Previous Section Index Home Page

6 Jun 2008 : Column 1061

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I do not want to interrupt the flow of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but does he agree that the very nature of our representative democracy lies at the heart of the debate. I wonder whether those hon. Members who talk about the Lisbon treaty and a referendum in a rather blithe and loose way would agree that it is at least an important matter of principle that the referendum mechanism is used extremely sparingly. We have a system of representative democracy in this country, so we should use the referendum mechanism sparingly, and the precise times when it should be applied are very important. Perhaps instead of making such references lightly, I wonder whether he would agree that he should be much more precise about how the decision on the referendum on the Lisbon treaty was actually taken.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman gets tempted down that route, I would discourage him very strongly from discussing the pros and cons of referendums at any length.

Mr. Harper rose—

Mr. Harper: I am very grateful for your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I notice that you said, “at any length”, so may I deal with that point briefly? The Minister would be right, except of course for the fact that the Government promised such a referendum in our parliamentary democracy. Of course, if they had not promised one, it would have been perfectly in order for the House to have taken the decision. However, following your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will move on.

Lynne Jones: On the point about at which age people can start to do new things, one of the reasons I support the Bill is that 16 to 18-year-olds are naturally interested in trying out new things. Once they do, they often get into the habit of engaging in those things. Voting is a very commendable habit to get into, whereas perhaps smoking and drinking to excess are not such commendable habits.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Lady will not tempt me down the path of discussing which activities young people get up to they then develop a habit for, which they do not and which are preferable and which are not. I will try to stick more closely to my arguments.

Lynne Featherstone: At the other end of the scale, the hon. Gentleman referred to which civic duties older citizens can and cannot do. I do not believe that we take away the vote from those who exceed 60 years.

Mr. Harper: No. Quite right; we do not and we should not, but my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough referred to at least one civic duty—serving on juries—that we take away from people who have accumulated a lifetime’s experience. I do not want to get drawn into too much detail about that end of the age spectrum, but such examples make the point that the House and Parliament in general make laws about age cut-offs, which are always unfortunate for those who fall on the wrong side of them. That said, we need cut-offs at some point.

Moving on briefly, so that I can at least turn one more page of my speech, when I spoke against the
6 Jun 2008 : Column 1062
ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bristol, West—to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North about the younger people’s views—I drew attention to the fact that, at Speech house in my constituency, which is the home of debate in Forest of Dean, we had a debate in 2005, during democracy week, when a number of local sixth-formers met in the Verderer’s court, which is an historic home of debate in the forest. The Royal Forest of Dean college, Wyedean school and Newent community schools sent students to debate exactly this issue. It was interesting that, when they took a vote afterwards, even in an audience made up entirely of 16 to 18-year-olds there was a 50:50 split. So even among the target age group, there is not a clear view that they want such a change. Indeed, powerful arguments were advanced by those students to explain that they did not want that change for some of the reasons that have been adduced so far this morning and for those that I am sure will be referred to later. It is interesting that even those who would benefit from the proposal do not think it right that the voting age should be changed.

Mark Durkan: Does the hon. Gentleman not take from the evidence that he has presented some reassurance that the risk of young people voting the wrong way is nothing like he suggested earlier?

Mr. Harper: That may or may not be the point, but it is not really the crux of my argument, which is that voting should be tied to becoming an adult. That age should be set at 18. As soon as that link is shifted and broken, there is no logical age on which to settle. The age of 16 would then just be a staging post. Certainly, the opinion polling evidence that I will quote later shows that most people in this country think that the voting age should stay at 18.

To conclude the first part of my remarks about the debate on the ten-minute Bill, it is worth reminding the House of the decision that Parliament took when that matter was pressed to a Division by the late Eric Forth and me. The House divided Ayes 128, and Noes 136. The House therefore made a decision, albeit not an overwhelming one, but it was a decision reached when rather more Members were present than are today, to make it clear that it did not want to make the change.

Just as an aside, I was grateful on that occasion that my friend the late Eric Forth—he and I were both Tellers—gave me the opportunity at a relatively early stage in my career to be a Conservative Teller who got to read out the winning result in a vote, which is something that, sadly, many Opposition Members have not had the opportunity to do since 1997. Perhaps we may be a little closer to having the opportunity to do so somewhat more frequently in the future.

