(pt 1)

23 Mar 2006 : Column 141WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 23 March 2006

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Young People and Democracy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice) : I am pleased to be opening today's debate. The Order Paper said that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs would be opening the debate, but obviously it has not caught up with the—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. It was the bench note, not the Order Paper.

Bridget Prentice : I am sorry, Mr. O'Hara. The bench note said that my right hon. and learned Friend would open the debate. Obviously, we have not yet managed to spread far and wide the fact that we have changed portfolios in the Department. She now deals with justice issues, such as legal aid and family issues, while I deal with democracy issues, including electoral reform and the House of Lords.

The debate deals with the participation of young people in democracy—an issue that is incredibly important, as well as pertinent, for us all. Young people are an influential group in society because they are the future of our country and our democracy. It is therefore vital that we capture their ideas, energy and enthusiasm in respect of democratic issues. That means involving them as early as possible in discussions about what politics and democracy mean to them.

This week, the Government and other political parties have come under criticism over party funding. We are now legislating to make it compulsory for all political parties to disclose all the loans that they receive. We acknowledge that what is needed is a more transparent process, which is more in the spirit of fair democracy. A healthy representative democracy is the key to a healthy Government.

People of all ages and backgrounds should have the opportunity to debate issues that matter to them. Young people often have different views from other groups in society. It is therefore important to find a forum in which they can voice their views and those in power can listen to them. If we do not listen and respond appropriately now, there is a risk that young people will not connect with democracy now or in future.

The Electoral Commission's third audit of political engagement showed that young people have significantly lower levels of political knowledge than the rest of the population and a lower propensity to vote. The Department will be considering the report and its findings and will continue to explore the best ways to address those issues.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 142WH

What, then, do we mean by the participation of young people in democracy? We can measure participation by looking at how many young people turn out to vote in elections, and the figures are pretty stark. In the 2005 general election, only 37 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds voted, and the figure was only marginally better in 2001, at 39 per cent. That compares quite dramatically with 1997, when 68 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds voted.

We need to address the startling decline in engagement and seek ways of re-engaging young people in the political process. We need to find the reasons for that decline. There are big and growing inequalities in our democracy. Evidence suggests that the young, the poor and black and other ethnic minority groups are far less likely than older, wealthier, white people to be on the electoral register, so are unable to vote. Those who fall into more than one of those categories are obviously particularly likely to be excluded from our democratic process. That is a serious problem, which must be addressed because it could undermine the legitimacy of our democracy and pose a threat to social cohesion and social inclusion.

In it's report "Understanding electoral registration", the Electoral Commission has estimated that 16 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds are not on the electoral register, compared with just 2 per cent. of over-55s. It also found that 37 per cent. of black Africans are not registered to vote, compared with just 6 per cent. of white Britons. The evidence indicates that young people are disengaged and/or apathetic, but that is not a fair reflection. Young people are not disengaged and/or apathetic, and my experience as a constituency MP shows that when an issue matters to them, those who have the opportunity to make a difference get involved and want their voices heard.

In my own borough, the local authority has been doing fantastic, innovative work with young people to engage them in the democratic process. Ours is the only borough that is doing that, and once I have told hon. Members about some of the things that are going on, I hope that they will take them back to their areas and persuade their local authorities to do something similar.

Last October, for example, Lewisham saw the election of its second young mayor. The election is a way for young people in the borough to have a real say in its future and to make a real difference. Unfortunately, the young mayor could not be in Parliament today, because he also has to attend school from time to time. We had 33 candidates at the election, which is a healthy indication of our young people's democratic engagement and their healthy appetite for involvement. Polling stations were set up in every school in the borough to allow students to elect their second young mayor. Throughout the day, 11 to 17-year-olds were offered registration forms to complete and return. Wilf Petherbridge from Forest Hill school won the election and was declared the young mayor after a hard-fought campaign. He will be in office for a year and has been given a budget of £25,000 to spend on issues that really matter to young people in Lewisham. Last year, in addition to the money given by the local authority, the borough's first young major raised an equivalent amount to set up a music studio for young people in the borough.

It will perhaps be of even more interest to hon. Members to know that the turnout for the young mayor election in October was 46.9 per cent., which was
23 Mar 2006 : Column 143WH
21.4 per cent. higher than the turnout for the election of the borough's mayor. The enthusiasm of the candidates, students, parents, teachers and the general public was overwhelming. Clearly when it matters to them, young people can be engaged and will turn out to vote, and there may be a lesson there for us all.

In Lewisham and other areas of England and Wales we also have the young citizens panel, which is an extension of the citizens panel. A group of about 300 young people can be called on to work with the council, the young mayor, health services, the police and others to help address issues that affect young people. Recent issues that have affected young people in Lewisham include teenage pregnancy and drugs. I see that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is here, and he will have great sympathy on those issues. As the MP for a neighbouring constituency, he will know that young people in his area face much the same issues.

Another event, which took place in the borough this week, was "My Voice, My Vote, My Community", which was organised by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was an opportunity for questions to be taken from an audience of all ages, including young people from south London schools. It was part of the national social science week and its aim was to give people an insight into some of the country's leading research and the influence that it has, and will have, on our social, economic and political lives.

Those are some examples of what is happening in my local area. They could be reproduced in other areas throughout the country. They show that young people will happily engage in the democratic process if they are given the opportunity. I am delighted to say that as a result of some of that work, Lewisham council has been justly rewarded with a beacon award for positive youth engagement.

Black and ethnic minority communities are young communities in many ways, and we must do more to engage those under-represented groups. This morning, with politicians from all parties, I attended the launch in Parliament of Operation Black Vote, a project initiated by the Electoral Commission. I have taken part in the scheme before and I was delighted to take part today in my new ministerial role. I commend the scheme to any Member who has not been involved with it. The aim is to improve the political representation of black and minority ethnic communities in local and national politics, and we should do what we can to further that aim.

From those examples, I am not persuaded that the levels of disengagement are based on apathy. In fact, research by MORI in 2003 into attitudes of the group it calls disaffected youth suggests that the issue is more about disaffection. It concludes that young people do not make the connection between their personal dissatisfaction with a particular issue and the use of traditional political processes as a way of expressing that dissatisfaction or of seeking a solution to those problems.

Our challenge is to find ways to bridge the disconnection between young people's civic interests and activities, and the formal processes of democracy. I
23 Mar 2006 : Column 144WH
shall give the House a couple of examples of how we might do that. The Electoral Administration Bill is going through the House, and to help tackle under-registration, we have included key measures in the Bill. We have also made available £2.5 million to support a new power to encourage electoral participation. It is intended that that money will enable returning officers and electoral registration officers in England and Wales to undertake promotional activity, such as posters, leaflets and outreach work, to encourage registration and participation in elections locally. We are also legislating to let parents take children into the polling booth, so that children can see their parents vote and how the voting process works.

The Electoral Commission's research after the 2005 general election found that younger age groups were much less likely to turn out to vote. It also highlighted lower turnout in urban areas and among the most socially deprived. The 1824 Collective campaign in London, which has just finished, was aimed at getting more of the capital's young people registered to vote. The campaign involved collaborative work with the Greater London Assembly, the Mayor's office, the Electoral Commission, Operation Black Vote, the Commission for Racial Equality and London Electoral Administration, and it received support through association with young musicians from the city. The success of this campaign is being evaluated. It involved going to the places where people are, rather than using the traditional ways of getting the message across. It used the radio media that young people listen to and it went into the organisations in which they are involved.

My Department is also funding the Hansard Society's Heads Up website, which targets young people and hosts consultations on a variety of topics. It encourages, supports and enables young people to participate in democratic processes, such as the development of Government policy and Acts of Parliament.

The local democracy campaign, launched last month, aims to make councils more relevant and useful to young people by encouraging them to "Take Part Take Power". It will be expanded into a year-round campaign to increase young people's awareness of their power to shape their community.

Following the low election turnout at the 2001 general election, the YVote?/YNot? project was launched. Its aim was to seek young people's views on the reasons behind the increase in youth disengagement from democratic processes. It consulted 60 young people from diverse backgrounds throughout England and concluded that young people wanted politicians to address them in a language that they could understand, not surprisingly, and to be kept informed at all times. They wanted to make citizenship education a priority on the curriculum, and for schools and colleges to receive the support they needed to deliver it. They wanted politicians to talk to them directly, regularly and in their own environment—not just at election times.

I was pleased when those young people said that they wanted citizenship to be a much more important part of the curriculum. We must address whether we are giving teachers all the resources that they need to do so. I thought that the message was beginning to get across, because—possibly unlike other Members present—I am
23 Mar 2006 : Column 145WH
an avid fan of "Coronation Street". If I cannot see it because I am in Parliament, I tape it so I can watch it later in the week.

If Members have not watched "Coronation Street", they might get lost at this point, but they should bear with me. A few weeks ago, David and Gail Platt were having a mother and son teenage argument. She was concerned, because she thought that he was getting involved in drugs. He was being a sulky teenager in response, but he turned to his mother and said: "You're in no position to tell me about drugs. Look at the alcohol you drink." He proceeded to tell her just how many brain cells she was losing each day by drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and the effect that different drugs—not only cannabis, but smoking—had on different people. When she looked at him in astonishment because he had all those facts at his fingertips, he said: "But I learn this in citizenship classes." The message is getting out.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for raising the issue of "Coronation Street". Does she agree that Gail's lifestyle has also contributed to David's potential use of drugs? It has hardly been the most stable over the past few years.

Bridget Prentice : Much as I would enjoy analysing the different events in "Coronation Street", I agree with the hon. Lady: Gail's lifestyle may well have had a direct impact on David's attitude. Nevertheless, the point that I wanted to emphasise was that citizenship classes engage young people, and we need to work harder at promoting them and ensuring that they have all available resources.

That brings me neatly to the Government's citizenship education programme, encouraging pupils' understanding of citizenship through active participation in community projects and discussions about controversial issues. It is important that we do more to prepare school children for their life beyond the classroom and for the role that they will have to play as citizens of this country.

One main outcome of the YVote?/YNot? project was the encouragement of MPs to visit local schools and youth groups. Last month, my right hon. and learned Friend visited Southwark college to encourage students to register in time to vote in May's council elections. She informed them that unless more young people register to vote, Parliament risks neglecting their concerns in favour of those who do register. We would be in danger of going down the road of those who shout loudest getting what they want. Democratic engagement is crucial for everyone.

During voter registration week in October each year in my constituency, the electoral services team visits the sixth form colleges and schools throughout the borough, makes a short presentation on the importance of registering, and provides information on how politics affects young people. The students are then offered an application form to complete and their names are added to the register effective from 1 December that year. We need to encourage and promote more such initiatives to ensure that young people get involved and stay involved in our democracy.

Another example is the UK Youth Parliament, which helps young people to develop into active citizens and is a valuable route through which local and national
23 Mar 2006 : Column 146WH
decision makers can hear young people's voices. Participation in the YVote? mock elections run by the Hansard Society encourages greater interest and engagement in the process by young people. Pupils are encouraged to stand as candidates, form election teams and run election campaigns that mirror the real election process. Members are given the opportunity to vote and therefore experience what I like to think is the excitement of participating in an election.

Another initiative, led by the Home Office, is the cross-Government "Together We Can" action plan, which is about giving people more control over their lives and communities. One strand of that is aimed at ensuring that young people are given the opportunity to participate in and influence decision making as confident and responsible citizens in a range of policy areas.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I recently discovered that the Government had allocated more than half a million pounds to Wandsworth council to spend on young people's activities. How does my hon. Friend the Minister envisage a council such as Wandsworth engaging with young people in Tooting, for example, to find out the facilities on which they would like that money to be spent?

Bridget Prentice : I am delighted that the Government have made that money available. I am not entirely sure how a council such as Wandsworth might go about using it. I suggest that it does some of the things that Labour-led Lewisham has been doing to engage young people. The one thing that will ensure disengagement is a patronising attitude and a council not engaging directly with the young people for whom the money has been made available. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), being involved himself in the democratic process, would be a good ambassador for the council to use to ensure that young people in Tooting get the decision-making opportunity that they deserve.

The Power inquiry has received a fair amount of publicity recently. It was set up by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to investigate how political participation and involvement might be increased and deepened. It explored some of the causes of disillusionment and examined new approaches to political participation. The report was launched a couple of weeks ago and we very much welcome its contribution to the debate. It makes a wide range of recommendations and tries to deal with a number of cultural and structural issues. Some recommendations relate directly to young people. For example, the Power inquiry suggests that the voting and candidacy ages should be reduced to 16. The Government, in the context of our wish to boost voter registration and participation, are keeping that matter under consideration.

