Previous Section Index Home Page

We have held debates in the House on the voting age before. I have looked into the numbers, and at one time or another nearly 200 Members have voted for the measure or signed early-day motions in support of it. However, we now have the opportunity to press for serious consideration of votes at 16. Last summer’s
6 Jun 2008 : Column 1049
Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, set the tone of the debate this year. It spoke of the need to reinvigorate democracy, to put power in the hands of Parliament and the people, and to make a commitment to consider lowering the voting age. The Government are therefore actively considering lowering the voting age.

Since then, a youth citizens commission has been announced, under Professor Jonathan Tonge, to consult widely on the issue. I welcome those measures and have brought my Bill to the House to focus attention on the process. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will give us more details about the youth citizens commission, how young people are involved in it, whether it has begun its consultation and what the timetable for reporting will be. This is therefore a timely debate, because a body has been set up to look into the very issue that we are discussing. I hope that that body will listen to the voices of the many young people who speak so eloquently and strongly about the subject.

Mr. Love: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the commission. It will also be important that Members of Parliament, as the representatives of young people from the age of 18 onwards, and potentially from the age of 16 onwards, should be involved in the process, so I hope that the Minister will say how we can contribute.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us full details about the commission when he responds. It is important that he should be aware that many young people are interested in what the commission will produce. I hope that he is also aware of the hopes and expectations of the many youth organisations that are listening to this debate today and waiting to see what the Government are going to do.

I want to pay tribute to the Electoral Reform Society, which has helped me to organise meetings with young people and to prepare for this debate. The organisations that work with young people are directly informed by what young people feel, and there is therefore great strength in what they say.

Now is the time to invest in young people. We in this House of Parliament need to think in a bold way, and to think about what we can do that will really change the way in which our democracy works. Now is the time to legislate with our young people, rather than for them, to give them a stake in our community and society, and to equip them with the skills and self-belief that will allow them to take control of their own lives and decisions. Now is the time to ask them to be full citizens and to trust them with the rights that such citizens are owed.

10.31 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on securing such a high place in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, although I am afraid that I cannot be quite so complimentary about her choice of subject. She made several references to sending out messages and signals, but that is not what we are involved in here today. We are involved in considering changing the law and passing legislation, and we need to do that incredibly carefully. When the House changes the law, it needs to be sure that the change will have good consequences
6 Jun 2008 : Column 1050
and that there is plenty of evidence to support it. Although the hon. Lady’s speech contained lots of assertions, I did not hear a lot of detailed evidence to back them up.

Parliament has already had the opportunity to consider this matter. On 29 November 2005, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams)—he is in his place today and I am sure he will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—introduced his ten-minute Bill, the Representation of the People (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill. He obviously had less time to make his points, but his case was similar to that put forward today by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North. He mentioned the fact that, at 16, people could join the armed forces, leave school and pay taxes. He also mentioned cigarette manufacturing and addictive habits. He said that the manufacturers believed that if they could get people to take up smoking at 16, those people would be addicted for many years. The hon. Lady seems to be advancing a similar argument, in saying that if we can get people hooked on voting at 16, they will carry on doing it. The reason that I mention that is that the Government have decided that 16-year-olds are not old enough to make a decision about buying cigarettes, and that they need to be 18 before they can do so.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs to distinguish between a good habit and a bad habit. That is the point that I was making on 29 November 2005, which was also the day on which we had the Second Reading of the Health Bill that went on to ban smoking in public places and subsequently to raise from 16 to 18 the age at which a person can purchase cigarettes.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Voting is indeed a very good habit, and smoking is a very bad one. The point that I was making was that if the Government—and, I suspect, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North—do not believe that a 16-year-old is capable of deciding whether to purchase a packet of cigarettes, I do not see how they can simultaneously believe that such a person is able to make a decision about who should govern their country.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I am a little worried by the example that the hon. Gentleman has just given. Young people often start smoking illegally at a much earlier age, but I am not aware of anyone voting illegally under the age of 18. I do not think that his analogy was terribly helpful.

Mr. Harper: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point, because sadly there have been many examples of illegal voting by people who are not entitled to vote; they vote early and they vote often. Perhaps that was not the strongest argument that she could have made in favour of the Bill.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I notice with some regret that there is not a Law Officer in the House today, but perhaps my hon. Friend can help me. Is he aware of anything in the Bill that offends or breaches our commitment to that ridiculous, one-size-must-fit-all organisation, the European Union?

