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The organisations that I mentioned work closely with young people, and their opinions of young people are not formed by popular stereotypes but by real involvement. They have no doubt that 16-year-olds have the desire, the capability and the right to vote. I urge this House to pay heed to the voices of young people. I acknowledge that some young people say that they do not want the vote at 16 and 17, but for me that merely demonstrates the point that 16 and 17-year-olds are capable of weighing
up options and taking an informed view of such issuesexactly the qualities we want in someone who would vote.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: On that point, is not the corollary of what the hon. Lady is saying that we tend to view having a vote to elect Members to the House of Commons as political activity, but overlook the fact that many young people are involved in single-issue groups such as the campaign against ID cards, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others? They are engaged and enthused, but not necessarily in respect of having a vote at the age of 16 or 17. Is it not a bit patronising to assume that young people are interested only in having a vote at the earliest possible age, when they are already campaigning on political issues?
The crux of my argument is not simply that young people want the vote, although all the evidence coming to me suggests that. I am sure that there are a lot of things that young people may want that we would not agree with, but in this case there is a strong argument that people aged 16 and 17 have a right to vote. The phrase no taxation without representation has been used by many groups struggling for political rights over the years, but it applies no less to 16 and 17-year olds working and paying tax who are denied the vote, because there is no age limit on paying income tax and national insurance. Tax is taken on full or part-time work including tips and bonuses, and the most up-to-date figures show that 548,000 16 and 17-year-olds are in some form or employment.
Mr. Harper: The fact is that many children, far younger than 16, pay indirect taxes on the money that they spend. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that a 10-year-old who goes to buy a CD on which VAT is payable should get the vote?
This House is currently considering new proposals to ensure that all young people receive training or education to the age of 18. However, even then, many 16 and 17-year-olds will continue to work as tax-paying members of society. Even those studying part-time will be able to work more than 20 hours per week and be taxed on that income. Young people should have some say on how that tax is spent. I have been to schools to speak to young people and hear their viewsI know that many hon. Members have done thisand I have found that they have a range of views about what provision there should be in the area, and about how their local authorities are run. I have been amazed at how political their views arein a way that I had not expected. Although young people are very involved in single-issue politics, they have strong views on more political things.
It was mentioned earlier that many young people get involved in single-issue campaigns, and that it is a matter of translating that involvement into a more direct and general interest in politics. Is not one of the
greatest institutional barriers to achieving that transformation the fact that they do not have a vote and cannot, therefore, influence the decisions taken on their behalf?
I come to the issue of young people in the military. On 1 April 2007, there were 4,560 16 and 17-year-olds serving in the armed forces. In the last financial year, 30 per cent. of all new recruits to the military were under 18 years of age. People can apply to join the British Army at 15 years and seven months, and to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force at 15 years and nine months. While it is Government policy that personnel under the age of 18 should not be deployed on any operations that would see them engaged in hostilities, the normal practice is for recruits to sign up to a four-year contract, meaning that in deciding to join at 16 they are making a decision that could see them deployed in two years time. If they are old enough to join the armed forces, 16 and 17-year-olds deserve the right to vote for the Government who could decide to send them to war. That is a very important point.
Notwithstanding those points, preventing 16 and 17-year-olds from expressing their political views through the ballot box denies them their rights. It gives them and the rest of society the impression that young peoples views are not valid and that they are not real citizens. One of the ways in which we can show young people that we respect them and that their views are valid is by getting them to vote. If the Government gave young people the vote, it would be a huge step in recognising the contribution that they can make.
Mr. Harper: Those in favour of lowering the voting age cite selectively the point about the armed forces. A 16-year-old cannot join the Army without parental permission. That shows that we do not trust 16-year-olds to decide by themselves to join the armed forces, yet those in favour of the proposal never cite that fact.
Lynne Jones: As a parent of a son who is now 18 and another who is 25, I can say that if they had expressed the view at 16 that they wanted to join the armed forces, it would have been difficult to refuse because parents want to do their best for and support their children.
In the past decade, there has been an explosion of activity to support children and young people to influence decisions that affect their lives. However, the best authority on a young persons life and experience is that young person. All the bodies that work with young people try endlessly to get them involved in consultation and steering groups to get their opinions. The argument for involving young people in those groups is the same for lowering the voting age.
