It is a great pleasure to speak on this important matter. Every day, Members speak in this House on behalf of others who cannot be hereour constituents and those people whose causes we take up. We pride ourselves on being able to speak for our communities as a whole, transcending our political allegiances to represent our electorate as best we can; I am pleased that there is some support from all parties here today.
We are responsible to that electorate because ultimately they can vote us in or out. That is one of the reasons why we try to represent them well. We are all well aware that we are here only because we have been voted in by the public. That is why today I am going to do a strange thing as a politician. I am going to speak on behalf of 1.5 million people who did not and could not vote for me.
The purpose of the Voting Age (Reduction) Bill is straightforward: to reduce the legal voting age to 16 for all public elections across the United Kingdom. That is the only way to engage the young people to whom we desperately need to talk as politicians and the only way to send the message that we really care about the issues that affect those people.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The hon. Lady has tabled early-day motion 493 in support of the Bill; I am sure that she will come to it later. I note that 111 colleagues have supported that early-day motion. She says that this is an important issue. Can she tell us why so few of those colleagues have turned up to support her Bill?
There are many excellent reasons why the voting age should be lowered, all of which are outlined in the pamphlet that I have produced with the Votes at Sixteen campaign, entitled 16 for 16: 16 Reasons for Votes at 16. I want to focus my speech on five key arguments. I will discuss the desire for the voting age to be lowered among young people themselves and among the organisations that work with them. What is more, I will discuss why young people have a right to a vote at 16.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con):
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing such a high position in the private Members Bills ballot. I am listening carefully to
her opening remarks. Would she care to share with the House any opinion polling evidence from young people between the ages of 16 and 18 where they have put voting age reduction as the No. 1 issue of concern above, say, the economy, tax, pensions, the health service or schools?
I will argue that lowering the voting age would have a positive impact on levels of engagement among young people and that votes at 16 would be beneficial for our democracy as a whole. Finally, I want to stress that the time is now right for this measure in a way that it may not have been before. This is a key time to take this decision and to go with the politics of hope.
Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Does the hon. Lady recognise that one of the big challenges is that it is hard enough to get 18 to 21-year-olds to vote, yet they too, at an earlier stage, called for more representation and wanted a say in politics? Surely we should focus our energies on trying to figure out how we are going to motivate them to get voting instead of continually trying to lower the age limit.
Julie Morgan: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that I have considered carefully. However, I believe that by involving young people at a younger age we are more likely to involve those in older age groups as well, because people can get into the habit of voting when they are still in schools and institutions. One of my reasons for introducing the Bill is the hope that it will get all younger age groups voting.
The popular assumption is that young people are not interested in politics, and engagement in formal politics is certainly a problem. To follow the hon. Gentlemans point, in the 2005 election only 37 per cent. of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds voteda sad indictment of the situation. Nevertheless, young people are politically aware and active. We all know how enthusiastically they join campaigning organisations and pressure groups on many issues.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that part of the reason turnout among young people has been so low is that it has been low generally, particularly in the last general election? In 1997, the turnout was much higher among 18 to 25-year-olds. Is not the problem essentially that we do not speak the language of young people and therefore fail to engage them in the political process?
Julie Morgan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we do fail to engage young people. That is why it has been so good being able to campaign on the Bill. I have spoken to many young people and have been so impressed by their enthusiasm. They have attended meetings in the House of Commons and spoken with a passion about their belief that they should have the right to vote, and that has given me great hope for the future. We need to speak the language of young people. Part of my reason for promoting the Bill is to connect with young people, and I have been pleased to be able to do so.
According to a Home Office citizenship survey, 81 per cent. of 12 to 16-year-olds believe that there should be a way to get young people involved in politics,. There is a clear and consistent demand from young people for a lowering of the voting age. Research from organisations such as the British Youth Council, the Childrens Society and Save the Children has found a desire among young people for the vote.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I endorse what the hon. Lady says about young people getting involved in politics, as they do at all ages. We are all on the receiving end of letters from youngsters at school who are encouraged to write to their Members of Parliament or who write to us on their own initiative on a range of issues. They join various groups trying to save the whales or to save the environment. We know that they are passionately involved. Does she agree that this is a great apprenticeship whereby they can get involved in politics without going to the next stage, which is to have a vote? There has to be a dividing line somewhere, and one could argue that it could be 17, 16, 15, 14 or 12, but 18 seems to be the appropriate voting age in the vast majority of places in the world.
Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for an important contribution to the debate. I accept that many young people are involved in such pressure groups in a very enthusiastic way, and I applaud what they do. However, young people themselves are saying that they want the vote. There is a move towards lowering the voting age in many other countries, and I think that we should be the leader in this and show our respect for young people. They are the hope for the futurelet us put some trust in them and give them the vote at 16.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I follow the argument that there should be voting at 16, because that is in line with other rights that people gain at 16, but does my hon. Friend agree that the argument that lowering the voting age to 16 would increase turnout does not hold water, because experience in places where it has been done shows that turnout goes down overall rather than up?
Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. The Electoral Reform Society has calculated that if young people voted at the same rates as 18 to 24-year-olds, the percentage turnout would stand still, and if none of them voted it would go down by about 2 per cent. However, I am introducing the Bill not to try to increase turnout but because it is a good way of recognising young peoples involvement and what they can do.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Should not the aim be to ensure that the cohort of youngsters coming up to 16 and between 16 and 18 turn out at a higher rate than those who attain the vote at 18?
Julie Morgan: Absolutely, and I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. One of the reasons I am promoting the Bill is that there is more likelihood that the 16 to 18-year-old group will turn out to vote and will then, we hope, get into the habit of voting, which would boost all turnout rates.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does the hon. Lady realise that her Bill is not even supported by members of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, who, when they met in the other place in May and were asked to vote on what they regarded as the three most important issues to campaign on this year, declined to vote in favour of this proposal because they thought that there were three other issues of greater importance?
Julie Morgan: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that in the meeting to promote the Bill earlier this week we had very enthusiastic members of the UK Youth Parliament supporting it very strongly. Certainly, it is one of the top priorities for the Children and Young Peoples Assembly for WalesFunky Dragonand it is campaigning on it. His point is not particularly valid.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Does the hon. Lady agree that the UK Youth Parliament does support the Bill, but the fact that it did not necessarily label it as the No. 1 priority just shows the maturity of young people in being interested in a whole range of issues?
In 2004, the Electoral Commissions public consultation on lowering the voting age found that 72 per cent. of respondents favoured a voting age of 16. That consultation attracted huge levels of participation, including nearly 8,000 young people. More recently, Funky Dragon ran a wide-ranging survey that found that 80 per cent. of young people in Wales wanted votes at 16. Subsequently, the Welsh Assembly passed a motion calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16. This change in the voting system could be achieved only at Westminster, but the support in the Assembly was overwhelming, with 44 Members voting for the motion and only four against, and complete cross-party support. It was quite a surprise that only four Members voted against. That gives a good idea of what cross-party support there is for this measure in Wales.
Young people, their youth councils and youth groups throughout the UK are lobbying their representatives for the right to vote, and I am sure that many Members have been lobbied by young people on the issue. My faith in the ability of young people was strengthened by the event at which I helped to launch the Bill earlier in the week, which I referred to earlier. Young people came from all over the country to attend the meeting and spoke eloquently and enthusiastically. Listening to them, I wondered how we could possibly not give them the vote. These young people were impassioned and determined, firmly making their case, and I was pleased that people came from Wales, particularly from Cardiff, where my constituency is. It was great to hear young people speaking for themselves from the platform, and not being spoken for by usit was a refreshing change.
I came away thinking about other fights that we have had, such as womens fight for suffrage. A lot of people argued against that as well, but when we look back it seems ridiculous that women could not vote. I hope that one day, when 16-year-olds can vote, we will look back and think how ridiculous it was that there was a time when they could not vote. That happens with all changes: when they start, they seem extreme or groundbreaking to some people, but then they become normal. That is what will happen with votes at 16.
Mr. Harper: I think that that argument is rather specious. Women, when they were not able to vote, were never going to become men. All being well, 16-year-olds will become 18-year-olds, and will therefore get the vote. Whatever else 16-year-olds are, they are not the heirs to the suffragettes.
Julie Morgan: The hon. Gentlemans first point is obviously accurate, but I am comparing the strugglethe fight for recognition and the fight for votes. There are similarities with the suffragettes, and the young people themselves made that point.
Mr. Love: Is my hon. Friend aware that when votes for women were introducedin 1931, I thinkwomen had to be 30 years and over? It was only subsequently that the age was reduced to 18. Is it not a natural consequence of that movement that the voting age be reduced from 18 to 16?
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is any real comparison between this case and the case of the suffragettes, it is not in the arguments for lowering for the voting age, but in the arguments against? Those arguing against votes for 16-year-olds are suggesting that they would not be mature enough or wise enough, and that they would not have a sophisticated enough interest in politicsexactly the arguments that were used against votes for women.
All the leading youth-led organisations support votes at 16, including the British Youth Council, which represents the views of 400 youth councilsI particularly thank it for its supportthe UK Youth Parliament, which represents the views of 500 young people elected by 600,000 of their peers, and the National Union of Students, which represents the views of several million students. All those groups spoke at the meeting earlier this week, and they all put their case well.
Mr. Chope: The hon. Lady keeps referring to the UK Youth Parliament. At its meeting in May, that body decided on a list of six issues, but it decided that the issue of votes at 16 should be the fifth priority, which shows that it does not regard it as a really big issue, as she suggests.
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