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Mr. Love: I will probably make the first intervention in agreement with what my hon. Friend is saying, which is partly my reason for making it. If we consider the issue in an historical perspective, it is the change of attitudes in society that has led to the move from a property-based franchise to all men being allowed to
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vote. We then moved on to women, and then we changed the age range. That age range is going down, and as society’s attitudes change, we change along with them.

The question is whether society is yet ready, and there are two factors involved in answering that question. The first is whether young people are agitating for such a change. I would have to admit that the Opposition are right in saying that there is not enough agitation among 16 and 17-year-olds for this change. The other factor is the role of Parliament. Many people have said today that we should take a lead. As a minimum, we have to have the debate, but as it continues, I think that attitudes will change and we will become much more supportive of that change.

Harry Cohen: I agree with my hon. Friend about the trend favouring this measure.

Lynne Featherstone: Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the point about a change occurring at the age of 16, let me point out that a positive effort is made to change the nature of teaching for those who continue in education or training after 16. It is not the same as learning by rote. Another leap occurs when young people go on to university. There is acknowledgement of the change that occurs at 16.

Harry Cohen: That is a good point. Education at 16 effectively becomes adult education.

Mr. Evans: When is somebody an adult? If the hon. Gentleman thinks that 16 is the right age, should not people be able to drink and smoke at that age? When I refer to “Pulp Fiction”, I do not mean the next Labour manifesto, and when I mention “Reservoir Dogs”, I do not mean Government Back Benchers; the reference is to two movies that 16-year-olds would not be allowed to see. Does he believe that the 18 certificate should be a 16 certificate?

Harry Cohen: I have said that there are many inconsistencies. People are not allowed to take drugs at any age. Does that mean that one is never an adult and can never have the vote? The inconsistencies need to be tackled. A good point was made earlier about what is best for public health.

A general indicator of adulthood should be the age at which people have the vote. People can leave school, go to work, pay taxes, join the armed forces, get married and have sex at the age of 16. I was worried by the implications of the argument that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean presented when I intervened on him. We rightly have strong laws about sex with children, who could be taken into care if they have sex. However, according to the principle that he enunciated, if one is a child at 16 and 17, people could get married and be done for child sex.

Mr. Harper: Although the Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides a general right of consent to have sex for those aged between 16 and 18, sex is not allowed with someone who is in a position of trust over them. The law does not allow those between 16 and 18 to give consent in those circumstances. It recognises that they are in a special position of being vulnerable. The law does not do what the hon. Gentleman claims. The House has
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legislated to acknowledge that 16 and 17-year-olds are in a more vulnerable position than 18-year-olds. It is not right to say that they are adults.

Harry Cohen: The hon. Gentleman outlines a special case. It is right to say that 16-year-olds are adults, because people who are not in the position that he refers to can get married.

Mr. Newmark: The hon. Gentleman tries to make the point that people can join the armed forces and get married at 16. That is not true—one needs parental consent to join the armed forces or get married at 16.

Harry Cohen: That point was made earlier and tackled effectively. When children are already on the path to adulthood, a parent would not want to stand in their way, and in most cases they do not. However, the point is that they can join the armed forces and get married at 16.

We have improved our citizenship education. The position is different from that in the United States, because we want our youngsters to be registered and take part, whereas the US has a history of keeping many people—because they are black or vote the wrong way—off the registers. Some systems are quite corrupt there. Our citizenship education should encourage youngsters to take part. The best way of doing that is to give them a vote to make participating realistic.

We used to say that young people did not do well at school because they did not have a job to go to at the end of it—they would be unemployed, which did not give them an incentive to work. We always used to say, “If they know they’re going to work and they’ve got a future, they’ll do better at school.” The same applies with citizenship education. If young people know that they have a vote and can take part at an early age, they will do well in that subject and schools will be incentivised to ensure that citizenship and civics education reaches a higher standard.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again, but is he really trying to tell the House that he meets 16 and 17-year-olds in schools in his constituency who tell him that the one thing that they are looking forward to on their 18th birthday is getting the vote? The 16 and 17-year-olds I meet are looking forward to drinking legally when they are 18, rather than voting.

Harry Cohen: That is a problem, and perhaps we should be reshaping views. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) whispered in my ear about the media being keen to make young people apolitical, and he was right. However, we have an opportunity to bring young people away from celebrities and binge drinking, and make them more interested in things that they are concerned about—as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham acknowledged, many youngsters are concerned about the environment, third world development and so on.

