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6 Jun 2008 : Column 1080

I think most Members, especially women, would agree that older women would crawl over hot coals to cast their votes, because they recognise that women had to fight for the vote. Indeed, older people of both sexes work hard to ensure that they cast their votes, and feel robbed if they cannot go out to do so. Many younger people, however—not just the 18 to 25-year-olds who were mentioned earlier, but those in their mid-30s—are not voting at all.

I am not making a party political point. I think that part of the challenge for us all as parliamentarians, and also for democracy as a whole, is to make politics relevant. It is not just a case of convincing people that they can change things and make things happen; we must also resist, and keep resisting, the tendency to push decisions away from the democratically elected sphere of influence, whether it involves this place or local councils.

It is important for people to be able to cast their votes, and in doing so to ensure that their local councillors, or we in the House of Commons, can have a direct say in decisions. That is why I have always opposed the nonsense that our Government introduced—the Conservatives never fell for it—of an independent Appointments Commission to put people forward for membership of boards of hospitals and other trusts. Young people who want to know how their health service is delivered locally cannot find out who is making the key decisions, and ultimately those decisions cannot be changed. Such developments have led to the cynicism that we see not only among members of the older generation, but among young people.

I respect everyone who stands for election, whether for a parish council, a town council, a county council, a district council, this place or the European Parliament, because they have had the guts to stand before their peers and say “Vote for me”. I have no problem with people standing as independents, because they have had the guts to do so. That is very much different from what we have now: the quangocracy that the previous Government started and we continued, whereby those representing local people make huge decisions on their lives without any connection to, or in many cases involvement with, their day-to-day lives. Local people cannot change those decisions, and all parties need to recognise that fundamental issue. We need to ensure that local people can not only affect decisions, but if they are ultimately unhappy with those decisions, vote people out of office, as can happen here. That should be possible on a range of issues, and we need to examine that matter.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I am warming to the hon. Gentleman’s theme, and I generally agree with what he is saying, because if power and the capacity to make changes in political policy are moved to the lowest possible level, that engages and enthuses people. I take it from his comments that he will be supporting the Conservative policy, which is likely to be put forward at a general election, to have elected police commissioners who are also responsible for local prosecutions. Again, that is designed to build up people’s faith in the criminal justice system, which is at a low level, and engage people in that particular area of government.

Mr. Jones: The answer is no, I will not be. On police authorities, the rot set in under the previous Conservative Government, who took away the local authority’s right
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to have a majority on police authority boards. If we really want democratic control, we need to use local councils or directly elected police boards, not individuals. Let us be honest, if we use individuals, it is likely that some strange individuals will stand. They may be popular on one issue, but they might not really engage with the community or understand what is going on.

The other issue needs to be addressed by Parliament. We have made some movement on engaging young people in the political process. May I pay tribute to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which has been good at producing not only some very good literature, but the new website? I ask people who have not visited the site to do so, because it is a good tool that is being used by many young people in schools in my constituency. Let us be honest and say that this place is a strange institution—

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Especially on a Friday.

Mr. Jones: It is pleasing to see another Liberal Democrat here to support this key manifesto promise of theirs; there are now five of them in Chamber to support this policy.

David Howarth: There might be more.

Mr. Jones: No doubt, the Liberal Democrats will rush in at the end to try to vote for this legislation. Perhaps they are all coming back from Henley or other parts of the country on a Friday to ensure that this key election promise is put through.

I return to the issue of engaging young people. The DCSF is doing a fantastic job, and it needs support. The new website is important, and not only in explaining Parliament; the virtual tour that people can do is interesting. The recent movement—it has had the gestation period of an African elephant, but it is finally getting there—to have a purpose-built education centre in this building is a great step forward. I am passionate about ensuring that we explain to young people not only what we do on a party political basis, but what democracy is and how this place works.

The hon. Member for Peterborough mentioned the cynicism that exists, and trying to explain the important work that this place does should be one of our top priorities. That work will then relate back to some of those single issue campaigns and other things in which we know that young people in our constituencies are very interested. That new education centre will be a focal point for that work and for bringing young people into this building, so that they can understand what is going on.

I would go a step further and expand our outreach work. There are outreach workers who go around the constituencies, and that is important, but young people need to be able to afford to visit this place. I hope that the House will seriously consider subsidising youth groups and schools that wish to visit, as the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament do. My constituency is in Durham, and a visit here is an expensive proposition, but it is important in explaining to young people not only the relevance of voting, but how their lives are affected by what happens in this place.

