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Mr. Robathan: My hon. Friend will be aware that, at a similar age, the Prime Minister also declared his allegiance by standing as a Conservative candidate. Now, he hides that allegiance behind new Labour.

Mr. Evans: We remember it well, but, in the spirit of understanding and reconciliation, I shall not pursue that point.

We have to use education to get across to young people the message about voting. We should also exploit facilities such as the internet. The House of Commons has excellent pages where young people can look up what has been said and what documents are available. All the political parties have an internet site, as do many individual Members of Parliament--mine is www.nigelmp.com, and I am sure that many hon. Members will now rush off to have a look at it. In addition, we all encourage young people to join youth organisations.

Mr. Fabricant: I remind my hon. Friend that, here at the House of Commons, there is an incredibly good

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education unit which will visit schools in various constituencies with its travelling roadshow. Sadly, far too few Members of Parliament--

The Temporary Chairman (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody): Order. I am sure that the Library will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the advertisement, but we should return to consideration of the amendment.

Mr. Evans: I urge all Members of Parliament to speak to young people who visit the House of Commons in the summer. For the past six years, I have spoken to them about the work of a Member of Parliament, which helps to prepare them for the time when they are able to vote.

Today's debate will not end with the Division; it will continue well into the future. We all have a duty and an obligation to our constituents to encourage as many as possible to show an interest in politics, to get involved and, not least, to use the vote that was so hard fought for in general elections, local elections and European elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): This has been a worthwhile, interesting and, at times, lively debate. We have heard high-quality speeches from, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Ms Ward), for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). No one can dismiss the issues raised in the debate and no one would try to do so. The Government take them seriously and I hope to persuade the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) to do so as well.

It might help the House if I briefly set out the history of the issues. The age of majority was reviewed in the mid-1960s by the Latey committee, which in 1967 recommended that the age of majority be lowered. For most purposes, that was achieved by the Family Law Reform Act 1969; but, for electoral purposes, as a result of a similar recommendation, it was reduced from 21 to 18 by the Representation of the People Act 1969. That remains the position.

7.30 pm

Obviously it would not be wise to give the right to vote to all people, no matter what their age. So an age must be chosen at which it can be accepted that most people are sufficiently politically aware, mature and independent to make up their minds and choose between the various election candidates. A balance must be struck in deciding that age. Doubtless all of us know people under 18 who exhibit wisdom and responsibility and could be trusted to exercise the franchise sensibly. Equally, we can probably all think of people over 18 who lack the necessary maturity to make responsible decisions.

That brings me back to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, who says that there is no absolutism about these matters. I agree with him. It is also a truism that there is more likely to be a higher percentage of people aged 18 who are able to exercise judgment properly with maturity and independence than

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of those aged 16. Eighteen is the most common voting age throughout the world, and we believe that it is still the most appropriate minimum age.

These are serious issues that deserve to be debated. However, it is important that changes are brought forward with a degree of consensus. The Bill is the result of an all-party working group and a significant degree of cross-party support and agreement about the way forward. We may disagree about some of the details but there is a broad consensus that many of the ideas set out in the Bill are good ones that can command broad support. Indeed, representatives of each of the major political parties were on the working party that recommended the proposals that we are discussing in considering the Bill.

The Liberal Democrats' proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 has not had the same degree of broad-based support. It is regrettable that in bringing forward this idea they have not sought the support of Conservative Members, Labour Members and others by securing their agreement to put their names to the amendment.

As I have said, the issue deserves to be treated seriously and discussed in an all-party context. I suggest that the Select Committee on Home Affairs might be the appropriate venue. An appropriate cross-party group, of which there are several, might properly consider it.

It was interesting that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that he did not want piecemeal legislation on the age of majority. If he were to press the amendment to a vote, that is precisely what he would be urging upon the Committee.

As the hon. Member for Poole said, there are arguments for different ages of majority. Perhaps these need to be considered, but I suggest that they are not matters for the Government to examine internally. Perhaps the Select Committee on Home Affairs or another all-party group might be appropriate bodies to consider them and to decide whether it is right to have a certain age or a number of different ages.

It is important to get young people involved in political issues. However, I am not convinced that lowering the age of voting will do very much to bring about a significant change in the interest that young people take in political issues.

