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Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): All that is fair enough, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to do more in this debating Chamber to engage young people? We have to start discussing issues that interest and excite them. Can the Minister think of anything that has been brought to the Floor of the House in the past year that has been of great interest to young people and has been a matter that they could positively engage in?
Mr. Leslie: I can think of many examples of such issues. It would be wrong to pigeonhole young people as supposedly interested only in particular niche issues. I think that young people are as interested in the quality of public services, the level of taxation, the nature of the constitution, international poverty and so on as any other member of society. It is how we engage with young people that makes the difference. It is clear that there is widespread support across all parties for engaging younger people in our democratic process, even if there is a slightly different emphasis among the parties on the precise way of doing it.
Angus Robertson: For the record, will the Minister say whether he agrees with his colleague the Minister for School Standards that, if someone can get married at 16, pay taxes and join the Army, there is no case for saying that that person cannot vote until he or she is 18?
Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), in effect suggested that one does not have to be married or pay taxes in order to vote. These matters are not all interrelated; thankfully, they are mutually exclusive. We should look simply at the voting age.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I congratulate the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru on securing this debate, which is on an extremely important issue. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on the way in which he introduced it, very constructively and eloquently. I think he was genuinely trying to work for a cross-party consensus. Whether he will manage to achieve it is, of course, another matter entirely.
It is, as always, a pleasure to follow the Minister, who, in his normal, charming, Radio 2 easy-listening voice, can talk eloquently about virtually everything. I agreed with a great deal of what he said about the measures the Government have taken. I think there is genuine cross-party consensus that more must be done to address this issue.
I was surprised that the Minister did not have a view on the main issue in the motion. The Electoral Commission asked all parties to submit their views and it is most peculiar that the Governmentor the Labour partydo not appear to have submitted an opinion. For the Government not to react until the commission produces its findings seems a peculiar way to proceed.
I have no doubt as to the seriousness of young people's disaffection with politicsor, more accurately their disaffection with the political process. In general, as the Minister said, young people are extraordinarily interested in the issues; their dissatisfaction is with the way in which politicians, and especially the House, deal with many of those issues. Fewer than 40 per cent. of first-time voters voted in the last general election, and turnout is likely to be even lower in the European and local elections later this year. Pensioners are almost twice as likely as first-time voters to vote in a general election.
I believe that, although the nationalists have correctly identified a problem, they have come to the wrong conclusion. Of course, some 16-year-olds are very ready to vote. Many Membersespecially the Ministerwere probably ready to vote when we were 10, 11 or 12 and we would have been delighted if the voting age had been reduced when we were young, but we had to wait. However, my experience of talking to youth groups and students throughout the country and from the straw polls that I have taken in schools and colleges shows that there is no clear majority in favour of change. Those who are politically involved and aware are certainly keen to see the voting age reduced, but that is not the case for the majority of younger people.
Moreover, a voting age of 16 is not an international symbol of democracy. There are only nine countries where one can vote in general elections at the age of 16 or 17; they include Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Sudan, so the message is that people can vote at 16 as long as they vote for the one candidate on offer.
Charles Hendry: Of the nine countries that allow voting at that age in general elections, four are dictatorships of one type or another and five are democracies. However, no European country allows it in general elections, although Germany allows it in local elections. The hon. Gentleman said in his opening comments that the voting age was the outstanding issue affecting young people, but that is not felt to be the case almost anywhere else in the democratic world.
Matthew Green: When we rightly gave women the vote almost a century ago, we were among the first countries to do so. Following the hon. Gentleman's logic, we should never have given women the vote on the basis that other countries have not done so. Why can we not lead the world on the reduction of the voting age?
There is no common age of majority. One can do many things at the age of 18; for example, one can buy alcohol and obtain credit. In effect, people cannot drive until they are almost 18: most have almost reached that age before they pass their test. However, I want to take head-on the bogus arguments that have already been mentioned; for example, that one can join the Army at the age of 16. A 16-year-old can join the Army with their parents' permission, but they cannot be put on front-line duty until they are 17, or 18 for international duties. The reality is that most young people cannot freely join the Army until they are 18.
The point has been made that people pay tax at the age of 16. My five-year-old pays VAT on the sweeties he buys with his weekly pocket money[Interruption.] He gets far too much pocket money. However, no one is suggesting that because he and other children pay VAT they should be entitled to vote, although he would probably think it was a good idea.
Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): European Union visitors to the UK also pay VAT, but that is not an argument for them being given a vote. The distinction relates to income tax, which is based on being domiciled in the UK.
Charles Hendry: I understand the distinction that is being drawn, but the reality is that 90 per cent. of 16-year-olds do not pay income taxonly a small proportion of them do so. Those who have put the case for change to the Electoral Commission may want to consider the argument about no taxation without representation. If people pay tax, they should be entitled to vote, but that does not justify giving the vote to the overwhelming majority of that age group, to whom that does not apply.
Reference has also been made to the age at which people are allowed to get married. The situation is different in Scotland, but certainly in England and Wales, people can marry at the age of 16 only if they have their parents' consent. No one would suggest that people should be allowed to vote at the age of 16 only if they have their parents' consent. Such arguments do not apply generally. One in 500 girls and one in 1,000 boys get married at the age of 16. To trot out such things as though they were the norm is decidedly misleading, but we are finding that they are being used to try to turn our minds away from the real reasons why young people are not getting involved in politics and not taking an interest in what is going on.
My belief is that young people are not voting because they do not see politics as being relevant or addressing the issues that concern them, as the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) was saying just now. Rather than considering an extension of the voting age, our priority should be to motivate the 60 per cent. of those who could vote for the first time but do not bother to do so to get out and use their votes.
Charter 88 and the YMCA found in a survey in 2002 that 90 per cent. of 16 to 22-year-olds would be more likely to vote if the parties addressed the issues that matter most to young people. Even though a survey carried out by the children and young people's unit in 2002 showed that just 40 per cent. of 14 to 19-year-olds had some or a great interest in politics, it also showed that 76 per cent. of that age group thought that they should be taught more about politics while in school. So young people clearly have a great desire to have a better understanding of the way in which such issues are addressed.