Mr. Jones: I agree, but let us be honest: groups of 16 and 17-year-olds will not be tuning into the parliamentary channel tonight to watch this debate. They will be watching “Big Brother”, which is far more entertaining than what is happening in this Chamber.

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Harry Cohen: I agree—nobody will be watching this, from any age group. But young people should have the right, and in a close election that is an important right.

We legislate on a lot of things affecting young people that are often very punishing towards them—antisocial behaviour orders come to mind. We have only just got round to putting much more money into youth clubs and youth facilities in recent years, which is the carrot as opposed to the stick. If youngsters had had the vote and we had been forced to listen to them, we would have legislated and put the money into that approach much sooner than we have done. It is important that youngsters can put forward what they want and what they think is right. It is important not just that we listen to them—rather than perhaps not having to listen them—but that we have to listen to them because they have the weight of the vote to help us.

The other point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) made, is that 40 years ago, 18-year-olds got the vote, and 16-year-olds in our society are every bit as mature as 18-year-olds were then. On top of that, we have the internet and social networking, and, to be fair, television and the media, when they can raise their sights a bit from celebrities. Young people are aware and can take part in a proper election in an informed way.

Those are the main points that I wanted to make—I could have read some very effective quotations from the “Votes at Sixteen” campaign and the Power commission, which was set up by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, recommending votes at 16. I see that the Prime Minister has moved away from that quotation by the former Prime Minister and said that we would listen to young people with a view to seeing whether the law should change. I think that that is a straw in the wind, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North has picked up, that we will come to vote for 16 and that it will be the right decision.

1.29 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I should like to start by bringing the voice of a young person from my constituency into the Chamber today. He is a member of the Youth Parliament and he has sent me a paragraph that he has written on this subject. He says:

and have the vote. He goes on to say that young people want

That was written by a 16-year-old boy, Adam Jogee, a member of the Youth Parliament. If it was down to me, I would give him the vote.

We have been asked to consider a very simple question today: are 16 and 17-year-olds old enough to vote? Looking at them in general, I would say that they were as likely to use their vote at least as well as the rest of us. By not letting them vote, we are saying to them that their voice and their views do not have equal weight with the rest of us, at least not in real terms, because we are not giving them the ultimate power that the democratic mandate would give them. We want young people’s participation—we create youth councils and the Youth Parliament, and they are all very valuable—but when it comes to the crunch, we pull away and say, “No, you are not old enough for that.”

Mr. Harper: I listened with great care to the comments of the hon. Lady’s 16-year-old constituent. I am sure that she also has 14-year-old constituents who could have written something equally eloquent. Why then should the 14-year-olds not be able to vote, too? Once we separate voting from the age at which someone becomes an adult, there is no fixed point. We could end up reducing the age right down to primary school age.

Lynne Featherstone: The hon. Gentleman has made that point a number of times today. However, everyone on the other side of the argument has said that 16 seems to be a reasonable point at which to be able to choose to do some of the things that are not harmful, and potentially beneficial, for 16-year-olds to do, as opposed to some of the more harmful things, which are left until the age of 18.

I am hoping to persuade hon. Members that not giving 16-year-olds the vote contradicts the aim of much public policy that is targeted at this age group. We have heard about some of the responsibilities, burdens and freedoms of adulthood that are conferred at the age of 16. These arguments have been well rehearsed, but they do not lose impact through repetition. Some of the greatest adventures in life begin at 16, if young people can wait that long; not all do. We judge people of that age to be mature enough to make big choices. This is not just about getting married and having babies, although I can think of no greater responsibility than bringing a child into this world. It is also about safer sex and about young people’s own sexuality. With their parents’ consent, they can select a partner for life, get married or enter into a civil partnership. We want them to lay the foundations for their future at that age. They can choose their A-level and AS-level subjects, or their professional qualifications.

I would like to correct something that was said by Conservative Members, who said that it was Liberal Democrat policy that young people should not be able to join the Army until they are 18. That is erroneous. We take the same view as the Government and the law of the land, which is that a young person may join the Army at 16 but should not be sent to the front line until the age of 18.