It is worth noting the 2005 European Court of Human Rights declaration that the restriction in the UK on convicted prisoners voting was incompatible with the
European convention on human rights. The judgment was based on the principle that voting is a human right and that any restriction on the right to vote must therefore be legitimate and proportionate. One could say that, on 1 May, when the local elections took place, 90,000 16 and 17-year-olds were denied the opportunity to vote. Large groups of people who are capable of voting are excluded from doing so. Lowering the voting age would send a powerful signal that the Government believe that young people are capable of making decisions that affect their lives. We have a historic opportunity to mark the Governments commitment to young people.
One of the arguments against the Bill is that young people are not sufficiently engaged in politics to have the vote. I have already said that we have a problem with engaging young people, and that the turnout statistics for the young, especially at general election time, are worrying. However, that is not a reason for rejecting the Bill; it is a challenge, and lowering the voting age is one way in which to meet it.
Mr. Love: If we took turnout as the acid test for voting, 18 to 25-year-olds would not get the vote and ethnic minorities and people in poorer communities might not get the vote. Is not it risible to use turnout as an argument against giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote?
Julie Morgan: It certainly is. Votes at 16 would increase young peoples engagement in politics because it would also increase the engagement that politicians are obliged to have with young people. It stands to reason that those in the political system will be more interested in the opinions of those who can vote and have influence. Our political system is currently skewed too far in favour of those who are older, for simple reasonsthere are more of them, they have more power and they tend to vote more. Of course, it is tremendously important to pay regard to, and do all we can for older people, but I believe that we pay less attention to young peoples views because they cannot vote. It is inevitable in such a system that they do not have the power of older people.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The hon. Lady is developing a serious argument, which hon. Members of all parties are taking seriously and considering carefully. However, she is not on the right track with her current point. Like most hon. Members, I recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said, that 14, 15 and 16-year-olds grow up. I therefore pay a lot of attention to what they saywhen the next election comes along, they will probably be 18. I do not believe that any hon. Member disregards those under 18 simply because they cannot vote at that precise moment. The hon. Ladys argument that we do not pay attention to, or consider the views of, young people is flawed. It is patronising to assume that we do not pay attention to young people simply because they do not have the vote until they are 18.
Julie Morgan: I am sure that hon. Members try to engage with young people, but it is difficult to do that in a system in which 16 and 17-year-olds do not have the vote. It would be much easier to take their views on board if they had the vote. It is inevitable that we pay more attention to those who can vote.
In 2007, the population of those of state pensionable age is projected to exceed the number of children for the
first time. Older people represent the vast majority of voters. Political parties draw up policies and manifestos that are close to the opinions of those whom they are trying to attract. It is inevitable that we do not give young people the same attention because they do not have the vote. We would listen much more carefully to what 16 and 17-year-olds wanted if they had the power to vote us out of office.
On the whole, political parties do not attract young supporters. Policies that resonate with young people are not discussed and they therefore sometimes feel that politics is not for them. Lowering the voting age would help to redress the balance and ensure that young peoples views have weight. If 16 and 17-year-olds were given the vote, politicians would have take their views, as citizens, seriously and political parties would be spurred into activity, ensuring young peoples inclusion in policy formulation and in debate and as activists.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I am interested in my hon. Friends comments about the age at which people engage with political parties. As she knows, one can join the Labour party at 15, and that does not prevent people from joining. Is not the broader point that people tend to be active, in a political party sense, later in life?
Julie Morgan: I believe that we need to encourage young people to join political partiesthere are many more older people than young people in political parties. Giving them the vote is one way in which to engage them in political parties.
Where the voting age has been lowered, with a sustained public awareness campaign with young people, turnout at elections has been boosted. In Germany, there has been higher turnout among the 16-to-18 age group than among the 18-to-24 age group. There are similar examples in the UK. More than 20,000 young people voted in Essex to elect six members of the Youth Parliament from 92 candidates. That is tremendous.
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend rightly cites the German example, but has she considered the Isle of Man, where the voting age was reduced to 16 in 2006? A month before the election, fewer than half the 16-year-olds who could register had done so.
If increasing young peoples participation and engagement is a shared aim among hon. MembersI am sure that it isI am convinced that lowering the voting age would help. Sixteen is the ideal age at which to catch young people and inspire them to take part in the political process, which will then, I believe, become a habit for life. Todays 16-year-olds have had the benefit of systematically studying our democracy and electoral system, and the importance of voting, through compulsory citizenship education, which became part of the national curriculum in 2002. Young people today have had more opportunity to be informed about voting than most current voters, yet they are denied the right to put that knowledge into practice for a further two years at least, and possibly another seven. Lowering the voting age to
16 would allow for a seamless transition from learning about voting, elections and democracy to putting such knowledge into practice.
