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2.6 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love). On 23 February, I was privileged to attend as a key speaker the national conference of the United Kingdom branch of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, which was held at the Gladstone Park centre in the Peterborough constituency. I was among people who were crying out for democracy—people who are denied democracy and the right to vote for the candidates they want to vote for. That concentrated my mind when I prepared for this debate.

In the past month or so, I met the member of the Youth Parliament for Peterborough, Miss Hettie Davis, at Peterborough town hall. There seemed to be a gulf between those two meetings, because she talked not about votes for 16-year-olds, but about more prosaic but important issues for 16 year-olds in my constituency: bus services for young people, the cost of travelling by bus, the impact of school uniform grants being withdrawn, particularly on poorer families in my constituency, and the topical issue of the mosquito—not the insect that buzzes around and bites, but the audible equipment that is used to scare off teenagers in city and town centres. They were the big issues; we did not talk about a desperate desire to seek the franchise and to elect Members of Parliament and local councillors at the age of 16.

Although I congratulated the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on securing the debate, I have been disappointed by the arguments that have been advanced by those hon. Members who have been in favour of this change. After all, we are looking at a significant and radical change to the status quo, an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 1983, and the biggest change since 1969, when the franchise was altered from 21 to 18.

Mr. Harper: I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s experience of talking to a member of the Youth Parliament in his constituency, who focused on bread-and-butter issues that affect young peoples’ lives. Does the fact that the Youth Parliament member was able to explain her concerns to my hon. Friend, who has taken those concerns to this House and explained them to other hon. Members, demonstrate that he, like many others in this House, takes the views of young people very seriously? Changing the voting age would not affect that.

Mr. Jackson: Exactly. It is not mutually exclusive to have cognisance of the views of young people at a constituency level and to hold the principled view that what we are talking about when we discuss the age of consent is a legal issue and value judgment rather than a gateway to adulthood through the granting of the franchise.

The paucity of firm evidence in this debate has been disappointing. We have heard lots of warm words—motherhood and apple pie—about engagement, enthusing
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young people, getting people involved in policy making and making a positive contribution to the community through voting. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made a wise intervention on disengagement across the whole community. If a party states in its manifesto that it will implement a policy—the Liberal Democrats are as guilty of this as anyone else—such as not introducing tuition fees or holding a referendum on the significant constitutional change introduced by the Nice treaty, but does not introduce that policy once it is in power, people of all ages will be concerned. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) is concerned to get as many votes as she can given her majority, which she should consider before heckling me.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North and other supporters of the Bill have failed to adduce any poll evidence. In my first intervention, I sought to elicit from the hon. Lady any definitive poll evidence that demonstrates her case. However, the opposite occurred when my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned the poll by HTV, which found that 66 per cent. of 16 to 24-year-olds are against the change that the Bill would introduce.

Jo Swinson: I want to quote from Hansard on 29 March 1928, when Colonel Applin stated:

He was discussing the right of women to have the vote. Surely the argument is not about whether polls say that people want a particular measure, but about whether it is right and fair.

Mr. Jackson: I take that argument on board, but it is a matter of competing value judgments—what one person considers to be fair and equitable and another person does not. If we were to deny the views expressed by people in opinion polls, we could do that across the spectrum of political issues.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the analogy between votes for women and this Bill is spurious? As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) has ably pointed out, we are not discussing discriminating against people because of their sex. Sixteen and 17-year-olds will become 18-year-olds, when they will get the vote.

Mr. Jackson: The hon. Gentleman has made a pertinent and apposite point.

David Howarth: I want to point out to the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) that that was not the case with the Representation of the People Act 1928, which concerned the age at which women could vote.

Mr. Jackson: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has intervened, because he and I attended a meeting of young people from Cambridgeshire a year ago as part of the changing places campaign to improve disabled facilities for young people in Cambridgeshire and throughout the country. Most of those young people were below the age of 18. We did not endeavour to act
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on their behalf with any less alacrity because they were under 18. We fulfilled our obligations as Members of this House to act for all people—whether they vote for us or not, and whatever their sex, religion, race or creed. That is the key point. The lazy assumption that if a person cannot vote at 16, their Member of Parliament will disregard them is patronising and completely untrue, as I have made clear in the example that I cited.

