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That indicates that the solution that will engage young people in politics lies not in changing the law, but with us and how we conduct ourselves in our constituencies and elsewhere—listening to young people and taking them seriously, but not necessarily changing the age at which they can vote.

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me down that road just yet, because I want to return to that important issue later.

It is important that we understand what young people are arguing for and want, but they will not all be arguing for the same thing.

Mr. Love: When I go to schools or meet young people, certain themes emerge every time. Concern for third world poverty is very much at the top of their agenda, and they have always cared passionately about the environment. No one is suggesting that they would do other than add to the existing pressures on Government on those issues, but is it not important that they feel that they are making a contribution to a more environmentally friendly future and to dealing with third world poverty? That gives them a voice, involvement and participation, which is vital.

Mr. Jones: May I say yes and no to my hon. Friend? When I was at a secondary school a couple of weeks ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), we spoke to a group of youngsters about developing world issues and about Burma, which had recently been in the news, and they were very passionate and forceful in what they said. I come across such young people all the time who see their role, in arguing and making their presence felt to Government on issues such as climate change, not necessarily in terms of the voting system but of getting involved in campaigning groups and activities, where they think that they can make a bigger contribution. If that then sparks their interest in party politics or in
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getting involved in the political process, that is great. I am sure there are examples on both sides of the House of people who have joined political parties because of the campaigning organisations that they got involved in.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean referred to the Electoral Commission report. I have to say that I do not hold the Electoral Commission in high esteem; I think that it was one of the mistakes that we have made as a Government. The intention was right—to have an independent body to scrutinise elections—but it has lost its focus on what it should be doing. Given that it spends £30 million a year, I am not sure that the taxpayer gets good value for money. In 2003, the commission conducted a review of voting age. The consultation, which took place that summer, was addressed to a whole host of groups, and the questions that it asked were very relevant. For example:

That goes back to the question of voter turnout. It continues:

That tries to determine whether young people are being engaged in the process through citizenship in schools. Then the commission asked:

We should remember that this was prior to the decision to reduce the age to 18. Finally:

There is a legitimate debate to be had. Today’s debate is about whether to reduce the age to 16 and there are some international comparisons. For instance, people can vote aged 15 in Iran, and if we are to carry out a consultation, as the Electoral Commission did, we need to take into account the views of people who argue that the age should be lower than 16. The survey asked whether people would advocate the same minimum age for all levels of elections in the UK. That review engaged the views of not just young people but a whole host of organisations and groups. The commission’s findings were published in April 2004. The Government have now embarked on another consultation, and I shall come to that in a minute, but it is worth looking at the conclusions of the Electoral Commission’s report.

The commission recommended that the minimum age for all levels of voting at public elections in the UK should remain at 18, and adds, as the commission always does, “for the time being”—a bit of a caveat. It went on, as most documents from the commission do, to be vague and woolly without giving precise advice. It qualified further its recommendation, clearly wanting to sit on the fence and not upset individuals, by saying:

That is another thing that the Electoral Commission is very good at—keeping itself employed by ensuring that it conducts further research in a few years’ time. The document continues:

That concerns me because the Electoral Commission is getting involved in something that it should not be getting involved in—the age of majority. It deals with issues concerning elections, not other things, and the Government should sometimes be more forceful with the commission and tell it to keep its nose out of things that it should not be involved with.

The review has been initiated. I am not clear why, and I do not see why the Electoral Commission argued that the process should take place in the next five to seven years—do not ask me why it is five. The only reason it gives as evidence for that is the fact that the teaching of citizenship would somehow change the perception that young people in schools have. That process has been going on for quite a long time. I do not know why it went out of fashion in schools—most used to teach issues of citizenship in general studies, and I first learned about this place in such lessons. The commission’s argument, in stating that the arbitrary five to seven years should be the reason for having a review, is pretty weak.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware of the report that preceded the report he is quoting from, which is the July 2002 Electoral Commission report entitled “Voter engagement and young people”. It found that the underlying reasons for low turnout among young people were complex and multi-faceted, such as disillusionment with parties, lack of interest in politics, feeling that they as individual voters had no impact and not knowing enough about politics. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a mature democracy—although it is anathema to say it in the House—some people, particularly the young, will just not be interested in politics?

