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Mr. Harper: I certainly think that the next general election will be very competitive and interesting, and will stir people on all sides of the argument to take part. The turnout in this year’s mayoral election was significantly higher than last time—it was, of course, won by my former hon. Friend the Member for Henley, Boris Johnson—and the turnout in the local elections was reasonably promising. I think that that bodes quite well. As for young people being cynical and disillusioned,
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that is not my experience. I find that young people are very hopeful about the future and keen to convey their points of view, and that they campaign in a range of ways. What they require from us is that we listen to them. I shall expand a little later on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made about our listening to young people and about that point not necessarily being connected with their having the vote specifically at this time.

Mr. Evans: I think that some young people do get disillusioned by politicians, but we give them good reason with some of our antics, such as promising people a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and then withdrawing that promise and pretending that the treaty is something different. People are rightly cynical about some of our antics.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) spoke about people who would be interested in politics being cheated. Let us consider the example of somebody who happens to be 17 years, 11 months and three weeks old—almost 18—at the time of a general election. Such a person has clearly failed to reach the relevant age, but they will feel cheated because with another four days they would have been able to vote. The reality is that we need to have a cut-off time. If we used 16 as that point, someone who was one day short of being 16 would rightly feel cheated too. We need a line or a barrier at some stage, and some people will fall past it and others will fall the other way.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point; indeed, I drew attention to it earlier when I said that once we separate the voting age from the age at which someone becomes an adult, there is no logical place to stop the process.

I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North said in her excellent speech that changing the voting age would not get rid of the lottery of birthdays, or the birthday lottery, and that is exactly the case. Wherever we set the line, someone will always fall the other side of it and remain disappointed that they were not able to take part in the general election. I do not think that there is any way around that, and I do not think that this argument is taking us any further forward.

Mr. Greg Knight: I hesitate to say what I am about to say, because I have great respect for my hon. Friend, but would he not accept, on reflection, that the argument he was making before that last intervention about the lack of perceived demand among 16-year-olds was a fairly weak one? Are we here just to follow public opinion, or are we here to give leadership and to make a change where we think it should be made?

Mr. Harper: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I am arguing against this change because I do not think it is the right one to make. It is useful to be aware of what the general public think and what 16 to 18-year-olds think to ensure that we are building that into our thought processes, but we should be arguing this on the merits of the case. Even if the majority of 16 to 18-year-olds or indeed the majority of people in the country thought
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that the proposal was the right change to make and I felt it was the wrong one, it would be my job to stand up and argue, both in this House and outside, that I felt it was wrong and to try, by the power of argument, to persuade those people to change their minds.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Given that the hon. Gentleman is against this proposal, what is the nub of his belief that young people should not have the vote? What it is about 16 and 17-year-olds that he thinks makes them incapable or not worthy of having the vote?

Mr. Harper: The hon. Lady tries to put words into my mouth, and I am not going to allow them to remain there. Her making that comment gives me a good opportunity to dwell for a moment on the language. As I have mentioned once or twice, when we talk about those who are younger than 18 we are actually talking about children; we are not talking about young people. Everyone has been in favour of that approach, apart from one occasion. I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North used the words “young people”. We are actually talking about the difference between being a child and being an adult. Clearly there is a gradation in people’s experience, maturity and ability to make decisions, but the law must set a point. There has to be a point at which we decide that people who are able to take certain decisions will not take those decisions. The law in this country broadly says that someone becomes an adult when they are 18, and with that comes a range of responsibilities. Other age limits are set for things, and I shall go through them later in remarks—if I am ever allowed to get there.

By saying that someone becomes an adult at 18 and someone below that age is a child, we are not, in any sense, disparaging children; we are simply saying that a line has to be drawn. Let us follow the hon. Lady’s argument to its logical conclusion. If we were to move the line for voting to 16, would we not implicitly be saying that there was something not worthy or not appropriate about 14 and 15-year-olds voting? There would be no logical reason not just to drop the voting age all the way down to zero. The fact is that there must be a line somewhere, and wherever it is drawn there will be people on the wrong side of it who have the maturity to take such a decision. The right place for that line to stay is at 18.

Lynne Featherstone: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that despite the age of majority being 18, a range of things are permitted and possible at 16? All hon. Members have rehearsed the arguments about marriage, sexuality, taxation and so on, so it is specious to say that 18 is finite and that below that age young people are not capable of a certain range of things. Those that are harmful we have a responsibility to prohibit for longer, but those that are non-harmful, such as voting, should be allowed.