I should be upfront at this point and say that I was at Southwark college—the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey may have been there at the time—just before the last election. I said that I personally—I emphasise "personally"—see an argument for votes at 16. Good heavens, does that mean that I am not being controversial? I do not know. Anyway, the Government are keeping an open mind on the issue. Of course we have moved some way towards that because
23 Mar 2006 : Column 147WH
the Electoral Administration Bill going through Parliament reduces the candidacy age from 21 to 18, so we have made a start.

Mr. Khan : Before my hon. Friend finishes dealing with the report by the Power commission, may I ask her whether she was as relieved and reassured as I was when it talked about red herrings and said:

Bridget Prentice : We can all be delighted that the Power inquiry came to that conclusion. Sometimes when people see politicians at close quarters and some of the things that we are engaged in, they realise that we are not nearly as bad as we are sometimes painted.

We have made a start with the Electoral Administration Bill, the 1824 Collective campaign, the analysis and recommendations by the Power inquiry and the local democracy campaign, but more can and must be done. Politicians and political parties obviously have a vital role to play in our democracy. The Electoral Commission emphasised, even in the discussions about the controversy over funding of political parties, that political parties are an essential element of our democratic process. It is also important to remember that the political and democratic engagement of young people in our society is an issue for all of us to tackle on a non-partisan basis. This morning's launch of Operation Black Vote was a good example of that. We will deal with the problem properly only by working together.

I am delighted to have opened this debate and I look forward to hearing contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. I assure them that all contributions will be received positively and the Government will do what we can to use them to help us engage young people more in future.

2.57 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the Minister on some of the activities in her constituency, which are quite well publicised, especially those involving the young mayor. I hope that that model can be spread throughout the country.

Whenever we talk about participation in democracy by young people, I always think it useful to examine briefly the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. We can often look at those rights in terms of the three "Ps": protection, provision and participation. We have done a lot of work on protection and provision but, in the past, we have neglected participation. Now, we are coming up with more and more projects to increase participation. It is important that we have young people's participation to ensure service delivery to our young people, who are important consumers of those services. The important area of protection also has to be addressed.

The Minister mentioned the 2003 MORI focus group report, which clearly identified that young people were not disaffected in the widest sense of the word. They had strong opinions and wanted to express them. However, there is a lack of a link between that and participating in the way that we are probably talking about primarily this afternoon.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 148WH

In the previous Parliament, I was privileged to attend the launch of a Barnardo's project entitled, "Give us a chance". It involved a lot of information gathering and talking about issues of service delivery and participation by young people. One of my favourite quotes from that project illustrates the problem a little. It rather summarises what we in Parliament are here to do. A 14-year-old from Northern Ireland said:

That is a great challenge to us to get right to the heart of the matter, get the rules right for young people and get their full engagement in determining those rules in the first place. It is the very directness of young people that we should value when trying to improve participation in our communities.

A great deal has happened through youth councils and youth forums, probably in almost every constituency, but that is still only the tip of the iceberg. A particular initiative in my local area is that when there is any consultation on a council matter, buddies work through the youth forum, and young people can communicate their views through one of those buddies. Their views are then translated so that there is full participation during any consultation undertaken by the council, which is helpful because the language we use in Parliament or in council might be a barrier to the way in which young people would like to express themselves directly. I can only emphasise that we need to go much further and continue to think outside the box about how we can fully engage young people.

Unsurprisingly, I am in favour of votes at 16 and a commitment to introduce that would be a real catalyst for change. I was heartened just now to hear the Minister say that the matter is continually under review; there was not a definitive "no", which I take to be encouraging. This is a pleasant debate to take part in because we have a number of people who share the same views. I welcome the call for cross-party co-operation.

Why is it so important to work towards votes at 16? There are many obvious examples of what else one can do at 16. For instance, why should young people not be able to vote at that age if they are expected to pay taxes? It is important to capture young people when they are young and have an interest. We have a real bedrock of citizenship education running all the way through a young person's education; it is the critical time, which is why we need to start planning for votes at 16.

I rather regret the fact that citizenship classes—we used to call them something else—have disappeared. During the Thatcher years, they were not seen as a good thing to have in the curriculum. Many years ago, there used to be a lot of political debate and discussion, but somehow it got squeezed out and it has been important for the Government to take a lead on the issue.

Mr. Khan : After the campaign, such as Make Poverty History or the anti-war campaign, is it fair to say that there is not discussion and debate among young people? Is that not a bit patronising?

Annette Brooke : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not think that I made a
23 Mar 2006 : Column 149WH
patronising comment. I did not say that there was a lack of interest among young people. However, citizenship education makes a link with the formal processes, which is a foundation. The hon. Gentleman's point about the participation in Make Poverty History is relevant; it was incredibly moving to see young people right at the forefront of that.

Moving fairly quickly to the formal processes involved, although I accept the informal side of the matter and how much there is to galvanise young people already, voting early is all important. An interesting piece of research was carried out by the Social Market Foundation, which reflects something we probably all know from canvassing and voting data that we have. The research shows that there is a "birth effect" in voting, with those who turned 18 just before a general election being much more likely to vote than those who have to wait another four or five years.

I am sure that we are all aware of that because it becomes harder, the more time that has passed, to persuade someone to vote. It is interesting what a physical barrier the fear of going into a polling station or acquiring a postal vote is, even among some adults. We are looking to remove barriers, rather than suggesting that young people are not interested. They are interested because so many issues directly affect them. Capturing them early is all important.

The Minister made many important points, specifically about the generic term "young people"; there are differing rates of participation for all sorts of reasons among different groups of young people. That clearly requires detailed analysis, and appropriate measures and projects must be targeted in those areas. We all need to be conscious of that. If we are to have a truly socially cohesive society, it is important to consider this topic right across the board.

I am sure that we are aware of projects in school such as mock elections. We can see the political engagement involved, but outside of the relatively few young people who participate, there is a big gap, which it is our duty as politicians to fill locally by giving whatever support we can, but also by giving a clear lead nationally. It is a question not just of listening to young people, but of acting to show that their views are taken on board, however they are expressed. Knowing that something makes a difference is half the battle. It is our responsibility to ensure that we show respect and that people can see we are here for positive reasons.

3.7 pm

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am even more pleased that I was able to be present at this morning's Operation Black Vote and Electoral Commission shadowing scheme event, which the Minister talked about in her introduction. I congratulate her on the widening of her portfolio to include electoral reform, House of Lords reform and party funding, as of the close of business yesterday. I am not sure what they will be by the close of business today. That portfolio is challenging, but I am sure that she agrees it is an exciting one at this juncture in the development of our democracy.

There clearly is a huge problem with young people's participation in democracy. When the Minister kicked off the debate, she mentioned that in the last general
23 Mar 2006 : Column 150WH
election only 37 per cent. of those aged between 18 and 24 bothered to vote. That is a slight decrease from 39 per cent. in 2001, and she mentioned that 68 per cent. of young people voted in 1997. That is a cause for huge concern to all of us, and it is one of the reasons why it is apt to have this important debate today.

However, work has been done on the decrease in young people's participation in mainstream policy. For example, the presentation given by the Electoral Commission touched on two reports of recent times. Its report of 2003 considered political engagement in ethnic minority communities, and in 2004 there was an update, looking at political engagement among young people. The writing has been on the wall for some time. The main point that seems to be coming from the commission's work is that we wish political parties looked a bit more like us, and that reflects issues of both gender and age.

I was pleased—the Minister touched on this at the presentation—that there was a sea change in 1997, which meant that for the first time the number of women MPs reached three digits. To a large extent, that was thanks to the all-women shortlist policy imposed by my party in the lead-up to 1997. We see the fruits of that in any Question Time in the Chamber, where women on the Government Front Bench are taking part in important decisions for our democracy.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also wonderful to see so many women MPs from all parties in the House and on both Front Benches? Does he also agree that although the Labour party pursued one way of increasing women's representation, there are other ways of doing that, such as the participatory methods that he outlined and which Operation Black Vote launched today? I brought my shadow with me to observe the debate and I am sure that she will find it interesting.

Mr. Khan : I welcome that intervention by the youngest Member of Parliament. The hon. Lady is right. OBV and the Electoral Commission want to encourage, in a mature and non-patronising way, young people and those from disadvantaged backgrounds to take part in democracy. That is what the programme is about.

Post 2005, we saw the highest number of ethnic minority parliamentarians in the House—13 on the Labour Benches and two on the Conservative Benches—and we all welcome that. It is slightly unfortunate that the Liberal Democrats lost their one ethnic minority MP, but progress is being made, albeit slowly.

A question that is worth asking is one that I posed in an intervention in a slightly more discourteous way than I intended: are young people really as apathetic as they are alleged to be? The answer is clearly no. There is no evidence of that, but there is clear evidence from statistics that they fail to engage in the party political system by voting in general elections. The Power commission report is interesting, but I am reluctant to quote from it because it is against politicians cherry-picking parts of its report. It said that cherry-picking is

23 Mar 2006 : Column 151WH

and will not work. However, I will quote from it because I quite like some parts of it, but not other parts, which is life.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman may not want to do so now, but I hope he will later reveal which progressive ideas that he as a progressive Member of Parliament has not yet signed up to. I would be very surprised if there was anything in the report that he opposes in his heart of hearts.

Mr. Khan : I agree with the report's point that it is a red herring to say that politicians are of low calibre and lack probity. As a progressive politician, I passionately agree with that. However, I disagree with its comment that an overtly negative news media is not to blame for some of the disillusionment of young people and people generally. The media have a large role to play and I sometimes wonder whether their sole motive is to portray all politicians as being sinister rather than as people who seek to serve the public by going into politics because they believe in a certain ethos, value and vision of society.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): Is it not politicians who bring down other politicians in people's eyes? The press report only what we say about each other. Is that not the big issue?

Mr. Khan : I wish that that was the case. I feel like a greybeard after nine months in Parliament, but the suggestion that the media simply report what we do is, frankly, disingenuous and not the case, although it pains me to say so.

The Power commission accepted that the British public are not apathetic and referred to clear evidence of involvement in pressure politics. For example, the number of people signing petitions, supporting consumer boycotts and joining campaign groups has grown significantly in recent years. I mentioned the Make Poverty History campaign because the report gave an example of the mass public, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister coming together on an issue that is dear to the hearts of many people.

Since I was 15, I have been knocking on doors for the party that I have been a member of since then and never before has making poverty history been the sort of issue that it was during the last general election. That is a testament to the public and young people in particular getting involved in politics, but not necessarily party politics. The fact that the Conservative party now talks about Africa in terms other than how much money we can make out of it is a testament to young people changing the way in which we discuss politics, poverty and development.

The Power commission also referred to the reasons for the decline in formal politics and the fact that it began in earnest after the 1997 general election. The report is worthy of reading because it made an international comparison and the reality is that it is a problem for most of the western developed world. It is not unique to this country. We can learn lessons and
23 Mar 2006 : Column 152WH
teach other western countries about participation of young people in politics and try to use that as a way of levering them into party politics and democracy.

The Power commission discussed voting at 16 and received publicity on that. There were murmurings from my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) when the Minister referred to her personal view that voting at 16 may not be a bad thing. My concern about that is that there is a danger that it may be a gimmick to get out of the bigger problem that many people over 18 do not vote. The debate is about engaging young people in democracy, but there is a crisis with those over 18 who do not take part in mainstream politics.

One reason for that is that politics is not accessible to the general public. Our language—I cannot say Ed Miliband and must say my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North—is one reason why the public do not understand what we are talking about. The fact that we must refer to people in the third person is a source of concern. Most people in my constituency of Tooting, which is less than five miles away, have not been to the Palace of Westminster and do not realise how accessible it is. That is also a source of concern.

I shall give an example of the problem. Recently, I was approached by an organisation that wanted to organise a promotion by a young music band for young people taking part in democracy. I rang the Serjeant at Arms to find out whether the band could use a room to promote the CD and was told that music is not allowed on the Estate, which meant that the event could not be held in the Palace of Westminster. I then thought of the wheeze of holding it in College gardens across the road, where there would be a backdrop of Parliament. I rang the Director of the Estate and was told, after to-ing and fro-ing, that it could happen if there were fewer than 12 people, if props were not used on the grass and so on, and that there would be a charge of £250 per hour for the promo to get people to vote. I was then told to contact Victoria park gardens.

The matter went on and on and eventually the organisation that wanted to hold the event to persuade people to vote at elections decided to pull the plug and not to hold it. It is a sad story. I tease the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), whenever I see him by saying that one reason why I became involved in politics was that he managed to get Alicia Keys to Parliament to perform. I suspect that that is why there is now a ban on music. I thought that if I could meet lots of pop stars by being an MP, I should become one. The point is that Alicia Keys and musicians are able to access an audience that we cannot. I am not suggesting that all of us or any of us should go on "Big Brother" or "The Games", although one hon. Member is involved in "The Games" and I wish her luck in her competition, but that may not be the best way of making politics more accessible. There are problems with the place where democracy is seen to take place, because it is not accessible to a significant number of our constituents.