6 Jun 2008 : Column 1051

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. We might not have a Law Officer in the House, but we have the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), and I am sure that he will dwell on these matters later. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, in relation to international matters, I shall be talking later about the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Perhaps he will want to intervene on me again at that point.

Alistair Burt: Before we leave the subject of the UN convention on the rights of the child, may I point out that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) suggested that the right to vote was among the human rights of 16 to 18-year-olds? She spoke of the pain of those who are unable to vote until they are 23 because a general election has not come along. Does my hon. Friend agree that we all share the pain of the many millions of people who would like to vote in a general election very soon? Does he think that the hon. Lady might join our call to have a general election as soon as possible in order to relieve the pain not only of young people but of many others?

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. Indeed, people have started coming to my constituency office to ensure that they are following the correct procedures to get on to the electoral register, because they are so determined to have an opportunity to vote against this appalling, failing Labour Government. An immediate general election would ensure that all those who are 18 at the moment would be able to exercise their right to vote. I am fairly confident—

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman is so confident, why will he not give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote?

Mr. Harper: I am sort of grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he listens to my remarks a little later, he will hear me set out why I do not believe that we should do so. I listen carefully to the views of 16 and 17-year-olds—and, indeed, of much younger children—when I visit schools in my constituency, as I am sure all hon. Members do. However, that does not mean that I think that children should be given the right to vote. I believe that that right should come along when we decide that they are adults.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the weakest arguments for votes for 16-year-olds is that it would somehow increase turnout? The Electoral Commission report states clearly that turnout would actually go down if we were to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The turnout argument is a very weak one; it is not at all convincing. Furthermore, it is not the right argument. The decision to reduce the voting age should be taken on its merits, and arguments in favour of doing it to increase turnout are rather specious. As the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said earlier, if we followed that argument to its logical conclusion, we could go around the electorate picking off groups of people who did not use their vote and taking it away from them. That would clearly be nonsensical. Similarly, the turnout argument is not a powerful one.

6 Jun 2008 : Column 1052

I was talking about the case outlined by the hon. Member for Bristol, West. One of his arguments concerned the case being made in the 19th and 20th centuries for the right of women to vote. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North also made that point. I think that I demonstrated in my intervention that that argument was nonsense. It was clearly right to give the vote to women, but that was because, if we had not done so, they would never have had an opportunity to vote. The whole point about children and young people is that, even though they do not have the right to vote now, they will have that right later.

Jo Swinson: Will the hon. Gentleman therefore tell us how he would have voted 80 years ago in the vote to extend the franchise to women under the age of 30? According to his rationale, there would have been no need to do that, because when those women reached the age of 30, they would have been allowed to vote anyway.

Mr. Harper: I was not around 80 years ago, and neither was the hon. Lady. Indeed, looking around the Chamber, I cannot see a single Member who would have been around that long ago, thank goodness. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats is not here today; he might be an exception.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue at that time was not just age? Other conditions were attached to women’s votes, including the requirement for them to be married.

Mr. Harper: That is absolutely true. I would have been very relaxed about reducing the voting age to the age of majority; however, in the past the argument was not merely about the voting age but about the age at which people could do a number of other things. It is broadly accepted, although there are discrepancies, which I shall mention later, that people stop being children and become adults at the age of 18, and I think we should stick to that line; otherwise there will be no logical reason for setting the voting age at 16. Once it ceased to be associated with becoming an adult, there would be no logical argument against giving the vote to 14-year-olds, 12-year-olds or 10-year-olds.

I am sure that if we were to reduce the voting age to 16, the age that has been chosen on this occasion, a campaign would be launched by politically aware 14-year-olds, and there would be no logical reason to say no to them. At present, however, it is clear that we connect voting with becoming an adult, and I think that that is how things should stay.

Mr. Greg Knight: Does my hon. Friend accept that a cogent argument for allowing 16-year-olds to vote is that that is the school leaving age? Does he also accept that most 16-year-olds have the mental capacity to vote? The problem lies in the fact that many of them have not been educated at school about our democratic system. It is a problem of education, rather than of the mental incapacity or immaturity of a 16-year-old.