I was confirmed in the rightness of my decision by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy)—I beg forgiveness from any Scot if I pronounced that constituency slightly incorrectly—who was the then leader of the Liberal Democrats and was sitting in the position now occupied by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman. As I walked past to deliver the vote, I heard him say from a sedentary position that the dark forces of conservatism had struck again. At that moment, I knew that I had done exactly the right thing.

6 Jun 2008 : Column 1063

As I have outlined what happened the last time that the House discussed this matter, it is probably worth just going through, to the extent that we have not done so already in the nature of that exchange, some of the arguments that are adduced by those who want to support the Bill and to reduce the age for voting and then summarise some of the arguments that have not yet been mentioned by those who are against doing so. The early-day motion—I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North mentioned it—cited that the most prominent argument for giving the right to vote to 16-year-olds is

That was one of the 20 proposals that the Liberal Democrats included in the paper, “Real Democracy in Britain”, which they published in July last year, allegedly to strengthen Britain’s democracy by reducing the voting age. Most of the arguments made in support of that point have been covered briefly this morning; they are about being able to join the armed forces, get married, legally have sex, leave education and pay tax. It was argued that because 16-year-olds could do all those things legally, they were capable of making rational, responsible choices and should therefore be able to vote. A little later, I will consider some of those arguments in detail and demonstrate why those rights, which people gain at 16, are qualified, and why the case is not as the proponents have argued.

Harry Cohen: The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he thinks that people under 18 are children; he has called them that on a couple of occasions in his speech. Does he think that no one should have sex until the age of 18?

Mr. Harper: We are being very picky. Let me bring in the UN convention on the rights of the child, which was proposed and drafted by UNICEF and has been ratified by the United Kingdom. It says that

UNICEF says:

that is the word used—

When I was talking about language earlier with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, the Liberal Democrat Front Bencher, I said that it is not pejorative to call someone a child, not an adult. We call people below the age of 18 children and give them a different legal status until they become an adult. It is not a pejorative term; it is simply a matter of fact.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the definition to which he referred is also used by those who argue that people should not be allowed to join the armed forces before they are 18, such as the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Harper: Yes, absolutely. Later I shall draw attention to the fact that when under-18s join the armed forces, not only is their decision to join qualified, but—the hon. Gentleman will know this well, as he served on the
6 Jun 2008 : Column 1064
Committee considering the Armed Forces Act 2006—there is a comprehensive set of guidance for military commanders on the special duty of care that they owe to soldiers, and members of the other armed forces, under 18 who are under their command.

Mark Durkan: Are they therefore child soldiers?

Mr. Harper: We have made it very clear that in our system, although under-18s can join the armed forces, we will not deploy them in armed conflict until they are 18. We have drawn that distinction, and I think that the Government got that policy right; I support it. As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said, it is seems extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats think that a 16-year-old should not be able to join the armed forces, but should be able to vote for people who can authorise the use of armed force around the world. That seems incredibly inconsistent. If one is to allow people to vote—to make the decision to use armed force—surely one should let them join the armed forces. Liberal Democrat policy on that is hopelessly inconsistent.

Mr. Love: On the hon. Gentleman’s last remark, young people can take the decision to join the armed forces at 16. Young people who do so today will be aware, at the age of 16, that they may be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq as a consequence of that decision taken at the age of 16, although their going may be delayed until they are 18. I want to come back to the issue of the UN convention that he quoted. Of course, that was written in 1989, and I am the first to accept that the consensus at the time is reflected in that convention, but we have moved on. I come back to the nub of the argument, which I hope that he will address: we must look at those things that only happen at the age of 18 and over, and those that happen at the age of 16. I submit to him that more responsibility is being placed on young people at the age of 16. If that is the way in which society is moving, we have to recognise it, regardless of whether he wishes society to move in that direction or not. The consequence of that is the Bill.

Mr. Harper: We covered that point earlier. I and other Members gave some examples of ways in which the House is moving in the opposite direction. The hon. Gentleman says that under-18s are being given more responsibility, but I would be grateful if he intervened on me to give examples of what he means. Perhaps he might do so in his speech, if he is lucky enough to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman has quoted the UN convention, which says that everyone under 18 is a child. He is aware that some people use that argument to suggest that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 18. In the debate on whether to have a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, many people have made that point. I do not believe that that age should be raised to 18, and I do not think that he does, either, so why is he relying, in such absolute terms, on that argument?

