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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that in February this year, you were obliged to rebuke Ministers for failing to reveal that there had been cost increases of £87 million—no less than 60 per cent.—in the cost of those landing ships dock (auxiliary) vessels which had been contracted with Swan Hunter. When my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) failed to obtain from the Minister at oral questions last month an updated estimate of the cost, I tabled further questions and wrung out from Ministers the fact that in addition to the £87 million, they had sanctioned a further £62 million in payments to Swan Hunter for what they called lead yard equipment and services in support of the two ships being built to Swan Hunter's design by BAE Systems. That information was not revealed to Parliament at the time that you rebuked Ministers, although the additional payments had been agreed in 2001 and 2002. Although I have some sympathy with the Minister of State, who has to answer in this place for the noble Lord Drayson, is it not unacceptable that my hon. Friend was not given, in your words at the time of the rebuke,

by the Minister of State, and that it required persistent questioning by me for the information to be made available to all Members of the House?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to both hon. Members for giving me notice of that point of order. I am happy to remind Ministers of their duty to give accurate information to this House. I note that the point is based on information provided by Ministers in answer to questions, and the hon. Member for Aldershot
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(Mr. Howarth) is now asking me to comment on the answers, which I am unable to do. I suggest that the matter will be best pursued by debate, and he knows the opportunities very well.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that considerable disquiet was expressed on both sides of the House at last Thursday's business questions about the cancellation of the debate on police restructuring. Today, we had a one-and-a-half hour debate in Westminster Hall, which we are extremely grateful to you for granting to the hon.    Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook). Unfortunately, only six hon. Members were able to get into that debate—I am not making a special plea, but I   reduced my contribution to two minutes to allow others to participate. [Interruption.] It was hugely appreciated.

During her closing remarks, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety implied that the Government have already made up their mind about the restructuring of the police service. We all know that the expression, "Government consultation", is an oxymoron, but the Government should at least do the House the courtesy of discussing the matter on the Floor of the House and, I submit, they should do so in response to a substantive motion, so that all hon. Members affected—all those who represent English or Welsh constituencies—can properly discuss and bring to the House their constituency and area concerns.

My concern is that the Home Secretary and his junior Ministers are riding roughshod over the rights of this House. They refuse to have a debate because they do not want to have a debate; they are trying to box us into short debates in Westminster Hall, which are not adequate fully to discuss the issues; or they want to postpone the matter until the new year, because the consultation period finishes on 23 December, when the matter will be dead, so far as they are concerned. Will you invite the Home Secretary, in the reasonable way in which I have addressed you, to come to this House and explain himself. Otherwise, the Home Secretary will let down himself and this House.

Mr. Speaker: Two-minute speeches by highly learned QCs are few and far between, and I only wish that I had heard such a short speech. Debates on the Floor of the House are matters for the usual channels, and the hon. and learned Gentleman has certainly put that matter on the record. Because there was one debate in Westminster Hall, it does not mean that we cannot have others. Ballots are held for Adjournment debates, and on a Thursday the Speaker can award an Adjournment debate. If the hon. and learned Gentleman applies for an Adjournment debate, I might be able to help him. I know that the matter is highly sensitive in England and, perhaps, Wales, and I am keen to see hon. Members debate it.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Between now and Christmas, there are two non-sitting Fridays. Will you advise hon. Members whether one or both of those Fridays could be used for that debate, if the House is so minded?
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Mr. Speaker: Once again, that is a matter for the usual channels. However, I would not interfere with non-sitting Fridays.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have been kind enough to refer us to Westminster Hall debates and the possibility of securing another. That is fine, as far as it goes, but the problem is that it is not on a substantive voteable motion. That is why we want it on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Speaker: I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman what I said to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale)—that is a matter between the usual channels. The case has been put by several Back Benchers, and it must be heard by the usual channels.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that if hon. Members scan Standing Orders carefully, they will find that under one of the very few remaining procedures left unravaged by the Government, application can be made to you for certain other kinds of debate that would bring matters before the House and could be on a voteable motion? Without wanting to pre-empt what your very wise decision might be, Mr. Speaker, that is the sort of process that colleagues might wish to pursue on matters as substantive and urgent as this.

Mr. Speaker: I have always said that the right hon. Gentleman is an expert on Standing Orders, and he knows how to use them. I will say no more than that.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have an extremely difficult job in representing the best interests of the whole House, but do not you feel, Sir, that a fundamental change to the structure of the police force in this country is a matter on which the House should express a view, on a substantive motion, before the end of the consultation on 23 December?

Mr. Speaker: My job is made very easy because hon. Members do not draw me into the debate.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to raise a different matter that is causing me some concern. This week, I received a letter from the House authorities inviting me to have a Visa travel card. A few weeks ago, I mentioned to the Leader of the House that I was nearly being knocked off my motor cycle because of the change in the narrowness of the road outside the Palace. My staff cannot get passes. I am worried that the House authorities may not be doing as much as I would like to make life as straightforward as possible for us and our constituents instead of their departments. This is a difficult subject, Mr. Speaker, and I need your advice on it.

Mr. Speaker: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that the officials of this House have great difficulties with security. As he knows, that is not a matter that I would discuss openly on the Floor of the House. All I would ask is that hon. Members are patient with the security staff because, believe me, they have a very difficult job indeed.
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Representation of the People (Reduction of Voting Age)

3.42 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I beg to move,

Twenty years ago, at a Welsh party conference, I first heard a debate on reducing the voting age to 16. I was one of the youngest people in the room, but I voted against the motion. In the two decades since, I have been involved in many elections, seven of them as a candidate. In that time, I have moved from being a sceptic to a doubter. After the 2001 general election, I became a firm believer that the time had come to reduce the voting age.

