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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord a question. Does he not believe that there is a danger of parental bullying of 16 year-old kids when they go to vote? That is a danger.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, surely the point of the secret ballot is that what a person does in the voting booth is entirely up to him. I suspect that a great deal of bullying of grandmothers goes on, too. I commend the Bill to the House.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, it is 34 years since a Bill was passed that lowered the minimum age for voting in this country. Much has changed in Britain since then. The attitudes of young people as well as attitudes towards them have moved on considerably. So it must be right to reconsider the question of what is the appropriate age to allow someone to vote. We should therefore thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for bringing forward this Bill.
This Bill does not suggest that voting should be compulsory for 16 and 17 year-olds. It would simply allow those who attain the age of 16 by the end of October 2004 to vote in public elections thereafterif they wish to do so. The age at which it may be appropriate to vote will actually vary from person to person. Perhaps I would have been too young to cast my first vote at the age of 16. But by that age, I was the secretary of the Liverpool Wavertree Constituency Liberal Party and I had been treasurer of the Church Ward Liberal Association for three years.
In my sixth form at the Liverpool Blue Coat School, there were many of my contemporaries sufficiently interested in politics and current affairs to hold a sensible discussion and who would have been conscientious voters at the ages of 16 or 17. Sadly, from my point of view, they were overwhelmingly Conservative in the late 1970sbut they were certainly able to make an informed choice.
Nearly two years ago, I took part in a sixth form debate at Upper Warlingham school in Surrey together with representatives of the Conservative and Labour parties. The concerns of young people were eloquently addressed by the sixth formers present. An intelligent and well informed discussion was held on issues ranging from homelessness to the environment, from cannabis to student tuition fees.
There was no doubt that many of those young people were at least as ready as most voters to consider carefully how they would mark their cross on a ballot paper. But perhaps because those aged 16 and 17 are not able to vote, many of the issues about which they are most concerned are not fully reflected in the priorities of many politicians.
All those who believe in democracy must want to encourage democratic participation. It is my belief that if people do not engage in the process of choosing their lawmakers, they are less likely to respect the laws that are enacted, less likely to believe that change can come about in a fair and democratic way, and their opting out of the democratic process has many dangers. We should therefore encourage 16 and 17 year-olds to engage in the process as soon as they feel ready.
Someone who is 16 in 2004 might not have a chance to vote in a general election until he is 21 and has learnt to experience many facets of adult life, but not including voting for his Government. By then, the evidence is that he may well have come to the conclusion that voting is for someone else and not for him. There will, of course, be partisan interest by the parties as to what would be the effect of allowing younger people to vote. Indeed, Peter Riddell in The Times on Monday suggested that the only hope for the Conservative Party might be to raise the minimum age
Lord Renton: My Lords, we should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for giving us the opportunity to consider this matter. However, I must confess that I do not believe that there is any case in favour of giving school children at the age of 16 the responsibility of deciding which party shall be in power and what kind of government we shall have. I will come to more of that later.
As for the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, of course one remembers well. Perhaps I may confess that I was born a Liberal, too, and that at the age of about 10 I started talking politics with my father, who was also a Liberal. I became very interested in the subject but the more I did so and the older I grew, the more I realised that experience of life and the world was necessary for one to exercise a useful judgment in voting. I must say that I am totally against the proposal in my noble friend's Bill and I see little chance of it reaching the statute book, thank goodness.
I hope that no one will take it amiss if I point out the limitations of the electorate as it is, with all men and women over the age of 18or (shall I say?) with young men and girls over the age of 18having the right to vote. I hope that your Lordships will not mind my reminding the House that I fought and won 10 general elections; that I never had a majority of less than 5,000; and that in the large and varied constituency I represented for 34 years at least two-thirds of the voterscertainly two-thirds of those who votedwere wage earners and their families. I had great respect for them and they did not hesitate to vote for or against me. But most of them, of course, in order to get the majorities that I had, must have voted for me.