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Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman serves on the Administration Committee, and I had the privilege of doing so for a time. I know that it has discussed subsidies for visits to give young people—especially those from constituencies that are some distance from London, as ours are—a chance to see the House in action and learn about it. If the Committee can put some proposals before the House, it would be a great step forward in equalising the ability of all young people in this country to see what we do here.

Mr. Jones: Those proposals will be put before the House, and I hope that they will receive support from both sides. When the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Committee, he supported the proposals and I hope that they will come to fruition soon.

If we make this place relevant and enable people to engage in the process, does that mean that we should reduce the voting age to 16? I have a genuinely open mind on this issue, but I am not convinced— [ Interruption. ] Well, the Liberal Democrats sometimes do not help when it comes to the cynicism in British politics, especially with some of their cheap jibes at the expense of hard-working local councillors of all persuasions. The Liberal Democrats are the wrong people to lecture anyone about engaging in positive democracy or campaigning locally. I am unconvinced that we should reduce the voting age, but it is an issue that should be discussed at least once every Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North has given us that opportunity, and we should thank her for that. However, we should not have endless reviews of the issue.

I would be interested to know what the next review will cost. When we receive the conclusions of the review, what will happen then? Legislation would have to be introduced, but as I have stressed to the Prime Minister the Government should concentrate, in the current climate, on issues that are of direct benefit to our communities, economically and socially, instead of on something that exercises only the minds of a few constitutionalists. We should not waste legislative time on changing the voting age—House of Lords reform is another example—when we could be legislating on issues that would directly benefit the many constituents who are having a tough time economically at the moment.

In conclusion— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) sighs: I can go on, if she would like me to do so— [ Interruption. ] Well, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) has not been here for most of this debate, so he should not start sniping from a sedentary position. If he had been in his place for the entire debate, I would have more respect for him. He should remain silent if he cannot be bothered to turn up for the whole debate, even though, as we were reminded earlier, this matter is a top priority for the Liberal Democrats.

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this Bill and ensuring that this issue is debated today. On this occasion, I cannot support it, but I would be happy for the debate to continue. We should all continue to consider how we can keep people engaged in the political process.

12.39 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I begin by apologising to the House, to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan)
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and to the Minister for the fact that I will be unable to stay until the very end of the debate—a fact about which I am very disappointed, because this has been a fascinating debate. I look forward to reading in Hansard what is said after I have gone—at least, I think that I look forward to reading most of it—especially the Minister’s remarks.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has just said. He has put some very good arguments, many of which disagree with those of the hon. Member for Cardiff, North, whom I warmly congratulate on bringing the debate to the House. I agree with both the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman that this matter ought to be discussed—I do not know quite how frequently—and it is a pity in some ways that it is being debated on a Friday, when many Members have business elsewhere, including in their constituencies. I hope that we will perhaps have an opportunity to revisit the issue when more Members are able to be here. Nevertheless, this is a good opportunity for a debate, and I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady that it is necessary that we should try, as democrats, to engage young people in the political process. It is absolutely vital that we do more to encourage young people to become involved in the political process, but I do not agree that the way to do so is by reducing the voting age.

Young people are interested in politics. They show a great deal of responsibility, interest and involvement in the political and democratic process. I can understand why Labour Members might be concerned about the involvement of the youngest of our adult population in our political process, but I can assure the hon. Lady that Conservative Future—

Stephen Williams: Is there one?

Mrs. Laing: There most certainly is a Conservative future, but we will come to that at another point.

Conservative Future, for those who are not aware of it, is the name of the youth wing of the Conservative party, and I am happy to tell the House that it is the fastest-growing youth movement in Europe at present. Labour Members might be bothered that young people are not engaging in new Labour politics, but they are engaging in Conservative politics.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will the Conservative party’s leadership possibly close that organisation, as it did with the Federation of Conservative Students, when it took views that, frankly, were not only embarrassing to the party but diametrically opposed to those of Front Benchers?

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman is historically correct, but Conservative Future is a very different sort of organisation from the Federation of Conservative Students. I remember that one of my first political acts as a student, having joined the federation in my first year at university, was that I resigned from the federation because I totally disagreed with its incredibly right-wing stance. I was very glad that the leadership of my party followed my lead later on.