Mr. Harper: I want to take my hon. Friend back to the thrust of his argument. He drew attention to whether there was any evidence that the change proposed by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North in her Bill would lead to some of the outcomes that she suggested. The burden of proof should be on those who want the change, not on those opposed to it. Having listened carefully to her speech and all the other contributions, and having been here since the beginning of the debate, I have not heard any evidence that the change would lead to the results that the proponents of the Bill have put forward. The evidence is simply not there.

Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend has made a typically eloquent intervention.

I move on to the issue of turnout. It seemed strange that at the outset of this debate, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North said that in proposing the Bill she was not in the business of driving up turnout. It seems a little disingenuous to take that view. It is all very well having warm words and buzzwords about engaging young people and involving people in the process, but there is no point in having all those aspirations if there is no demonstrable way to measure that involvement. As the academic David Denver, among many others, has made clear, the involvement of young people—it is certainly the experience of those between 18 and 24—is that they register and do not vote. There is no evidence that there would not be a commensurate decrease in turnout if 16 and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote. It is important that we realise that. Historically, when young people were not permitted to vote until they were 21, there were very high turnouts—84 per cent. in the 1950 election, for instance.

Julie Morgan: I repeat my earlier point: my purpose in promoting the Bill was not to drive up turnout. However, if young people voted at the ages of 16 and 17, turnout would be likely to go up.

Mr. Jackson: We are trying to debate on the basis of evidence; with all due respect, aspirations and hopes do not make powerful arguments.

Mr. Harper: The argument for lowering the voting age is interesting. I have been reading an interesting article from the journal Representation by a chap called Alex Folkes, the campaign manager for the “Votes at Sixteen” campaign. He stated that the most important argument in favour of lowering the voting age was that

According to the campaign in favour of it, the basis of the Bill is indeed that it will involve people and drive up turnout. However, the campaigners have no evidence, from this country or elsewhere, that that will happen.

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Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend makes a valid point: anecdote does not prove the case. We all have anecdotes about the young people with whom we come into contact. One of the myths that we should kill right now is that there is somehow an arrogance or disdain towards young people’s views among those of us who take the view that 18 is the appropriate age. Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, the onus is on the other side to prove that the change should take place.

Greg Clark: Does not the point about turnout reassure my hon. Friend in respect of some of his criticisms of the Bill? If turnout is low, does that not imply that the people who will be motivated to vote will be those who have taken an interest in the arguments and debates, and that in the overall picture a greater contribution will be made by those qualified to contribute? That should assuage some of my hon. Friend’s general worries.

Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend, in his normal erudite manner, pinpoints the issue and leads me on to the next part of my speech.

The Bill seems almost to have been conceived in a bubble in that it does not reflect societal change. It is a sign of a healthy and mature democracy if people choose not to vote in an election. We have the ability to vote or otherwise. We should concede that people live with mass media and with other pressures of time, work and leisure apart from politics and voting, which we think so important. Do not get me wrong—it is enormously important: I think of all those people throughout the world who have been imprisoned, tortured and died for the right to vote. Only last year we celebrated the abolition of slavery, and there are many liberation campaigns that we would all support. However, it is a sign of a healthy society that people can choose not to vote. It is not appropriate that we should corral to vote at the age of 16 people who are frankly not interested. That is not to say that they will not be interested in future.

Greg Clark: The point of the arguments that are being made is that no one will be corralled into voting—they will have the choice about whether to do so. People who are motivated to take an interest in the political process will have the opportunity to vote, but by no means will they be compelled to do so.

Mr. Jackson: The slight flaw in my hon. Friend’s argument, if I may say so, is that there is no independent evidence to suggest that the natural corollary of the change would be that those young people would vote. The evidence is strongly in the other direction—that they would abstain from voting.

The political system is primarily about electing, at Government level, Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. I agree with the hon. Member for North Durham that we should not have people popping in to sit here as in a glorified theme park and pontificate as pseudo-Members of Parliament. That is not what we should be encouraging. There is certain sanctity about getting elected among one’s peers and being supported by the residents of one’s constituency, and we should not undermine that.

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Young people are involved in political issues at all levels, whether saving the whale, campaigning against incinerators or ID cards, or becoming involved in Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace. However, it does not necessarily follow that they assume that they must have a right to vote as a result of that activity. It is a rite of passage. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean made an important point about having a sense of pride. In 1983, when I first got my vote in the safe Conservative seat, as it then was, of South Thanet—the candidate went on to do other things and took a close interest in penal affairs—I went out and voted and had a sense of great pride in doing so. I was never taught civics or about civic engagement. It comes from family, from background, and from a sense that one can make a contribution.

