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Pete Wishart : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when young people look at this place, what they mostly see are middle-aged, middle-class, grey-suited men? I say that as someone who is 42 today.

Mr. Luff: As one who turned 49 a couple of weeks ago, I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy birthday. Even ageing rock stars grow old, as Bill Nighy has reminded us. But enough of this, given the time available. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the way in which we behave here is often inappropriate.

I deeply regret the fact that Prime Minister's Question Time is the only parliamentary programme that most people watch, because it is the least edifying part of our proceedings. Watching a broadcast of this debate would probably be more edifying for most young people than what will happen here tomorrow, in a few hours' time.

I agree about the importance of youth parliaments, but I must tell the hon. Member for Caerphilly that I do not think they have enough resources. I hope that they will attract more sponsorship. I find engaging with a youth parliament surprisingly difficult in practical terms. I am notified of events much too late, and I do not receive replies to letters. Because of the annual election cycle for young people in my constituency, I find it difficult to establish a relationship with them. Such arrangements need much more support, both financially and from Members of Parliament.

We have a crucial role to play as ambassadors for politics through our involvement with schools. I believe that every Member takes that role very seriously. I can honestly say that some of the challenging questions posed to me by young people aged 15 and 16 are among the best and most perceptive that I am ever asked. They are not tainted by the prejudice and experience of years. This morning, a young man called Tom, from Prince Henry's high school, interviewed me on the telephone for a newspaper competition in which his school is participating. His questions were worthy of Jeremy Paxman. I was subjected to an exceptionally intelligent grilling from someone aged only 15.

The Minister pointed out that there were all sorts of ways for us to engage with young people. He described what I regard as the gimmicks involved in that process: e-mails, text messaging and digital television voting. I do not think that that deals with the fundamental issue, which is what we say to young people and how we say it, rather than the means we use to communicate with them. Although I approve of the fact that, typically, young people are involved with the same issues as the rest of society, inevitably the emphasis is sometimes a bit different. The current debate about university education is one example of something in which young people take an interest; other examples are environmental, third-world and animal-welfare issues. If we could only talk to them about those subjects in language that they understand and in a non-partisan way, we would gain their respect.

I do not believe that it is right to reduce the voting age to 16, but I think that we must engage young people much more in the political process—not just 16-year-

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olds but those aged 12, 13, 14 and 15. They all have views that are worth listening to. What we must do is make the prospect of voting at 18 exciting. So many good things in this life are worth waiting for; the tragedy is that most young people in Britain today do not think that engagement in the political process is worth waiting for.

7.19 pm

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): We have had a thoughtful, considered and mature debate, which is perhaps uncharacteristic of this place, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) suggests. I am sure that normal service will be resumed in time for Prime Minister's questions tomorrow.

It is 35 years since Parliament last voted to lower the voting age, and as the Minister said, it is more than 300 years since we examined the question of candidacy age. Even at the grindingly slow place of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom, the issue is certainly overdue for revisiting.

It is certainly a pleasure for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party to be able to divide the House on this issue for the first time in five years, and it will be interesting to see whether there has been a shift in opinion. Disgracefully, last time, the motion was lost by a ratio of 10 votes to one. We have witnessed a sea change in some quarters, and it will be interesting to see how that is reflected in both the spirit and the letter of tonight's vote. Three independent studies have supported a reduction in the voting age in the past five years: the Kerley report in Scotland; the Sunderland Commission in Wales; and the Local Government Commission for England. Two Select Committees in this place have supported such a reduction, as have subject committees in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, and the human rights committee of the legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland.