The issues in every general election are varied, but every time we find among them the issues of foreign affairs and defence, which are very big subjects; the economy; the standard of living; poverty; the need for ever improving education; and the avoidance of crime, which has become much more of an issue more recently and difficult to decide. Indeed, we are toldI do not like to think of itthat even within Her Majesty's present Government there are various opinions on how to reduce crime.
In addition to the issues that arise to a greater or lesser extent at every general election, there are other issues which vary considerably. It seemed to me during the years that I spent as a Member of another place that relatively few voters understood the causes of all the variable important problems; less, sometimes, did they understand the nature of the variable policies put forward by the parties for dealing with those problems. They were not easy issues to understand. Indeed, the younger and less educated the voter, the more difficult they found them to be.
It is fascinating to compare the setting of different voting ages in different countries historically. It might be assumed that a low minimum voting age would be associated with progress and modernity, and a high minimum voting age with small "c" conservatism and even reaction. But if you were to assume that you would be wrong. Some 50 or so years ago, Professor C. Northcote Parkinson set out to rank the nations of the world according to their degree of civilisation overall as he saw it. Factors considered in this evaluation included, for example, long average life expectancy, low infant mortality, free access to good quality medical care and education, low crime rates, low road accident rates, minimal censorship and so on. Although this formula was devised by Professor Northcote Parkinson himself, few political commentators challenged it or disagreed with it.
The half-dozen countries deemed on this basis to be the most civilised in the world included the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Yet the minimum voting age in Norway and Sweden at around that time was 23, and in Denmark and the Netherlands it was 25. Conversely, the first major countries to lower their minimum voting age to 18 were the Soviet Union, and South Africa in the days of apartheid. As Desmond Tutu used to complain wearily, although neither he nor any other highly-educated black person had access to the ballot box, any semi-literate 18 year-old white labourer had full voting rightsand we all know what a farce voting in the Soviet Union used to be. So clearly there is no historical correlation between a low minimum voting age and what might be described as "national virtue".
Nowadays, of course, almost all democracies have a common minimum voting age of 18, in line with the age of majority. What is the case, therefore, for stepping out of line with most of the rest of the world and lowering the voting age to below the age of majority, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, bearing in mind that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under the age of 18?
One argument that I have heard was not mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. One accepts that Britain, albeit to no greater extent than the rest of Europe or Japan, is afflicted by a frankly inadequate birth rate, causing the average age of the population to go up and up, with many unfortunate consequences. One of these, although by no means the most serious, is that the average age of the electorate is obviously
But this presupposes that most older people are either childless or, if they are parents, are unconcerned with or dismissive of the younger generation's interests and ambitions. I doubt, on the whole, that this is the case. But, even if I am over sanguine in supposing that there is no real clash of generations and that the late Sixties and early Seventies was a one-off aberration, I still submit that lowering the voting age to 16 would simply substitute the fire for the frying pan. Because, unless the retirement age were smartly revised upwards to, say, 68 or 70 for both men and women, there would be a danger that recipients of so-called "state" aidI say "state" but of course the state has no money of its own; it all comes from taxpayersstudents, the unemployed and the retired, would increasingly outvote the working population in matters relating to the allocation of resources. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, spoke of no taxation without representation. One could argue that there ought not to be any representation without taxation, but I shall not go into that issue now. For these and other reasons, I am afraid that I cannot support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
I have one final point. The noble Lord suggests that if the Bill is read a second time it should be committed to a Committee of the Whole House. But not much can be done with the Bill; the age cannot be altered because the short Title does not permit it. The Bill extends to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as to England, but I wonder whether the Scottish Parliament would be under any obligation to accept this proposal were the Bill to pass, or whether of its own accord it could decide to raise or lower the minimum voting age. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's answer when he comes to reply.
The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, the House is indebted to my noble kinsman Lord Lucas for giving us the opportunity to consider this proposal. The case rests on the undoubted failure of many in society to meet their responsibilitiesat the moment a responsibility to exercise their vote seriously. The voting record is lamentable. It is an indictment of our society that the number who vote is declining. So before we reject my noble kinsman's Bill we should be careful to analyse what might be required to encourage people to take their duties more seriously .
