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Angus Robertson: Were not almost exactly the same arguments used against lowering the voting age from 21 to 18? No one in their right mind would now advocate that people should not have the vote until they are 21.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend might be aware of the work of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which interviewed several young people. Some of them said that they wanted to vote, but some said that they did not feel able to make a judgment. Surely, people who feel that they are confident enough to vote should be allowed to, while the others would not have to do so, because it would not be compulsory for them to vote.
The Welsh and the Scots have been a little more prepared than the Government to engage in this process, although I shall not detract from what the Government have done. The fact that the Electoral Commission is carrying out its review is a welcome development, especially given the situation 18 months ago. At that time, I received a dismissive answer from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's questions, suggesting that young people should not even be doing the things that I said they were, and he would not even meet a group of young people to discuss the matter. We must welcome the movement that the Government have made and I, for one, do not want to belittle that.
I have seen another argument against lowering the voting age inbelieve it or notacademic submissions to the Electoral Commission, which were also sent to me. It is that 16 and 17-year-olds would automatically copy their parents. Perhaps the way to deal with that argument is to turn it on its head. If we carried out a poll among parents and asked them whether they thought that their 16 and 17-year-olds would automatically copy them, I think that we would be told very firmly that they would be more likely to do exactly the opposite. It is patronising to suggest that young people cannot think for themselves, and that all they can do is what their parents tell them to. Fortunately, no one used that argument in the debate today, probably because even those in the Chamber who oppose the lowering of the voting age to 16 are sensible enough to see the flaws in it.
I am delighted that the Scottish and Welsh nationalists used their Opposition day debate for this subject. It is an important matter, and we have had only a few opportunities to discuss it before. I think that its time is coming, but I am sorry that the Government are still sitting firmly on the fence. I had hoped that the Minister would at least say that, if the Electoral Commission recommended a reduction in the voting age, the Government would pursue the issue. Clearly, however, that would be a step too far for this Minister, even if it is not a step too far for the Minister for schools standards, who has clearly made up his mind on this already
This has been a timely debate and, even if the Government numbers win tonight, I suspect that with the publication of the Electoral Commission's report on 26 March we shall see votes at 16 recommended. Such a recommendation is long overdue; it is about time that we began to bring our political system into the 21st century.
Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Before I was elected to the House, I worked for the youth service in Wales, particularly the voluntary youth service. One of the initiatives with which I was involved was the Young Voice/Llais Ifanc initiative, which I helped to establish for the National Assembly for Wales. That initiative has now become Funky Dragonthe Children and Young People's Assembly. It was an important initiative because it was, and still is, peer-led. It is about facilitating the young people of Wales to get together and express their views and priorities to the decision makers in Wales, building on the excellent work that has been done by the local authority youth forums there.
Among the things that impressed me about the initiative was that, contrary to what many people think, young people have plenty of opinions and ideas. What annoys them most is the fact that older people do not credit them with having those views, which are often not taken seriously or acted upon as a result. Those young people wanted not a grandiose debating society, but a facility in which they could express their views and then see action being taken.
One of the consequences of this ongoing initiative is that the National Assembly for Wales now has to consider how it relates to young people when it makes decisions. Its elected Members recognise that it can be counter-productive if young people are provided with a means to express their views and nothing happens as a result. What is required is a change of culture, so that young people's viewsalong with the views of other people in societyare taken into account and can become part of the policy-making process. That is beginning to happen in the Welsh Assembly.
The same needs to happen in other parts of the United Kingdom and in relation to central Government. Great strides have been made throughout Britain with the UK Youth Parliament, but that is not enoughwell financed and well structured though that forum is. We need a mechanism to ensure that when the Government's policy-making structures consider the issues concerned, the views expressed by young people are taken into account.
One surprising discovery that I made in working closely with young people was that many of them did not think it at all important to have the voting age reduced to 16. Some did, of course, but many saw it as irrelevant. Indeed, some young people saw it as some kind of sop and a means to incorporate them into the current political structures. They considered more important the introduction of genuine mechanisms that allowed their views to become part of the broader decision-making process.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one genuine way of involving children and young people related to the appointment of the Children's Commission for Wales, as they took part in the whole of the appointment system and had an equal voice in choosing the person for the job?
Mr. David: Indeed. That is a good practical example of how young people can be genuinely empowered. Young people greatly appreciate the fact that they were part of that process and that their views were taken into account. That is one reason why the Children's Commissioner is proving to be extremely successful. Other parts of the United Kingdom can learn from the example in Wales.
There is a strong case for reducing the voting age to 16. I simply point out, however, that we should not assume that all young people regard that as of central importance. Many young people are concerned about a far broader range of issues and want their views taken into account. Therefore, while it is important that the issue is considered, it is not the be-all and end-all of demands from young people. It must not be used as an easy way out for decision makers. The view that reducing the voting age is the end of the debate, at which point we can go away contented that we have done something to help young people, is very patronising. It could also be counter-productive, as young people will see through it. We need a broader and more fundamental debate on this issue; above all, our starting point must be to respect the views of young people and to ensure that their views are always taken seriously.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am grateful to the nationalist parties for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of participation in our democracy. We take a large amount for granted in that respect, and I am grateful to my constituent, the Bishop of Worcester, for drawing to my attention the participation of criminals in the democratic process. Perhaps we need to challenge and examine much more carefully the assumption that criminals should be denied the vote.
I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to discuss the involvement of younger people in the democratic process. All Members know that one of the single most dangerous issues facing British democracy is young people's apparently declining enthusiasmI say "apparently" for good reasonsfor the British democratic system. That should worry us all greatly. We must look for ways of re-engaging young people in the process.
I am reluctantly coming to the view that perhaps I am getting old. I watched a Question Time last week with a group of younger British politiciansyounger even than the Minister, if such a thing can be imaginedand I was struck by the very different tone of voice that they were using to discuss political issues: a much more relaxed, informal and inclusive style, from which the House could learn something.
To leap from the various views expressed in the Chamber today about the importance of involving younger people to the idea that they must be given the vote is a dangerous conclusion, however, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) implied in his remarks. Certainly, all the soundings that I have taken in the many schools that I have visited in my constituency do not indicate great enthusiasm for it. The soundings that my district council has taken, probably as part of the response to the Electoral Commission's work at present, suggest no enthusiasm for it either. What people want is to be listened to, engaged and involved, and not necessarily to have the vote, which, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, could be seen as a sop or a patronising approach to the problems that we agree exist in relation to engaging people in the process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) rightly drew attention to our problems with the media. Most of the media to which young people now listen tend to ignore us, while the rest trivialise us. The national broadsheets are a scandal in this regard. When I, like my hon. Friend, was an enthusiastic young political anorak aged 12, 13 and 14, I used to buy The Times and The Daily Telegraph and read a whole page about Parliament on a regular basis. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I know, I know; it is sad but true.
There were some interesting and important debates to read about at that time. It was a great period in British politics. It is not possible to read about such things now, because the media either ignore us or, when they do report us, trivialise us. It must be said, thougha number of Members have said it todaythat we give the media quite a lot of ammunition with which to trivialise us. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), made some important remarks about the