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6 Jun 2008 : Column 1098

David Howarth: There is a direct parallel, because the main reason cited for not giving women the vote was that they were dependent, and nearly all the arguments that we have heard today for not giving the vote to 16-year-olds, as opposed to 18-year-olds, have been that between young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are still, in some way, dependent. The arguments are exactly the same.

Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. Friend for making such an important contribution. Young people lack experience, but I am not sure that that is the right bar to voting; quite a lot of older people lack experience. Political opinion evolves as we get older, and a significant proportion of people in their 40s vote differently from how they did when they were in their 20s. That might be because of changes in their family situation or personal circumstances. We accept that sort of evolution—unless it starts at 16.

In conclusion, teenage knife crime, under-age drinking, teenage pregnancy, bullying, drug misuse, antisocial behaviour, and gang culture involving guns and knives are just a few of the issues where failing public policy desperately needs the input of younger people. There is a chronic disconnection between Westminster and young people, and in some ways we need them and their input, in a democratic way, more than they need us. A voting system based on patronising paternalism does nothing to build desperately needed bridges with our youth, and it is arguable that if we continue to treat young people as children, they will continue to act like children.

1.43 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be brief, because I know that many other hon. Members wish to contribute. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) not only on having the good luck to be successful in the ballot, but on the crucial subject that she has chosen. More importantly, she should be congratulated on sparking a debate in this Chamber that is long overdue, and I hope that it will not be the last debate that we have on this issue.

The timing of this debate is very appropriate, because in almost his first act on taking the post, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set constitutional reform as one of his priorities. This Bill proposes the archetypal constitutional reform. I am sure that the Minister will talk about the “Governance of Britain” Green Paper, which addresses issues relating to young people. It is focused primarily on reinvigorating our democracy. I think that everyone in the Chamber would welcome a reinvigoration of our democracy, and it has to include young people.

The crucial issue for me is that we ask young people to take on many duties and responsibilities in our society. If they are going to take such momentous decisions as whether to get married or have children, or even to join the Army—even if they are under supervision, that decision can lead to terrible consequences—it is not too much to ask them to take on the responsibility of voting.

We have been told today that young people do not want the vote. I am sure that all hon. Members have experienced school visits on which the pupils seem lethargic in their attitude to political debate, but they
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are not nearly as lethargic as some of those who respond when I knock on doors in my constituency. So I am not sure that that is a good argument.

A substantial argument that we should heed is that most of the main youth organisations have given some priority to this issue. We know about the Welsh and Scottish experiences, and some 600,000 people took part in the Youth Parliament elections, which suggests that those young people were ready for democracy and had the capability to exercise the right to vote properly. I had the privilege some years ago to welcome the first new youth member of my party in my constituency, which was not known for the number of young people who take an interest, but we now have an effective youth section. Young people are interested, and we need to foster that interest.

We have talked about the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and other organisations that take a deep interest in our democracy. They have all been campaigning in support of the proposed change and of a recognition of the contribution that young people can make, and we should underscore that work today.

Young people are often accused of not being well informed or being insufficiently articulate to reflect political issues or make judgments about political parties. However, although that argument undoubtedly applies to some young people, it also applies to many adults. In the case of some people who have been exercising the right to vote for a considerable time, I wonder how they have reached the judgments that they have on how to vote at elections.

The reality is that our young people, including 16 and 17-year-olds, are better educated than any previous generation. We could have a debate about the quality of A-levels or how easy it is to get into university or adult education, but when I went to university 6 per cent. of my cohort did so. Today, that figure is 43 per cent. and we are trying to get it to 50 per cent. The level of general education is much greater now, and that is one of the critical changes in society that we must recognise.

We also focus on citizenship in the curriculum, and it is now a compulsory subject. I could go into detail about the subjects that are covered, but it should be generally accepted that the kids who study it—even if some of them fall asleep during class—will have a better grounding in what democracy is about and what putting a cross against the name of a party candidate will mean to their community.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I do not disagree with what my hon. Friend has just said about pupils getting a better understanding of democracy, which we should all encourage and in which we should play our part as Members of Parliament, but does he think that they would be enthused about the fact that they could democratically cast a vote at 16?

Mr. Love: Some of them will be enthused and others undoubtedly will not. Are the general electorate always enthused? Clearly, in 2005 and particularly in 2001, a very large number of people were not enthused. Deciding what makes people participate is a complex issue, but my hon. Friend got fairly close to it when he remarked earlier that competition between political parties and
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people feeling that their votes will make a difference to who is elected to government affect how people respond to general elections, and young people are no different from adults in that regard.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman share my constituency experience that, far from young people being more apathetic than older people, the letters that we receive about major international policy issues tend to come disproportionately from young people, rather than the older generations?

