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Ms Ward: Unfortunately, as we know from recent cases--there have been tragic cases in which children bear or father children--the right to have children is a much more biological issue. Although we can legislate on such issues, it is much more difficult to enforce that legislation.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that there should be a broader review of age issues, and I certainly agree with him. However, that is precisely why we should not pass amendment No. 69.

As I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree, various anomalies already exist. If amendment No. 69 were to be passed and implemented, we would be creating another anomaly that is as great as, if not greater than, current ones. Although young people would be entitled to vote at 16, they would not attain other rights. They would not be entitled to stand for Parliament until they were 21--thereby creating an even worse, five-year gap between the ages at which they could vote and stand for Parliament.

Mr. Hughes: Although I understand the hon. Lady's point, sometimes--as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said in the previous debate--one simply has to flag up a point and put down a marker. I have been an hon. Member somewhat longer than the hon. Lady, and my experience has been that one must push the Government to make them move. My hon. Friends and I intend to press the amendment to a vote to make the point that people feel strongly about the issue and to help bring forward the day when the Government act, rather than simply leave the matter to be resolved in the indefinite future.

Ms Ward: The hon. Gentleman has a great interest in young people, and I hope that, if he has a real regard for their views on the matter, he will not press the amendment. If he does so, the Government, using their large majority, will defeat it. Consequently, rather than leaving the door slightly ajar so that hon. Members, organisations and the Government can re-examine the issue, the House will deliver a firm no, which might be misunderstood by young people. That is not how we should proceed.

If the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey were to press the amendment, he could damage the case for voting at 16. As hon. Members know,

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I am a strong supporter of reducing the age of majority to 16 and of allowing young people to vote at 16. However, I do not believe that amendment No. 69 is the way to achieve those goals.

We must consider the issue much more widely. Now that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has placed the issue on the House's agenda--and, I hope, on the broader political agenda--we should make progress much more consensually to ensure that we have greater knowledge and understanding of the issues and are able to iron out some of the issues raised by Conservative Members. If the amendment were passed, many more issues would doubtless be raised in another place.

Mr. Bercow: I have been listening intently to the hon. Lady's speech and found it most intriguing, but I find her latest comments quite extraordinary. It is not for me to defend the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, but it is extraordinary for the hon. Lady, who is vigorously articulating the case for wider democracy, suddenly to denounce the hon. Gentleman for retarding--should he press his amendment to a vote--the cause of allowing people to vote at 16.

6.15 pm

Ms Ward: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. We have to consider the issue more deeply and not in isolation. We should not change one part of one Bill, to give 16-year-olds the right to vote, as that would create other anomalies. We should examine the broader issue of young people attaining rights and the age at which those rights should be conferred. I would certainly support such an approach.

Changing one small--but important--Bill is not the right way to address the issue, as that would not deal with all the anomalies. I should prefer a Government Bill or a private Member's Bill to seek to change the age of majority, as the passage of such a Bill would have a ripple effect, changing all legislation affecting young people.

Mr. Hughes: I am not sure that the hon. Lady had planned on making that argument. However, as shehas, she will have great difficulty in supporting the Government's Bill on equalising the age of consent. That legislation deals with precisely the same principles as those in this Bill: the age at which people gain rights. It would be very difficult for her to support that legislation, but not to vote with us today.

Ms Ward: I shall have no difficulty in doing just that. The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill will address an issue of equality and end a very clear anomaly by ensuring that the age of consent is equalised between heterosexuals and homosexuals. That Bill will end an anomaly without consequently affecting other legislation applying to 16-year-olds. Subsequently, the House should consider a more comprehensive package on changing legislation on young people.

As I said, by pressing the amendment, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey might damage the argument. The damage would not be to the principle that people should be able to vote at 16, but young people might start to feel that change is unlikely. Change is possible, but only if we work on the broader issues and discuss them more widely.

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I urge the hon. Member not to press the matter, but to seek conciliation and consultation with other hon. Members and with various organisations. Perhaps we shall even be able to enlist the support of some Conservative Members.

Mr. Evans: In the numerous and lengthy discussions on the issue that the hon. Lady has had with young people--she has received no mail on the issue--has she told them, "I want the voting age to be lowered to 16, which is why I shall vote against it at the first opportunity to do so in the House?"

Ms Ward: The hon. Gentleman made that point; I did not.

Mr. Bercow: What is the answer?

Ms Ward: I shall explain to young people that, at some point, we should introduce legislation--which may have the support even of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and other Conservative Members--that makes changes to young people's rights and does not seek, in isolation, to make only one change that will create other anomalies.

Mr. Bercow: Can we clarify the position for 16-year-olds who read the broadsheet or tabloid newspapers tomorrow and reflect on the hon. Lady's sage words? Do I understand her aright when I say that, by pressing the amendment to allow people to vote at 16, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is an inveterate opponent of equality, whereas the hon. Lady, who will go eagerly into the Lobby with the approval of the Patronage Secretary to vote against the amendment, is an enthusiastic champion of that equality?

Ms Ward: As usual, the hon. Gentleman seeks to make mischief and he is not going to make mischief with me.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey believes strongly and wholeheartedly in the rights of young people--I do not doubt that for a moment. I want to be helpful. We may have more success if the matter is given more thought and there is more understanding of it among a broader section of the community and of the House than if it is pushed to a vote tonight.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): Even if one accepts the hon. Lady's argument that we should consider all the issues that surround the age of majority together--I do not--does she agree that it would be helpful if there were a strong vote in favour tonight, in that it would guide the Government in the right direction?

Ms Ward: The hon. Lady knows well that it is also important for the issues to be raised in the House. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and others have raised some important points. It would be useful if we could discuss the issue at a more appropriate time, perhaps with better legislation, to ensure that the changes that I am sure we all want can take place across the board.

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Young people need to be engaged in, and excited by, politics and the issues that they face every day, and about who makes decisions for them. I certainly hope that the generation that is going through our schools will be the beneficiaries of the Government's changes in the national curriculum, which will result in more emphasis being put on citizenship studies. Hopefully, more young people will be interested in playing their part as citizens and being engaged in politics and the issues surrounding political life, as well as the most important matters that determine how they live their lives.

I have made my views clear. I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will not push the amendment to a vote. I trust that the House will discuss the issue at some other time, as a Bill or an amendment to a Bill that would change all legislation affecting young people and change the age of majority to 16 would give young people the right that they richly deserve.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): It is a pleasure to be in a Committee with you in the Chair, Mr. Winterton.

I listened to, and enjoyed, the contribution of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). The House is at its best when it debates first principles. It gives people a clear view of the constitution.

This has been a century of change. There have been many changes in the electorate under Liberal, Labour and, indeed, Conservative Governments. In 1929, the first election in which both men and women voted on an equal basis took place. That was a milestone and it was introduced, with reservations, by Stanley Baldwin's Government and the Conservative party. By and large, it has stood the test of time.

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