Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move, To leave out from "Kingdom" to end and add

As the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) says, the participation of all people in our democracy is one of the most important issues that we can possibly discuss, and the participation of young people is especially important. The debate transcends party politics and crosses the political divide. All hon. Members have a collective responsibility to capture the imagination of our constituents, engage their interest and have an ongoing dialogue with all parts of society, young and old.

The Government, and many other organisations, are working hard in a variety of ways to focus on engaging younger people in our political process. However, there is no quick-fix solution, and that is where we disagree with the approach adopted by the hon. Member for Moray, and in particular with the suggestion that lowering the voting age is the definite solution to low turnout by young people in elections. Our concise but perfectly formed amendment suggests that we should continue to examine the issue while bearing it in mind that the Electoral Commission is studying the impact of any such changes alongside the potential impact of other steps that we could take.

Huw Irranca-Davies: To row back rapidly, although I agree firmly in principle with lowering the voting age, we should not prejudge the issue. Like most hon. Members, I would never want to be accused of premature extrapolation.

Mr. Leslie: I am not sure about the allusion made by my hon. Friend, but I am glad that he has rowed back. The Electoral Commission is examining voting at 16, and it is prudent to wait for its report.

Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD): The Government amendment mentions the Electoral Commission, but it does not say whether the Government will accept the commission's findings. If it comes out in favour of votes at 16, will the Government implement the policy?

Mr. Leslie: It is probably better not to be premature about the matter and to wait for the Electoral Commission's report to be published. At that point, we can decide whether we accept its advice and recommendation. Ultimately, the commission provides advice, but it is for Ministers, Parliament and the House of Commons to make final decisions, and I am sure that the debate will continue.

We should remember why the issue is important in the first place. This point may be obvious, but good governance and high-quality future decision making

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1467

depend on young people participating in elections and taking part in decision making and government. The situation is not a complete disaster. Some younger people are interested and even active in politics. Believe it or not, I was once a young Member of Parliament. In May, I will have been in continuous elected office for 10 years—I was elected as a councillor in Bradford at 21, which was an honour and a privilege. I am glad that younger politicians are entering the political arena in all political parties, but especially in the Labour party.

It is not possible to claim that all young people are apathetic and disengaged. Although we cannot generalise, people aged between 18 and 24 are comparatively less likely to vote than those from older age groups. As MPs, we hear time and again that many younger people are not interested in our political institutions and are not impressed by traditional forms of communication between candidates and electors. What are the solutions to those problems? The hon. Member for Moray and many of my hon. Friends suggest that lowering the voting age to 16 may be one solution. The suggestion is interesting and has been made by individuals in several parties, including the Labour party, over the years. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs said as recently as December that we must be open-minded and listen to the arguments, and we have posed the question in our current big conversation.

Voting at 16 might be an option, but although we are happy to encourage the debate, we must also recognise that there are problems. The House declined to support votes at 16 by 434 votes to 36 when the matter was last debated in 1999. Consequential questions about the wider age of majority might flow from a decision to allow voting at 16. We are open-minded on the issue, and the Electoral Commission will publish its report shortly.

The commission is also looking closely at the age of candidacy, as not just voting but active participation in the political process matters. On candidacy, the minimum age for standing for election to Parliament was fixed—I assure the House that this is true—by the Parliamentary Elections Act 1695, and the age of candidacy for local elections was set in the Local Government Act 1972. They do, therefore, seem overdue for review. In the meantime, the Scottish Parliament is considering the Local Governance (Scotland) Bill, which proposes reducing the age for standing in local elections from 21 to 18. Local elections are devolved matters, but we will follow the passage of that Scottish proposal very closely.

Nevertheless, the Government believe that the challenge of voter engagement and poor turnout requires more than changes to the franchise or the age of candidacy. The key to increasing turnout among younger people is to stimulate their interest in politics and to demonstrate that participation is a worthwhile and effective use of their time. The issues and policy options offered by political parties are therefore crucial, and all Members of Parliament have a responsibility to persuade younger constituents that their voices count. I am pleased that the Labour Government are playing their part in focusing on that issue and taking action in several different ways.

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1468

For example, we have the "Yvote?/Ynot?" campaign, under the auspices of the children and young people's unit, which has sought to gauge the views of younger people about the political process and how interest in it could be improved. We have had a tour of regional meetings involving hundreds of young people in discussion with 17 Ministers in total. A website funded by the Department for Education and Skills and the Hansard Society has been designed as an interactive resource for teaching. The UK Youth Parliament, which has already been mentioned and with which many hon. Members will be familiar, has received £165,000 of Government support this year. We have many other initiatives, including the very successful Scottish Youth Parliament, to which I know the First Minister has given his close support. That shows great promise, and we are happy to continue to encourage such projects.

At local government level, in Scotland and in England and Wales, I know that councillors and council officials are working with schools and colleges to bring younger people into the decision-making process. In my own city, the council has supported the Bradford Youth Parliament, which involved elections of non-party candidates in secondary schools across the district. Young people were not only the candidates, but got involved in scrutineering and running the polling stations and the ballot. That was a worthwhile exercise.

The Electoral Commission has also taken a lead in advising on policy. Since its creation in 2000, it has initiated a wide array of policy mechanisms, including the "Votes are Power" campaign, which sent birthday cards to those reaching 18, encouraging them to use their vote. A publication targeted at first-time voters, entitled "An Easy Guide to Voting" has been widely distributed. Another initiative has been a team of outreach workers, which has travelled across the country to raise awareness of the voting process with young people outside the school environment. The Electoral Commission is to be commended for that work.

Perhaps the most significant change is in school education. In England, citizenship education is now part of the curriculum in both primary and secondary schools. Since September 2002, it has been a compulsory subject for 11 to 14-year-olds. Citizenship education has three interrelated elements—community involvement, political literacy, and social and moral responsibilities. We believe that citizenship education in England empowers young people to discuss and debate issues affecting them and helps to stimulate their active participation in society.

In Scotland, while there is no statutory curriculum, I understand that the Scottish Executive have produced guidance that seeks to ensure breadth in the curriculum, so that teaching can touch on the duties and responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society. In Wales, citizenship education forms part of the personal and social education framework implemented in September 2000. In Northern Ireland, I understand, my ministerial colleagues are considering proposals on citizenship education for school curriculums.

Encouraging participation for all ages is not just about informing the electorate. There are also ways in which we can make voting easier, simpler and more convenient. We should continue to look at new ways of making the process and mechanics of casting a ballot

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1469

more appropriate to modern lifestyles and try out ideas for taking the vote to the citizen, rather than requiring the citizen to overcome obstacles in order to voice his or her opinion.

We debated all-postal voting pilots only yesterday. We should recognise the beneficial impact that that method may well have on turnout. It is also important to explore the possibilities offered by new technology, whether voting by telephone, internet, e-mail or even digital television, which might reach out to electors who might otherwise not go to the polling station. In short, electors should have as much choice as possible to decide how they cast their vote and which option is the most convenient for them. We aim to provide that greater choice, and piloting is a prelude to that.

Whether in the political or the social realm, active citizenship by all in society is clearly a desirable goal from which we all benefit. Taking an interest in our communities, looking after our neighbours, reporting crimes to the police, volunteering for good causes, and activism in civic affairs and politics, even if it is simply voting or writing to councillors or MPs, or joining political parties, are the glue that helps our society stick together.

Next Section

IndexHome Page