Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
(Lab): One of the weaknesses of the hon. Gentleman's motion is that it does
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not include the question of candidacy, which is covered by the amendment. The Electoral Commission is studying both issues. Rather than approach the matter piecemeal, would it not be better to examine both aspects by supporting the amendment? What is the hon. Gentleman's position on the age of candidacy?
I am entirely open to equalisation of the right to vote and candidacy. It should be for electors to decide whether an individual is mature enough to represent them at any level of government. That does not negate my point that Parliament should take the lead in sending a signal to young people that their role in democracy is as important as that of anyone else.
There is a long list of important organisations outside the House that support the proposed initiative. They include Article 12 in England and Scotland, Barnardo's, the British Youth Council, the Care Leavers Association, the Carnegie Young People Initiative, Charter 88, the Children's Rights Alliance for England and the Electoral Reform Society. The list goes on and on. Before today's debate, the SNP and Plaid Cymru approached several of those organisations. The British Youth Council was specifically mentioned earlier, and I am pleased to say that its vice-chairman, Richard Angell, released a statement in advance of our debate, stating:
"The British Youth Council supports the debate in parliament in trying to enfranchise more young people to vote, reduce the democratic deficit and empower more young people as citizens. The motion that will be debated on Tuesday shows from its sponsors that young people and adults alike, from all parts of the United Kingdom support modernisation of our democracy in this way. We call, as the national youth council in the UK, for the Government and all other Opposition parties to support this call and look to eradicate the inequalities that young people feel when it comes to the political process and let young people vote at 16."
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) mentioned some of the reasons why it is right to lower the voting age, but Richard Angell widens the list in his submission by saying:
"Young people have a right to be able to vote from 16; they can get married, have sex, become a parent, smoke, drive and join the army before they can currently vote; this needs to be rectified."
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
(Lab): The hon. Gentleman has twice repeated the interesting list of things that one can do at 16, but as almost without exception they are all manifestly painful and grave mistakes, why is there any reason to expand the list on that basis?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The most significant reason for having the right to votesome might say that it is also painfulis the necessity when earning to pay tax to the Government. I have always been brought up to believe in no taxation without representation. Many of the items on the list might be painful or unwelcome to people of any age, but I believe that those who have obligations to society should also have the right, especially in a democracy, to take a decision about who governs. I am sure that the hon. Lady would accept that.
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It was not only the British Youth Council that responded with a message in advance of this evening's debate. Penny Hollings, the national secretary of the National Union of Students, said:
"NUS believes that people at 16 should be able to exercise their democratic right to vote. Many decisions that directly affect them are being taken and they have no chance to influence these decisions. This is particularly unfair when we consider these 16-year-olds are allowed to get married, join the armed forces and pay income tax"
the point I made a few moments ago
"but not decide whether they agree with where that money is being spent."
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)
(LD): Are not some of the interventions from Labour Members rather curious, coming from a party that prides itself on extending the franchise and the rights of individuals? They seem to question the hon. Gentleman's purpose in seeking to extend the franchise to those who are currently disfranchised, but I cannot think of many issues more important than that.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but I would rather not go down the partisan route this evening because I am trying to persuade right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to vote with the SNP and Plaid Cymru on this important motion. I will not therefore be diverted down the hon. Gentleman's route.
We should reflect on clear examples of what has happened when the voting age has been lowered, to see what advantages it has brought It applies to several of Germany's Lander, which reduced the voting age for participation in municipal elections. In Hanover, for example, the turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds was higher than that of those aged between 18 and 35. Admittedly with limited evidence, I believe that lowering the voting age can bring about the bonus of dealing with the disconnection that I warned about in my introductory remarks.
Enthusiasm for supporting democracy among 16 and 17-year-olds is evident wherever one chooses to lookfrom participation in, and support for, single issue campaigns to the recent demonstrations on Iraq. That has been recognised even by Downing street, with the Prime Minister making a special appearance on MTV to justify the decision to go to war with Iraq. I note with interest that the closing date has just passed in the competition by the Electoral Commission and MTV entitled "Votes are Action". The competition was open to people aged between 14 and 24, and it challenged participants to come up with a creative response to the phrase "Turn Opinion into Action". Perhaps MPs should tune into MTV and get inspiration from the competition entries. I suppose that I should declare that that is not a covert attempt to wangle a free ticket to next year's MTV music awards.
My experience in my constituency bears out the theory that 16 and 17-year-olds are interested in democracy. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties have also had that positive experience. I regularly seek the views of modern studies pupils in the senior schools in my constituencythe Buckie, Elgin, Forres, Lossiemouth, Milnes and Spayside high schools, as well as Elgin Academy and Gordonstoun.
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The replies from students are detailed and convincing. On the question of lowering the voting age to 16, the responses have been overwhelmingand overwhelmingly in favour. That is the case elsewhere in the country: 80 per cent. of correspondents on the "Young Scot" website are in favour, and the comments to be found there are also instructive.
"I am 16 and think that I should be allowed to vote, because I probably care more about politics than some people that can vote . . . I think that if the law treats you as an adult you, as an adult, should be able to have your say in the countryyoung people are the future!"
As was noted earlier, that view is not universal. JonnyG writes:
"But do you think that everybody who is 16 is responsible enough to use their voteI meando we really want the monster raving loony party voted into parliament? (or conservatives for that matter)"
There are mixed opinions, but I note with interest the summary of the big conversation forum. Apparently, it is a big conversation on voting age and youth apathy, and the biggest single group among those sampled supports lowering the voting age to 16.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)
(Lab): I pledge my support to the principle of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I firmly believe that the voting age should be lowered. People aged between 16 and 18 are often criticised for not being mature enough to vote, yet the same could be said about people who are much older. It is not so much a question of age as of maturity, and whether people look seriously at the political climate.
The hon. Gentleman has come as close as he dare to endorsing the views of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru without getting into difficulty with his Whips. I welcome wholeheartedly the logic of the case that he makes.
I am not in favour of limiting the franchise to any group above the age of 16, but I certainly do not think that 16 and 17-year-olds should be excluded.
I do not want to leave the big conversation website just yet, as I want to refer to an interesting contribution from a person named Andy Bannister. He writes:
"A better step would be to consider why turnouts are fallinga general lack of respect in politics. When one watches the performance of politicians of all stripes in the House, is there any wonder? You act like a bunch of year-7s, cheering and booing, trying to score cheap points and refusing to accept anybody on the other side of the house might have a valid point. Grow up and act like the elected representatives you are, and respect might begin to return."
With so much consensus so far this evening, I think that we will be able to offer a good example and show that Mr. Bannister's concerns are unfounded. That is the opportunity presented to the House this evening. We must lead the debate about young people and democracy in a consensual way. The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru strongly support imaginative ways to encourage younger people's interest in democracy.
There is no substitute for addressing the real and substantive issue of the voting age. Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru Members believe, along with
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many other hon. Members, that the voting age needs to be reformed. Parliament should lead, and it has the chance to do so tonight. I hope that, in the spirit of non-partisanship, hon. Members from all parties will vote with us and send a strong signal to younger citizens that their views really count.