Mr. Harper: That intervention raises two points. Voting, in itself, is a good thing for people to do, but the consequences of the choices that they make could be good or bad. The whole point about setting a voting age is that we want people to be sufficiently confident to take those decisions, so that they are fully aware of the consequences. Voting the wrong way—voting in a way
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that leads to a bad outcome—could be worrying; someone could vote for a Government who made some very bad decisions, as I would argue is the case with this Government. Voting in itself is a good thing, but its consequences can be very bad. That is why we must ensure that people who vote are of an age at which they are exercise that decision.

Lynne Featherstone: Is the hon. Gentleman therefore saying that young people should not be given the vote in case they make a wrong decision? What, in his view, is a wrong decision?

Mr. Harper: I was simply saying that one must draw a line somewhere, and that does not mean that one is, in any sense, making a negative comment about people who are younger. The hon. Lady made the point that there are a number of age limits for a range of activities in our law, and I shall discuss some of them later. The argument is not a strong one, because we allow people to do some things at much younger ages; indeed, the age of criminal responsibility—the age at which we say people are able to be held criminally responsible for their actions—is 10. If we were to follow her logic, we might reduce the voting age to 10, and not many people in the country would think that a wise idea, although she might.

Lynne Featherstone: Is that not simply an argument to say that each thing should be argued on its own merits and that it is horses for courses, and that when we are talking about voting, that is the only thing that we should be discussing in relation to the age of 16?

Mr. Harper: That argument might hold water if it were not for the fact that part of the main argument of those proposing this change—the hon. Members for Cardiff, North and for Bristol, West—is that one can join the Army, get married or do a bunch of other things at 16. One of the core arguments of their case is that one can do a load of other things at 16, so one should be allowed to vote too. I think that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) shoots down not only her case, but the case of some of her hon. Friends in the arguments that she just made.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: My hon. Friend needs to exercise a degree of scepticism about the comments made from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I believe that it is still Liberal Democrat policy to allow 16-year-olds to have unfettered access to pornography. They might want to intervene to discuss that. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that from time to time the House has to make a value judgment—a sanction—about what it is appropriate to allow young people and children to access. We make the value judgments on things such as video certification, access to credit and the purchase of alcohol, and they are enshrined in law. I cannot see why we should suspend that template when we consider making a value judgment on allowing people to exercise their democratic franchise in an election.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point, to which I shall return later. I shall deal now with one thing that he said. He has rightly made the point—I think that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green will correct me if I am wrong—that reducing the voting age to 16 is Liberal Democrat party policy.


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Stephen Williams indicated assent.

Mr. Harper: I am getting some nods, which suggests that I am right. I am therefore astounded that only four Liberal Democrats are in their places—there were not many more in the Lobby earlier—given that we are discussing a Bill that is official Liberal Democrat party policy. Clearly, even they are not very committed to this policy; otherwise the whole party, such as it is, before the next general election, would have been here to support it.

Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues challenged the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) strongly on some of her evidence, including the opinion poll backing for her arguments. What is his evidence for the claim that 16 and 17-year-olds are likely to vote the “wrong way”?

Mr. Harper: As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), the opinion poll arguments are not conclusive. I will address later in my remarks some of the work that the Electoral Commission has done and the polling evidence from other organisations. If he is not content with those arguments, I will be happy to give way again.

Mr. Love: One of the least convincing arguments for the importance or validity of a Bill is how many people turn up on a Friday to discuss it, and I think that Members on both sides of the House should avoid it.

There are two aspects to this argument and I would question the hon. Gentleman on both. The first is the need to convince those over 18 who already have the vote that it is sensible to extend it to younger people. The second is the changes that have happened to young people. Society has changed, and that has perhaps affected 16 and 17-year-olds more than any other group in society. A reflection of that is the increasing responsibilities, several of which have already been mentioned, that we give them. Does he accept that although we may not have convinced those who already have the vote, societal change suggests that people now take responsibility at a younger age?

Mr. Harper: I am not sure that I agree. Hon. Members who engage in argument with young people in schools, as I do, would agree that many of them take an interest in the world around them, and tools such as the internet help them to find out easily what is happening. However, it is not so long ago that most young people left school at 16 or, going further back, 15. Now young people stay on in education and do not have the responsibility of going out and getting a job, or running their own household. Indeed, the age at which young people leave home is rising, not falling, so I do not agree that the age at which they take responsibility for themselves is moving in the direction that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Love: I submit that the reason young people are urged to stay on in education is not related to their ability to be responsible or their maturity, but to their needs as individuals and society’s need for a better educated work force. I do not buy the hon. Gentleman’s other argument. The nub of the argument is whether society is placing greater responsibilities on young people because of their earlier maturity and whether that should be extended to the voting age.