Simon Hughes : We can debate which programmes advance the cause of politicians. I have not seen any previous episodes of "The Games" but, having watched it last night and seen my hon. Friend the Member for
23 Mar 2006 : Column 153WH
Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) take part in the curling competition and ending up in second place overall, I thought the good news was that it regularly reported her as having taken part in the Budget debate. It linked her day job and that activity in a positive and useful way.

Mr. Khan : I agree. The programme also mentioned the special helicopter laid on to take her from London to Sheffield and back, but I will not go into that.

Before we leave the point about politics not engaging young people—the Heineken dilemma—it is worth mentioning that we need to find a way of reaching those parts of our community that we have hitherto not been able to reach, including the hip-hop generation, people in our mosques, those who follow football and sports teams, and so on.

My hon. Friend the Minister talked about the citizenship curriculum and how we could use that as a way of getting people involved, and engaging and teaching them about politics and the community. For me, the reason it is so important to do that was compounded by what happened on 7 July 2005. Not only did those four people kill themselves and 52 Londoners, and injure 700 people, but they were born and raised in this country. They went to our schools and, to all intents and purposes, were integrated, but they thought that the only recourse that they had was to commit an act of terror against their fellow citizens.

When I was involved in the task force, going around the country speaking to people, I discovered how disengaged they felt from the process. They thought that their Government and politicians were not engaging with them on simple issues to do with foreign policy, why we do certain things, why certain things happen and their knowledge of the political process. That is an example of the extreme end of the spectrum of what can happen when politics is completely disengaged from the lives of ordinary people.

I conclude with two points, the first of which is the routes to becoming a politician, MP or councillor. As things are structured—they have been like this for a while—politics is a profession that someone can get into only if they are a person of means. When people have applied to me to become an intern, I have been surprised that unless they are the son or daughter of a middle-class parent or have other means, it is impossible for them to do the work of shadowing a parliamentarian and learning about the trade, although that is perhaps not surprising when one considers that interns work for free.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred to the OBV scheme. One of the beauties of that scheme and the Electoral Commission scheme is that they involve people of low means who would otherwise not have a chance to shadow MPs. Standing as a parliamentary candidate for a political party is an arduous process, requiring people to give up their jobs for 12 to 14 weeks. The challenge is this: how many working-class politicians will be standing for political parties in winnable seats in four or five years' time? I am concerned that the number will fall.

Secondly, my hon. Friend the Minister talked about those who shout the loudest having their voices heard. That is a concern, but the real travesty—all three parties deserve blame for this and should take responsibility for
23 Mar 2006 : Column 154WH
it—is that, in our quest to get the vote in marginal seats in middle England, we may have neglected those parts of the country that our party thought formed our core support. That has led to the rise of the British National party and the 19 councillors that we now have from a far-right party. People have lost all respect for their politicians and are disengaged.

The reason the debate is so important is that an opportunity has been opened up to us by the citizenship classes in our schools and via a new generation of young MPs who were elected in 2005 and who are engaged in their communities—I see evidence of that from all three parties represented in the Chamber today. The challenge for us is to ensure that our young communities get more engaged in politics in the lead-up to the next general election than they have been in the last two.

3.23 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): It is often still asked, "Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?"—I do not mean the local events among the Liberal Democrats, but back in 1963. I know where I was: at the town hall in Hastings, speaking as a member of the youth council. Some people think it a bit sad that one should be so engaged, and that young people today are very different and do not behave in that way. I am not so sure. Young people today are just as keen to get involved in politics, but they are not so keen to get involved in party politics. They certainly have an opinion and if given the opportunity, they will express it.

The trouble is that young people are put off by we oldies. We say that they do not have experience, but the truth is that all young people have experiences that we do not have. They know what it is like to live as a young person in 2006. They know what it is like to be on the street. They know about drugs. Many of us are simply unaware of that sort of activity. They know how they feel about the police and sometimes they know what it is like to be looking for accommodation, so we should celebrate it when young people get involved.

Rather like the Minister, I want to talk about what has been going on in my constituency and why it is important to encourage the participation of young people in the political process. We have had an excellent youth council in Hastings and Rye—it has not run since 1963 until today, but come and gone, although today we have an excellent council once again. The schools and the youth organisations choose their representatives and, most importantly, have a formal link with Hastings borough council. The issue is therefore not just about young people's concerns, but the wider concerns that they discuss and which might be thought of as adult.

My hon. Friend the Minister gave Lewisham a plug, so I want to give a plug to the Labour Hastings borough council, under the leadership of Jeremy Birch. The council should be applauded for its work with the youth council. It provides the youth council with a full-time worker and a budget of £16,000—not as much as in Lewisham—but with £6,000 for the young people to decide how it is spent. They make those decisions and they spend the money wisely.

Just recently the youth council conducted a survey involving the bus service, although they did not do that just by themselves, but linked with the seniors forum to produce their report. It was discovered—oddly, some
23 Mar 2006 : Column 155WH
would say—that young people and older people often had common interests. They had the same concerns about the buses not running late enough and about the safety of standing around at a bus stop late at night. The survey was a great example of young people's experience helping to form a policy and perhaps making some changes in the decisions that were subsequently made.

The young people's council also has regular two-monthly meetings in session with the borough council. There is an exchange of views, in which the members meet up, talk and discuss the various issues. In fact, last month the young people's council went in for speed dating with Hastings borough council. That was not something that I would expect to happen, but each youth councillor and each member of the borough council spent three minutes together, exchanging views. Actually getting a view over in three minutes is a lesson for politicians, and that is the point: young people are impatient to express their views. They want to express them, but often the way in which we engage with them prevents that from happening.

The youth council's next project, again in conjunction with the seniors forum, is a crime and safety film, which is to be produced by a local TV station. The lesson is clear. If young people are offered opportunities, they will get involved and come up with conclusions that can help the wider community too.

Likewise, I recently attended the hustings for members of the Youth Parliament. The Youth Parliament has been mentioned, but it does not receive the publicity that it deserves. It was launched in the House of Commons as long ago as 1999 and there are now 300 elected MYPs, aged between 11 and 18. They represent young men and women across the nation, and they tend to be a heck of a lot more representative than we are. There is a goodly number from ethnic minorities, and some members have physical or even learning difficulties, yet still they become MYPs. How come we cannot learn from that?

The year before last, the MYP for Hastings and Rother was a chap called Phil Carey. I mention his name because I was surprised and pleased to note that the Power report was published last week with his name on it, as one of the youth representatives on the commission playing a part in advancing engagement in the political process. He was able to achieve that position through the Youth Parliament.

The week before last, I was invited to attend the declaration of poll for this year's MYP for Hastings and Rother. The campaign was impressive, resulting in a victory for Luke Springthorpe, a 16-year-old from St. Leonards, followed closely by his deputy MYP Nicole Pavitt, a 14-year-old from the Grove school in Hastings. Incidentally, it might not be a bad idea for us to have deputies. It is a heck of a job this MP business, but MYPs share it. They allow a deputy to take over when exams or other things get in the way.

What impressed me about the campaign was the dedication of the candidates to the issues in hand. Anti-bullying, which we hardly talk about in the House, was a key issue in the campaign materials of almost every young person in the campaign. One might expect some of the other issues that were addressed to arise,
23 Mar 2006 : Column 156WH
such as the environment, but another issue that came up was asylum seekers—not Daily Mail front-page issues, but how young people really feel about people who come to this country. They wanted to engage in a—I do not like to use the word liberal—progressive way in meeting people from overseas.

Those are adult issues, not kids' issues. I believe that when young people are given the opportunity to do so, they will engage in that way. We should therefore encourage groups such as the UK Youth Parliament to play a fuller part in our democratic process. Perhaps we should invite them here to the Houses of Parliament more often. Three or four years ago, when I suggested in the main Chamber that perhaps at the weekends or in the evenings when we were not using the green Benches, the UK Youth Parliament might do so, there were cries of horror. One Member said, "It would be treason to allow young people to sit on the green Benches if they have not been elected." They have been elected, but to a different Parliament. That sort of initiative might be just a gesture, but it is important that we make gestures to show young people that adult politicians in this Parliament care about what they say.

I have found it useful, in my work as an MP, to work with my MYP. I think that they have found it useful too. I have conducted joint surgeries and question-and-answer sessions with their peers. They enjoy being part of that process and finding that we have methods to bring about outcomes that they would not be able to effect in isolation.

I mention those experiences because it is important to appreciate that people such as Phil Carey, Luke Springthorp, Nicole Pavitt and others will one day be making decisions for us. It is not just about them; it is about us too. I rather like the amusing little sign that goes in the back of cars that says, "Be kind to your children, they'll be choosing your nursing home." Young people will choose our future as well as theirs, so it is important that we do not have a disengaged group of young people who find our values alien. We respect their values, of course, but it would be nice to feel that we have common values. We have to engage them, respect their opinions and, to some extent at least, take note of what they say.

It has been mentioned that back in the 2001 election, just 39 per cent. of young people aged between 18 and 24 voted. That number dropped to 37 per cent. in 2005. Some young people were asked why they were uninterested and did not vote. The survey suggested that it was simply party politics that they were not interested in. They were interested in the issues, but did not see party politics as the answer. Obviously, the parties have failed to make party politics relevant to meeting young people's genuine concerns. Engagement could be the starting point. We should welcome young people's contributions, experience and, perhaps, wisdom, but, above all, for sure, treating them with respect is a good starting point.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. I call the Lib Dem spokesperson to speak out of order because he has to attend a meeting with the Lord Chancellor shortly.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 157WH

3.33 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am grateful, Mr. O'Hara, to you for calling me now. I hope hon. Members understand that we sometimes have conflicting duties, but my colleagues will be here and I hope to be back by the end.

I am grateful to have this opportunity and for the measured, helpful and constructive way in which the Minister introduced the debate. I formally welcome her to her new responsibilities, and ask her formally to pass on—I will do it informally when I can—our thanks to my neighbour, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who took her responsibilities in that job extremely seriously and performed them energetically, for which I, and others, are grateful. I was particularly happy to participate with her in the efforts to build up the number of young people who participate in the London local authority elections this May, and the initiatives that the Department and the right hon. and learned Lady took to try to reach the 18 to 24 age group. I hope that they will bear some fruit. It is in all our interests to have more young people voting.

The Minister was right to say that in 40 years, the participation of groups such as young people, black people, people from ethnic minority communities and poor people has gone from being high to being low. As the right hon. and learned Lady regularly says, our duty is to try to engage them all in the process. The debate is a small part of that discussion.

My next point follows exactly from the point that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) made at the end of his speech. The more respect that we give to young people, the more they will treat democracy with respect. I am troubled by a series of adverts that I have seen—I have not taken this up with the authorities yet—about safer communities. I do not know whether other hon. Members have seen them, but they ask, "Can you spot the difference," and have two almost identical pictures and make the point that one community is safer than the other. I was troubled that the implication was that the safer community picture was the one that did not have three youngsters with hoods on sitting on a bench in a park. That sends completely the wrong message. There is nothing to suggest that they were not sitting there entirely innocently, passing the time of day with other people in the park. We must get those messages right. Perhaps with other colleagues, across the House, we can ensure that such mistakes are not made.

I have a list of tributes to give, because many people have done a lot of work on this subject. It would be wrong not to acknowledge, as the Minister did, a whole litany of people, which I shall do briefly. Over the years, Governments have worked hard on this. I have a friend who worked in government for a while, dealing with young people's affairs, who tried hard to ensure that government kept thinking of imaginative ways to approach the problem. It is a frustrating, difficult system to move, and government moves quite slowly, but many people in it work hard.

Political parties try hard. We are challenged all the time and respond in different ways, but it is not for lack of trying to recruit, engage and involve young people.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 158WH
My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) might be able to add a more topical, up-to-date word on that from her recent experiences. In that context, I pay tribute to our youth and student movement, which is an active, energetic, engaged and effective group of people in our party, who sometimes cause the leadership difficulty, and sometimes not, but that is their role, which is important.

In this building, the parliamentary education unit regularly arranges events. Not many weeks ago, I sat where you are, Mr. O'Hara, chairing a debate that it organised among schools from all over the country, to which many of us were invited to participate. The unit perpetually seeks to educate people, and does a good job.

There is a list of organisations to which I want to pay tribute, such as the British Youth Council and the UK Youth Parliament, which is increasingly strong and effective. Like the Minister, I was at the British Museum recently with many Ministers and spokespeople from the main parties engaging with people from all over the UK. They were positive and lively sessions. The Citizens Foundation national Youth Parliament has done good work, and the Hansard Society perpetually challenges. It holds huge events in Westminster Hall with thousands of people who are really positive and engaged. I am sure that you, Mr. O'Hara, and many others, will have participated in such events.