Low turnout among young people is about the structural changes that need to take place. Basically, they feel disconnected and that people are not listening to them. They do not feel that the system can benefit them or that it is interested in their lives, whether it is their gas bill, their transport or their granny’s hip operation. That is the real reason—it is not because they feel that they are being deliberately, institutionally disfranchised by not having the vote at 16.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the mistake that we sometimes make as politicians is to refer to young people as a group as though they are all the same. Does he agree that they are as diverse and different in their opinions and interests as any other section of the population and that reducing the age to 16 would not mean that they would all vote the same way on a certain issue?

Mr. Jackson: I entirely agree. The issues that young people will be enthused and energised enough about to come to a surgery, take part in a demonstration or write a letter to their local Member of Parliament will be completely different in County Durham, in Dunbartonshire, or in the Forest of Dean. That plurality of interest is what makes our democracy strong and we have a duty to recognise that.

The tenor of the debate has shown that the case for radical change has not been made. I was expecting to hear opinion poll evidence from across the country from 16-year-olds and older voters, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean made it clear in his remarks that older voters are significantly against such a change. I think that I know why: it is because they feel that the capacity to vote and choose a Parliament of the people, which has been established since mediaeval times through the enfranchisement of the people, is a precious commodity. To give it away as lightly as a right without a responsibility devalues that precious commodity.

The hon. Member for North Durham is absolutely correct; in my experience, as in his, older women are the most passionate and evangelical about exercising their franchise. I may not think that that is a good thing in North Durham, because they tend to vote for a party other than mine, but it is their right to vote and they understand the value of it. I am unconvinced that a young person between the age of 16 and 18 would necessarily give the right to vote the same value as an older person. That is not to say that they are ignorant or stupid, or that their views should be disregarded, but I am saying that incremental increases in knowledge, experience and wisdom come with age.

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Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I attended a good debate on this subject in my constituency among those aged between 16 and 18. They had a vote at the end of the debate, and in an audience entirely made up of under-18s, the results were split almost 50:50. Many of them did not think it appropriate that they should get the vote, even though they were taking part in a debate and were engaged in political argument. That point has been made clearly in the House today.

Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and he leads me to a similar point. We do young people a disservice if we assume that the only way in which they can make their views known is to have the vote at 16. After a long and detailed debate, we can see that that flies in the face of evidence—the age at which people can drink alcohol, view pornographic material or obtain credit, among other examples. Society makes a judgment, and then this House makes a judgment through legislation on what is appropriate for young people and children.

I have a great deal of time for the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen)—I would even say that he is an institution, given that he has been in the House for 25 years, but he made a slip of the tongue. In the course of his comments, he described the particular cohort that he was herding towards the ballot box as “children”. Sometimes we have to make a decision about children. They are not all young people, but they are children, and I think that he let the cat out of the bag.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the House makes a decision on this matter, and as I said in my opening remarks—I was not allowed to proceed much further on the point—the House has already considered the question during this Parliament. Indeed, in 2005, when the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who is no longer in his place, introduced his ten-minute Bill, the House had an opportunity to vote on the matter. The House made a decision and said that it did not think that such a change was right. This is the second time this Parliament has had such an opportunity, and I do not see it making a different decision.

Mr. Jackson: That is a valid point for my hon. Friend to make; if the issue is one of such huge gravity that primary legislation is needed to alter the age of franchise, surely the Government should take it up. It is not churlish to say that if the issue is important enough to be compared to the cause of the suffragettes, it stands in poor comparison with the debates we had just a few weeks ago on abortion and stem cell research, when we had some of the best debates to take place in this House—and it was a packed House. We do not have a packed House today and I suspect that that is because the Bill is a politically correct gimmick, which has no substantial evidence to support it. I am disappointed by the amount of evidence that has been presented, although I cast no aspersions on the sincerity of hon. Members who promoted and sponsored the Bill.

I intend now to—

It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 13 June.

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Remaining Private Members’ Bills

Crown Employment (nationality) Bill

Order for Second Reading read—[Queen’s Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified] .

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 13 June.

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