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Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend agree that Stanley Baldwin's excellent initiative was one reason why the Conservatives won the Bermondsey seat in 1931?

Mr. Syms: I do not think that we would have won it in 1929. If we won it in 1931, a few other factors probably helped.

Mr. Simon Hughes: For the record, my researches revealed that that election was won for two reasons. The candidate was relatively wealthy and dispensed some of her wealth, and certainly the things that she acquired with it, to the electorate in ways that had not been known before, and have not been known since.

Mr. Syms: The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that he was a Member of this House when it reduced the voting age to 18. The 1969 by-election in Bridgwater was the first occasion on which 18-year-olds could vote and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was the first beneficiary of such votes. However, I am not persuaded about the argument for voting at 16. I would not say that I have ruled it out for ever, but it needs consideration. At this point, I would not vote for it. I and those of my colleagues who are at present on the Conservative Benches are perhaps the modernising wing of the Conservative party and I am sure that we would like to give the matter further consideration. However, 18 is probably the best age, as is reflected throughout the European Union.

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The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey read out a long list of responsibilities that one has at 16. It is not good to use one argument to justify that age for all the issues. It cuts both ways. Sixteen might be a sensible age of majority for one issue, but it might not be a sensible age for others. That might result in people arguing that the age should be pushed up for a range of other matters. Basically, 18 is a good age. Age limits vary because the House has judged on a number of occasions and in a number of Committees that different age limits are sensible, particularly with regard to the benefits system.

If one says, "That is the age of majority," and everything follows on from it, it will produce as many anomalies and concerns as the present system. We have heard the argument about people driving at 16. We all know that there are problems with young drivers--they tend to have more accidents. I am not convinced that 16 is the right age--certainly not yet. I support the argument for 18. That age of majority has worked well since the 1970 general election, when it was first generally introduced.

Many countries have a variable age of majority. In this country, one can vote at 18, but one has to be 21 to stand for Parliament. In the United States, one can vote at 18 but cannot stand for some forms of public office until one is much older. I cannot remember whether one has to be 30 or 32 to stand for the Senate--there certainly is an age limit. There is also an age limit for standing for President. That was written into the constitution because it was felt that standing for public office was important.

I am never persuaded by the argument about taxation without representation--the fetish that, because people pay taxes, they should have more of a say in the affairs of our nation. What about people who do not pay tax? Are they any less worthy? Are their views and values and their contribution to society worth less? I do not believe that to be the case. We heard about taxation on inheritance, value added tax and the tax on sweets. One cannot establish exactly when someone has started to pay tax and so should be able to vote. Frankly, the moment that someone is born, the state will take something off them. Therefore, I am not oversold on the tax link.

There is no great public demand for reducing the age of majority to 16. I have received no letters on the subject. Like most hon. Members, I have spoken in schools. Young people ask about many things, but I have not got the impression that they want the voting age to be reduced from 18 to 16.

6.30 pm

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend points out, quite rightly, that there is no demonstrable demand for such a lowering of the voting age. Is he aware that one of the great problems facing democracy in the United Kingdom is getting those in the 18 to 30 age group to vote, let alone those who are between 16 and 18?

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have always felt that our education system does not do enough to educate people about their rights and responsibilities, the British constitution and the importance of participating in democratic elections. That is a different issue from lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, but we could do much more to get young people interested.

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Of course, youngsters have other interests. As people get older, they tend to participate more in the electoral process. We have to hope that some of the young people who abstain today vote tomorrow. All political parties should be concerned about this. Public participation is very important for the democratic legitimacy of this House and the whole body politic.

Apart from education, perhaps political parties should try to tune in a bit more to young people and make them more interested and excited. The hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) made that point. I have no doubt that, over the next 18 months, all the political parties will be trying to tune in to young voters and their interests.

Jackie Ballard: Drop out.

Mr. Syms: Not drop out, but tune in.

I am not persuaded by the amendment. I have not totally closed my mind to it; this has been an interesting debate, and I would like to reflect further on the views expressed. If there is a Division on the amendment, I will not be in the same Lobby as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, in spite of his wonderful contribution. However, I will reflect on what he has said, and perhaps I will change my view. I do not know.

Ms Ward: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as he has not closed his mind to the issue, he would feel uncomfortable at being forced to make a decision here tonight? Surely it would be better if the issue were brought back another time.

Mr. Syms: I think that the hon. Lady makes that point more for her defence than for mine.

I will reflect on the issue, and ask my constituents and the classes that I address what they think. It has not been debated much in the newspapers--it is not a great popular topic--but perhaps after this debate tonight, The Sun and other newspapers will have an opinion, and we will start to read more about it.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend must be as open-minded a Conservative Member of the House as I know.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The only one.

Mr. Bercow: There are many open-minded Conservative Members. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) agree that if he accepted the inviting logic of the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), that would probably entail him in arguing for the abolition of most, if not all, votes in this House on the grounds that there were very few issues upon which he would not entertain the possibility, in the long career ahead of him, of changing his opinion?

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are here to vote and to make decisions. I would not criticise any hon. Member for pressing the amendment to a Division because that is their perfect right, but then they have to accept the consequences of that vote. This may not be the right time to vote; the Committee may not be persuaded to support amendment No. 69. The hon. Member for Watford may be right, and the hon. Member

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for Southwark, North and Bermondsey may have wasted an opportunity. Nevertheless, he has a perfect right to press the amendment to a Division, and the fact that the issue is voted on will no doubt be in reported in Liberal Democrat News and in the popular press, and may even help persuade people of his argument.

I do not intend to prolong the proceedings. This is a good debate, and I look forward to hearing more of it.

Mr. Winnick: I shall be brief. I am not in the same age group as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward). However, as Bridgwater was mentioned, I remember that, some time before the by-election in 1969, I went into a bank in Somerset. Identification was required, and I gave my occupation. I remember the clerk behind the counter saying, "Surely you're too young to be a Member of Parliament." Years have passed, and I am in a different age group, but I remember those words.

This topic should certainly be discussed. I do not in any way criticise the Liberal Democrat party for tabling the amendment. They will undoubtedly put it in Focus, in my constituency as well as others, and show how we voted. We shall have to bear up to the consequences and see what can be done.

This is an important topic. I am reminded, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, that there was opposition to lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. I must be quite honest--not having checked Hansard, I am not sure whether the Conservatives opposed it, but there were certainly Conservative Members who opposed the change. It was argued that 21 was young enough to vote and that it would be unfortunate and irresponsible to allow the vote to people who did not have much experience of adult life. Those arguments should certainly have been heard, although I am glad that they were rejected. Ultimately, the decision was taken to lower the voting age to 18. As I said earlier, no one, including the strongest opponents of lowering the age further, would now argue that the voting age should be increased to 21 again.

I am not certain about allowing voting at 16; I have received no letters on the subject. However, I agree that we should keep an open mind. In fact, mine is not so open on this subject--I am more inclined to lower the age to 16. There are strong arguments for doing so--I shall not repeat them because of lack of time and because they have already been made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). They are valid arguments, which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), will have to address seriously.

I am concerned about the alienation of young people. Only this week, an opinion poll showed young people's lack of interest in politics. That is a matter of serious concern. It is not the end of democracy; it does not mean that such people will not take a greater interest in politics when they get older, and decide to vote. The fact that there is a gap between older people and youngsters under 21, some of whom are indifferent to politics for all kinds of reasons, is serious. It cannot simply be dismissed out of hand, because the future of our democracy depends on

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future generations. It means that any democratic society must involve the interests and participation of the majority when it comes to voting.

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