Other organisations that I want to mention are: the Children's Rights Alliance, which lobbied us today; the YMCA and YWCA, which have recently been much more active with such things; and the Electoral Reform Society, which is based in my constituency and always seeks to ensure that people are engaged.

I join others in paying tribute to the Commission for Racial Equality, Operation Black Vote, and the Hindu Forum of Britain, all of which have set up mentoring schemes. I have mentored two young people through the CRE-OBV scheme, one of whom would, I hope, say that the experience was positive enough to put him seriously back on course to do the career that he planned. He is a young, Mancunian of Pakistani background, who had dropped out of university, but who has now got into Cambridge. Hopefully, he will come back into the political process.

The other person I mentored was a young Chinese guy from north London, who is very involved in community activities. I have just agreed to take on a young woman who has an interesting new job to do with the 2012 bid—she is a black woman who is originally from Birmingham, or the west midlands, but has settled in London—and a young Hindu woman.

It is important that we do our job here. If we are to change the gender balance of Parliament and to have a Parliament that looks like Britain, we need to take positive steps, not just passive steps. The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) is right. I would predict that applications to work here, which we all receive, are largely from males rather than females and disproportionately from white, middle-class males. I take active steps to ensure that the outcome is not like the input, otherwise we would have a very unrepresentative succession.

Work experience is another good opportunity. We all probably offer work experience to schools in our constituencies and to others. Sometimes the photocopying
23 Mar 2006 : Column 159WH
gets a bit tedious, and other tasks can be as well, but for those interested in politics it can be useful. A young lad at the Hindu Forum launch yesterday said, "I'm really keen to come and do some work experience." That has now been fixed up and he will come later in the year.

I pay tribute to local councils, many of which do a good job. Lewisham is one of the leaders and I pay tribute to it. I did not know about Hastings borough council. I know that my borough, Southwark, which is next to the Minister's borough of Lewisham, has increasingly done more. As well as having a youth forum and such things, which are important for engaging young people, it has made efforts that I hope are evidence of political commitment. It is difficult to check such statistics, but I think that when the current administration in Southwark took control four years ago—they happen to be colleagues of mine—it was the youngest administration in the country, with an average age in their early 30s. When I say that to many of our colleagues who run local councils around the country, they recoil in horror. They often have no members in their early 30s, let alone have it as their average age. It is important that we ensure that people in that energetic period of their life can participate in the running of our local authorities; I pay tribute to those authorities for that. Stockport is another that has been positive.

There are also individuals around this room, and others who may have gone before. The hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) has taken on the role of chair of the all-party group on youth affairs, which is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has been active over the years. I include my hon. Friends the Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), a new MP who now speaks on youth affairs and sadly could not be with us today.

I pay tribute to my three hon. Friends who are the youngest MPs in Britain—in Wales, Scotland and England. They are young women, importantly, and are my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), for East Dunbartonshire and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). They are all—in spite of the helicopter, which I am told was the only way that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne could make it to the Budget from Sheffield, where they were filming—trying to do what young colleagues in all parties want, which is to show that they are real people with interests. They are not abnormal, and they have interests in sport and activity just like everyone else. That is one of the messages we need to get out. People here or in councils are not abnormal or different; they are normal. Everyone looking in should have equal access and should be able to think that they could be equally at home here and play their part.

Mr. Khan : I said that I disagreed with the Power commission on the role of the media. The media's intrusion on the private lives of parliamentarians shocks me as a new parliamentarian. Does the hon. Gentleman
23 Mar 2006 : Column 160WH
not think that that is a deterrent to young people who might want to be involved in politics as a full-time vocation?

Simon Hughes : I do not know whether that was meant to be a topical question for me, but I agree. I look forward to having a debate later with the hon. Gentleman, outside the Chamber, about the Power commission. I agree with his reservations about some of its comments, but I hope that we might agree broadly about its recommendations, which are the crucial part. It is interesting that the Power commission was set up by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which have always been part of that progressive social group that seeks always to make democracy more participatory. I thank them for putting up the money so that that body could do its work and report to us. Everyone is taking that seriously.

I want to pay one last tribute. The hon. Member for Tooting referred to one of the difficulties of being elected, whether as a local councillor, a member of the London assembly or as a Member of Parliament. In spite of those difficulties, be they the loss of privacy or of personal time and space, with people knocking at the door or ringing up all the time, some people stand for election as young as they can. One member of our party, a woman called Hannah Hedges, was the youngest parliamentary candidate in the country and stood at the age of 21. It was important that she did that. She was selected through the proper process and stood for a parliamentary seat.

A friend of mine, Niko Baar, became the youngest councillor in the country in Southwark some years ago, at the age of 21. He did a good eight years as a councillor and then went off to do other things, which was reasonable after eight years of such intensive work. There are other things in life. That is another important message: people do not have to go into politics to stay. Politics needs people who come in and go out, or who do other things and then come in. It is important that people do not think that they will get locked in for life. There is a lot of pressure, once one says yes. My friend Richard Allan, the former MP for Sheffield, Hallam, stood down for no other reason than that he had other things to do with his life at the end of his 30s and in his early 40s.

I will be quick and make three substantive points. There are ways in which homes, schools and the media can do more to ensure that the political engagement with young people happens better. Parents have that responsibility. Families often have strong political debates, even in this country—I know that the French have much more politicised meal times than we do. The children with the most encouragement often become much more politically engaged. Baroness Williams tells the story of being brought up in a political household. Of course it makes one more politicised. Parents have a duty.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye that visits here and to council chambers, and the use of the Chamber and the council chamber, are important. However, it must not be seen as theatre. There is a danger sometimes that it is seen as theatre, not reality. People dress up and it is a game. The important thing is that there should be real discussion, real debate and a real exchange of views.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 161WH

I have just come from the Globe theatre, which is holding a schools spring event. Lots of schools are doing "As You Like It". Theatre can often engage people in politics. The great Shakespearian plays, as well as others, contain some big political issues. There are a lot of ways to enable young people to emerge with strong feelings. We need to encourage them at all times.

We need to keep on encouraging our radio, television, video and other providers to do the job better. That is why it is a good thing when the BBC do "Question Time" and "Any Questions" for young people. That may give us a lesson.: those programmes move around the country. Last time I was on "Question Time" it was in Harlow, I think. We could do better as a Parliament not to move ourselves round lock, stock and barrel but to do a bit of what the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly do, and to take what we do more visibly from this place to the boroughs, to the counties and around Britain.

We need to think about how we take politics to people. It is exactly the point that the Minister made about going to register people rather than expecting them to come to us.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): May I make the obvious point that we have permitted Select Committees to go around the country, and they often do so?

Simon Hughes : That is a good thing. We should think about how we can engage those who vote least in that process.

I have had a view for a long time about the right age at which people should be able to vote. However, whatever view we reach, at that age, UK-born and bred citizens should have a citizenship ceremony like the one for new arrivals. To make a reality of citizenship education, which can be good, although it is sometimes dull, we should have a process of moving on from training and learning to life, like the Americans do. The course tells people not only about voting, but about jury trial, magistracy and the things that come with adulthood and are part of the opportunities on the other side of the door. We should consider that to be a regular process of the formal education period before people choose whether to stay on or to go to college, sixth form or school.

My party has been clear about the agenda. I want to set out what I think and where I hope the Minister and Government can be encouraged further. I recognise the good work that has been done. We have to improve registration and participation; it has to be easier to register. I like the Power commission's idea that at 16, if that is the age, there should be automatic registration and a national insurance number should be issued automatically, so that it is made easy. Young people move around more quickly and often than older people, so a way that allows people to register more easily is vital. Also, people need to be able to register much nearer an election, because often people's minds do not focus. We are still too slow; in the modern age, a week or two before the election—once the campaign has started—there really ought to be a week's window in which people can still register. We have just had the last registration for the May elections, but a lot of people will not really think about them until after Easter. We must change that.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 162WH

We have to make it easier for people to vote where they are. We should be able to vote wherever there is a voting place, and before too long I hope that we can vote by other methods, whether online or whatever. I realise the technical difficulties and the security issues involved, but it is nonsense to tell someone that they have to go to Aylwin girls school—good though that school is—and cannot vote at a place near where they live, work or move around.

Bridget Prentice : I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman has another meeting to go to, but on people being able to vote where they are, if we could move to more technological forms of voting, would it not be possible for the voting booth to go out to community centres, care homes and even schools, so that we could actually take the vote to the people, rather than the other way around?

Simon Hughes : And above all to the bus stops, the bus and railway stations, and—in London—the tube stations, where there are real numbers of people, and where we can catch people as they go about. We could also take voting to the supermarkets, I guess, and other places.

All of us are probably very good at involving young people in the political process as we go about our weekly lives; that is why we are here. We should be taking young people to surgeries, and when we knock on doors, we should not say to the young person who answers, "Can you find your dad or your mum?", but should talk to them first about why we are at the door. We should let them come out with us if they want to, as they often might in school holidays. They might ask, "Where are you going? What are you doing? Can I canvass with you?" If they came with us, they could see the process; we have a duty to engage them, and for kids it is often very exciting and interesting. A bit of a competition is always a good thing, and they normally enjoy it.

We all have a duty to do the best we can to ensure that our parties are properly representative. I am trying hard to make sure that ours is, as are my colleagues who are present. I know that we are all trying to do that but, bluntly, we have to work harder. None of us has got there, yet.

I support votes at 16, as does my party. The key reason is that if we allow people to leave school at that age, but they cannot vote until a period afterwards, there is a disconnection in their learning, between the preparation and the opportunity. As young people have shorter attention spans, any interest that has been cultivated may well be lost by distractions. That, for me, is the overwhelming reason, quite apart from the reason to do with the civic age of responsibility. The other day, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) made a persuasive case for votes at 16 under a ten-minute Bill downstairs; it failed by only eight votes, I think. I had the figures somewhere, but I have mislaid them.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye asked the important question of what young people are interested in: issues or parties? It is issues, of course. Parties are only methods of getting issues changed. Political parties are only the means, not the ends, and young people are interested in the ends—in peace not war, justice not
23 Mar 2006 : Column 163WH
injustice, equality not inequality, and no discrimination rather than discrimination. They are really engaged. I particularly pay tribute to minority ethnic community young people; in my experience, they are often much more politically alert than those born and brought up here, and whose families have been here for generations. That is because at home there is a combination of an international experience and a national experience, so they probably understand international affairs much better than people who have links with no other countries.

The youth services and local authorities have a duty to be always helpful. To end, I give an example of one thing that we might do. Young people's interest is often cultivated by seeing the political process deliver. Kids might knock on my door and ask, "Simon, can we have a football cage on our estate?" If there is a process whereby in a short period their interest in getting something done can deliver them through the consultation and the outcome, and if they can then see that cage there, they are far more likely to trust in the process. If the process takes power away from them and says, "Leave it to us," they will not be engaged. If the process says, "Okay, let's get on with it," and nothing ever happens, they will say, "When we asked, nothing was delivered." For most young people, the important thing is seeing that they have the ability to influence something through to a conclusion. That, more than anything, would make them feel more engaged. We are going in the right direction, but there is real urgency for us to do better and go faster. If we do that well, we can ensure really healthy politics; if we do not, we are in for trouble in the years ahead.

3.55 pm

Edward Miliband (Doncaster, North) (Lab): I am grateful to you for calling me to speak, Mr. O'Hara. I apologise to the House, because I shall have to leave a bit later, but I hope to come back for the winding-up speeches.

This debate is timely, because there is a crisis with young people's participation in politics. Other speakers have spoken eloquently about the shockingly low percentage of young people who participated in the general election. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) is right: there is a general problem with engagement and disengagement, but it is particularly acute among young people, and disproportionately so.

There are three things that we need to talk about in this debate in terms of making a difference to young people's participation. The first has to do with how we talk about young people, both in politics and in the media. The second is about the way in which we engage young people on issues that directly affect their lives, and I will say a little about what I mean by that later. The third has to do with the democratic process.

On the first issue—how we talk about young people—part of the problem is that we tend to see young people either as problems and people who cause trouble, or as bearers of potential and people on whom the future of our country depends. We rarely talk about them as citizens in themselves, who have legitimate voices. That is partly why such debates are important; they start to change that dynamic.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 164WH

The reality of young people today is that 98 per cent. of 10 to 17-year-olds are neither cautioned for, nor convicted of, a criminal offence in any given year, but one certainly would not know that from listening to some debates in the House or in the media. I cite one example in the media. MORI carried out a poll in 2004 that showed that 70 per cent. of press articles about young people were negative. It said that young people are quoted in only 8 per cent. of stories about them. Two thirds of 11 to 18-year-olds would not trust a journalist to tell them the truth and perhaps that is not surprising given the nature of the stories written about young people.