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We acknowledge the potential independence and self-determination to which 16-year-olds are entitled, according to the law as it stands. They can leave home, take up full-time employment and, as we have heard, pay tax. As for the activities that are restricted to 18-year-olds, I certainly think it would be unwise to allow people under 18 to enter into legal and financial contracts such as credit agreements. Embarking on binding agreements without the necessary wherewithal, or without the ability to appreciate the consequences, can have significant results. My own children have, at that age, mastered half the equation—borrowing the money—but not the other half—paying it back.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Lady has said that people under 18 do not fully appreciate the consequences and the full import of signing a contract, and that it would not be right to expect them to. If they are not capable of doing that, why should they be capable of deciding who governs our country?

Lynne Featherstone: That question lies at the heart of the issue, and we have been going at it all day in one way or another. The hon. Gentleman and I see different horses for courses. I believe that the vast majority of 16 and 17-year-olds are intelligent enough to vote, but it is not just a case of intelligence, as I shall explain later in my speech.

We are all making different judgments about what we feel is suitable at a particular age. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may have a legal background—

Mr. Harper indicated dissent.

Lynne Featherstone: No? Well, I am very impressed.

Stephen Williams: He is an accountant: a fine profession.

Lynne Featherstone: That is even worse!

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and I will have to agree to disagree about what is appropriate at what age. It could be argued that the perils of signing legal contracts are less than those of deciding to have sex, but there is a crucial difference, in that one of those decisions is determined by hormones. Any increase in the age of consent would be practically unenforceable as well as hugely unpopular, which is why we seek to educate 16-year-olds so that they can make informed choices about sexual relations.

Eighteen is the age at which consumption of alcohol and cigarettes becomes legal, and the reasoning behind that is sound. Those are harmful practices, and although there is a limit to how long someone can be restrained from indulging in them, we have a moral imperative to protect our young. We should do all that we can to protect them from the consequences of starting to smoke, and to encourage sensible alcohol consumption. Here is the rub. Eighteen is the age of majority for certain activities. Do we really equate the risks of voting with those of tobacco and alcohol consumption?

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I am interested by the distinction that the hon. Lady has drawn in relating age to harmful practice. Does she consider the use of credit to be a harmful practice? Why must individuals be 18 to obtain consumer credit?

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Lynne Featherstone: I would argue that using credit can be a very harmful practice. Many young people go on to get into terrible debt and terrible trouble. Perhaps that is an area in which we should extend protection.

The strongest argument for extending adult suffrage goes to the heart of what our democracy means. We can truly represent the people only when the people whom we represent elect us and, for that to happen, I would argue that we should be elected by the widest possible group. However, we must also consider the issue of legitimacy. As I said earlier, 16-year-olds pay income tax. Is it really right for us to tax a group of people whom we exclude from voting? Our Parliament learned the hard way the consequences of taxation without representation. Not allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to have their say is a complete abrogation of that principle, and seriously undermines our authority to govern. I have not heard a single person who has argued against lowering the voting age argue simultaneously that we should raise the age at which income tax is taken. As we have heard from all quarters, if a young person is mature enough to pay tax, he or she is mature enough to vote.

A cornerstone of our democracy is that voters can put a cross on a ballot paper for any reason they like. We do not make them take an exam on why they are doing it. What is emerging from the debate is the fear of what they might do if given their head. This year we celebrate the 90th anniversary of votes for women, and I looked through the record of debates in the House to see if I could find any parallels with today’s discussion. I was taken with Sir Frederick Banbury’s comments on why women should not be allowed to vote. He said:

He was talking about the power that the vote would bring. Thankfully, he was in the minority, and, luckily and happily, I am entitled to be full of as much sentiment as I care to be.

I was struck by the paternalistic overtones of the argument, which bear a striking resemblance to today’s debate. I am talking not about the comparison with women having the vote—I, thus, save the hon. Member for Forest of Dean having to leap to his feet to point out again that 16-year-olds will grow into 18-year-olds—but the arguments against. The reasoning then was the men knew better than women, and before that the reasoning was that the upper classes knew better than the working classes. Thankfully, those myths have been dispelled, as I hope the myths about young people getting the vote will be.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: The hon. Lady is making a completely fallacious comparison. Women were imprisoned, and, in some cases, they were tortured and they died. They sacrificed their own lives and chained themselves to parts of this building to secure, rightly, the universal franchise for both genders. That bears no comparison with whether a 16-year-old or a 15-year-old can be bothered to fill in a form so that they can vote in 2008.

Lynne Featherstone: We will have to disagree on the matter.

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