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Young People and Democracy

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

5.52 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I beg to move,

This is an issue whose time has come—the enhancing of the role of young people and democracy. Either we deal with that issue and change the way in which politics works, or we as politicians shall be damned to ever-falling turnouts and rocketing disengagement, especially among the recently enfranchised and society, or even both. That is clearly damaging to democracy, and unsustainable for the legitimate and important work of political parties. Unless we buck up our ideas and respond to the problem, it will be very difficult to fix.

There is a range of general measures that we should support to boost younger people's interest in democracy. I believe that Members in all parts of the House support measures such as enhanced and attractive policies for younger people, improved use of the internet and information technology, and better outreach to schools and colleges by politicians and interest groups.

One recent and overwhelmingly positive development in my constituency has been the establishment of a parliamentary youth internship programme in conjunction with local high schools. A victim of our own success, we now have a considerable backlog of students seeking to gain a few days' or weeks' experience in the holidays of how an MP's office works, and a better understanding of the parliamentary process. I strongly recommend the programme to other Members.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does that not show that young people are not necessary uninterested in politics, and that when given the chance and not patronised they are very willing to become involved? Do not the tremendous success and the growth of UK youth parliaments provide further evidence of that?

Angus Robertson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's supportive comments, and I shall come to that issue a little later.

The general measures that I enunciated a moment ago are no substitute for dealing with the biggest outstanding issue that disconnects younger people from active democracy: the right to vote. In this Chamber in 1947, Winston Churchill famously said:

But what happens when there is a fundamental generational breakdown in democratic participation? That is the challenge we need to address today.

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I want to begin with a perhaps surprising word of congratulation to the Minister for what must go down in parliamentary history as the smallest ever Government amendment to a Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru motion. Some people have uncharitably suggested that if Thomas Edison had been an SNP member, he would have been described by the UK parties as a dangerous anti-candle activist. I am glad that Government Front Benchers have dispelled that myth today, at least for a short while, and I hope that the Minister will use his youthful zeal, as the second youngest Labour Member in the House, to withdraw the amendment—perhaps I am being a bit optimistic—and that he will not be sent over the top to defend the indefensible by the fuddy-duddies, wherever they may be.

The Minister has a tremendous chance to be on the right side of history this evening by helping to lead a change to the inevitable—a lowering of the voting age to 16. Parliament should take a lead on this issue, despite the impending Electoral Commission report, to which the SNP and I have made submissions.

My strong views on this subject have been long held, and the same is true of my party. My maiden speech in this House, in 2001, was on the subject of young people and democracy. Indeed, my predecessor, Dr. Winnie Ewing, the current SNP president, made her maiden speech in this House, in 1967, on the subject of lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Of course, that came about, thereby allowing 81 current Members of this House to benefit directly from the last lowering of the voting age, which occurred in 1970. They include the Chancellor of the Exchequer; the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes); and the former shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). Who is to say that the next crop of leading politicians are not being turned off such a career path by their inability to have their say? Why should we not enfranchise the 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK?

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (Lab): In the light of the Government's amendment, which makes it clear that all the issues are being addressed, perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain why he chose this subject for a key Opposition day debate?

Angus Robertson: I am delighted that the hon. Lady raises this issue. The commitment of the SNP and Plaid Cymru to youth issues is demonstrated by the fact that, on the one day available to us to choose the subjects for debate, we have chosen that of young people and democracy. We have done so because it is our keenly held belief that it is an important issue, but I am not claiming that those in other parties do not also consider it important. Indeed, perhaps the hon. Lady will contribute to this debate later on.

The lowering of the voting age has been the subject of much deliberation in the House of Commons. There was a private Member's Bill on the issue, which was sponsored by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), who will be speaking for the Liberal Democrats. There were some early-day motions, including early-day

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motion 746 from the last Session, entitled "Votes at Sixteen", which I co-sponsored. The wording of that early-day motion and of today's motion is almost exactly the same. That early-day motion had the support of 37 Labour Members, most Liberal Democrats, and almost all SNP and Plaid Cymru Members—as well as Conservative and Ulster Unionist Members. I hope that we can depend on the votes of all those signatories tonight. This is and should be a cross-party, non-partisan subject for agreement.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when the Welsh Affairs Committee reported on children and young people in Wales, one of its recommendations was to lower the voting age to 16? That was by no means supported by 100 per cent. of the evidence that we took, and even some young people said that they did not want it, but, on balance, the Committee decided that we should have it. However, I cannot see the point in going for it now, while the Electoral Commission is preparing its report. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say why we have to do it this minute when the commission is to report very shortly.

Angus Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest in the subject and welcome the findings of the Welsh Affairs Committee and those of the Scottish Parliament's Local Government and Transport Committee, which also found that lowering the voting age to 16 would be welcomed. I believe that Parliament should be leading on this issue and I will come to that point later.

This issue should unite hon. and right hon. Members in all parts of the House. Intellectually and ideologically we can all make the case for change. The nationalist perspective recognises the growing independence and self-determination of younger people. The Conservative perspective perhaps recognises initiative and entrepreneurship among younger people. The Labour perspective might recognise social inclusion and justice, whereas the Liberal perspective represents individual freedom of choice and social responsibility.

Government Members, if not persuaded by my arguments, may be convinced by the English Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), who recently told an audience of A-level students that lowering the voting age would be a "logical" reform:

Prime Minister Tony Blair has signalled that he no longer opposes the lowering of the voting age to 16, so there is at least—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman may have realised his error. He should refer to hon. and right hon. Members in the normal way.

Angus Robertson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for pointing out my youthful error.

The Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), has signalled that he no longer opposes lowering the voting age to 16, so there is at least some consensus with Ken Livingston, Mayor of London, who strongly supports reform.

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