That is not to deny the issues of antisocial behaviour and so on in all our communities, but it is the responsibility of both the media and us politicians to give a more rounded picture of young people. Put it this way: if, on 49 out of 50 occasions when we talked about young people, we did so in positive terms, they might regard our political proceedings somewhat differently. If we were doing that, we would be representing young people fairly.

In a way, my second point echoes the words of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who has talked about such issues over a long period and who has done incredibly important work on the subject. We have to start to engage young people on the issues that affect their lives which are simply unaddressed. I am thinking particularly of services for young people in their own communities, and of spaces and places for young people to go. I care a lot about that. For a long time, that has been a neglected area of Government policy. I am not making a party political point; I think that that has happened under Governments of both parties.

I much welcome the fact that the Government have started to redress the balance with the youth Green Paper and the youth funds, which are now starting to become available. Over the next two years, more than £100 million will be available for giving young people a say about the kind of services that they want in their communities. That is important as young people care about a whole range of things beyond the issues that directly affect them, such as youth clubs and so on. However, if we in politics do not engage with and listen to them on those issues, what hope can we have that they will believe that we take them seriously on the whole range of issues?

The democratic process is at the core of this debate. I am sympathetic to—and, it is fair to say, a convert to—the idea of votes at 16, partly because of the issues of principle involved. At 16, young people have the right to get married and join the military, although only with parental consent, it is true. They can also leave compulsory schooling and go out to work. Those issues of principle are important. I do not mean that they are overwhelming and should automatically mean that people of 16 should have the vote, but they are a compelling case to begin with.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned that the younger people get involved in the possibility of voting, the more likely they are to vote. I also cite a report from the Social Market Foundation on that subject. It may seem counter-intuitive, but where the date of a general election falls, relative to the 18th birthday of a young
23 Mar 2006 : Column 165WH
person, makes a big difference to whether they will vote. That may be to do with their going to college or university or their excitement about gaining the vote and having the chance to exercise it immediately. It is also an important part of the case for lowering the voting age.

The voting age was changed to 18 in 1969 and I have looked back at the House of Commons debates of 1968 on the issue. They are interesting because they reflect the same sorts of arguments that we hear today about voting at 16. For the interest—I shall not say amusement—of Members, I cite a speech made by the late Quintin Hogg, who spoke in one of them, although not, I think, for the Conservative Front Bench. He stated that his belief that the voting age should not be lowered to 18 was based on

Some of the arguments today about whether people are ready for votes at 16 are based on similar convictions. Obviously, we have to draw the line somewhere; no one proposes that we should lower the voting age to below 16, but hon. Members who doubt the proposal should bear those debates of 1968 in mind. A lot of the 16-year-olds whom I meet are either ready for the vote or would be, with the right sort of citizenship education and other things.

Lowering the voting age is not a panacea and no one should pretend that it is. That takes me to a wider point about the democratic process. We need to think across the piece about how to show that mainstream politics is more open to young people. Citizenship education is important and working out how it can be strengthened is part of this issue. My sense is that the teaching of citizenship is great in some places, but not so great in others. In some places, the subject seems to be more about institutions than live and controversial political issues. One of the ways in which to engage people in politics is to make them think that they are exciting and about their lives.

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), who says that we need to find ways of opening up Parliament. I am struck by the fact that, to my knowledge, the UK Youth Parliament has been sitting for four or five years, but never in this place.

Simon Hughes : As you may know better than me, Mr. O'Hara, the Youth Parliament has certainly met in this Chamber or in a Committee Room on this corridor, although not yet in either of the Chambers downstairs.

Edward Miliband : I am grateful for that, and stand corrected. I suppose I meant that the Youth Parliament has never had its big annual meeting in this House; that would be a welcome development. The House authorities and others should consider that.

Local elections and engaging people on a local level are important. I, too, have met the young mayor of Lewisham. Last week I was with him at a question time with young people. I got a rough ride—members of the
23 Mar 2006 : Column 166WH
governing party, even humble Back Benchers, can expect that. The mayor is an impressive person. He has a group of advisers and a budget. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, he was elected with a reasonable turnout. All those things are important. In Doncaster, we have a youth council that is going strong and there was a high turnout at its elections. All those issues across the piece can make a difference to the engagement of young people.

I end by making a final point that takes in all of the issues. One of my political heroes is the American Senator Robert Kennedy. Forty years ago, he gave a speech in South Africa to a group of young people, and one of the things in politics that he warned most against was the danger of a sense of futility, the sense that nothing can change. If I had to sum up the one biggest problem of our proceedings and politics today, I would say that it was the sense among many people that intervening in or trying to affect the political process is futile, because they think that things will not change and they cannot have a voice. That is what we need to change—both generally, and specifically in respect of young people.

I welcome this debate. I welcome the Minister's positive comments, in a personal capacity, about votes at 16, and I look forward to Members, here and elsewhere, continuing to make the case for the engagement of young people in politics in the months and years ahead.

4.7 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I apologise for arriving late; I was at a sitting of a statutory instrument Committee. I shall have to leave about half an hour before the end of the debate to catch my flight to my constituency, although I would very much like to hear the summing up. I am sure I shall read the Hansard report.

I want to share my experience as the youngest MP in the House. People often talk to me—in party political contexts, at conferences or at events in the wider community—about the issue of young people and democracy. They ask, "How do we get more young people interested in politics?" I often think, "Are you not asking the wrong person?" Given that I have stood for election and been elected, I am clearly a young person who is very interested in politics. It is the wrong question to ask because as we have heard today, young people are interested in politics.

Last July, I was at the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh and it was stuffed full of young people from all around the country making their voices heard. I am sure that hon. Members who attended the Stop Climate Chaos lobby a few weeks ago will have noted the number of young people there who were campaigning on that issue.

Young people are generally engaged in the issues, but how do we turn that engagement towards the political process? That is the challenge for us all. Members have talked today about different options and other things that are happening in their constituencies to engage young people. We all go to speak in schools in our constituencies and answer pupils' questions about our work as MPs and how the parliamentary system works. I, for one, always find such events incredibly enjoyable.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 167WH
It does not matter whether I have been wading through the intricacies of a Bill and its legislative jargon or finding piles of correspondence in my office—when I go to a school, I forget all that.

Usually, there is a group of several dozen young people who start off slightly sceptical and think that the meeting will be dull and dry. However, starting to ask questions acts as a catalyst; more and more questions keep coming and they get incredibly engaged. The brilliant thing about school pupils is that there is no politeness or faffing around not being direct—they get straight to the point, asking how much I earn or whatever is on their minds. I always come away from such meetings feeling inspired about the next generation of people coming through the system.

We have also heard about the Youth Parliament, which does a huge amount of good work. I lend my voice to the calls for it to be able to use the Commons Chamber when it meets. That would be excellent. Many schools have debating societies. I got involved when my school ran parliamentary debates, which sparked my first interest in politics back in the early 1990s. Last Friday I went to a meeting of the European Youth Parliament, west of Scotland division, which was being held in my constituency and where people were debating European issues. In addition, there is also an extremely successful BBC schools question time event.

There are many projects or organisations set up to involve young people in politics. Often, they are all siphoned off as a separate section: we say to ourselves, "This is the young people being involved in politics bit. The other politics bit is in the House of Commons or the council chambers, or in groups up and down the country".

We must also promote direct engagement with the political process. Currently, young people cannot vote until they are 18. My view is clear: whenever I meet young people, whether it be in schools or at any community events, I am their Member of Parliament. Whether or not they can vote does not matter. If they are concerned about issues, they should write to me, e-mail me, check on my website to see what I have said or listen to my podcast. They should use whichever means they can access to find out about politics. I want them to get in touch. Sometimes when I say that to a young person it is a bit of a new idea to them. As they cannot vote, they have not thought that they can have that voice. I am pleased to say that I have received more letters and e-mails from young people as a result of that approach.

It is also important to encourage young people to go further than just having their view. They might like to get involved in many ways. For example, they might want to join a pressure group and get involved in the organisation of campaigns. If they have a particular affiliation to a political party, they should go further and join the political party. They should find out more about standing, be it for a local town, parish or community council, the local authority, Parliament, one of the Assemblies or the European Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned that the youngest candidate at the previous election was a Liberal Democrat. At the one before that, in 2001, I was
23 Mar 2006 : Column 168WH
one of the youngest candidates in the country. I found it an incredibly valuable and interesting experience. We should encourage young people, not just to tell us their views, but to get involved and be part of the system. That must be the way forward.

Many hon. Members have signed early-day motion 1218 on the 2009 Project. There is an excellent website associated with that: www.the2009project.com. It aims to get young people—it extends the definition to everyone who will be under 35 at the next election—to sign up to pledge that they will vote. Irrespective of who they vote for, the aim is to get them to pledge that they will vote and use their voice. As has been mentioned, young people care about many issues—anti-bullying was one that came up and, recently, issues about the minimum wage were raised. It took a long time for 16 and 17-year-olds to be enfranchised within that. Tuition fees affect younger people in particular. If the voice of young people is not heard at the voting booth, those issues are less likely to be taken seriously in this House. Apparently, 13 million under-35s will be eligible to vote at the next general election. Politicians should be taking account of that huge number of voters. I hope that hon. Members have used that opportunity to encourage young people in their constituencies to sign up to vote.

The issues about how young people vote are also important. I remember the first time I was able to vote. Very frustratingly, I could not vote in the 1997 election, although by a cruel accident of birth many of my best friends were able to do so—they were several months older than me. I restricted myself to lobbying them and trying to convince them to vote Liberal Democrat.

My first vote was in council elections, when I was a student living in Southwark and studying in London. I was keen to vote as I was interested in politics. I received my polling card and it mentioned a certain primary school. I had been living in London for eight months and I had no idea where it was. As I was walking out of the halls of residence to try to work out where to go, my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey came up—

Simon Hughes : I did not pay my hon. Friend to say this.

Jo Swinson : I do not think that I have shared this story with my hon. Friend. He might not remember the occasion, because I was just some student in Butlers Wharf hall of residence. He said, "Get into my car and I will give you a lift to the polling station". I said to myself, "Fine, that's great". The polling station was about 200 m away; it was so close to where I had been living for eight months yet I had no idea where it was. Students move into their halls of residence and work out how to get to their university classes and where the nearest bar is. Other than doing that, they might not be very integrated into their local community. That is a big problem, because if it is not easy for people to work out where to go to vote, they are far less likely to do so.

I got back from the polling station, got a sheet of A4 paper and, using a marker pen, drew a little map that said, "You are here. Go there, turn right, and take the second on the left. There is the polling station. Voting is today". I stuck it by the entrance to the hall of residence. According to the marked registers for that year, many
23 Mar 2006 : Column 169WH
more of the students voted. Simple things such as that can make a difference. It is about both ensuring that people are on the register and that the polling stations are accessible. For halls of residence in particular, how difficult would it be for the local authority to issue a map with the polling card?

Simon Hughes : Have a ballot box in halls of residence.

Jo Swinson : Indeed, there could be a ballot box in halls of residence or in universities.

We need to examine such barriers. I agree with many of the comments about voting at 16. In response to the proposition made by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), it is not the be all and end all. It is not the only thing to do. It will not be the magic solution, but it is part of it because it is part of ensuring that people can participate. While people need their parents' consent to get married at 16 in England and Wales, if people are really determined they can pop across the border to Gretna where that is not required. That gives another reason why people should be able to cast their vote at 16.

On a slightly controversial note, I welcome candidacy at 18, which is coming forward, but I would go one step further. I hope that if the issue of voting at 16 is reconsidered, we will also reconsider the age of candidacy and perhaps it could also be lowered to 16. It makes sense to have the age of candidacy the same as the age at which people can cast their vote. I have heard people say, "This would be dreadful. We would have 16-year-old MPs." Frankly, as someone once said, "If you are good enough, you are old enough." Anyone who gets elected has had to convince a constituency that they are the right person for the job.

People look at this House and they do not see it as being representative. Currently, people can stand for Parliament at 21 and, as I mentioned, I did so. It is uncommon for people to win at their first attempt. As a result, while the age at which people can stand for Parliament is 21, we do not have any 21-year-old MPs, nor have we had since Bernadette Devlin was elected back in the 1960s. There is no guarantee that there will be MPs of the age at which people can stand for Parliament. Despite the fact that about 40 per cent. of the population is under 30, only two out of 646 Members in this House are under 30. That is not good enough in terms of representing this country.

I would go further. Much as people might turn to me, as the youngest MP, to be the voice for youth, I do not necessarily have my finger on the pulse. I could not tell people what was No. 1 in the charts.

Simon Hughes : It changed last week.

Jo Swinson : My hon. Friend is clearly more on the ball than I am.