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Mr. Harper: There is much concern at the moment that society is actually placing far too much responsibility on young people and forcing them to grow up at an earlier age. Compressing the length of childhood is not necessarily a good idea for children or for society.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that legislation frequently does not reduce the age at which people can do things, but increases it? Two examples are cigarettes and air rifles.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman is spot on. This House, and specifically the party to which the hon. Member for Cardiff, North belongs, has been increasing the age at which young people are able to take decisions, not reducing it. This Bill suggests that we should move in the opposite direction to the trend of much other Government legislation and policy.

Mr. Chope: Has my hon. Friend done any analysis of the link between the supporters of the Bill and hon. Members who argue that we should raise from 17 to 18 the age at which young people may drive?

Mr. Harper: That is an interesting point. That increase would be very damaging in my constituency, because many young people there depend on being able to drive to get about, because public transport is so poor. I have not carried out an exhaustive analysis in that area, but if my hon. Friend casts a brief eye over those who signed the early-day motion and those who voted on the ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bristol, West, he will probably find that some are acting inconsistently.

Mark Durkan: I do not believe that there is any inconsistency in voting to increase the age at which people may drive, which is a public safety issue, or to restrict access to cigarettes, alcohol or firearms. All those things are dangerous. The ballot paper is not. How can Members of Parliament talk about the ballot paper as though it is somehow toxic and people could be a danger to themselves or others by engaging in the most fundamental act of democratic citizenship?

Mr. Harper: That is not a very powerful argument. If we are to say to young people that we do not think that they are sufficiently responsible or competent to take a decision about driving a motor car, using a firearm, consuming alcohol or buying cigarettes, it would be extraordinary to say at the same time that we think that they are mature enough to make a decision about the future of our country and about people who might deploy our armed forces. We know how the Liberal Democrats feel about the decisions made by the Government about committing our armed forces. Those are important and serious decisions, and I cannot see how it would be wise to say that a young person under 18 could not consume alcohol but could vote for a Government who could authorise the use of force in an armed conflict. That is completely inconsistent.

Mark Durkan: When it comes to voting, a young person has a fixed, limited number of choices. There is no question of binge voting. It is a simple act, and it is not like the other behaviours that people are worried
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about. Young people cannot vote to excess or put themselves or others at risk by doing it. Voting is a very controlled act.

Mr. Harper: The argument comes down to the choices that people make. Young people are capable of deciding to consume alcohol sensibly, but far too many make a poor job of that choice and consume it to excess. That is why the law says that they cannot purchase alcohol until they are 18. I do not follow the hon. Gentleman’s logic.

Alistair Burt: Does my hon. Friend agree that while the dangers of a vote may not be immediately apparent, they are real? One of the reasons the Labour party reneged on its pledge to offer a referendum on the Lisbon treaty was its fear of the result of that vote. Votes can be dangerous in some cases; otherwise the Government might have honoured the pledge that they made to the British people and allowed that vote.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is indeed the case that Government Members, or at least those of them who take the decisions, clearly feared the outcome of such a vote; otherwise they would have allowed the British people to have the vote that they promised at the last general election. My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am not sure what experience my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has in binge voting at elections, but does the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) agree that, if we were to reduce the voting age to 16 and increase the number of things that people could do at 16—he refers to driving—a lot of disenchanted 16-year-olds would be voting?

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Indeed, Members who support the measure might be making a rod for their own back. If they lowered the voting age, they might find that an enormous number of young people came to batter down their doors to suggest that the age limits for many other things should be lowered. That may be an interesting consequence, which they may not have properly thought through.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the logical conclusion of the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) that civic duty means that people wish to take part in the system is that we should introduce a private Member’s Bill to extend the age at which people can serve on juries. The accumulated wisdom, knowledge and experience of those people is disregarded after the age of 70. Those people wish to exercise that civic duty, but they cannot do so. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, at some stage, we must take an arbitrary decision—a value judgment—on the suitability of those of certain ages to participate in civic duties. In this case, the hon. Lady is disregarding that factor.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about age limits at the other end of the spectrum—he has highlighted an example—where we prohibit older citizens from doing things, when perhaps they are of the age and have the experience to do them.


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