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Rosemary McKenna: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the argument that lowering the voting age increases participation is not sustained by the figures for those aged between 18 and 25? Participation is lower in that age group than in any other.
Charles Hendry: I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. No one has ever told me that they did not vote when they were 18 because they were not allowed to do so when they were 16. There is no connection between the two.
We need to consider the issues that are of greatest concern to young people themselves. Many people say that young people are primarily concerned with the environment and international affairs, particularly in developing countries. That is of passionate importance to a few, but not to the majority of young people, who are concerned most about issues that are closer to home, such as their safety on the street. They are profoundly concerned about crime. One of the things that politicians so often get wrong is the language that we use in addressing those issues. Too often, the words that young people hear used in the House or that they read in the newspapers refer to young offenders, as though
The reality is that young people are much more likely to be the victims of crime than any other section of the community, and we need to talk in a way that reflects that problem and their anxieties and that delivers the solutions that they view as realistic. That involves putting more police on the beat and, to an extent, a different attitude to policing, so that, when young people say that they have been attacked or that they have a problem, the response is not, "Well, what were you doing wrong, then?" We must address those issues constructively.
The second issue that comes up consistently is that of facilities and transport. It is no wonder that young people have little faith in politicians when they see the youth clubs and youth organisations that they attend at risk of closing because of a complete lack of funds, when other departments round the corner are awash with funds.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is on to something. Does he agree that we have almost developed an "us and them" culture distinguishing between what we view as general society and young people, who are sometimes identified as a problem that must be dealt with and addressed? Cannot we do more to include them and to ensure that they are part of our political process? If we do not do so, we stand a good chance of alienating more and more people from the political process.
Charles Hendry: I could not agree more. We have to try to challenge the media perception that the majority of young people are inherently bad. The overwhelming majority of young people whom I meet in all places are inherently good and enthusiastic people who work hard for their communities. We have to change the language that we and newspapers use by showing a much more positive approach toward young people. After all, it is hard to understand why they should have much faith in the work that we do if we appear to have little faith in what they do in their lives.
The third issue that comes up time and time again is education, which is not surprising. However, it is also not surprising that the young people who disproportionately voted for the election of a Labour Government in 1997 and 2001 are now disproportionately more disaffected with that Government than other voters as they see the Government breaking their manifesto commitments and wanting to charge students tens of thousands of pounds to go to university. [Interruption.] Labour Members may tut-tut, but three years ago the Conservative party was the third largest party on campus. This year, it is bigger than any other party, and probably bigger than the other two major parties combined. That has happened because of the education
Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman talks about support on campuses. I am sure he is aware that the most recent MORI poll on the matterit conducts a yearly pollshows that the Conservatives have the third highest support with about 20 per cent of students' support. The Labour party is down at 34 per cent. and the Liberal Democrats have 38 per cent. support among students.
On education, young people are frustrated that great emphasis is put on universities and that not enough attention is paid to technical and vocational training, which many believe to be a more appropriate route to take. They want politicians to address those issues more seriously than they believe to be the case at present.
We must consider not only those issues, but the way in which we relate to young people. I commend to hon. Members the work of the UK Youth Parliament, of which I am a trustee, as is the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green). Anyone who attended the meeting that it held here last week will have been immensely impressed by the way in which the young people spoke, the coherence of their arguments and their positive approach to tackling the issues. I urge all hon. Members to engage more closely with the UK Youth Parliament.
I also urge hon. Members to engage more closely with youth forums and councils in their constituencies. However, I emphasise that those forums and councils too often make presentations to local politicianscouncillors or otherwisewho listen patiently but go away and do nothing. If we want the bodies to take us seriously, they must see that there is genuine action as a result of such presentations.
Angus Robertson: Bearing in mind the fact that the British Youth Council has issued a call for as many hon. Members as possible to vote in favour of the voting age being lowered, will he and other Conservative Members do that?
Charles Hendry: I have already set out the reasons why it would not be right to lower the voting age at this time. Taking someone seriously does not mean automatically agreeing with everything they say. It means taking part in a constructive dialogue and debate. At the end of the day, young people will be more attracted to people who argue genuinely and sincerely from a given point of view than to those who they think will support them irrespective of what they say in the belief that that will win their votes.
Pete Wishart: We are all aware of the Electoral Commission report that is due to be published soon. If it states clearly that it believes that there is a case for giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, will the Conservative party back that?
We need to listen constantly to young people if we want to be taken seriously, which is one of the reasons why we have set up a database of 4,000 voluntary organisations that work with young people. We e-mail the organisations every month to consult on matters that the party is considering. We are extending that practice to secondary schools, as it shows a willingness to use the communication methods that young people are using more and more. Most Members, with the possible exception of the Minister, grew up at a time when there were three channels on television. The Minister probably cannot remember the age when it was not possible to watch an evening's television without seeing some current affairs. There was news on every channel and one could not avoid it. Many young people growing up today watch television channels with no current affairs or news content. The most popular channels are E4 and Sky One, which have no current affairs presentation whatsoever, which makes it much more difficult for politicians to reach and communicate with young people. We must therefore make sure that we understand new technology and use it in a way that is not condescending.
Above all, we must have face-to-face contact with young people. People's attitudes to politics and politicians is often changed when they have the chance to come to Westminster, look round Parliament and see how it works. They have a chance to meet their Member of Parliament and talk to them face-to-face about the issues that most concern them.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the importance of members of the public coming here. Does he accept that a downside of the new sitting hours is that they have substantially reduced the opportunities for school parties, certainly from outside London, to come and visit the House of Commons?
Charles Hendry: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. From the perspective of my own constituency, we have to wait many months to get people in for school visits, if we can get them in at all, because of the problems caused by the new hours. I hope that the House will address that, but it is obviously a separate issue, so I shall return to the subject of our debate.
I congratulate the nationalists on raising the issue, but lowering the voting age is a sideshow. Young people want politicians to listen to them and act on their concerns. If we can introduce policies that will make our communities safer for young people; provide more facilities for them and improve transport so that they can access those facilities; provide open access to higher education and improved vocational training; and show that young people's views are genuinely important to us and that we will act on them, they will give us an opportunity to be heard and we will find that they are willing to use their vote and express their political views.