I think the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) made the point that the range of life experiences is important. Even as the youngest MP, I went to university before tuition fees came in, so I do not know what it is like to have to handle the additional burden of tuition fees and top-up fees. We should ensure that such experiences are represented in the House. Many other issues are also not being represented.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 170WH

We need more young MPs. We all have a responsibility to encourage young people to stand for Parliament, much as there are advantages to the current system. I do not think I need any anti-wrinkle cream because if the good people of East Dunbartonshire continue to return me as their MP, by current standards I will be a young MP for the next 15 years. We have all heard the descriptions of somebody being a young MP at 40, which in any other walk of life would be approaching middle age.

Finally, for as long as people turn on the television, look at the House of Commons Chamber and see something totally unrepresentative of our society, be it in terms of age, gender, disability or the colour of people's skin, we will not manage to solve the problem of better participation. Addressing that must be a key part of the solution. Young people are passionate about political issues and we all have a responsibility to nurture their enthusiasm and open the doors for their participation.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I should say that it is desirable for reasons of equity that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson has the same length of time in which to speak as the Liberal Democrat. By my calculations, that means that she must be called not later than 4.58 pm.

4.20 pm

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): It is a great privilege to be able to speak on young people's participation in democracy. There are a number of reasons why it is so difficult to engage young people in the democratic process, but I do not believe that apathy is one of them.

In a recent survey, nine out of 10 young people identified three or more of what could be considered political issues that really mattered to them and that they wanted the Government to address. That is hardly apathetic. The same survey found that 72 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds would vote if they believed a politician would listen to their priorities and keep their promises about those priorities. By contrast, only 20 per cent. said they were too apathetic to vote. Nearly double—almost 40 per cent.—said they did not vote because in their opinion the parties' policies were too alike. I think we all agree that young people are not apathetic; they just do not always understand how politics impacts on their life and how they can make a difference in political terms—to particular policies—just by voting.

The majority of young people do not vote. Therefore, older people have a greater impact on elections. As a consequence, politicians tend to work for older voters, and younger voters become less committed, so even fewer of them vote; the situation is like ever-decreasing circles. Young people do not vote because they feel they are not listened to. That is a circular argument, because if more young people voted, their positions would become much more important to politicians and Governments. When less than 40 per cent. of young people vote in a general election, compared with voter turnout of almost 70 per cent. for those over 55, it is hardly surprising that older voters' concerns are prioritised. I will come on to the issue of whether the
23 Mar 2006 : Column 171WH
voting age should be 16 later, because I think that that is one way in which we could address the issue of making politicians take more notice of the concerns of young people.

A lack of engagement and a low voting turnout among young people is a particular problem in the north-east, such as in my constituency. During the last general election, the north-east had the second lowest turnout of that category of voters. The lack of young people's participation in democracy is compounded in the north-east by the fact that those in the poorest sections of our society are less engaged. Young people from such backgrounds are even less likely to vote and to be engaged than those from other sections of society; 15 per cent. fewer young people from the poorest sections vote, compared with those from the wealthiest sections.

What are the solutions? Young people need to be shown that one person—namely, they—can make a difference if they try. Everyone in this room believes that; that is why we all entered politics. As has been said, young people are involved in activism outside the normal party spectrum, but it is our responsibility, as their representatives, to show them that their concerns matter to us.

I recently met a student from Sunderland university who was campaigning to retain the student discounts on public transport, which are currently under threat because of a transport funding shortfall to pay for free bus travel for pensioners. That is an unintended consequence. On Monday night, I went to see the Prime Minister about it as part of a delegation of Tyne and Wear MPs, and we hope that it will be rectified. That young female student came to see me, as her MP, to put her views across on a one-to-one basis. It could be said that she was already engaged to an extent because she was at college, but, none the less, she came on her own, and I have a lot of respect for her for doing that.

We need to focus on the issues that matter to young people and to ask what they are. We cannot assume that we remember what they are because we were once young, because even if we remember what they were then, it is very likely that the main issues are different now. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, even though she is the youngest Member in the House she does not have experience of paying tuition fees. That is just one example of the changing issues.

We need to ask young people what the important issues are. They might mention their employment prospects, the costs and benefits of higher education, or how they can afford to buy their first home. It is difficult to engage with young people, but I believe that the way to do so is to hold youth surgeries. When we knock on people's doors, it is usually the parents who come to speak to us. Even if a younger person answers the door, they do not want to stay standing there for a second; they quickly go away saying, "I'll get me mam," or, "I'll get me dad."

I find that visiting young people in schools is the best way to engage with them. However, there might be between 10 and 30 of them, depending on whether the situation involves a group or a whole class, and some of
23 Mar 2006 : Column 172WH
them will not engage. The usual suspects will ask all the questions and want to know things and, because of the nature of situations like that, others will stay quiet. Therefore, there can only be real engagement on a one-to-one basis, and surgeries offer a way to do that. I have started working to set that up with a national organisation called Changemakers. It has a regional office in Newcastle.

With regard to the citizenship education agenda, can I recommend to all Members in the House the "Democracy Cookbook" from the Electoral Commission? It is excellent. I do not know if any Members have come across the publication, but I commend the Electoral Commission for the time, money and effort it invested in producing it. Whoever was behind it obviously had their finger on the pulse, because it is very good. I was so enthused by it that I sent off for a number of copies. I was told that I could be sent only 12, but that any school that wanted some could apply to the Electoral Commission directly and it would send up to 30 per school. I received 12 copies and as I have five secondary schools and one college on my patch, I had the brilliant idea on Friday to drive around with my researcher and drop them all off. I thought I would have a quick five-minute chat and drop all the cookbooks in and explain the benefit of them.

Not long after I was elected, I wrote to all the secondary and primary schools on my patch offering to go along and take part in any discussions on democracy, citizenship lessons or question and answer sessions on a Friday or any day during September when we are in recess. I said, "You just plan it, ring my office and organise it." However, nothing happened; none of them approached me. Therefore, I decided to go along and meet them in person and say, "I come bearing gifts and I am a normal person, so please invite me in." It did not take just five minutes per school, especially as it was the week immediately after the Education and Inspections Bill debate. My researcher was saying, "Sharon, are you sure this is a good idea?" I said, "It's a fantastic idea." It took every minute of an entire day. The schools were shutting and the children were leaving when I was running into the last school. The offer I made still stands.

I will send all those schools a copy of this debate and I would be happy to go along and engage with their young people. I want the young people themselves to organise these youth surgeries in their schools and I will go along and have 10-minute appointments. A group of pupils could organise the youth surgeries; that is what I envisage. I hope very much that that happens.

We also need to think about new ways to vote and, as the Chancellor recently suggested, we should also consider lowering the voting age to 16. I support that. It would build excitement about voting if it were linked with citizenship education in the right way. Children in schools are being taught about citizenship, voting, what it means and how they can impact on the process. There is engagement with local politicians, councillors and MPs. The relevance is there and lowering the age would build up impetus and excitement as children turn 16 and elections take place. Some children would be eligible to vote in the May election and others would not, but it would be something that everyone would want to do. I hope that it would stay with them and develop into a good habit when they left school. They say that voting habits come with age. Hence, more people over 55 vote. It becomes habit forming.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 173WH

If all children stayed on at school until 18, they would still not develop the habit. It must be linked to citizenship education. Even if children receive the education and become enthused by voting, there is still a two-year gap for a large number of young people, because not all children stay on at school until 18. I support voting at 16.

The YMCA worked with hard-to-reach young people, and Alison Dean, from YMCA England's working with young people unit, gave oral evidence to the Power commission. She highlighted the skills gap:

Young people fear being out of their depth or making a fool of themselves. They have a high level of self-consciousness, which is detrimental to their finding out information. Once they have left school, if they have had a couple of years thinking, "I don't understand and it's too late to ask now," they get to 18, 19 or 20 and they do not want to be embarrassed and ask, "How do I go about voting?" So, 16 is probably a good age at which to catch them before they become too self-conscious. It just becomes a habit: they go along to the polling station with their parents and they have mock polling stations in school. They understand what to do when they go into that little box with the pencil on a string, and they understand how it all works.

Evidence from Germany and Austria has shown that youth turnout greatly increases when the voting age is reduced. In Vienna, the youth participation rate was 90 per cent.—a very interesting statistic.

Justine Greening : I just want to clarify whether Austria has voting at 16. I think it is at 18, but if I am wrong perhaps the hon. Lady will correct me. I thought that the age was reduced to 18, and that is my query.

Mrs. Hodgson : The hon. Lady may be correct. However, my notes say "votes at 16". I shall have to ask the YMCA for clarification, because when it mentions Vienna, it does not actually say "at 16", so the paragraph could be misleading.

We must make voter registration easier, but we do not need to introduce individual registration as the Opposition have suggested. The YMCA and others believe that household registration is a barrier to young people who move frequently. I disagree, because any individual can register at any time when they move. One does not have to wait for the form. Again, it is an awareness issue. The vast majority of disengaged young people still live at home and they benefit from household registration, as their parents complete the form on behalf of the whole household. I am opposed to individual registration for that reason.

I agree that reducing the candidacy age to 18 would be positive and help to attract younger candidates. However, I realise that just because somebody can stand at 18, does not mean that there will be any 18-year-old MPs. It is about sending out the right message. Although reducing the candidacy age would be a
23 Mar 2006 : Column 174WH
positive move, life experience is important in this House. An 18-year-old MP would have only a limited amount of life experience. At 21, one has a bit more.

Jo Swinson : Does not the hon. Lady accept that if enough voters in a particular constituency feel that a candidate, of whatever age, has enough life experience to represent them, the final decision should lie with them?

Mrs. Hodgson : That is right. It may explain why even though the candidacy age is 21, there have been no 21-year-old MPs for a long time. The hon. Lady alludes to the fact that the choice should rest with the electorate.

Justine Greening : We are getting into a conundrum: on the one hand, getting more people involved at a younger age is to be welcomed; on the other hand, people very much dislike politicians who have spent their career in Parliament, never having worked in the real world, paid a mortgage, gone home, got up, gone to work, gone to the office, come home, paid the mortgage and so on. There is a contradiction, but as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) says, it is up to voters to decide what they prioritise.

Mrs. Hodgson : Again, that is a valid point. We could probably debate that point alone for some time. When I came into politics and decided to stand for public life, it was because I believed that I had a lifetime's worth of relatable experience to offer. Owing to my 20 years of work before I came to Parliament, I have qualities and skills from a long background in many different sectors. It will always provide a balance. However, I take the point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire: it is up to the electorate to decide.

The Government should consult regularly with young people on a range of issues, as they did with the Green Paper, "Youth Matters", on which there were 19,000 submissions. It showed that young people want to be heard. One good thing that came out of it was the youth opportunities card. I do not know how many pilots there will be, but I am pleased that the card is being piloted in my constituency. I shall follow it with great interest.

Both local authorities in my constituency will receive money from the youth opportunity fund. Perhaps the Minister will clarify whether it is a national scheme. The guidance for local authorities says that they are to consult with young people on how the fund is spent. From the figures I received, they have about £400,000 to spend from the fund. I have raised the matter with both authorities and I shall follow with great interest the ways in which they decide to spend the money. I hope that they will follow the guidance and consult young people.

I commend the work that organisations such as the YMCA and Changemakers do with young people. In particular, I commend the YMCA for offering training, campaigning and lobbying skills through the "Changing Your World" programme. It brings young people, often YMCA residents, to London to learn about Parliament and the possibilities that political action offers. Changemakers works on a wide range of programmes, including YSpeak. That programme encourages young people to be advocates for one another and to take up
23 Mar 2006 : Column 175WH
issues and campaigns. I visited the office of that organisation in Newcastle and met a number of the young people involved. It impressed me how much they had benefited, both socially and educationally, from involvement with such an organisation.

Political engagement is a natural progression from that. When young people get involved with such an organisation or activity, they realise that politics matters and impacts on everything. There were clever television adverts from the Electoral Commission encouraging engagement, but it is often when people see for themselves the impact of politics that they get involved. The Minister said that often when young people meet politicians and realise that we are real people, their opinions of us change. The media have much to answer for. Their portrayal of politicians involves lots of stereotypes, most of which are untrue. Sadly, some of them are true.

One reason why I wanted to get into politics was that I did not feel that there was anyone like me in politics. I do not know whether people in this Chamber would agree with that. I am a working-class woman from Gateshead. In the north-east, there are not many women MPs. I am the only woman MP in Tyne and Wear, which has 13 seats. The north-east probably has 60 or 70 seats in total and the number of women MPs has increased from four to six. The north-east has been a bastion of male dominance over the years. It was an industrial area and I suppose that male dominance in that respect followed through into politics.

The women who broke through were amazing. We can see how Mo Mowlam got here. Hilary Armstrong is our Chief Whip. Vera Baird broke through in 2001. She followed—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Lady should refer to hon. Members by their constituency.