Mr. Jones: I hate to say it, but that applies not only to young people but to many others, who have no interest in politics. In this goldfish bowl that we inhabit during the week, we talk, eat and drink politics, but when I go home this weekend and talk to people in my local newsagent’s tomorrow morning, I very much doubt whether they followed my every word on the two occasions that I spoke this week. The hon. Gentleman has touched on a bigger, underlying issue—the need to get not only young people but others re-engaged with the political process. There is no magic bullet for that. People will take part in elections if they feel that they are relevant;
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otherwise they will not. The days when people voted a certain way because mum or dad did have gone—I think that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that earlier. The Labour party was the biggest beneficiary of that change in 1997, when safe Tory seats, which one would never have expected to fall to the Labour party, did so. That is because voting patterns have changed.

Mrs. Laing: Just like in Crewe.

Mr. Jones: No, not like in Crewe. The swing in Crewe was small compared with those from which my party benefited in 1997 and in some by-elections in the run-up to the 1992 election. My party sadly lost that and the Conservative party, perhaps ultimately to its disappointment, won.

What will change in five or seven years? We can continue holding reviews and commissions about the subject but nothing will change—we will still get divided opinions. The idea that we can get 16 and 17-year-olds to speak with one voice and say, “These are the reasons why we want the vote” will not materialise, no matter how many commissions we set up at whatever expense.

Mr. Harper: There is powerful evidence to support the hon. Gentleman’s case. Civics has been a compulsory lesson in the United States for generations and there is no evidence that it increases political literacy and turnout. Many books have been written about that. The US education system takes civics and citizenship rather more seriously than we do, and has done so for years. If there is no evidence there to show that that has an effect, it is unlikely to be effective here.

Mr. Jones: I agree. The United States should be a beacon to us on the matter. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, citizenship lessons begin from the pledge of allegiance to the flag in school in the United States. I do not know whether people were asleep during their civics lessons, but, from my experience, the position is the same in the United States as it is here. There is a huge difference between those who have had a formal education and understand the system and people, for example, in rural parts of the United States, where education is perhaps not as good as it should be. Civics lessons have not led to great turnout, which is poor in presidential elections and even worse in state elections. That also applies to registration.

I support the attempt of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North to bring the matter to a head.

Harry Cohen: The United States has a history of keeping people off the register through fear that they will vote the wrong way. Various Administrations, racists, Republicans and others who have been in charge have kept people off the register. Surely the position is different here. We want people on the register so that they can participate.

Mr. Jones: The position varies. I agree with my hon. Friend that getting on to the electoral register is difficult in some parts of the United States, especially in parts of the rural south. However, even here, it is difficult to get people to register to vote, despite best efforts. If the Conservative Government did one thing to decimate electoral registers, it was introducing the poll tax. People
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simply took themselves off the register. [Interruption.] That might have been dishonest, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) says from a sedentary position, but many people did it to avoid the nonsense of the poll tax. To a large extent, we are still recovering from that.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North because the ultimate decision is not for some commission, based on the notion that if we get enough academics together, we will somehow come up with the Ark of the Covenant or the answer to the problem. At the end of the day, the decision is a political one. The issue certainly needs to be reviewed in every Parliament—I am quite happy for that to happen—but ultimately it will be down to right hon. and hon. Members in this place to make the decision.

Too often these days—I have to say that my Government and my party are a bit too used to this—we think that if we park decisions with independent commissions, they will come up with the right decision that will be easier to make. I am a bit old fashioned, however. I think that politicians should take decisions—sometimes unpopular decisions—and not think that they can hide them behind quangos or people who profess to have great knowledge about a subject. It is clear that some of the people behind the Electoral Commission’s reports and advice have never fought a local election or do not understand local election law.

Reference was made earlier to international comparisons. My hon. Friend mentioned a few examples. Does the situation vary throughout the world? Yes, it does. The country with the lowest voting age is Iran, where it is 15. It would surprise many people to hold Iran up as a wonderful bastion of parliamentary democracy, but people should look at Iranian democracy a little more closely, rather than reading some of the headlines in the newspapers.

Mr. Love: I was going to intervene earlier to say that it was a tautology to mention unpopularity and politicians in the same sentence. On international comparisons, does my hon. Friend agree that the thrust in the past five to 10 years has been towards younger age ranges for voting than previously? In a sense, we are perhaps being left behind by international opinion on this issue.

Mr. Jones: I am sorry, but I do not think that the reason to change the voting age in this country is that some other countries have done so. My hon. Friend should be careful that we do not ape—

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Other aspects of Iran.

Mr. Jones: Indeed, although some of the more forceful aspects of Iranian law enforcement might be quite popular with some of our constituents. We should be careful not to copy those aspects, given the danger that some of our constituents might thoroughly approve of them.