Mr. Love: I agree, and I mentioned earlier my experience when I am interviewed by young people at school. One of the clear themes is their concern about international development issues, and the environment also plays a big role in young people’s attitudes. Whether that happens at the age of 16 or 18 is what we are here to judge. My experience is that young people, from a very early age—much earlier than 16—begin to comprehend the seriousness of these issues, and we have to judge when they are capable, as a group, to exercise some influence over the decisions taken by those who are elected to Parliament.

I want to talk briefly about the consequences of extending the vote to the 17 and 18 age group. We must take into account those important considerations. This is in no way to reject all the earlier statements, but I believe that the political process and politicians will take young people more seriously if they have the vote. All the hon. Members who intervened on that issue have said, “If a young person comes to me, I will respond.” I am sure that that is true, but if those people have the vote, hon. Members will go out there to find them; they will not wait for young people to come to them. Hon. Members will be metaphorically knocking on young people’s doors and trying to ensure that they can persuade them to give their support.

Mr. Harper: I do not know about the hon. Gentleman, but I am certainly well aware of the fact that young people who are 16 and 17 at the moment— indeed, this applied when I was first elected—will be able to cast a vote at the next general election if it is not held for two years. I do not know what he does, but I go out there and meet as many of them as possible, and I try to give a good impression. I suggest that, if he is not doing that, he had better do so or he might not find himself coming back here.

Mr. Love: Lots of comments have been made about what might or might not happen in a year or two. No doubt, when we get closer to the time, there will be some very sturdy and robust debates about that, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I go out to try to engage with young people, because they are the future generation, and if they do not have the vote now, as he says, they will have it in the future. They are a harbinger of changing societal attitudes, and we as politicians have a duty to learn from them, because that will help us to decide on issues in the future.

I want to mention two other consequences. Manifestos will begin to reflect some of the issues that are particularly pertinent to young people. Over time, we will see a strengthening of our commitments to the environment and to third-world poverty issues, to take two examples,
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because they are of great concern to young people. I do not say that that is good or bad. What is undeniably good is that we will place on the agenda the issues on which there is perhaps not enough emphasis. That will be one of the real consequences of extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. Young people will take an interest in the manifestos that we produce and will make sure that we live up to the commitments that we make in them.

There is a lot of talk about denying the vote, and people have asked how we can deny it. I want to repeat some of the arguments, because they are important. I will not go over the issue of taxes and national insurance; that has been covered fully. However, there is the issue of marriage to consider. People can get married at 16. It is perhaps the single most important decision that anyone will take in their lifetime. If that is not the most important decision, perhaps it is the decision to have children, and, again, people can decide to do that at the age of 16. That is a momentous decision for young people to take, and it seems to override almost any other decision that they may take.

Jo Swinson: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would agree with the comments of my 14-year-old constituent, Catherine Kieran? She contacted me about the Bill and said that it is

Is that not an example of how ridiculous the situation seems to the young people in our constituencies?

Mr. Love: That shows the gap that exists in perceptions. A lot of young people are saying, “We are being asked to take decisions and to act responsibly. We have duties placed on us by society, yet when we say that those duties should be extended to voting, it raises questions, and people say, ‘Oh no, you’re just a child.’” Suddenly the young person is “just a child”, although they can do many other things.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Is not the logical conclusion of that argument that we should reduce the age at which everything else can be done to a common age of 16, including the right to drive, drink alcohol, own firearms and, if we follow the Liberal Democrats’ view, appear in pornographic movies?

Mr. Love: I will not take up all those issues, but let me take up the issue of smoking. As our understanding of the impact of smoking on health has developed and improved, society’s attitudes towards smoking have changed. For example, in all those wonderful 1930s Hollywood film noir movies, the detective or lead lady would smoke a cigarette. The reality is that smoking was much more socially acceptable then. That is mainly to do with the medical evidence available to us about the consequences, rather than with any decision about the age at which things should be allowed.

Mr. Jones: I am sorry, but the argument cannot be put in that way, unfortunately. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) has just mentioned the age of 16 as though it were somehow a great watershed. If someone wants to kill themselves by smoking themselves to death, what is the difference between doing that at 16 and doing it at 18?

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Mr. Love: I could go into that. I could take the libertarian position, and say, “If you want to kill yourself, please go ahead, but do not spoil things for everyone else.” I do not take that view. I think that we have responsibilities to society. We have to send signals, and sometimes those signals can erect reasonably substantial barriers; that is right and proper in circumstances on which we can justify the position to the electorate.