Mrs. Hodgson : I apologise, Mr. O'Hara. Women who have become MPs in the north-east have been quite memorable and are still active in their roles. However, I could see no one like me in politics, especially in the north-east. That encouraged me to get into politics. I believe that MPs should be representative, in many ways, of the people they represent. I am referring to ethnic and cultural background and so on. I strove to provide that representation and, lo and behold, I am here, which I am very pleased about.

Today I received a delegation from the Gateshead young women's outreach project. I met six women and two youth workers. They came down to Parliament and sat in the Gallery for questions to my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, which they found fascinating. Indeed, the whole experience has been great for them. They are mothers of school age but are not in school for various reasons, but usually because they have been bullied. They receive support relating to education, being healthy and safe, achieving and contributing and, eventually, becoming economically independent. Those 16 and 17-year-old girls said to me, "When you were our age, did you know you wanted to be an MP? Did you know this is what you wanted to
23 Mar 2006 : Column 176WH
do?" The answer was no—far from it. Life experience led me to want to become an MP. I hope that I can be a role model for those women and other women throughout the country. I hope that they will see that people do not have to be in a certain mould or of a certain type to follow a certain path. Life is what you make it. People can do anything they want to if they put their mind to it.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): I ask hon. Members to bear in mind the need to allow ample time for the closing speeches.

4.45 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I shall remember your words, Mr. O'Hara, and I promise to be brief. I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate and the speeches by my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). I was next door in a Standing Committee making an important contribution, I thought, to trying to save lives on the roads by reducing the drink-driving limit. I mention that only because it is endlessly fascinating to me how politics invades every aspect of public life. For me, that is the driving passion about politics and I would like to instil it in every young person I meet.

Since I was elected in 1997, I have visited schools in the Stafford constituency regularly. Everywhere I go I see positive, happy learning environments and youngsters who are bursting with ideas and able to express themselves. Every time I come away from those places, I cannot help feeling a great optimism that when I retire, whether by choice or because I am compulsorily retired by the electorate of Stafford, excellent MPs will follow me in Stafford who went to schools in that constituency.

I repeat the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) that that positive view of youngsters is so perverted in media reporting about young people that most of the public have a very poor view of youth of today. He gave the statistic that 70 per cent. of news reporting about youngsters is negative, with headlines about "Yobs" and so on. I heard the Children's Commissioner for England, Al Aynsley-Green, cite that in a lecture, in which he made an impassioned plea for the media to be fair in their reporting and give youngsters a chance. I hope that the media will listen to that plea from politicians and people such as Al Aynsley-Green.

I shall say a little about the support for young people to participate in democracy. Many hon. Members have mentioned the citizenship curriculum, which became compulsory in our secondary schools in September 2002, with its three main themes of social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy.

In the previous Parliament, I was so excited by the opportunity presented by citizenship education that off my own bat, with no prompting from anyone, I devised a pack that I sent to every Member of the House of Commons and of the House of Lords. I did so because I felt that teachers throughout the country would be anxiously contacting their local politician to ask for their assistance in delivering citizenship teaching in their
23 Mar 2006 : Column 177WH
schools. I wanted MPs to know, when they were contacted, what that was all about and how they could respond positively. It was only a little pack—nothing very exciting—but it had basic information about the traps and pitfalls, the other sources of information available to them and how they could conduct themselves if they went into schools.

As a result of putting together that pack, I have taken a close interest in citizenship teaching and I am convinced that it is very variable, as has been said. That is understandable given that many of the teachers had no previous training in the subject and perhaps have no history of an interest in politics, for example. The time has come to review the effectiveness of the citizenship curriculum to see whether there are things that we need to do to make it more effective.

My other point in this connection relates to the role of Parliament as an institution aiding the teaching of the citizenship curriculum. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, we have a brilliant parliamentary education unit. That unit is superb and does fantastic work. When I was on the Modernisation Committee in the previous Parliament, we interviewed members of the unit, who told us about the service that they provided and about sending information packs to schools. Quite a lot of the members of the Committee around the table did not know about that, and they all sent off requests to the unit the next day to get the packs for their local schools. There was a bit of a run on the unit's material as a result, but perhaps even today many MPs do not appreciate the work that it does. It not only provides and sends out material, but gets youngsters to come into this place, whether for the sort of debates that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned or for other events.

I have sat in your place, Mr. O'Hara, and acted as Mr. Speaker during a debate among young people, and it is a very entertaining thing to do. The unit also arranges for tours of Parliament, showing a video, and a question and answer session with a leading politician—perhaps I should just say "a politician", because it is often me—or sometimes an Officer of the House. Those ways of introducing young people to the teaching of the citizenship curriculum through the institution of Parliament to develop political literacy are very important. However, it is obvious that not every youngster can get to Parliament to have that experience, so a link is missing.

The Modernisation Committee produced a report called "Connecting Parliament with the Public", its first report of the 2003–04 Session, in which it made recommendations about turning things round by taking Parliament to where young people are. I suggested a partnership with local government so that every youngster can go to their local town hall and access a virtual Parliament on their doorstep, with links to this place. We have television, videoconferencing and so on these days—I liked the earlier reference to iPods—and we could make the process much more accessible, so that every youngster in the country was able to have a direct experience of Parliament in their community. I am pleased to say that Parliament has given extra resources to the unit to employ outreach workers who are engaged in the process of making contact with schools and local authorities in order to make that happen. That is a welcome development.
23 Mar 2006 : Column 178WH

I have missed out a lot of what I was going to say, but I have two more points. In addition to the unit, we have a website, which these days is an important means of communication, but it is not as good as it could be and work is still ongoing with the Parliament website to make it a resource for young people as well. That is coming along and we need to encourage it. Other organisations have been mentioned that can give assistance in this regard, such as the Citizenship Foundation, the Hansard Society and the Electoral Commission, with its "Democracy Cookbook", which is a marvellous document, although it is big and heavy.

My final point concerns the support youngsters should have from political parties. I ask the other hon. Members in the room to be honest. Are their local parties like mine in that they are uninteresting for young people? I have real difficulty in attracting young people to join my local party because we do not offer the right things. I have spoken to the Duke of Edinburgh award co-ordinator in my area and asked whether activities that young people can do as members of a political party count towards awards from the Duke of Edinburgh. In a guarded way, I was told, "Yes". I am trying to persuade my party to make a step change in the way in which we offer activities to young people to make ourselves more attractive to them.

At the national level, people are attracted to the issues raised by political parties, but they are also attracted to values. Sometimes we get autocratic in the way that we offer ourselves in what is called the middle ground of politics as being competent, by offering to do something similar to the other lot, but better. We forget to talk about our values. If we can offer people exciting visions about why we are in politics and what we want to achieve, we can attract people to follow in our footsteps. I very much hope that we can achieve that.

I came prepared to say a lot more, but I arrived late, which is my fault. I shall now stop so that the Front Bench spokesmen can have the time to which they are entitled.

4.54 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am pleased to contribute to the debate. Some really interesting and good ideas have come out of it concerning how we engage young people in democracy. It is a subject particularly close to my heart for lots of reasons. Like the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), I very much believe in public service, and I think that everyone has something to say and a voice that needs to be heard. Whatever people think of politicians, that is a very important role. I never planned to become an MP, so when I was 21 or 22 I was getting on with what I thought was going to be a career, which would lead to who knows what. If someone had told me at that stage in my life that I would end up as a Member of Parliament, I would not have paid much attention to them.

Another reason why the debate is so important for me concerns my constituency. In Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, the average age of the voter is 34. We had a bit of theorising about how to engage young people in democracy, but it is an absolute necessity on a daily basis for me. If I did not, I would not be able to represent my constituents. I shall briefly give my views on the
23 Mar 2006 : Column 179WH
symptoms that we see of the malaise regarding young people's involvement in democracy, then dig beneath that a bit more to consider the underlying reasons, because symptoms can be misleading. I shall sum up by talking about how I hope those reasons might lead us to solutions.

What is the state of the nation in 2006 as far as youth democracy is concerned? The picture of political engagement of young voters and young people seems rather bleak. That is also true across the board, but, as the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) said, it is particularly acute for younger voters and those approaching voting age. The British social attitudes survey of 2004 said that young people have less interest in politics now than they did in 1994. Worryingly, a significant proportion of young people do not feel what might be called a civic duty to vote. The Electoral Commission did a survey on the general election of 2005, and when voters across the board were asked whether they felt that voting was a civic duty, 73 per cent. of 35 to 44-year-olds said yes, but only 56 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds agreed.

Non-voting since 1992 in the 18 to 24 group has increased. In 1992, only 24 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds claimed to be non-voters. By 2005, worryingly, that figure had risen to 55 per cent. Similarly, in 1992 only 13 per cent. of the generation above them of 25 to 34-year-olds said that they were non-voters. By 2005, that figure had risen to 47 per cent. That suggests that non-voting can become habit forming, as was mooted earlier.

That non-voting data backs up what we have heard about the lack of younger voters who took the opportunity to vote in last year's election. As has been said, just 37 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds and just 49 per cent. of 25 to 34-year-olds voted at that time. I am pleased that in Putney at least, we were able to engage voters from across the political spectrum because our turnout was about 61 per cent., although I would have loved it if it had been a lot higher. Even there, we can see that there is a long way to go before we get back up to the average voting levels of the 70 per cent. level we used to see in the 1980s and before.

There clearly is a problem, but although that information paints a bleak picture, it is only half the picture, and perhaps it is the bad half. The Russell commission supplies good facts about young people and their engagement in the political process and democracy. It found that 41 per cent. of young people are already involved in some form of volunteering work. I recently spoke at the UK Youth conference and met a lot of organisations there that work every day with tens of thousands of young people who are involved with their local communities. Some inspiring stories came out of that conference about how successful engaging young people can be at the local level.

The Power report pointed to the recent citizens audit of Britain, which said that 62 per cent. of people donate money to particular campaigning organisations of one form or another. As has been mentioned, we have seen that already: whether as part of the Countryside Alliance, the anti-war protests, Make Poverty History or Live 8, young people played a pivotal role. A disproportionate number of those in the crowds at
23 Mar 2006 : Column 180WH
Live 8, the Countryside Alliance, or Make Poverty History were young people. Clearly, as has been said, there seems to be a disconnect because young people are interested in issues.

It is interesting to me to reflect on my own experience. If anyone had asked me, when I was 21, whether I was interested in politics, I would have said no. If they had asked me whether I was interested in current affairs, I would have said yes absolutely. The challenge is to link the two together. Changing things around people can be done by a political route. The two are symbiotically related and do not have to be separate.

If those are the symptoms, we must move on and talk about why they exist. Young people are interested in the world around them and have broader horizons in terms of issues such as the Make Poverty History campaign and climate change than generations before them. At the same time, they do not make use of the political process to change things.

I have a hypothesis. We have talked about many great initiatives and I have no doubt that many of them have real value, but the debate is not just about quantity. The bigger challenge for all of us is quality in our democratic system. It is not about more democracy, but about having a better democracy that works for everyone and especially younger voters.

I shall give an analogy of an experience I had when I stayed in a hotel. I had a terrible weekend there because the service was appalling, the room was dirty and the TV did not work. When I got home I did something that I rarely do outside of being an MP: I wrote to the hotel chain and complained. What happened? I received a voucher for a free stay. That was exactly the wrong solution to my problem. I did not want to go there again because I had had a terrible experience. We must look at the experience that our young people have in engaging with the political process and democracy. If we understand what their experience is, perhaps we will see that they want quality and a process that really works and represents them rather than having just more processes.

The Power inquiry gave some incredibly valuable insight into the more general malaise of people and the democratic process. I shall go through the main points that it mentioned. It referred to people's engagement with, and alienation from, politicians. A MORI poll found that 75 per cent. of people agreed with the statement, "I do not trust politicians as a class." That is a huge barrier for all of us to get over.

Mr. Kidney : There is a lot of panic about that. When people are asked about politicians as a class, they put us down with journalists, estate agents and lawyers. When they are asked about their own MP, they put us up with teachers, doctors and police officers.

Justine Greening : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Perhaps the heart of people's frustration lies with party politics rather than individual good constituency MPs. I shall come to that. Party politics often switches people off more than any other thing.

The Power inquiry talked about engagement, or a lack of engagement with, and alienation from, politicians. What often comes across to me on the doorstep, particularly at the moment, while we are out
23 Mar 2006 : Column 181WH
campaigning for the local elections, is a sense of Westminster being full of a political elite. People do not feel that politicians have any real understanding of the day-to-day lives of most people in the country, especially younger voters.

As a London MP with a young constituency, perhaps I am better placed than many MPs to stay outside the Westminster bubble because I can go home every night. On a personal level and also on a pragmatic level, I find it helpful to be able to escape from the bubble that the Westminster village can sometimes be.