Even Government Members have been falling over themselves to embrace the radical, new and progressive idea of reducing the voting age. Sadly, they do not include the Minister, as we have heard tonight. He seems to be taking his lead from the Prime Minister. In January 2002, the Prime Minister opposed the idea with a characteristic shrug, saying that he was not sure that we would always want 16-year-olds to do all the things that they are capable of doing. However, a few months ago he said that people grow up a lot more quickly now, and that there are many things that 16-year-olds can do, so why should they not be able to vote? The Prime Minister's volte face seems to have led to agnosticism, at least on this issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on introducing the debate with his customary panache and good humour, which was welcomed on both sides of the House, and I thank the Minister for his response. There was certainly consensus on the importance of engaging with young people. The problem with participation in politics is not confined to young people. We accept that there is no panacea or quick-fix solution to the entire problem, but today's debate is an important step in the right direction in terms of re-engaging young people with politics.

The Minister said that it would be prudent to wait for the Electoral Commission report, but we have been waiting for it for some time. The consultation ended in

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October and the publication date has been moved three times. I should be magnanimous and point out that it was a Labour Government who reduced the voting age the last time, with Plaid Cymru and SNP support. If the Government are to act on the Electoral Commission's recommendations on voting age or on candidacy, will they ensure that such changes are in place in time for the next UK general election? The then Labour Government ensured, through the Representation of the People Act 1969, that such changes were in place for the 1970 general election. We do not want simply a manifesto pledge; we want action, so that the current generation of 16 and 17-year-olds will be able to vote.

Perhaps the natural generosity of spirit of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) was slightly hemmed in by Conservative policy on this issue, but there was some agreement. He was being a little mischievous in pointing out that the voting age is lower in Cuba, North Korea and Iran, where turnout is indeed higher, although perhaps not for reasons that we would like to support. However, there is evidence that the lower voting age of 15 in Brazil—a high proportion of whose population is below the age of 18—has an invigorating effect on that country's democracy.

I thank the hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and for Mid-Worcestershire for turning the question around. Politicians, political parties and the House should address the culture of our democratic institutions. Reducing the voting age is only one step among a panoply of measures to make democratic politics more inclusive. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) has long led the charge for the Liberal Democrats. His point was well made that—without meaning any disrespect to hon. and right hon. Members who take a different view—similar arguments were made against extending the franchise to the working class in the 19th century and to women in the last century: it was doubted whether individuals were mature enough to cast their votes wisely.

The arguments in favour of lowering the voting age, which are supported by many youth organisations and are well understood, include consistency. Many 16-year-olds sleep together, marry without parental consent in Scotland and have children. Sixteen-year-olds can become company directors, be tried by jury in a Crown court and be locked up. They can even change their name by deed poll.

Thirty-two per cent. of 17-year-olds pay income tax—a not insignificant proportion. If it is proper that they should do so, surely they should have a stake in society and the right to decide how their taxes are spent. Some young people may not have wanted their taxes spent on the war in Iraq or for other purposes. The Government should be congratulated on creating so much anger and a new enthusiasm for politics among some young people. There is a broad consensus that we all need to engage and to examine the culture of our political parties. Now is the time to consider reducing the voting age, because we need to crystallise the energy, passion and enthusiasm that young people have for political issues.

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7.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): As someone who was not allowed to vote until the age of 21—I know that I do not look it—and remembers only one television channel rather than the three mentioned by the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), I found this an enjoyable debate in many respects. Contributions from all parts of the House have been thoughtful in addressing an issue that ought to concern us all, regardless of our age or political party.

However, in concentrating on lowering the voting age, perhaps the House has lost focus on an issue that I hoped it would debate—the abysmal turnout by the current cohort of young people between the ages of 18 and 24. I would have welcomed significantly more emphasis on that aspect. The hon. Member for Wealden pointed out that only 39 per cent. of those aged 18 to 24 voted in the 2001 general election, whereas 70 per cent. of 65-year-olds did so.

Other issues were worthy of exploration. Of all age groups, young people are least likely to register to vote. There are a variety of reasons for non-registration. Without being too party political, I think that we are still reaping the legacy of the poll tax and the registration issues that it posed. We have heard about some of the many reasons why people will not register—alienation from the political system, deliberate avoidance and so forth.

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