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6.47 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): I am a little hesitant, because according to the latest count I am the 17th oldest Member of Parliament, although I was encouraged when an hon. Member who is considerably older than me made an intervention.

The Minister said that we should stimulate an early interest in politics. I could not agree more, but we are missing the point—that the people who stimulate that interest are parents, relatives and teachers. I should therefore like to spend a few minutes discussing some of the things that put those people off politics, preventing them from transmitting an interest to children.

The first factor—the lack of openness—was discussed at great length in the previous debate and was one of the many things that contributed to my election to Parliament. Yesterday, The Times leader advocated "Honest politics" and the front page of The Independent said, "Scientist was 'gagged' by No. 10 after warning of global warming threat". Allegations of gagging, if true, work against openness and honesty.

The second factor that puts people off politics was exposed last week in the debate on the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. The Government refuse to consider logical or reasonable amendments before a Bill goes to the House of Lords in order to leave themselves bargaining space for Lords amendments. That is like a second-hand car salesman who sets a high asking price that he can later reduce, and Labour Members clearly alluded to such conduct in that debate.

Another example would be that of a debate on a very difficult issue that is derailed by being taken into the fields of party politics, of which the foundation hospitals Bill was an absolute classic. When this House considered Lords amendments to the Bill, we spent little time debating foundation hospitals; instead, it became an issue of party loyalty, and then of the supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords. Politicians find it extremely hard to apologise or to make U-turns. During one of last Saturday's rugby matches, the commentator congratulated a referee on apologising for getting something wrong. It would be good to see politicians apologising sometimes, as we are not always right.

The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) mentioned the factors that specifically affect and interest the young. In that context, I would stress the importance of schoolteachers. When we visit schools in our constituencies, we encounter staggering differences. In those where the teachers do not take much interest, the kids are apathetic and uninterested. On my first visit, I could not get a spark out of them, and thought that that must be down to me. Then, I went to two more where they had a huge, spontaneous supply of questions on local and national issues, some of which I had to answer afterwards in writing. They ranged from what we actually do, my view of the war in Iraq and, of course, why the voting age is 18.

At the end of the summer recess, the parliamentary education unit made a series of visits to Parliament, two of which I took part in because I was in London. The first involved a livewire group of kids, mainly from Sunderland, who had got up at the crack of dawn and got home late that night. They asked questions that

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demonstrated their interest in, for example, the involvement of women and ethnic minorities and why MPs have posh accents. Those in the second group were very different. For a start, they all had posh accents and were not interested in anything. The influence of teachers is crucial. If their interest can be rekindled, that will rub off on children. Lowering the voting age would help, because such issues would have relevance sooner in life.

In 1944, Lord Beveridge wrote:

I would take that even further. Education in politics and democracy is absolutely essential for the maintenance of democracy.

6.53 pm

Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD): I, too, congratulate the Scottish and Welsh nationalists on choosing this topic for debate on one of their rare Opposition days. I commend the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) for his excellent attempt to avoid partisan politics and to win some consensus across the House.

I was slightly bemused by the Minister's response. I am aware that many of his colleagues are firmly in favour of votes at 16, but having become Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries they are forbidden to say so. I will refrain from naming them.

Angus Robertson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is strange that although the Minister for School Standards can enunciate clear support for lowering the voting age to 16 or 17, the Minister cannot?

Matthew Green: I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's example and not be cynical, but I am tempted a little down that route. It could be said that the Government have enough voices expressing both opinions and that, therefore, whatever the Electoral Commission's conclusion, they can say that they were of that view, but perhaps that is too cynical.

There have been some welcome signs. The Prime Minister has moved from opposition to agnosticism, and I hope that he takes the next step. However, it was incumbent on the Minister to make it clear that if the Electoral Commission recommends reducing the voting age to 16—I hope it will, because the arguments for so doing are overwhelming—the Government will accept the recommendation. After all, they have asked the Electoral Commission to consider the matter and I presume that they are therefore sufficiently interested to take note of its conclusions. They pray the Electoral Commission in aid so often that I would expect the Minister to accept its recommendations.

