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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, perhaps I may answer that point. If I had done so, they might well have voted the wrong way from my point of view for the wrong reason. That is my point.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, if older school students are allowed to vote, I believe that the casting of their vote could become a kind of rite of passage. It is much more likely to happen with 16 and 17-year olds still at school than with those who are 18 or older. University students, particularly if they are living away from home and therefore away from their own constituency, are likely to take a reduced interest in politics because they have lost their constituency links. They will take a reduced interest unless they belong to that class of

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student politicians who are sometimes student political nerds. If 18 year-olds are not at university, they are mostly in the workplace, where there is unlikely to be a great deal of talk about politics.

There is, however, one big "if". I believe that a reduction in the voting age will have a real effect on the political process only if it is coupled with truly effective training in citizenship. I welcome the fact that there will be such training now. Students need to be told why voting matters, and how people fought for the vote. They need to know how, and why, men of the lower, middle and working classes fought for it in the 19th century and women fought for it in the early 20th century. They need to be told that politics is the most crucial profession and that, in our country at least, the majority of politicians are honourable people trying to do their best. I wish we had a domestic television programme comparable with the American programme "The West Wing", which shows politicians as idealistic and committed people.

Students should be taught that they not only have the right to vote but a duty, although not a legal one. I would strongly oppose any proposal to make voting compulsory. All of us with the right to vote have a moral duty. If students could vote while they were being taught about the importance of voting, it would get them off to a good start. For those reasons, and on behalf of our Benches, I give wholehearted support for the Bill.

12.1 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I compliment my noble friend on his eloquence in deploying cogent arguments for his Bill. I also express my appreciation of those who criticised it. The timing of the debate is felicitous, because the Electoral Commission is currently examining the minimum voting age in some depth. Its examination will include open public consultation to enable individuals and organisations to make their views known. I also hope that its report will assess the effect of voting at 16 in countries where it has been adopted, albeit that some such as Cuba and North Korea are single-party states. None of the seven countries where there is voting at 16 is European, although there has been an experiment in one of the Lander in Germany.

The Electoral Commission has already touched on the issue in its research paper Voter engagement and young people published in July last year. That paper pursued the research finding by MORI at the time of the last election that the overall turnout of 59.4 per cent of eligible voters was the lowest since the advent of universal suffrage. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to that in detail. Low turnout was particularly pronounced among young people, with only an estimated 39 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds casting a vote. It is also estimated that only 60 per cent of that age group were registered to vote. I shall make no comment on that but I am sure that noble Lords will come to their own conclusions.

Low turnout at elections concerns us all if it is not explicable by a considered decision to abstain. There is considerable speculation about the causes and possible

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remedies. Those who have studied the matter only cursorily, as I have, realise that if Parliament lowered the voting age, we might increase the total number voting, but we would not necessarily increase the percentage turnout if the inaction that characterised 18 to 24 year-olds in the previous election were simply to be extended to the 16 to 18 age group. Of course, that is an unwarranted assumption on my part.

It could be argued—indeed, it has been—that voting at 16 might encourage the practice of voting, especially if the grant of the vote were accompanied by effective, impartial education in citizenship, its rights and responsibilities. Voting at 16 might have a salutary effect on the use of the vote in later life, not just by the newly enfranchised but by their parents and others whom they might influence positively. Of course, I respect the possibility that it could be the other way round. The obverse scenario is that an extension of the franchise is simply equated with an extension of apathy and the negative factors promoting low turnout.

Some bodies, notably the Electoral Reform Society, have already committed themselves to the principle of granting the vote to 16 year-olds. They are actively campaigning for it, with the support of a variety of youth organisations, including the British Youth Council, Children's Rights Alliance and the National Youth Agency. The ERS, in its submission on the Scottish Executive's White Paper on the future of local government, states,

    "there is a far greater case for lowering the voting age than mere turnout".

It puts forward arguments that merit attention. We have heard some of them during this debate. Like my noble friend Lord Lucas, it points to the inconsistency between the voting age of 18 and the age at which a young person can leave school, work full time, pay taxes, leave home, join the Armed Forces and receive social security benefit—all at 16. Taxation without representation appears to be the lot of a substantial proportion of 16 and 17 year-olds. But even younger people pay tax, although perhaps only in VAT on sweets. Elsewhere in its documents the ERS refers to the right to marry at 16 with parental consent. My only comment in general is that there is also a thrust in society today to increase rather than lower the age in some areas, especially, for example, in education. Many noble Lords remember, as I do, when the school leaving age was 14 and many young people went to work then. Our attitude to young people is now more protective. We want them to remain children while they grow up.

The ERS also argues that,

    "not letting 16 and 17 year olds express their political views through the ballot box gives the impression to them and the rest of society that their views are not valid and that they are not real citizens. This contributes to the disconnection that many young people feel from the political process and structures".

There may be some truth in that, but the electoral behaviour of 18 to 24 year-olds does not suggest that the right to vote in itself will make a real difference. I note the finding of a trial in Lower Saxony that suggests that 16 to 17 year-olds may behave differently from 18 to 24 year-olds and take a rather more active interest than the second age group.