The other example mentioned earlier was the Isle of Man. In February 2006, the Isle of Man was the first part of the British Isles to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. I have never quite understood the legal status of the Isle of Man—I know that many members of the business community understand very well the financial
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advantage that it gives them—but I understand that although it is not officially part of the United Kingdom, it recognises the Queen as the Head of State and its citizens are classed as British. I understand from my research that a month before the general election of November 2006, fewer than half of the 1,800 young people who were eligible to register to vote had done so. Although the Isle of Man became the first country in the EU to reduce its voting age to 16, the measure has not proven popular, in terms of young people rushing to vote.

The other example is the Channel Island of Guernsey, which lowered its voting age from 18 to 16 in 2007. Like the Isle of Man, it is not officially part of the United Kingdom, although its citizens are classed as British. The change added some 2,000 names to the electoral register, and anyone over the age of 16 will be able to vote in the elections later this year for the Senate and the Deputy. It will be interesting to see what proportion of the 16 to 18-year-olds who are eligible to vote will take part in the elections. No doubt the Electoral Commission will have to pay a fact-finding visit to Guernsey to find out what actually happened. One of those examples certainly proves that, even if we did reduce the voting age to 16, there would not be a great clamour among people of that age to vote.

Mr. Love: I take a consistent interest in electoral registration because at least 10 per cent. of my constituents are not registered to vote, for a whole variety of very complex reasons. As my hon. Friend will know, in this country—and, I assume, in the Isle of Man and Guernsey—it is the head of household who fills in the electoral registration form. The fact that young people are not registering could have more to do with the internal dynamics of family life in these communities, or with the heads of household, either through ignorance or unwillingness, not putting their 16 to 18-year-old children on a voting form, than with the young people themselves not wanting to register.

Mr. Jones: That is possibly so. Like my hon. Friend, I keep a close eye on electoral registration in my constituency.

The people who are arguing for a reduction of the voting age to 16 suggest that it could rejuvenate democracy, but the evidence shows that turnout would actually go down, because such a move would increase the electorate in most constituencies.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point, on which the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) rightly intervened. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his Government have said, through various Ministers in the Chamber, that they are in favour of the system of individual voter registration that the Conservatives have proposed? That would get around the problem of one person filling in the electoral registration form for the whole household, which the hon. Member for Edmonton rightly pointed out. However, although Ministers have said that they are in favour of that system, the Government have done nothing to bring it into force.

Mr. Jones: I should like to point out to the hon. Lady that I am not in favour of individual voter registration, and I will tell her why. If we wanted to drive down the
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electoral rolls, that would be the way to do it. Instead, we should be looking at best practice. Electoral registration is a local responsibility, and it varies from place to place. Let us be honest: the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton is very different from mine in terms of population mobility, which makes it difficult to keep the register up to date.

Stephen Pound: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He has shown his characteristic generosity in so doing, which I hope he will not regret. The Government have in fact introduced individual voter registration, and it has been in operation for several years in one part of the United Kingdom. Would it not be sensible for us to study the experience of Northern Ireland, to see how the system has worked there? It seems to have cured the problem of personation, although it has had no impact whatever on increasing the number of people voting.

Mr. Jones: Perhaps the reason personation in Northern Ireland is not the issue that it used to be has less to do with individual registration than with the change in politics and the peace process. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) was here earlier, and he has told stories of people in the 1970s and 1980s changing their clothes in order to go into the polling station to vote several times. He described it as “binge voting”.

I think that individual registration would act as a disincentive, and that we should consider best practice. I also think that we should devote the necessary resources to registration, which we do not at present. I know from talking to London colleagues that in constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, the churn and turnover of the population is horrendous in comparison with what happens in more stable communities such as mine.

Mr. Love: I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way.

The fall in the number of people registered in Northern Ireland as a result of individual registration cannot be explained by personation. In fact, many people who could and should have been on the register were not registered because of the hurdles placed in their way.

Mr. Jones: I defer to my hon. Friend’s detailed knowledge.

We should also consider the effect that reducing the voting age would have on parliamentary constituencies, and the possibility that a major boundary review would be necessary for demographic reasons. Some constituencies contain many more young people than others; mine, sadly, contains an ageing population.

It is being argued that reducing the voting age would be a way of engaging young people in the electoral process. I have seen no compelling evidence to suggest that that is so. There is, however, a broader issue, which has been raised by both the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson): the engagement in the political process of people in general—not just young people, but older ones.


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