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Mr. Fabricant: I listened with considerable interest to the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). He made what I thought was a very impassioned argument in favour of voting at the age of 16, so I shall be curious to see whether he joins the Liberal Democrats in the Lobby if they force the amendment to a vote.

The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstood the purpose of my intervention. I agree with him that the question of whether young people are demanding the right to vote at 16 is irrelevant to our debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on tabling the amendment. Consideration of the Bill should enable us to re-examine the age at which people are allowed to vote. That is an important issue.

I am not convinced that 16 is the appropriate age. I was interested in the argument of the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), who pointed out rather well that it is a strange anomaly that one can vote at the age of 18, but that one has to be 21 before one can become a Member of Parliament. I suggest to the Minister that that matter needs to be dealt with in the near future. If people are old enough to vote, they should be old enough to be elected to the Chamber, or at least to put themselves up for election. That is a reasonable argument.

I am not as convinced by the argument of the hon. Member for Watford on not forcing the matter to a vote. She said that she had had lengthy discussions on the issue with young people in her constituency. I suspect that she has also had lengthy discussions with the Whips on it, and will be uncomfortable if there is a vote.

I quoted earlier the famous song "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire:

The hon. Member for Gedling made a good point when he said that people were old enough at 17 to be involved in conflict. There are 17-year-olds in the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia, but they are not old enough to vote. That is a strange anomaly.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Is not the real answer that 17-year-olds should not be in conflict, rather than the other way around?

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman raises a fascinating point. Unfortunately, there are problems in

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recruitment. I suspect that a recruitment age of 17 has been forced on the armed forces. However, if there were no problems with recruitment, I would agree with him. Anyway, is anyone old enough to kill and be killed? The answer is probably not. Where do we draw the line? The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but, unless I am mistaken--perhaps it has been dealt with before; I have not been able to attendthe whole debate because I have been at a Select Committee--there are no 17-year-old British soldiers in Kosovo, or serving in areas of conflict. They are certainly not allowed to go to Northern Ireland until they are 18. I think that that applies to other operational areas as well.

Mr. Fabricant: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is an expert on such matters. It is interesting that there is at least synchronicity between voting and going into conflict--both can be done at 18--although if, God forbid, this country were ever involved in a fullscale war, I suspect that 17-year-olds would be engaged. I invite him to intervene if I have it wrong. I believe that the current regulations within the armed forces are that people are ready and able to go into conflict from the age of 17 onwards.

Mr. Robathan indicated assent.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend confirms that that is right, so there is that inconsistency.

I was fascinated by the speech of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), who talked about maturation being uneven. He is right. Some people are very mature at 16; others are immature. Although I would not wish to stray from the issue at hand, I often felt that one of the failings of the 11-plus was that it was held at 11, although I took it at the age of 10. Just for the record, I passed.

Mr. Pound: Under what name?

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman makes a sarcastic remark from a sedentary position, but, as he helped me earlier with the quote from Barry McGuire, I shall not pursue that issue. However, the system of entry into public schools at the age of 13, when there is greater commonality of maturity, is sensible. It is a great shame that we did not have a 13-plus instead of an 11-plus.

Should 16 be universally adopted--the point was raised by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross? I do not know; I am not sure. Although I like to think of myself as a very young, energetic and fit person, I was reminded by someone only this lunchtime that I will suffer my 50th birthday next year. I will not be holding a party as I hope the whole thing will be forgotten very rapidly.

7.15 pm

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross raised an interesting point in passing; I wonder whether it was in the notes of his speech. He felt that young and, indeed, old people have a duty to vote.

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He rightly pointed out that there is a difference between a duty and a legal obligation. I might be tempted to table an amendment, if there is not one already, so that we can debate--whether we force the matter to a vote, I do not know--whether there should be a legal obligation to vote.

A number of hon. Members, both Labour and Conservative, have said that young people are not voting. I wonder whether a legal obligation to vote, or at least to turn up to a voting station--as exists in Australia and, I think, Switzerland--would force many more people to vote than simply giving 16-year-olds the opportunity to vote.

Therefore, I believe that 16 is probably too young. I do not think that one can have a commonality of age for different things. After all, people have to be 18, I believe, to drive.

Ms Ward: Seventeen.

Mr. Fabricant: It is 17; I thank the hon. Lady. People have to be 18 to drink--I know that--but 16 to go into a pub; that seems rather perverse. As she has said, people have to be 21 to be a Member of Parliament.

I will not support the amendment in the Lobby, but, as I have said, I welcome the fact that the amendment has been tabled. It has provided a useful opportunity to discuss the matter. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, the matter should be revisited regularly and discussed in the House of Commons.

Mr. Evans: It has been an important and enjoyable debate, but the amendment should be resisted. Sixteen-year-olds are obviously more intelligent than the average Liberal Democrat, but I do not believe that that is a sufficiently compelling reason to give them the vote.

