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Mr. Bercow: The widespread apathy and even hostility towards the political process is a legitimate preoccupation for all hon. Members. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is conceivable that people are antipathetic to the political process when they are very young not because they are denied the right to vote but because more and more decisions that affect the totality of the people of this country are taken outside the United Kingdom by institutions that are not accountable to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Winnick: Never let it be said that any Conservative Member loses an opportunity of taking an anti-European stand. I do not want to try your patience, Mr. Winterton, but, as someone who has for many years been something of a Eurosceptic in my party, I shall say only that Conservative xenophobia makes me more inclined to take the European viewpoint.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) that young people's apathy and indifference is certainly not because they lack the right to vote. Even the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and his colleagues would not wish to give the impression that large numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds are ready to demonstrate at any opportunity, rather like the suffragettes of old, for the right to vote. That would be a misunderstanding and an exaggeration, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman who moved the amendment would not suggest that it was not but, if we conclude that there is a case for lowering the voting age, as we did in 1969, we should seriously consider it.

No words of mine or of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford will dissuade those who want to press the amendment to a Division from doing so. Of course they want to have a Division. They have made their point and they will test it in the Committee. I will not vote with the Liberal Democrats on this. There are occasions, as the Whips know, when I abstain or vote against the Government, but I do so rarely. Liberal Democrat Members would do the same if they formed a Government.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not be dismissive--I am sure that he will not--of the amendment that has been moved tonight. There is a strongly held view that a lower voting age would be valid. I doubt that this point will be accepted, but it would be better if there were cross-party support for such a move and more consultation between the parties. That is always better. If the Government of the day want to take a decision on constitutional matters, they can do so of course, but it is far better to achieve cross-party support on matters of voting, qualifications and so on. A unanimous House of Commons has greater credibility on these matters.

The Liberal Democrats will lose the Division, but I hope that further consideration will be given to the matter by the Government, the parliamentary Labour party and the Labour movement, as well as perhaps the Conservative party, following what the hon. Member for Poole said. We should not have a closed mind. It is an important subject. It is worthy of debate and I look forward to the Minister's response.

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Mr. Maclennan: I share with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) memories of the passage of the Bill that reduced the voting age to 18. In the context of the extremely interesting debate tonight, it is worth recalling two or three historical incidents which have some lessons for us today.

The then Labour Government did not choose to wrap up the question of the voting age with that of the age of majority. Contrary to the view expressed by the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), the then Labour Government set up a Committee on the age of majority chaired by Mr. Justice Latey. I had the honour to be invited to serve on that Committee. Its remit covered civil rights, but not civic duties or rights such as voting. It reported in favour of reducing the age of majority from 21 to 18. It covered a large range of matters, including the right to marry without parental consent, which was a matter of some controversy at that time.

The Latey committee recognised that the process of maturation was not the same for all people; some people became older more quickly than others. For some, it was possible that as legislators we should at least have in mind the importance of protecting young people from legal obligations that could become burdensome. So the argument for the big bang, with everything happening at once at the age of 16, is not one that I necessarily accept. One should recognise that people have to grow into maturity and that to become an adult for all purposes overnight is not necessarily in the interests of young people.

6.45 pm

Certain anomalies about the current age of majority legislation are worth considering. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) was correct to say that as legislators we had considered the merits and appropriateness of certain ages for certain purposes discretely. I strongly suspect that that is the right way to approach the subject. I hope that the suggestion that my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made to the Minister will be taken up. It is time for a review of the law on the age of majority. It is more than 30 years since the Latey committee considered the issue in the round. Another such study has not been done. We would have been assisted in considering the discrete arguments about ages of majority if such an overview had been taken. I invite the Government to consider that and come back to the issue. However, it would not be appropriate to wrap up in a review of the age of majority the question of voting age, or to make it dependent on the outcome of such a review.

It was interesting that in 1969 the Labour Government decided to separate the issues clearly. They referred the age of majority to a Speaker's Conference. They firmly expected that the conference would recommend that the age of majority should be reduced for voting purposes to 18, in line with the view taken by the Latey committee on the wider aspects. That was not what the Speaker's Conference recommended. To the surprise of the then Lord Chancellor Gardiner, the Speaker's Conference recommended that the age of majority for voting purposes should be 20. That was a surprising recommendation. I remember being hauled before the late Lord Gardiner to explain my vote on that issue, because he expected me, as a member of his party, although not of his Government,

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to follow the party line. Others have subsequently been disabused of any hope that I would always follow the party line.

The reason why the Speaker's Conference took place when it did was that the then Government accepted the view expressed tonight by the hon. Member for Poole that for different purposes it was perfectly rational to consider different ages. The Labour Government paid no attention to the view of the Speaker's Conference and introduced legislation, commended it to the House and carried it, to reduce the age of voting to 18. They did so without my partisan support; they did so with some support from the Conservative party, but not bipartisan support. A decisive move was taken; it was taken not following an exercise such as that recommended by the hon. Member for Watford--of wrapping the question up and seeking consensus across the House. It was done on the basis of a Government initiative that enjoyed broad support, but it was not the result of any kind of consensus, desirable though consensus is in constitutional matters.

The lessons of 1969 are that we are right to raise the issue here in the context of the reform of our franchise and our voting systems, and of making the vote more accessible. I take that view because all who have spoken in this interesting debate have realised that alienation of the young from the political process is a problem. By means of the Bill, we want to make the process easier so that people can have a greater involvement in it.

We are all aware that there is no simple answer to the problem. In an intervention, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) asked why we should want to lower the voting age to 16, as it was difficult enough to persuade people aged between 18 and 30 to vote. One of the reasons that we should consider lowering the age is that it will help to focus the minds of the young on certain issues if, as adults, they have to make decisions at an earlier age. They may choose not to exercise their right to vote at the age of 16. However, even if they dislike the outcome of an election in which they did not vote, they will feel some responsibility for that outcome.

Mr. Fabricant: What evidence does the right hon. Gentleman have for that statement? What makes him believe that the right to vote at the age of 16 will focus people's minds such that they might vote on a future occasion, if those who could vote at 18 still do not vote when they are 30? That is the current practice.

Mr. Maclennan: I am not sure what evidence would be needed to convince the hon. Gentleman. Such evidence as I have is only anecdotal; it would not be conclusive. However, that is the nature of the debate on this subject. During the past 30 years, I have given much thought to the age of majority, but the evidence presented to the Latey committee and the Speaker's Conference mainly took the form of anecdotal accounts of people's views. I suspect that the views that I have received on the subject are not dissimilar to those received by the hon. Gentleman.

It is probably true that there is no great demand to vote among 16-year-olds. However, in schools in my constituency I have heard 16-year-olds forcibly express the view that they want the vote. That view is not universally held, but it is strongly held by some young people.

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