There is broad consensus that, whatever our views on voting age, it is logical that someone who is old enough to vote is also old enough to stand as a candidate. The electorate should be able to judge whether a candidate is sufficiently mature to be elected. I am glad that there is consensus on that and that Conservative Members, even if they do not support reducing the voting age to 16, agree that voting age and candidacy age should be the

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same. The Government did not make even that commitment although I suspect that the Minister probably agrees with the proposition. He has probably made up his mind and simply will not give us his conclusions.

It is worth emphasising some of the reasons that have been expressed for reducing the voting age to 16, the most important of which is fairness. We regard citizens as old enough to pay direct taxation at 16 if they are in work. I would not go as far as Conservative Front Benchers, who suggested that people who pay taxes should have the vote, because the logical conclusion of their argument is that those who do not pay taxes should not have the vote. That would mean that many pensioners were taken off the voting registers.

Sixteen-year-olds who are in work may have left home and may pay council tax. We judge them to be mature enough to play such a part in the state's life, yet we do not appear to believe that they are old enough to decide about the politicians who set their council and income taxes. Those who are old enough to contribute to the state if they are earning sufficient money are old enough to elect the politicians who determine the rates.

Much has been said about turnout. The Electoral Commission's document cites some interesting studies, which show that 16 and 17-year-olds are more likely to use the vote than 18 to 25-year-olds. Evidence shows that those who start to vote continue to do so. There is therefore good evidence that reducing the voting age to 16 would increase the turnout in elections. However, we should not reduce the voting age simply to improve turnout. If we judge people to be old enough to pay taxes, they should have a right to vote.

The Minister rightly mentioned citizenship education, to which several Members referred. It ends at 16 in Scotland and will end at that age in England. It is compulsory up to the age to 14 and can be continued until a person is 16, but a two-year gap follows. The Government should either provide for teaching citizenship until the age of 18 or reduce the voting age to 16. Teaching citizenship until the age of 16 and asking people to forget about it for the next couple of years before they get an opportunity to vote does not make sense. The turnout in general elections is considerably higher than that in local elections. Many people vote in general elections and no other elections. Some people who become 18 just after a general election are 22 before they exercise their vote for the first time. Bringing down the voting age so that it is nearer the age at which young people receive citizenship education would help to encourage people to vote and play an active part in society.

A more philosophical point is that young people tend to behave well if they are given responsibility. If we try to make young people do something by bashing them over the head until they do it, they rebel and recoil against it. When they are given responsibility, however, they generally act very responsibly.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman joined the Liberals.

Matthew Green: Actually, I did not join any political party until I was 23, so the Minister was already a councillor at the age at which I entered politics.

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Giving young people the vote at 16 would send a strong signal that we regard them as full members of society, and would encourage them to behave more responsibly. It would be a signal, not a panacea, but it would help. That chimes with what the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) said—I agree with much that he said, apart from his comments on the voting age—about the "them and us" situation and the language that we use. Reducing the voting age to 16 would be a sign that we respect young people, and we can send that powerful message to help to draw different groups together.

One argument that is used against giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote is that they are not ready. However, as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) suggested in an intervention, it is difficult to argue that someone cannot have the vote because they are not mature enough. That would take us down the dangerous and dodgy road of suggesting that people should take a test before being given the vote. Before the days of universal franchise, which the Conservatives did much to try to prevent, the amount of money people owned, or the value of their property, were used as voting thresholds, and, of course, only men could vote. The argument about not being mature enough was used against giving women the vote—it was said that women could not possibly understand what they were doing. Those who use that argument about young people now would do well to read the Hansard report of debates that took place at the time when women were given the vote. They might find an uncanny resemblance between their arguments and those used in opposition to giving women the vote.

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