Mr. Harper: I am not; I was simply using the UN convention to demonstrate that when I refer to people under 18 as children, I am not in any sense using a pejorative term. I am simply citing a matter of fact. I was told by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead that by calling them children I was in some way being derogatory, and that is just not the case.

6 Jun 2008 : Column 1065

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour Members are obscuring the fact—not deliberately, I am sure—that the age of consent is not the age of adulthood? There is an interregnum between the age below which society must provide some protection, particularly from sexual exploitation—it has to set an arbitrary age for that, which is 16—and adulthood. In a sense, there is an opaque area between 16 and 18—between the age below which the law protects children, and full adulthood, with its citizenship obligations.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I look forward to his elaborating on that point later, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Another argument has been made by those who support the Bill, which the hon. Member for Cardiff, North dwelt on at some length in her opening speech. She suggested that if we did not give young people, meaning 16 and 17-year-olds, the vote, it meant that we could not engage with them. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire dealt with that argument very well. I am sure that I am typical of Members of Parliament, in that I visit primary and secondary schools in my constituency, and a number of youth projects and other organisations that work with children and young people. I am sure that all Members of the House do that in the course of their work. I started off in this job in 2005; I was well aware that it was likely that those aged 13 and upwards would, at the next general election, whenever that comes—the sooner the better, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire said—vote on whether they wished me to remain their Member of Parliament.

I think that most Members of Parliament take seriously the requirement that we should visit even those who are much younger, and who are at primary school. We should discuss issues not just with the staff, but with the children. If hon. Members present have ever been grilled and put through the wringer by a school council, even of 10-year-olds, they will know that the council members are good at marshalling their facts and can hold a good debate, but I do not think that they should get the vote—and neither do they. However, if we separate the right to vote from the age of adulthood, we have no logical reason not to give them the vote.

Alistair Burt: I am glad that my hon. Friend has touched on that point. Does he think that there is a danger that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and others might have been overly influenced in their youth by Mr. Eddie Cochran? In his great song, “Summertime Blues”, there is a good line in which a Congressman says,

That is not a view that would be endorsed by any Member present; we take people extremely seriously at the youngest age, because we know where they are heading, and we know that they have decent views. Perhaps that song has lingered slightly too long in the hon. Lady’s mind, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) could set her mind at rest by telling her that we do not take such an attitude.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have to confess that I am perhaps too young to remember that song, but I will not dwell on that point. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: many of us in this
6 Jun 2008 : Column 1066
House take very seriously our responsibility as Members of Parliament to engage with young people, and with people of all ages, and to encourage civic responsibility and participation in elections. We also try to conduct ourselves in ways that encourage turnout and participation rather than the opposite. The suggestion that we should not do so because the population is divided into groups of those who can and cannot vote is not one that I would follow. I am sure that most members of the House would not either.

If we followed that argument through, it would mean that we would never listen to constituents who came from groups that were less likely to vote. For example, it would mean that we paid no attention to the views of Jehovah’s Witnesses because we know that they will not ever vote in an election. If I have a constituent who I know will not vote in an election, I will still do my damnedest to help them in whatever casework they bring to me and with whatever problem they have. I will take their views very seriously, even though I know that they will not be voting at the next election. The argument is specious.

Mr. Evans: To extend it further, that argument would mean that Members of Parliament would not take any notice of any members of the public who were going to vote against them. That is clearly not the case. We know that thousands of people, unbelievably, vote against us at each general election, but once we are MPs we are committed to represent them all equally, whether they voted for us or not, and whether or not they are under the voting age.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point. When we are making decisions about legislation, we do not consider only the effect that those laws will have today. It is oft mentioned in this House that Members are making decisions and thinking about future generations when they enact legislation. That shows that MPs from all parties think about those who do not yet have the opportunity to vote when they make decisions.

In the few minutes before I finish my argument, it might be worth reading into the record the views of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair—I do not know how much they will weigh on Labour Members. We know how much they must wish that they had him back. He made it quite clear that he did not support a reduction in the voting age. He was challenged by the then Liberal Democrat Member for Ludlow, Matthew Green, who raised the same specious arguments. He said:

although there are qualifications—

The then Prime Minister replied:

I hope that that will be a persuasive argument for those Labour Members who think that Tony Blair was a good judge of things, although I do not necessarily share that view.

We have covered most of the issues fairly well.

Next Section Index Home Page