The Power report said that there is a weak dialogue between politicians and people, and I agree. I shall mention the classic example of something in which I tried to get people in my constituency engaged. They did become engaged, but they came out of it with a worse impression of politics. I do not want to go into too much detail, but it involved the recent consultation on night flights at Heathrow. Thousands of people and councils representing 2.5 million residents wrote in during the consultation process to say that they were very concerned about night flights. Many of them said that they wanted no night flights. When I went to the Department for Transport and looked through all the submissions that could be shown to the public—more than 1,000—I found just three from people who had asked for more night flights. Yet during the second phase of consultation more night flights were proposed. It is an example—I am sure that similar examples could be found from Governments past and present—of people engaging in an issue and having their engagement thrown back in their face. Such experience, perhaps more than anything else, switches people off. We must ensure that when we have removed the barriers to voting and people take steps to vote or become involved in a local issue, they feel that they have at least been listened to or, even better, genuinely had their views taken on board and represented.

Finally, I shall not cherry-pick from the Power report, but will go through the points that it made. It talked about a quiet authoritarianism that people feel comes from the Westminster centre. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) talked about the autocratic style and made a valid point. The more approachable MPs are here and in their constituencies, the better it is for breaking down those barriers.

To summarise the problems, there is a lack of trust between younger voters and politicians, which is partly born out of the political process, spin and the way in which politics has become more refined in the past decade. Spin has not been helpful in engaging young people in particular.

I come originally from Yorkshire and the north where people tell it like they see it. Young people are the same. They like to know what their politicians think. They like to see that their MP has recognised that there are always two sides to a debate and that they have come to a balanced view.

A lack of delivery is often behind the lack of trust, whether at local or national level. Younger voters and those coming up to voting age want to be able to see that if they bother to cast their vote it will make a difference to promises being kept at a later date. "Making a difference" is a common phrase throughout all the research and when talking to young people. It is about
23 Mar 2006 : Column 182WH
politics being relevant to them and being a mechanism by which they can really make a difference, not just to their own lives but to the broader community and world in which they live.

There is also a pragmatic issue with education. There is no doubt that many young people do not know who to vote for. Perhaps we are in a political cycle when political debates are increasingly on the centre ground. That is a pragmatic problem, and educators and political parties should perhaps work harder to set out where politicians stand on issues. It is genuinely an issue for all of us.

What is the solution? I have made my diagnosis, so what is the antidote? For me, it is most important that if there is to be a wholesale change we must improve the quality of our political process so that when people speak their voices are heard and make a difference. There is no doubt that relationships of trust are built up over time. The Power report and the Russell commission show that many young people in particular feel that a four-week election campaign is a cursory way of trying to get them engaged in issues. Clearly, we need to start much earlier with an ongoing discussion with younger voters to build their trust. Parliament needs to be more accessible and the Hansard Society has come up with a number of great suggestions of how to do that.

I do know where the parliamentary education unit is. I used to think that my office on the fifth floor of Norman Shaw North was the fringe of the parliamentary estate, because it seemed that nobody passed on the way to anywhere, but people do go past it on their way to the unit, which is on the sixth floor. I have a good working relationship with the unit and have been able to get some of my local colleges and schools to come and do trips. I am particularly pleased that the Paddock school, which is one of the special needs schools in Putney, will hopefully be able to bring some of its students to look around the House over the next couple of months.

Some particularly good points were made about remote access to Parliament. I grew up in Rotherham, and I do not think that I ever had the chance to come to Parliament until I lived in London. There is nothing like the sensory experience of going round an amazing building like the one in which we are all privileged enough to work every day and seeing the tradition to bring home what happens in this place. That is particularly important and we need to get over the barriers. Even if people are a few hundred miles away we somehow need to make Parliament just as accessible. Perhaps technology today gives us the opportunity to do that in a way that was just not possible when I was growing up.

I will not reprise all the arguments about schools, but we should strengthen citizenship classes. It was mentioned that we did not have them in the '80s, but voting in the '80s was vibrant. Perhaps one of the reasons for that was that the politics was more clear-cut and principle-based, so there were more arguments that people found accessible. They could take a clear stance on whether they were for capitalism or socialism, or for or against nuclear weapons. Politics in the '80s was black and white, in a way that meant that even younger voters could grab hold of the issues and talk about them. Growing up, I certainly had no problems understanding the "either/or" debates that we all had back then. Today
23 Mar 2006 : Column 183WH
the situation is more challenging, so helping people to understand the process and the issues through citizenship classes is valuable.

I thoroughly support groups such as the Youth Parliament and the British Youth Council. They play an incredibly valuable role and have gone from strength to strength. I read the manifesto in the previous election to the Youth Parliament, which was an incredibly balanced, well argued, articulate and impressive document. It covered a wide range of subjects and showed a depth of understanding that was a credit to the people who pulled it together. In my role as a spokesman on youth, I am looking forward to working more closely with the Youth Parliament.

We need to engage young people in the community far more. The Russell commission has focused on volunteering, which is absolutely the right direction in which to go. Our new leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has talked about a youth community action programme, which is about getting people to put something back into their community and in so doing linking them to it in a way that they perhaps did not think was possible. All those things must surely be good in making people feel part of their society and, as a result, making them want to vote to change the direction of that society.

We should also recognise achievement more. The Duke of Edinburgh awards have been mentioned, and I know that some of the charities and social enterprises that work with volunteering projects up and down the country give awards to children and younger people who are involved in volunteering. I should like those schemes to be developed more and formalised, so that perhaps more disadvantaged children who come out of education with few qualifications can still turn to their skills and say, "These are worth something too", and they would be absolutely right.

We need to move to a more a positive style of politics, so that we do not just throw stones at one another at every opportunity or complain about problems, but talk about solutions. That is what we tried to do in the general election campaign and for the three years before that in Putney. We talked about what we wanted, rather than about what we did not like. For more than any other section of our community, a positive debate is vital with young people. We can have all the initiatives we like, but if people switch on the TV and see a yah-boo politics, in which people throw stones at one another just because they are on the other side of the Chamber, many younger voters have every right to turn around to us and say, "Don't talk to us about being young voters. When are you lot going to grow up?" Those are our challenges.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) talked about Wandsworth and its youth policy. I will forward him the well developed draft of the youth strategy that I have seen—I wanted to find out what my council was doing, so I called it. I am sure that he will be suitably impressed with that detail as it is developed.

Finally, at its heart, democracy is about giving people an informed choice, so that when they vote they know what will change, how it will change and when it will change. Too often, politics in Britain boils down to what
23 Mar 2006 : Column 184WH
I would call Politics, with capital "P". It is almost game playing—something that we all switch on when we get home, in the same way as we switch on "Match of the Day" and watch, say, Chelsea play Portsmouth. The challenge to us all is never to forget that politics is about the people out there. If we always keep people in the forefront of our mind and focus on who they are and what their concerns are, we will do much better.

We will do our bit on the Conservative side of the House to set out what we have to offer people and what our agenda is, which we hope will reflect theirs at the next election, so that if nothing else, they will know what voting for us means. If the other parties do that as well, we will make a huge step forward, with younger people feeling that they know what voting means and what it can deliver. With those two things in prospect, I hope that we will see voting rise for the right reasons. I therefore welcome the debate and am grateful for hon. Members' patience in listening to me set out the Opposition's case.

5.17 pm

Bridget Prentice : With the leave of the House, I shall be brief, as I spoke at some length earlier.

I thank all hon. Members who participated in the debate. I know that we always say at the end of debates, "This was a very good debate", but this was an excellent opportunity to hear the different ideas and initiatives. So much so, in fact, that I got quite excited in the middle of it and thought, "Look, all these people all think the same things. This is relatively straightforward and we ought to have no problem at all in achieving some of the aims that have been described."

Sadly, of course, things are not always as simple as that. The merry band in here this afternoon have come because they feel passionately about engaging young people in our political system. Therefore, we all have a job of work to do in going out and getting that message across elsewhere. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) raised that issue right at the beginning, when she talked about directness and going to young people. I agree with her wholeheartedly that we should do that. The Hansard Society has rightly been mentioned a number of times in a very positive fashion. It has an excellent pack to help MPs going into schools on the kind of things that we should be saying and doing to engage with young people.

I should also make it clear fairly early on in my summing-up that the Government are neutral on voting at 16, but we are keeping the issue under active consideration. Nevertheless, the Chamber now knows my personal views on the subject. I should probably say no more about it, except that I found it interesting that when people were analysing the reasons for and against voting at 16, and whether it would mean people becoming MPs at 16 or would just be a gesture, they had a much more sensible approach to the subject. Just because one is able to vote, it does not mean that one will automatically take on the role of being a candidate. It is not as scary a proposition as some have found it in the past.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) made several good points. Much as I would like Lewisham council to be held up as a beacon for the many things that it does to engage young
23 Mar 2006 : Column 185WH
people, it is heartening to know that similar activities are taking place elsewhere in the country. He made an important point about the Youth Parliament, which has been highly praised throughout the debate. I think that the Modernisation Committee suggested that the Youth Parliament should be allowed to use the main Chamber, but that was not taken up by the House of Commons Commission. All I can say on that to him and others who agreed that it would be a good idea is that I shall take it up, through the Department, to see if we can make something like that happen. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

As we are short of time, I shall pick up on only a few of the points made by hon. Members in their full and detailed contributions. Frankly, given what is happening elsewhere in the House today, few people are around, and I was afraid that there might be only me and perhaps one other person in the debate. The turnout shows that Members on both sides of the House take the debate seriously and recognise what issues are involved.

In response to the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), I assure the House that we are making registration easier under the Electoral Administration Bill, because people will have a bit longer to register to vote after an election has been called. We are also giving returning officers the power to put more information on polling cards. I certainly remember seeing polling cards with maps on the back. That is one way of informing people where their polling stations are, and I understand that many authorities do that. We are also piloting mobile voting. I will dare to mention Lewisham again, and tell hon. Members that we are having voting in supermarkets and early voting. Elsewhere in the country, voting in town centres is being piloted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) made an interesting point about young people and services. It made me think that the Chancellor's announcement yesterday about the very welcome money for young people and sport in the run-up to the Olympics is another opportunity to engage young people in the things on which they are keen to engage. Winning the 2012 Olympics for London was a big political operation, and we now have an opportunity to join those elements together and show young people that some of the things that they are actively involved in have a big political impact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) made several excellent points. I understand entirely what she means when she talks about going into schools and thinking, "I can get through half a dozen in a day", but finding that one cannot. Once we engage with young people and discuss issues that affect them, we want to stay with that group for as long as possible, and time moves on. She also talked about people voting at 16 in Austria. I understand that they can do so in local elections in some cities and states. There is a dual voting system whereby 16-year-olds can vote in local elections in some areas.

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) said about the citizenship curriculum. We are encouraging teachers to make use of experts from elsewhere to add to and expand on the information that teachers give on that.

In her contribution on behalf of the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) talked about the number of young people who are involved in volunteering. She is quite right: a huge proportion of our young people are involved. In his Budget speech yesterday, the Chancellor talked about more funding being available for that. Her point reminded me that a number of young people are involved in caring, and some very young people are involved in serious and quite onerous caring for adults who live in their households.

We should remember that the services for young people which my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West talked about go way beyond the fact that they might want a youth club. They have to deal with serious issues and take on responsibilities. We should not underestimate the ability of young people to behave in an adult and responsible fashion. We should be a bit more confident about what many of our teenagers can achieve.

My hon. Friend also talked about perception, which is largely down to the negative media response to politicians in general. As was said earlier, when individuals meet their MPs, they often do not have such a negative view of them, so there is an onus to get out and about as much as possible to undermine the negative perception that can come across through the way we are described in the media.

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend said about engagement and trust. We have all had a constituent who fundamentally disagrees with our point of view write to us about a particular subject. That is life. Politics would be really boring if we all agreed on everything. Sometimes, we have to say to such constituents, "These are my arguments, and this is why I think this. I am sorry, but we will just have to agree to disagree." More often than not, the constituent will write back and say thank you. They much prefer to hear a robust argument than a bland, "Well, I'd like to think about it", and an attempt to assuage their opinion, especially when we know in our heart of hearts that we disagree with them. We should continue to show that kind of honesty, engagement and communication to constituents of any age.

I want also to put on record my thanks to the parliamentary education unit, which a number of hon. Members mentioned. It is a fantastically well run organisation that engages young people in Parliament on the few occasions when they come into this fantastic building. I still get a little leap of joy and inspiration just walking into it. During the recess, when the unit takes a large number of young people into the building, I enjoy coming in and chatting with them about what being an MP is all about.

Finally, I want to reiterate the importance of democratic engagement in this country. I also want to say that I feel uplifted by the debate. I would like to use what has been said, and also to engage with hon. Members who participated and those who were unable to come along, to feed in all the ideas, initiatives and things that are going on up and down the country and to see whether we can put together a coherent programme of work, so that we can share the good ideas.

 IndexHome Page