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Mr. Evans: I was also a member of the Federation of Conservative Students, which was closed down. My hon. Friend makes the point that, when Norman Tebbit closes an organisation because it is too right wing, we ought to listen.

Mrs. Laing: We ought to; we did, and some of us dealt in our own way with the Federation of Conservative Students.

Mr. Love: For many years, I was an active member of the Transport and General Workers Union. For one of its weekend conferences, it tried to book the Royal Agricultural College, but for a long time, the college would not have the union. Then the union discovered why: the Federation of Conservative Students had been there and had doused the place, so the college would not give anyone the privilege of making use of the place. My question relates to the hon. Lady’s point about young people being engaged in politics. She said that Conservative Future was the fastest-growing organisation of politically involved young people, but she did not tell us whether that growth consisted of people in the 16 to 18 age range, or whether the real growth is among people aged 18 and above.

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I will develop that argument. I do not know the statistics relating to those aged between 16 and 18, and those aged over 18, but plenty of young people under the age of 18 are getting involved in Conservative Future and other such organisations. My argument is that that is absolutely right. We want to encourage people who are 16, 15, or 14—indeed, people of any age—to be involved, and to take part in the political process. That does not mean that they should have the right to vote; they should serve an apprenticeship on their way to having the right to vote.

Mr. Newmark: On the point that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made, I note that one of the supporters of the Bill is the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who, if memory serves me correctly, was a very active member of the Federation of Conservative Students. That shows that anybody can change over time.

Mrs. Laing: I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. I appreciate that the issue is not relevant to the debate, but I feel that I must jump in and defend the reputation of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who was indeed a leading member of the Federation of Conservative Students. However, he most definitely emerged as one of the most responsible members of that body. When it was disbanded by the then chairman of the Conservative party, he was elected the leader of the new Conservative youth wing. It is important to separate his reputation from that of the part of the Federation of Conservative Students that was disbanded. I apologise for that long explanation, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but we cannot have defamatory remarks made.

Harry Cohen: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we must get on with the argument. I will happily give way to him in a few minutes.

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I would not argue that 16-year-olds are not mature, able, or responsible in outlook or intellectual development. Of course they are. Many 16-year-olds are writing essays, doing exams, and taking part in discussions on historical, political or moral issues to a very high intellectual standard, and they have a real understanding of democracy, the political process and issues that matter in our country and in our world today. I take as one example the Epping Forest schools debating competition, which I organise, and which we hold every year in my constituency. Every year, without exception, young people aged 14 to 18 take part in those debates, and every single one of them is well informed and well able to engage in the political process. However, that does not mean that they ought to have the right to vote before they reach the age of majority.

Out of sheer respect for the democratic system, it is right that young people should serve a sort of apprenticeship before they can become a full citizen and have a vote. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said during his excellent, wide-ranging speech, the point about 16 and 17-year-olds is that, barring any tragedy that might occur, they become 18-year-olds in a fairly short time.

The debate does not have parallels with other issues about rights, such as the campaign of the suffragettes or of anyone else for voting rights, despite some Liberal Democrats’ earlier attempts to suggest that it does. The issue is not at all similar—it is quite different. I strongly supported the Equality Act 2006, and spoke from the Front Bench in support of it on many an occasion when it was before the House. I strongly believe in equality in every aspect of our lives in the UK today, but we cannot make people’s age equal. Sadly, by the forward movement of nature and time people become a year older every year. Time flows relentlessly, and so 16 and 17-year-olds become 18-year-olds, who become 25-year-olds, who become 40-year-olds and so it goes on. We cannot hold back time, nor can we equalise people’s ages for the sake of some political gimmick.

Jo Swinson: I am intrigued by the hon. Lady’s comments. Given that she supported the Equality Bill, does she think that we should have legislation to prohibit ageism? By that I mean, even though we cannot make everybody’s ages equal, people should not be discriminated against on the basis of age, as they are in the minimum wage.

Mrs. Laing: I do. The minimum wage is different— [ Laughter. ] No, it is not funny. The hon. Lady was making a very good point about ageism before she put in that little party political thing about the minimum wage. This is not the place to debate the minimum wage—and, by the way, my party is in favour of it. Many lies have been told about our being against the minimum wage, but we are in favour of it, as I have said from the Front Bench many times. As far as ageism is concerned, of course I agree with her. I argued that during the passage of the Equality Bill before it was an Act. One of the six strands of equality that comprise the Equality Act is age.

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