David Howarth: Is not the answer to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) that becoming an adult starts at 16 and ends at 18? The question before us is where to place the right to vote in that process; do we place it at the start or the end of it? Placing it at one point rather than another does not have any implications for any of the other questions involved in the process.

Mr. Love: That is the nub of the issue for us. I do not think that we will resolve it today. Clearly, there are differences in views. I accept that other people take a different view from mine and I understand that they can justify that view in various ways. That is part of the debate. It is critical that we are having the debate. As we move on, and as the debate develops and becomes more sophisticated, I hope that we will move towards the lower end of that spectrum rather than the upper end. I remain an optimist.

Another issue that I wanted to raise was joining the forces and being sent to conflict situations. Although I accept and support the idea of the need for some guidance for 16 and 17-year-olds in the armed forces, I have two points to make in response. First, I had a cousin many years ago who was determined at the age of 16 to join the Navy. He was born and brought up in the Isle of Wight, which is right opposite Portsmouth, which has a long historic tradition of support for the Royal Navy. He was determined, against all the advice that he received from his parents. His parents gave in and allowed him to join on his 16th birthday. Within three weeks, he hated it, but he was in for four years and he had to suffer the consequences. At the age of 18, if there had been a conflict situation, he would have needed to enter into that conflict. The idea that parents will somehow prevent their children from taking decisions that go against their good advice and their wishes is not entirely accurate.

Mr. Kevan Jones: That is not the case. Just a few weeks ago I visited HMS Raleigh, the training headquarters for the Royal Navy, as part of the Defence Committee’s inquiry into recruitment and retention. People can drop out throughout the 10 weeks after they join, so it is not the case now that his cousin would be there for four years.

Mr. Love: I thank my hon. Friend. My example was a slight metaphor, if I can put it that way. I am not talking about today; I did not know what the rules were. The incident happened more than 20 years ago. I was using it only to confirm that when the decisions for 16-year-olds are taken, on almost every occasion that 16-year-old will prevail even against the advice of their parents.

The other issue I wanted to mention is what happens when people join the Army or go into a conflict situation. Of course, there are rightly protections, as I mentioned, but having made the decision to join the Army, people
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have to say to themselves, “I am 16 at the moment. When I get to 18, I will be a soldier still, because you sign up for that period. If they want to send me to a conflict situation and I get wounded or killed, that is the responsibility I take on at the age of 16.” That is an important issue that we cannot avoid in the attempt to suggest that those people are not taking critical decisions about their lives.

Mr. Harper: For clarity, it is not the case that if a 16-year-old joins the armed forces with their parents’ consent they are then tied in. In the first six months of service, they have a statutory right to discharge, and after six months all under-18-year-olds can be discharged if they are unhappy with their service. What the hon. Gentleman is saying is not factually correct. There are some clear protections for those under 18 who join the armed forces. Clear and significant guidelines are provided to commanding officers about the level of care that they have to provide for those under 18 to recognise the special position that they are in.

Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I accept that the Army and the other forces take seriously their duty of care. I would not want to question that at all. I would also not want to question those people’s right over a period to leave the Army. I am suggesting that when people decide to join at 16, one assumes that, unlike my cousin, they are generally happy with their Army, Navy or Air Force experience and therefore they do not leave. They have to make a judgment at 16, and if they are happy and stay until they are 18 they might end up in a conflict situation. They do not get asked at the age of 18 to sign to say that they are happy to go into a conflict situation. That is automatic.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am sorry to intervene again on my hon. Friend, for whom I have a lot of respect, but he is just wrong. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) is correct. I have sat on the Defence Committee for the past seven years and spent a year on the inquiry on the duty of care for young servicemen, covering issues such as Deepcut. Our armed forces now have a duty of care that is second to none in terms of parental responsibility. Not only do they ensure that parents are involved in the training, but those leaving care and going into the armed forces must have a guardian, who has a duty of care in the two years until they pass their 18th birthday.

Mr. Love: I defer to the superior knowledge of my two colleagues in the House, and I support the changes that have been made as a result of the events at Deepcut barracks, which had to be addressed. I fully support what has happened. I do not think that that gets away from my essential point: those people are taking decisions for their life at the age of 16.

I want to conclude, because other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate—and it is the debate that is really important. I think, if I may say so to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North, that that is the greatest contribution that she has made: getting the debate to happen. She mentioned, and I underscore it, that the Electoral Commission will carry out a further review this year, which will be important. The commission
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that the Minister will speak about will conclude next year and we will have a further debate. Those are opportunities for us to develop the discussion that we have had today. I am confident that we are moving in the right direction as societal attitudes change and we recognise the contribution that 16 and 17-year-olds make to our society.

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