I have mentioned that, in my seven and a bit years as a Member of Parliament, I have not received one letter on the issue. I accept that, just because people are not writing to us on various issues, it does not mean that we should not lead the way. There again, even in my discussions with youngsters, none of them said that the voting age should be reduced.

Mr. Barnes: Hon. Members have said generally that they have never received any representations on the matter, but I have just conducted a United Nations Children's Fund "Meet the MPs" surgery and it was raised there. I brought away a number of unanswered questions for written answers. Today, I answered someone in connection with the point.

Mr. Evans: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being perhaps the only Member of Parliament to have the matter raised.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The point has also been raised with me at my advice surgery. Will the hon. Gentleman apply the same test to all the amendments that he has tabled for discussion during consideration of the Bill--the test of whether he has received letters on the subject?

Mr. Evans: Clearly not. Obviously, hon. Members have received some representations on the matter in some way, shape or form--but I suspect not many. That does

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not mean that the debate should not have taken place. In many ways, I am glad that it has. Perhaps it will not only increase the interest of 16 to 18-year-olds in getting the vote, but encourage more 18 to 24-year-olds who already have the vote to use it. As the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) pointed out, many do not. It must disturb all of us that 40 per cent. of them did not vote at the last general election.

We have heard many arguments. The taxation argument has been used. I do not believe that, if people pay tax, they should get the vote. The reverse is also true: if they do not pay tax, that should not mean that they do not get the vote. It is nonsense. The taxation argument is weak.

The hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) utilised the multi-age argument. She felt that we should have one age and it should be 16. She felt that the age for voting should be 16, but she would not support that this evening because we were not reducing the age for everything else to 16. From now on, that sort of thing will be known as the Watford gap. If the hon. Lady sincerely believes in her arguments, she should go into the Lobby with the Liberal Democrats to support the amendment, perhaps accompanied by the hon. Member for Gedling and one or two other hon. Members.

I have read all about the laws governing the European Parliament elections--a ripping read, no doubt available in all good bookshops. In all EU states, the age at which one is allowed to vote in European Parliament elections--and, I imagine, all others--is 18. I am not sure what Norway's voting age is, but I suspect that it is probably 18 as well--Norway is so good on all things European. In some of our neighbouring countries, one is able to do all sorts of weird and wonderful things at widely differing ages. A research paper on the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts reveals that it varies widely throughout the EU: it is 14 in Austria,12 in Spain and 16 in Luxembourg; and in the UK, the age of consent for homosexual acts is 18. Therefore, a multiplicity of ages is used throughout the EU.

I agree that there is an anomaly about the age at which one can stand for election. That one can vote at 18, but not stand for election to Parliament until one is 21, is certainly anomalous. The Home Affairs Committee examined that issue and decided that matters should remain as they are. However, it is interesting to note that in seven EU countries, one may stand for election at 18; one may stand at 19 in Austria, at 21 in five other EU countries, at 23 in France and at 25 in Italy--despite the fact that in all those countries, the voting age is 18.

Our opposition to the amendment should not be regarded as a slight by 16 and 17-year-olds. The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned that, although under-16s are not as interested in joining political parties as they once were, they often show strong interest in political issues that affect them and the world in general. My discussions with young people have ranged over many issues, including the environment, both domestic and global. I find it heartening that they are concerned about such matters, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of future generations. Young people also take an interest in animal welfare and many other serious issues.

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Therefore, just because they do not have the vote, we should not think that everyone under the age of 18 is uninterested in political issues.

The line has to be drawn somewhere and, in matters of age restriction, a balance has to be struck and a judgment made. All of us have knocked on doors when canvassing for votes and been told by someone, "I turn 18 the day after the general election." It almost seems as though that one day has cheated them of the opportunity to vote. I do not believe that an additional 24 hours on this earth gives anyone the wisdom needed to participate in elections, but the fact is that the line has been drawn. The Liberal Democrats say that the voting age should be 16, but why stop there? Why not make it 15, 14 or even seven? The Liberal Democrats have chosen to draw the line at 16, but that is just as artificial as drawing it at 18. Our view is that 18 is an appropriate age: for many people, education ends and citizenship is extended at that age.

We have often discussed the problem of 18 to 24-year-olds not voting. Before the general election, I did my bit by getting involved with the "Rock the Vote" campaign to get young people interested in voting. I went to the launch of the campaign at the Ministry of Sound--I am not sure whether any of my hon. Friends have been there recently, but I suspect that they have not. The issue concerns all parties and we all got involved in the campaign to get young people to register and to vote. Unfortunately, the statistics in the Library paper reveal that the campaign was not as successful as we had hoped it would be, so we have to consider other ways of encouraging more young people to vote.

That has to be achieved by educating young people in schools about citizenship and voting. At the time of general elections, many of my local schools hold mock polls, in which young people stand as candidates and participate in the election process. In the late 1960s, when I was at school, I participated in such elections--indeed, I stood as a Conservative candidate in one of them. I lost that election, which prepared me well for the many other elections that I have subsequently lost.

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