait until they are 18 to buy alcohol. I am sure that many hon. Members would be concerned about the prospect of 16 or 17-year-olds buying alcohol, but we have to set that against the current legislation, which enables them to buy cigarettes and lottery tickets. Those of us who occasionally like a drop of alcohol but do not particularly like cigarettes might say that cigarettes are far more harmful to health than alcohol. The House should address that important issue. Young people of 16 who leave school are expected to pay full prescription charges. They are expected to pay the full price for entry to public services and must pay full fare on public transport. It is a strange way to run our country and engage young people.

6 pm

Mr. Heald: I do not know what it is like in the hon. Lady's part of Hertfordshire because the roads are so bad that it is difficult to get there. However, in the schools that she visits, does she find that there is any real demand for voting at 16? In the schools that I have visited--I recently held a youth surgery in Royston as part of the celebration of the convention on the rights of the child--

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there was no great demand for votes at 16. The young people were looking forward to voting at 18, but nobody said that that was too old.

Ms Ward: Like the hon. Gentleman, I held a young persons' surgery in a local school and we discussed this issue. There was a mix of views. I have spoken to many young people in schools and youth organisations, and there has been a mix of views. I believe that more young people would like the right to vote at 16 mainly because they do not understand why they attain rights at different ages. They would like a simpler system so that they can vote, pay taxes and have all the other rights that have been mentioned at one particular age.

There is more to the issue, and it involves engaging young people in politics. I am sure that many hon. Members have had discussions with sixth formers in schools in their constituencies, and have brought young people to the House of Commons. They know that, among those who study citizenship issues or politics, there is a desire to learn more. Once young people are excited about an issue, there should be an opportunity for them to engage in it in more depth.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Lady has been a happy Member of this House for two and a half years, in which time she will have received many letters. How many has she received on this subject?

Ms Ward: I should be most surprised if that were thought to be the only yardstick. I have discussed this issue with a number of other people and with youth organisations. We must remember that it is not just about the number of letters that we receive. Letters often come as a result of a debate or an issue being raised. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will doubtless hear more about the matter as a result of this debate.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): I am grateful to my young colleague--[Interruption.] I have to concede the point.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) talked about the number of letters being a yardstick. I was a Member of the House when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1969, and I did not receive a single letter on the subject. I doubt whether any hon. Member received many, if any, letters on the subject. Despite that, even Conservative Members would not argue that the voting age should be 21.

Ms Ward: I thank my older colleague and friend. I agree that, sometimes, issues are discussed and agreed in the House and that, as time moves on, there is no great desire for change. That is part of the issue. Time moves on and it is important that we look to change the current system.

Mr. Bercow: The fact that the hon. Lady has discussed this issue with youth organisations is a necessary but not sufficient condition for her to make her case. Can she tell the Committee what study she has made of the continental experience? Also, in view of her preference for one

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age of majority, has she discussed with road safety organisations the implications of issuing a full driving licence at 16?

Ms Ward: I shall come to driving a little later. The hon. Gentleman talks about youth organisations and youth rights on the continent. I know that he shows a keen interest in Europe and matters European, although perhaps from an angle different from mine. I am aware of no country with a voting age of 16, but in many European countries there is, at the very least, a common age at which most rights are attained. I believe that most rights should be attained at one age and my preference is for that to be 16.

In addition to the rights attained at 16 and 18, we also attain rights at other ages. At 21, one can stand for Parliament or for a council and at 25, one is entitled to additional income through the social security benefit system. It is wrong to have different ages for different rights. Surely if one is entitled to vote for a Member of Parliament or a member of a local authority, one should also be entitled to stand as a representative. At an appropriate time, I shall want to see a change in the legislation on that.

We must look carefully at the amendment. I hope that I have made it clear that I am a keen supporter of the issue, but, with due respect to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, this is not really the way to seek change. There must be a broader debate on the issue of rights for young people and the age at which they are attained. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and he seemed to agree with that point.

Mr. Heald: Are not the considerations different for different things? The age at which somebody might drive safely on the roads might well be different from the age at which he or she holds a sensible view on issues to do with society. There may be different ages for different things. Does the hon. Lady not think that to have one age for sexual relations, voting and so on is rather foolish and that each of those issues should be considered on their merits, as they are now?

Ms Ward: I believe that there are genuine reasons for having different ages for some aspects of legal rights. For example, 10 is an important age in criminal law and children are considered differently at various ages before the courts. That is right for the criminal law. However, I do not believe that it is right to have different ages for voting, standing as a Member of Parliament, serving in the armed forces, buying lottery tickets, smoking or having sexual relations, whether those be heterosexual or homosexual.

Mr. Heald: Is it not inconsistent that many Liberal Democrats argue that we should sign up to the European convention on human rights as it applies to the age at which people can join the armed forces, which is 18, while arguing that the voting age should be reduced to 16? Where is the sense in that?

Ms Ward: As I hope the hon. Gentleman is aware, I am not a Liberal Democrat and it is not for me to answer that point. I am sure, however, that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will have the opportunity to do so.

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I should not like to sign up to any clauses proposing to stop young men serving in the armed forces from the age of 16. They make a valuable and admirable contribution to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Simon Hughes: May I tell the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that I very much support people being allowed to join the armed forces at 16 and that, on the wider point, there is not much between us. As I told the Minister, the time has come for the Government to examine the issue in the round. It is difficult to argue that one should not have civic responsibilities--such as the duty to vote and to perform jury service--at 16, whereas the state allows one to assume family and parental responsibility at 16. I am not sure that the right and duty to vote require more care, consideration and attention than the decision to have children.

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