Mr. Harper: That is a good point. One of the arguments advanced by those in favour of this case involves citizenship education. Later in my speech, I shall refer to what the Electoral Commission said about evidence relating to the quality of such education. I shall also give examples
6 Jun 2008 : Column 1053
from countries such as the United States, where civics has been taught for many years and where reducing the voting age to below 18 is not advocated.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West drew attention to early-day motion 801, tabled in an earlier parliamentary Session and supported by 90 Members. As I said earlier, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North did an even better job by securing 111 signatures to her early-day motion. Those 111 Members expressed the belief that this was an important matter and that lowering the voting age could play a huge role in helping young people to feel more connected, and they explicitly supported the Bill, but I see precious few of them here today. According to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), the Youth Parliament rated the issue as fifth out of six in terms of importance. Of the 111 Members who supported the hon. Lady’s early-day motion, very few thought it worth taking the trouble to come to the House today to support the Bill.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: My hon. Friend may have noticed that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) omitted to provide the factual evidence for which I asked in my first intervention. I asked whether any opinion polling of 16 to 18-year-olds had ever produced the finding that voting at 16 was the No. 1 issue of voting-related salience for that cohort, as opposed to other issues that are replicated across the older voting population. I suspect that my hon. Friend will tell me that the answer to that question is no.

Mr. Harper: Certainly I encountered no such evidence when conducting my research for the debate, but I am sure that if there is any out there, the hon. Lady will intervene.

Julie Morgan: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman remembers that in my speech I mentioned research conducted by a young people’s organisation in Wales called Funky Dragon, and the fact that this emerged as the top campaigning issue for members of the age group that we are discussing.

Mr. Harper: How could anyone forget the name of an organisation called Funky Dragon? It is certainly doing a great job in terms of name recognition. I think, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) was asking whether there was any evidence across the United Kingdom. The Bill covers England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I do not think that there is any opinion polling evidence from across the United Kingdom.

Mr. Love: In the course of his researches, did the hon. Gentleman find any evidence that at the time when reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 was under consideration, that was the No. 1 priority in the age group concerned? That is a silly argument. As he said, we must look at the merits of the argument for reducing the voting age to 16.

Mr. Harper: Later in my speech I shall indeed look at the merits of the argument, and I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman then if he wishes to intervene.

6 Jun 2008 : Column 1054

Lynne Jones: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that young people in Wales are atypical, and not representative of young people in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Harper: Representing a border constituency as I do—the Forest of Dean shares a border with the great country of Wales, with which we have some interesting local relationships—I am not sure whether young people in Wales are atypical. I suspect that they are not, but as there has been no opinion polling across the United Kingdom, the question will have to be considered another day.

Mr. Kevan Jones: As the hon. Gentleman and other Members know, nowadays many of our constituents are not shy in coming forward to give us their views on certain subjects. The top issue in my postbag and e-mails this morning was saving the whale, followed by bearskins and clubbing seals to death. How many letters, e-mails or postcards has he received from his constituents on reducing the voting age?

Mr. Harper: I hope that the people who are writing to the hon. Gentleman about clubbing seals are not expressing support for the practice.

I think I have received two letters on this subject from constituents. I represent 67,000 adults, and 80,000 or 90,000 people altogether. That does not suggest that the issue is at the top of anyone’s list of priorities, whether they are under or over 18.

Mr. Jones: I assume that, like me, the hon. Gentleman visits secondary schools in his constituency, and speaks to people in the age group that we are discussing. Have any of them ever raised this issue?

Mr. Harper: I shall mention later what I do in my constituency, but like other Members I visit not just secondary schools but primary schools, as well as youth groups and all manner of organisations involving young people. I do not recall any of them raising this issue. Although young people raise a range of political issues and express views about a number of matters affecting both our country and our planet, this is not the issue with which I am battered by people in any age group, particularly the young.

Harry Cohen: Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that many 16 to 18-year-olds, like the rest of the population, are at various times cynical or disillusioned about politics and politicians. What if there were a close general election in this country, like the last two elections in the United States? Does he not think that 16 to 18-year-olds would be keen to participate in such circumstances, and perhaps to tilt the government of the country? Far from being disillusioned, would they not feel cheated if they were not able to take part?

Next Section Index Home Page