Importantly, most 16 and 17-year-olds are in education and have the opportunity to discuss issues and to get into the habit of voting. If young people air their views and discuss the process with other members of their class or college, there is much more chance that they will vote. In Wales, the equivalent of citizenship education is the personal and social education framework, which provides an opportunity to learn about active citizenship as part of the curriculum. All that is happening in schools today, so now would seem an ideal time to move towards a younger voting age.
Mark Durkan: My hon. Friend has made the point that 16 and 17-year-olds, perhaps because they are in education settings, would be in a better position to discuss voting and might be better motivated to vote than some older young people. Is it not also likely that those young people will be living at their home addresses, near the polling station at which they are registered, and will therefore probably be more likely to exercise their vote than many 18 to 21-year-olds, who usually live away from home at the time elections take place?
Julie Morgan: I was coming to that point. As we all know, 18 to 21-year-olds are difficult to canvass during elections. Often, when we get to a house with lots of different names, we know that student voters are living there, and we do not know whether they are voting in our constituencies or in their home areas. It is quite difficult to engage them and there are limited opportunities to make contact.
Very few 16 or 17-year-olds come to see me at my surgeries. I enjoy meeting them in schoolsI know that all hon. Members make big efforts to go to see them in schoolsbut feel that I see less of them than I should. If 16 and 17-year-olds had the vote, we would have the opportunity to reach them in schoolas my hon. Friend said, while they are still at home, they have a stable address and it is easy to reach themand get them into the habit of voting.
It is a sad fact, but if we do not engage young people early, they rarely pick up the habit of voting later in life. The exclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds is fuelling the disengagement of 18 to 24-year-olds. The longer young people are denied involvement in the formal democratic process, the less chance there is of engaging them ever.
Mr. Stewart Jackson:
The hon. Lady is making a strong case, although I am slightly cynical about the comparison with the suffragettes. If people cannot be bothered to fill in a form, we are hardly talking about a great campaign or crusade. May I also suggest that the point that she has just made has been made in something of a vacuum? Societal changes mean that young people are probably taking a much more transactional approach to what politics and politicians can do for them. Forty years ago, the No. 1 determinant of whether someone voted and who they voted for was how their father voted. The age of deference is now gone and people are a lot more willing to consider different options. If they do not choose to vote, that is not necessarily a bad
thing. The hon. Lady has not really taken into account those changes in society, which are generally for the good.
One thing that makes the situation more difficult is that young people are sometimes denied democratic participation in a general election until they are 23. Research has shown that the closer to a general election a persons 18th birthday falls, the more likely they are to vote. People who become 18 in the year leading up to a general election are significantly more likely to vote than those who turn 18 in the year after an election and have to wait another five years. Although lowering the voting age cannot get rid of the lottery of birthdays, it would ensure that a persons first engagement with parliamentary democracy would happen by the time they were 21.
The ability to vote at 16 would bring a relevance and practical application to citizenship education. It would allow us to catch young people at a time in their lives when voter education could be provided for them. Votes at 16 would give young people the experience of voting by 21. Once familiar with the process, they would be much more likely to continue voting for life. Lowering the voting age would not only be good for young people, but would be good for UK democracy as a whole. It would redress the balance of power towards younger people and would be an investment in the health of democracy and the future, by engaging young people in voting for life.
A bold act such as lowering the voting age would also be an act befitting this Parliament. As one of the oldest and most respected Parliaments in the world, we have set the pace in the delivery of democracy. When the UK lowered the voting age to 18 in 1969, France, Italy, Canada, Australia and the USA quickly followed. Although we would certainly be seen as progressive if we lowered the voting age to 16, we would not be the first country to do it. Last year, Austria became the first EU state to reduce the voting age to 16 for all elections, and that also applies in five of the 16 German Länder.
Closer to home, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey have all adopted a voting age of 16. At that time, the Speaker of the House of Keys of the Isle of Man, Steve Rodan, expressed a view that demonstrates a laudable attitude to the subject. His view was simple:
It may be that only a few 16 and 17-year-olds will want to vote...But if we can get even a small number engaged at an early age it could lead to a lifetimes active interest in politics.
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