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey did not refer to the anomaly--it was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford and by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)--that people can vote at 18 but are unable to stand for Parliament or even a local council. They have to wait until they are 21. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have taken up the argument. It is much more difficult to justify because in many ways there is an anomaly. There are arguments in favour of a voting age of 21, but I will not outline them now.

The hon. Gentleman's proposal would increase the disparity between the voting age, if it were to be 16, and the age of 21 at which people could stand for election to Parliament or a local council. He has put forward no solution that would deal with that issue. These are complex matters that need to be debated in a cross-party and consensual way, not within Government but in another forum. The working party has ended its deliberations. I have not read the article to which the hon. Gentleman referred but, as I understand it, the working party did not consider the issue. Perhaps he should not

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believe all that he reads in the newspapers, no matter how reputable some of the journalists no doubt are. I think that the issue should be taken forward in a non-governmental way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider that approach rather than pressing the matter to a Division.

I appreciate the strength of feeling that Members on both sides of the Chamber have expressed. I do not dismiss the idea because it is one worthy of debate. However, I am not convinced by the argument that people should be able to vote at 16. There are routes other than pushing the amendment to a Division. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said that the Latey committee sought to bring forward these matters in a consensual way, and I think that that is the appropriate approach. I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will see fit to withdraw the amendment. If the issue is to be taken seriously, it needs to be pursued in an all-party manner.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford was right to say that if the hon. Gentleman presses the amendment to a vote, I shall charge the Liberal Democrats with not being serious. I charge them with grandstanding and indulging in political gestures. The hon. Gentleman has been given advice on how to take the matter forward. We shall now see if the Liberal Democrats have the maturity to exercise judgment. In many ways, the issue is a test of their maturity. Are they scoring party political points or are they serious? I say seriously that they should not demean the seriousness of the argument. Let them take it forward in a consensual way, seek a cross-party approach and treat young people with the seriousness that they deserve. They should not divide the Committee.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Until two minutes ago, this had been a good-natured and non-party political debate. I am sad that the Minister spoiled it in the past two minutes.

We have had a good debate with Members from the north, the midlands, the south of England and Scotland taking part, the majority of whom were in favour of the proposition that I and my hon. Friends have put forward. If the Minister heard my original remarks, he would have heard me saying that my party is both committed to reducing the age of voting to 16 and to reducing the age at which people can stand for elections to 18. Therefore, widening the gap between the two ages is not our position--the gap would be narrower if the two ages were reduced.

The Minister sought to say, and I had argued, that everything should be looked at in the round. I put two propositions to the Committee. First, we should accept that now is the time to move to voting at 16. Secondly, we should consider in the round the age of majority and all the other issues. I was hoping for an indication from the Minister that the Home Office was willing to do that. Sadly, that was not given. My right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) reminds me and the Committee that when the Latey committee did its work--he was there at the time--that was the subject of general consideration. The Labour Government's proposal, produced by the late Harold Wilson, reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, but that was not the result of a consensual agreement. It was a proposition that could be taken on its own.

Two questions have been asked. First, is there a commitment to a reduction in the voting age to 16? In Westminster Hall, where there have been great gatherings

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of young people in recent years, there has been a demand. There have been letters, and many young people raise the issue. I organised a Youth Parliament in a Committee Room some weeks ago, and the issue was raised then. I believe that there is a demand, and there is academic support for that in studies from Loughborough and Nottingham universities, which make it clear that only 5 per cent. of those under 19--a much younger group was also polled--thought that voting was a waste of time.

I shall put one final argument to the Committee after a good debate. It justifies constitutional matters being dealt with on the Floor of the House. At 16, young people go from being under authority to being free from authority. They are free to make their own choices, by and large. They have just come out of the period of compulsory education, when citizenship, voting and the electoral system are taught. They are usually settled in their homes and have not started to be mobile.

It is much more likely that 16 to 18-year-olds would vote than people who are slightly older. They are more settled and their education would be more relevant if it taught them that a chance to vote was about to come, than if it taught them about some vote a long time in the future.

We will not misinterpret colleagues who say that they cannot vote with us because the time is not right. This is a historic vote for Parliament and the Committee. It is the first time that young people under 18 will see it put to a Committee of Parliament that they should have the opportunity to vote. We ask colleagues in all parts of the House to support us. We have made the point and flagged up the proposition. If the Government defeat us tonight, we will go on to work with the Government and others. It is not one or the other: it is vote tonight and collaborate to make sure that we debate the issue across parties and in other places in the days ahead.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 36, Noes 434.


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