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Jackie Ballard: Has my right hon. Friend considered that most--although not all--people entitled to vote at the

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age of 16 would still be at school? Most secondary schools hold mock elections at the time of a general election campaign. One could thus argue that young people have a more heightened awareness of the political process, and of the fact that voting is taking place, than people who are older and are out at work.

Mr. Maclennan: That is certainly true. I well remember that, during the last general election, I spoke at a school where several young people aged just under 18 expressed considerable frustration that they did not have the vote. I had some sympathy with them.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): May I trouble the right hon. Gentleman with another piece of anecdotal evidence? When I was 17, I was interested in politics; I looked forward to being able to vote, and regarded it as a privilege. If we reduce the age at which people can vote, might we not reduce their appreciation of the privilege of living in a democracy where they have the vote?

Mr. Maclennan: The hon. Gentleman's point reminds me that, throughout the debate, I have felt strongly that I wanted to alter the emphasis of our approach to this matter. There has been much talk of the entitlement to vote--the right to vote. It is time we acknowledged that we are talking about more than that: to vote is an important duty of citizenship. It is a sign of maturation that that duty has arrived. Sixteen is not too young to assume the duty of considering the impact of one's political views on the shaping of the decisions of public authorities. I would like to think that, from the age of 16, an informed interest would begin to develop and that that process would be assisted by the knowledge that, if an election were to take place, people would have the right to use their judgment as to how to influence society.

Mr. Fabricant: I was fascinated by the right hon. Gentleman's use of the word "duty". What is his view of the system in Australia and in other countries, where voting is compulsory? If voting is a duty, should people be compelled to vote? And if people are compelled to vote, does the right hon. Gentleman think that they will think about the political and voting processes?

Mr. Maclennan: Duty, and legal obligation, are not identical. I do not favour making the duty to vote a legal obligation. None the less, voting remains a duty of citizenship. I hope that serious consideration will be given to the possibility that the duty to vote would stimulate discussion among young people--many of whom would still be at school--about participation in democracy. They would not have to wait until they left school to participate.

However, if not all 16-year-olds voted, I should not regard that as calamitous; it would not be a good reason for not allowing them to have the vote. To reduce the voting age would bring forward the process of political maturation through political awareness and discussion. Young people would discuss among themselves the fact not only that they are affected by the decisions of Government, but that they are able to influence those decisions.

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I do not find wholly persuasive the argument that there is no public demand. The hon. Member for Walsall, North pointed out that, in one sense, there was no public demand when the voting age and the age for the exercise of other legal obligations were reduced to 18. That was to be expected. Few constitutional issues give rise to express public demand until there is the most pressing hardship. There was no massive public demand for a Bill of Rights; however, it was wise to include that matter in the election manifesto and to introduce legislation.

I hope that the Government will agree not only that the debate has been interesting and persuasive, but that the House would be glad to have their support on the matter. Even if the Government are not ready to support the amendment, I hope that some Members are persuaded of the merits of the argument and will not consider it a sin against the Patronage Secretary, or anyone else, to express their view and to vote accordingly.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): The debate has been interesting. It is important that we are holding it. We have heard some good contributions; they have led me to consider matters that I had not previously thought about. In essence, the amendment makes us think about how we modernise our democracy--what sort of democracy we want and how it can fit into the modern times in which we live.

It is crucial that the Bill and other measures contribute to dealing with the alienation that appals all of us. An important aspect of that is the age at which we consider it appropriate that people should exercise the right to vote. The lowering of the voting age deserves serious consideration. If I were making laws on my own, I would accept that the age should be reduced to 16. People should be able to exercise their democratic right at that age.

I shall set out some of the arguments that persuaded me that the age of the franchise should be changed. Over the past few weeks and years, many of us have visited schools and talked to students. I taught in schools and, for 20 years, I tried to enthuse young people with the democratic process. Although we could not often enthuse them about the party-political process, students were not unwilling to discuss the issues of the day.

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Young people in schools and youth clubs have talked to us about the issues of fundamental importance to them. They have challenged us about the environment, law and order, third world debt, unemployment, pollution and issues in their local communities. I do not know the experience of other Members, but when I am challenged in a school sixth form, I do not find that the students show a lack of maturity or understanding of the issues that confront them. In many respects, it is particularly difficult to argue with them. They often say politely, "We're not going to take any rubbish from you," although they sometimes put it another way.

One argument that is often used against lowering the age at which people can vote is that young people lack maturity. I have experience of young people and have listened to the views that they have expressed in schools and youth clubs. Their maturity and understanding of many of the fundamental issues that affect us all are quite refreshing.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman's experiences are similar to my own. When I speak in schools in my

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constituency, I meet people who are mature and have strong views on a range of issues. The hon. Gentleman has enunciated some of them. However, have any of the students that he has met told him that they want to vote at the age of 16?

Mr. Coaker: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is the whole purpose of the debate and of the amendment. He is saying that, because no one has ever raised the issue with me, we should not discuss it. However, we should discuss the issue and when we go to schools and youth clubs or speak to young people in employment, we should ask them whether they think it appropriate for us to discuss the age at which they can vote. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument. The fact that the subject has never been raised does not mean that we should not consider what we should do. Young people bring to the issues an idealism and lack of cynicism that it is important for us as a democracy to capture. If we can harness that enthusiasm, dynamism and youthful vigour, we will be able to improve our democracy.

In answer to the question of why we should extend the franchise, I say that that is the logical extension of the Government's drive--and the desire of us all--to build on citizenship education in our schools. If we believe that the curriculum should do more to encourage young people to understand and be involved in the political process and to discuss the issues, the logical extension of that is to consider the appropriate age at which they should be able to have the franchise. I think that we should certainly consider the age of 16.

Reducing the age at which people can vote would encourage participation in the political process and lead to improved participation rates. It is not a party- political argument. Real issues are involved. The House of Commons research paper on the Bill estimates that

That is in none of our interests. I do not want to be pious or holier than thou about this--I would prefer them to vote Labour--but it is important that they vote. It undermines our whole democracy if nearly half the people in that age group do not vote. We need to discuss why they do not vote, and there is a powerful argument to say that we can tackle that issue by extending the franchise.

The vote is symbolic. In extensions of the franchise in the past, it was not just the physical act of voting that was important. Being able to vote is symbolic of the fact that one is part of the democracy in which one lives. Extending that dramatic symbolism to 16-year-olds would enable us to start to say something to them about the importance of the political process and of their being involved in their democracy.

I acknowledge the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). As a Parliament, we need to discuss the related age issues. There are no easy answers and we can make good debating points about the age at which we should be able to do certain things. At present, we can marry, pay taxes and national insurance, drive and determine our sexuality before we are allowed to play a full part in civil and political society. At the very least, we should consider whether that is right.

We allow young people of 16 to join the armed forces and we allow 17-year-olds to enter hostilities. I have examined the figures. In the Royal Navy, there are

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816 17-year-olds; in the Royal Air Force, there are 403; and in the Army, there are 4,105. This issue transcends party politics. If 17-year-olds are considered old enough to enter hostilities on behalf of this country, we should at least ask whether they should be given the right to vote.

The amendment has given the House the opportunity to debate the hugely important issue of extending the franchise. Alongside that debate are other questions about what we consider to be the appropriate ages for a whole range of other activities. However, the core of this debate is how we reinvigorate and regenerate our democracy, which is creaking in certain areas. Extending the franchise can build on the improvement to citizenship education in schools and it is a fundamental question for us. We should consider it and look for the proper way forward.

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