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House of Lords

Wednesday, 5th March 1997.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.

Earl Howe: Personal Statement

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to make a personal statement.

On Thursday of last week I was telephoned in the House by a journalist who told me that his inquiries had led him to believe that my Written Answers to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, on 4th June and 5th July last year about the deaths of animals during the Gulf War were incorrect. I immediately set in hand an investigation. Early yesterday evening I received departmental advice that there is now considerable doubt about the accuracy of my Answers. This is a serious matter about which I feel it right to inform the House at the earliest opportunity. I shall report to the House as soon as the full facts are clear.

Young Voters

2.38 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What percentage of 18 and 19 year-olds who were eligible to vote at the last general election in fact cast a vote.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, in the 1992 general election the total number of votes cast was 33,511,442, or 76.9 per cent. of registered electors. No record is kept of voting by particular groups of the electorate. The only information about the age of voters is that which appears on the register each year showing the date on which an individual will attain the age of 18 and is therefore eligible to vote.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply. Unfortunately, it does not give me much assistance in the argument that I propose to advance. However, undaunted, I shall carry on. I have some figures which reveal that in the 1992 election 45 per cent. of young people under the age of 25 did not vote, whereas in the previous election 31 per cent. of people of that age did not vote. Does the Minister agree that it must be a cause for concern that so many people show an increasing alienation from the democratic and political process? Further, if the Government were re-elected would they commit themselves to ensuring that in schools all young people received citizenship education and were given

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opportunities to learn about making choices and decisions so that they could become effective, useful and helpful citizens?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I cannot confirm the figure of 45 per cent. of young people who failed to vote in 1992, because the ballot is secret. Other opinion polls have shown that many more people vote. One cannot obtain any expert evidence upon it because the vote is secret. I assure the noble Lord that we will win the next election, but I cannot provide the rest of the assurance that he seeks. As the noble Lord is already aware, there is a moratorium on curriculum change until the year 2000. Ministers have yet to decide whether or not the national curriculum will be different after that date. Their decision will be taken in the light of information gained by the School Curriculum Assessment Authority. However, the Government agree with the noble Lord that everyone should use their vote.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, will the noble Baroness ask the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to explain to the Home Secretary that he has figures that that department does not have? It is not a question of the Home Office misleading anybody; the Home Office does not have the information that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has in his possession. The Home Office would find it most valuable to have that information.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has heard exactly what the noble Lord opposite has just said, but the reality is that it is a secret vote. Although surveys and research have been carried out, no one can confirm the accuracy or otherwise of the figures. The position is that we do not know.

The Earl of Clancarty: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the current frustration with party politics shown by the people--I use the word "people" rather than "electorate"--is a symptom of a party political system that allows an essentially voyeuristic relationship to develop between the people and central government and party politics; that is to say, it is a one-way relationship? Does the Minister recognise the principle of extension of government, as distinct from devolution of power, which is not so much about central government involving people but, rather, to use a specific phrase, is to say that central government needs to go out and find the government that already exists in the people?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the noble Earl's question sounded very interesting but I did not get all of the points that he made. I believe that it would be better for me to read his words in Hansard tomorrow. When I have read it I believe that I shall be in a very much better position to answer the noble Earl.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, are the Government aware that the British Social Attitudes Survey published by Dartmouth Publishing in 1995 indicated that whereas one in three people over 25

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expressed a strong interest in politics only one in seven people aged 18 to 25 expressed such an interest? Does not that indicate that the problem is not just with schools but also with politicians?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, it may be that we have all to do a little better to ensure that we inform young people of what is necessary and important. People such as myself who worked for years to try to persuade women to become more involved in politics will agree with everything my noble friend has said.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that many local authorities throughout the length and breadth of the country have been doing that for many years by informing youngsters aged 18 of what are their rights, how they vote, how a local authority is run and how government is run. In many sixth forms that I have had the privilege of visiting over the years the same course has been held. It has been going on for many years. Young people are aware of their entitlements and they are encouraged to vote.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for bringing those facts to the attention of the House. Last year £750,000 was spent by national government trying to do the same through advertisements on the television and so forth. Local government and registration officers have been doing that for a very long time. I remember full well--it is a strange memory because it is a long time ago--that when I was at school we had school councils, and we went through the whole of the democratic process. I believe that many schools still do that.

Lord McNally: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that nothing is more likely to turn young people off our political system than the feeling that it is corrupt? Is she further aware that we are about to embark upon the most expensive election campaign in British history? Does not she think that it is time for all parties to endorse transparency in election funding and some cap on election expenditure, since otherwise we shall go down a slippery and dangerous slope?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, my view, and I think that of Her Majesty's Government, is that transparency and encouraging young people to vote are good ideas. The noble Lord said that he believes that it is because there is corruption--I believe that is the word he used. He may say that, but noble Lords would not expect me to comment.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, does my noble friend believe that the sometimes biased and snippety-snap coverage of Parliament by television and the media has done a great deal to make the country bored stiff with politics?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, that may be the case in respect of what goes on in the other place,

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but I should have thought that anyone who watches the debates in this House and hears the questions and answers will be enthralled.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House, since this is an important and serious issue, what percentage of the 18 to 19 year-old age cohort at the last election was registered to vote?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, at the last election 2.62 per cent. of registered electors, which amounted to 1,145,400, were registered to vote. That was 2.62 per cent. of the total turnout.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, perhaps I did not put that question clearly. This is a tricky question which the noble Baroness may not be able to answer. If that is so, I should be grateful if she would write to me. What I asked was what percentage of the 18 to 19 year-old age cohort, about which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has been asking, was registered to vote.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the last figures I have from the census validation survey estimate show that in 1991 unregistered 18 to 19 year-olds amounted to 12.1 per cent. I shall read Hansard, and if there is anything more that I can add I shall certainly write to the noble Lord.

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