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It is also argued that the denial of the vote to these young people is based on similar grounds to the denial of the vote to women before the 1920s. That is a debatable point, too, which has been referred to by a number of speakers in the course of this debate. But at the end of the day, I come back to the Prime Minister's point in his shrewd answer to a question from Matthew Green, the Member for Ludlow, on 23rd January last year. He said:

    "I am not sure that we would always want 16-year-olds to do all the things they can do".—[Official Report, Commons, 23/1/02; col.887.]

He did not agree with the proposal to lower the voting age. He believed that it should remain as it is. I think that the Prime Minister was probably reflecting the protective attitude of parents who, however advanced and well informed—perhaps precocious—their children are, they wish them to have time to develop their powers of judgment and achieve a degree of political maturity before they vote. What is a proper degree of political maturity is another matter and that would be a debate in itself. But that is the ground on which arguments against a reduction in the voting age are largely based.

While the campaign for a lower voting age has many supporters, including, as we have heard, the Liberal Democrats—Liberal Democrat Peers have expressed it—the Scottish nationalists and the Welsh nationalists, I am not aware of any cross-party parliamentary body that has recommended a change in what some may regard as a totally arbitrary age line of 18. The Howarth Working Party on Electoral Procedures considered the matter, but it did not recommend a change and neither did the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into electoral law and administration. The Commission on Local Government electoral arrangements in Wales, on the other hand, has recommended a lower voting age to the National Assembly. But I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that to the best of my recollection the commission did not advance a substantive argument.

This is certainly not a proposal that is going away. We have been here before and certainly another place has. The increasing dependence of our ageing population on the young and the latter's corresponding increase in economic and political importance will ensure that the issue will remain prominent. We want young people to interest themselves in politics and we want to hear their views. We may be sure that the Electoral Commission's research will certainly fuel debate. There has already been one quite interesting debate in Westminster Hall.

My noble friend's Bill gives us all a chance to weigh the arguments, look at them again, and re-assess our own views. I am sure that we are very open minded in spite of our achieved maturity. I for one am certainly grateful to my noble friend for stimulating debate on the issue by promoting the Bill before us.

12.13 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on introducing his Bill, aimed as it is at enfranchising more young people. The noble Lord encourages us to be adventurous. He has certainly provoked very lively debate

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which, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, has said, will continue for some time. Indeed, the debate is going on inside and outside your Lordships' Chamber.

There is an irony in that we who are disenfranchised as regards general elections are taking the lead, as it were, in extending the franchise to younger people and having the debate. I should also say at this early stage that, as is usually the case as regards Private Members' Bills, the Government do not take a formal view for or against it in its progress through your Lordships' House. We will take no steps to oppose it.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would have expected me to approach this matter with some considered views. I decided at an early stage, knowing that I had to deal with the Bill, that I should form a focus group on the issue. That is very popular in Labour circles. The defining feature of this focus group had to be that all participants shared my surname Bassam and that they had to be aged seven to 14 years. In accordance with good practice in a democratic household, they were extensively consulted over this matter.

The good news from the noble Lord's perspective is that they all favoured the notion of reducing to 16 the age at which they might vote. The bad news is that were they to be able to cast their vote from that age onward I do not believe that it would greatly affect the prospects of the noble Lord's political party.

More seriously, the Government remain deeply concerned at the lack of engagement among young people in the democratic process. I know that one noble Lord at least mentioned the way in which turn out at general elections has been steadily reducing. I was recently reading an account of the 1950 general election at which 80 per cent of the population voted. It is widely understood that at the last general election just 59 per cent of the population voted.

Lowering the voting age may be seen as one way of addressing this issue although as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, reflected, extending and widening the franchise does not necessarily increase the percentage turn out at subsequent elections.

The question of the political and democratic engagement of young people goes much wider, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made very clear, than just the voting age. The Government have taken several legislative steps in recent years to modernise and simplify electoral law and processes so that they take account of, and are more relevant to, modern lifestyles and habits, including in particular those of younger people. For example, we have already introduced rolling registration, registration for those without a conventional address and postal voting on demand. Such measures make it easier both to register to vote and to cast a ballot.

We want to see in place elections that adopt a multi-channelled approach and take advantage of new technology with which young people are growing up and with which they are comfortable and familiar. To find out the best way of doing this we have enabled local authorities to carry out pilot schemes under the Representation of the People Act 2000 to test new ways of voting, such as through the Internet, telephone, SMS

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text messaging and so on, to ensure that they work and that they are safe and secure. We are committed to an e-enabled general election taking place, no doubt, some time after 2006. We consulted widely on e- democracy in our In the Service of Democracy consultation paper last year. That addressed the essential and vital point that engagement with the democratic process goes far beyond simply voting. It also specifically asked,

    "young people, whether at school, university or work"

for their views.

We recognise that changing the voting system and lowering the age, as the noble Lord suggests, cannot of themselves address the issue of the engagement of young people including those who are perhaps uninterested in politics from the outset. But we are determined to identify—

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