Like all of us, I have visited many schools and colleges during, and in between, elections. I have always been impressed by the penetrating and incisive questions and by the open way in which ideas are debated. Contrast that with a typical wet evening during an election when one meets someone on the doorstep who has no time, is not interested, would rather be watching the television, or offers an opinion that they say is fact but actually matches what they read in the newspapers that morning. Reducing the voting age to 16 is an idea whose time has come. It is a shame that the Government failed to grasp that opportunity for change in the Electoral Administration Bill.

The parliamentary franchise was extended six times between 1832 and 1969. Each extension was met with opposition and scepticism. Indeed, after the Second Reform Act 1867, the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Derby, described his own measure as a "leap in the dark". Robert Lowe, who was to become Gladstone's first Chancellor of the Exchequer, remarked that the Government would have to "educate our masters".

In the 21st century, our eyes can be open and we can see that we have the best ever educated, informed and politically interested cohort of 16 and 17-year-olds. In recent times, young people's interest has been awakened in politics. Perhaps one of the few silver linings of the Iraq war is that young people take an interest in the Chamber's deliberations and the fundamental decisions that we can make in this place.

All hon. Members will have been lobbied here and in our constituencies by young constituents about issues such as third-world poverty and climate change. Young people will shortly take an interest in controversial education measures, which will be determined here, just as they recently took an interest in decisions that affected their access to higher education.

Like the rest of us, young people can pick and hoover up information 24 hours a day through television and the internet. In schools, citizenship is compulsory at key stages 3 and 4 for all 11 to 16-year-olds in England, stimulating community involvement and political literacy. In 1969, when Parliament previously decided to extend the franchise, the school-leaving age was 15 and most people left school at 15. Few went on to further education and even fewer to higher education. In 2005, the educational world is totally different. I am sure that today's teenagers have the same social interests as their
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counterparts in the 1960s, but this decade's 16-year-olds are better informed and of a similar maturity to 18-year-olds of nearly 40 years ago. It is now time for them to use their knowledge and maturity and for us to extend the vote to them.

The Prime Minister often talks about rights, responsibilities and respect. Young people already have various rights and responsibilities when they are under 18. At 16, they can leave school, go to work and join the Army. In both latter circumstances, they will pay taxes. They can marry or—shortly—enter into a civil partnership. All of us would agree that entering into a marriage is a long-term commitment and a fundamental decision that is far more important to someone's life and future than choosing between candidates in an election.

At 17, one can learn to drive. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) could learn to pilot a plane but he was not trusted with the vote. We give young people many rights and responsibilities but, as politicians, we do not always give them the respect of listening to their opinions.

Many of us have expressed worries about democracy in our country and especially about turnout at elections. I believe that voting at 16 could boost turnout in the long run. The Social Market Foundation conducted some interesting research on the topic. It undertook a study of 17 and 18-year-olds who either just missed out or just qualified to vote in the April 1992 general election. Those who missed out in 1992 had to wait until they were 22 or 23 before they could vote in the 1997 general election. In 2001, that group of people was studied and it was found that 49 per cent. of 17-year-olds who had just missed out in 1992 voted in 2001 but that 65 per cent. of the 18-year-olds who qualified for the vote in 1992 voted in the general election nine years later. That is a 16 per cent. gain in turnout through an exercise of the franchise at the earliest opportunity.

Bristol's twin city, Hanover, has recently extended the vote to 16-year-olds and it was found that they are twice as likely to turn out to vote in elections as people in their late 20s.

Let me trespass briefly on the territory of the next debate. Cigarette manufacturers believe that a person whom they can get to take up smoking by the age of 16 is likely to be addicted for many years but that, of those who resist the temptation into their 20s, few take up smoking. Votes for 16-year-olds will be a healthier habit for people to take up.

What are the arguments against extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds? Some people argue that there is pressure from families, campaign groups and political parties, especially in marginal seats in elections; that the voting age in all but a handful of democracies throughout the planet is the same as that in the United Kingdom. It is argued that young people are not mature enough, even with education. It is claimed that knowledge may be one thing but mature judgment is another and that young people do not see the broader picture. All of those opinions will have been offered in the past few years while the debate has been on the agenda, and I am sure that they will be offered in time to come. I obtained all of them through a perusal of Hansard from November 1968, when the House decided to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18. Similar arguments were advanced in the 19th and 20th centuries
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when it was said that middle-class paternalism could protect the interests of the working classes, or husbands could make decisions on behalf of their wives, or parents on behalf of their children. Those were Aunts Sallies then and I think that they deserve to be knocked down now.

Voting at the age of 16 is supported by Members of all parties in the House. Early-day motion 801, tabled by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms   Johnson), now has the support of 90 signatures. Outside Parliament, the campaign is supported by children's charities and political campaigners from Barnardo's and the Children's Society to the National Union of Students and the YMCA.

Extending the franchise to 16-year-olds will not be a leap in the dark. Rather than having to educate our new electoral masters, we would find them the most responsive and responsible constituents. I believe that young people are informed, engaged and ready to vote. I hope that by introducing the Bill, I have contributed to a debate that will eventually lead to a franchise that is fit for the 21st century.

3.51 pm

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