There have been any number of initiatives in this area. Four years ago, Lord Jenkins chaired an independent commission examining different voting systems in an attempt to determine what system might more accurately reflect the wish of the electorate. The present lack of interest probably stems as much from disenchantment with the whole system as anything elsea sense of lack of involvement, the feeling among people that they have no ability to influence the larger political parties.
I say with great respect to my noble friend Lord Renton that I do not share his concern that the educational level of 16 year-olds is such that they are unlikely to be able to make a contribution by exercising their vote. I have rather more confidence. I have no great concern that they will be bullied by their parents, as might be suggested. I seem to hear an echo from across the years. When the vote was to be extended to women, the argument was advanced that women were bound to obey their husbands so what on earth was the point of giving them the vote. I do not know whether your Lordships have ever tried to bully a 16 year-old. I do not recommend it.
Sustainable development, geography in the news and many educational initiatives rightly encourage 15 and 16 year-olds to look at the role that society should be playing in terms of wider responsibility. I take the viewit may be simplistic but I take it nevertheless in the hope that we can improve on our present rather lamentable recordthat if we can encourage people who have been inducted in a way for which there is presently an appetite to consider their responsibilities in society and at the same time cement their interest by giving them the opportunity to vote, I quietly and confidently expect that that would be appreciated and that their views would be just as valid as those of Members of this House. I should certainly not wish to be so patronising as to suggest that the views of 15 and 16 year-olds are unlikely to be valid because of their lack of experience.
I accept, however, that this is a matter of judgment. I should not want the vote to be given to those below the age of 16. But 16 has a certain symmetry to it, bearing in mind the educational attainments of 16 year-olds. In terms of my own personal record, I think that I peaked as a politician at about 16. It has been downhill ever since in terms of lack of interest. I had a great appetite in this regard at that age, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I have no difficulty therefore in assuming that 16 and 17 year-olds would make an effective contribution.
I should judge such an experiment retrospectively to see whether it had been a successnot by the complexion of the government who might have been elected as a result of widening the franchise in this way but by seeing how many people continued to exercise their right to vote in future elections.
At present, the record of the 18 to 28 year-old age group is, frankly, even worse than that of the population at large. That suggests to me disenchantment. It suggests that not having been able to participate in a system about which they were taught two or three years before they were able to exercise their vote was something of a turn-offan opportunity lost. It takes a great deal of time to return people to an interest in the subject and to an understanding of their responsibilities.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and to endorse what has been said in support of his proposal not only by my noble friend Lord Rennard but also by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne.
I have to confess that, originally, when the idea of reducing the voting age from 18 to 16 was mooted as policy for my party, I was somewhat sceptical about it. I have since changed my mind. The main reason for that is the seriously worrying decline in the level of voting and public interest in politics. I believe that a reduction in the voting age is part of the remedy.
The great majority of young people now stay on at school until the age of 18. If the voting age were to be reduced to 16, half of those who stay on would have the chance while at school to vote in a general election, given the four-year average length of a Parliament. Certainly, half of all students in Scotland and Wales would have the chance to vote for their national Parliament or Assembly. Almost certainly, everyone would have a chance to vote in a local election.
Students in years 12 and 13 are capable of taking an active and lively interest in politics. Anyone who has stood as a parliamentary candidate in a general election would agree that school students in their A-level years are one of the most challenging and lively audiences that one could meet. They ask difficult and perceptive questions. I remember an occasion when one of my opponents in the old Kensington constituency was "mangled" by the sixth form at Holland Park comprehensive school because he talked to them as if they were a bunch of 12 year-olds.
The fact that some people, such as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, have changed their minds since they reached the age of 16 is no argument for saying that 16 year-olds should not have the vote. Indeed, some of us would say that the noble Lord's second thoughts were not as good as his original ones.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, suggested in his intervention that 16 year-olds might be bullied by their parents. I note that the noble Lord has three sons, and I wonder whether he would have told them at the age of 16 how to vote, and if he had whether he thinks they would have done what he told them out of fear.
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