All 4 Lords Chamber debates in the Lords on 28th Jan 2022

House of Lords

Friday 28th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Friday 28 January 2022
10:00
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.
Third Reading
10:05
Clause 1: Amendments to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992
Amendment
Moved by
: Clause 1, page 2, line 44, at end insert “and any such regulations must be made by statutory instrument which is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This is a technical amendment to ensure (in order to comply with the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in HL Paper 101, 18 November 2021) that the Bill, which inserts identical provisions regulating the status of workers into the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and the Employment Rights Act 1996, provides identical mechanisms to allow the Secretary of State to exercise the additional powers given by the Bill to expand the categories of “worker” and “employer” (Clauses 1(6) and 2(6)). Currently, the 1996 Act requires such powers to be exercised by Statutory Instrument subject to the negative procedure but the 1992 Act does not. The proposed amendment would amend the 1992 Act so as to ensure consistency under both Acts.
Lord Hendy Portrait Lord Hendy (Lab)
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My Lords, this amendment is in my name and on a sheet marked HL Bill 14—TR(a). It is a technical amendment, so perhaps I can remind your Lordships of the context of the Bill and the purpose of the amendment. The context is that the Bill seeks to amend the two major Acts of Parliament regulating employment in the United Kingdom: the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and the Employment Rights Act 1996. It provides amended definitions of the concepts of worker, employee and employer.

In the Bill, the Secretary of State is given power to make regulations to deal with anomalous cases. The problem is that the 1996 Act provides a mechanism for the Secretary of State to do that by way of statutory instrument, subject to the negative procedure. However, the 1992 Act does not provide such a mechanism. Therefore, this amendment is designed to give effect to the democratic purpose by providing an equivalent power to the Secretary of State to exercise his regulatory power by statutory instrument, subject to the negative procedure. It is entirely technical and makes the provisions of both Acts, should the Bill be passed, equal.

I was not aware of this defect when drafting the Bill, which may be thought surprising, given that I spent almost my entire career arguing over bits of both pieces of legislation. However, the anomaly was drawn to my attention by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report, which was published after that committee dealt with my Bill. I am sorry to say that I am a member of that committee, so it was particularly shameful to be rapped over the knuckles by it for my omission. I hope now to put the matter right. I beg to move.

Amendment agreed.
10:09
Motion
Moved by
Lord Hendy Portrait Lord Hendy
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That the Bill do now pass.

Baroness Merron Portrait Baroness Merron (Lab)
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My Lords, I speak in place of my noble friend Lord Bassam, who cannot be here today.

We on these Benches support my noble friend Lord Hendy and his Bill, which will create a single status of worker. I express my thanks to my noble friend for introducing the Bill and for his amendment, along with his great honesty about the need for it.

The Bill elegantly replaces existing employment categories, thereby removing qualifying periods for basic rights and protections. It gives workers rights in the job from day one, so all workers would receive rights and protections, such as statutory sick pay, national minimum wage entitlement, holiday pay, paid parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal, while the genuinely self-employed would retain their status. It is of course a shame that parliamentary time limits mean that the Bill may be going no further. I therefore hope to see it as a government Bill before too long.

Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con)
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My Lords, I have made this speech on a number of occasions. There are roughly 6 million trade unionists in Britain, and a third of them—2 million—vote for the party on these Benches. I am pleased, on their behalf, to welcome the Bill. It is a good step forward, because we always need to keep in mind the balance between the rights of the workers and those of the employers. This is a good Bill that rights an anomaly, and I hope that it will go further. I know that is difficult, but it is certainly in the right place and it has my personal full support.

Lord Callanan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Lord Callanan) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, for moving his technical amendment in order to comply, as he said, with the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. While the Government are not convinced that the Bill is the right course of action, we agree with the importance of legislative scrutiny and consistency. The Government therefore welcome the amendment, which would ensure consistency under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and the Employment Rights Act 1996—although, as I said, we cannot support the Bill.

I congratulate the noble Lord on bringing the Bill to the House and on enabling this debate on an important subject. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions during Second Reading, which allowed for what I thought was an insightful and important debate on this topic. I also thank the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for its expert contribution and the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, for tabling his amendment.

As I said at the start, the Government are not convinced that the Bill is the right solution to give greater protection to those in insecure work. We will continue to take steps to protect vulnerable workers, delivering on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to work and grow a business.

Lord Hendy Portrait Lord Hendy (Lab)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his speech. I am grateful, too, for the other speeches made today and those which were made on Second Reading. I am particularly grateful that the Bill has enjoyed wide support across the House, on all sides. I of course understand the position of the Minister in being unable to support it, but he stands alone in this. If the Bill is passed it will, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, render great justice to hundreds of thousands of workers who are wrongly classified, and thereby deprived of the statutory rights which Parliament has bestowed on working people. It will also provide, in accordance with the Government’s policy, a levelling-up process by which all employers will stand on a level playing field in the engagement of their workforce.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.

Digital Economy Act 2017 (Commencement of Part 3) Bill [HL]

Second Reading
10:14
Moved by
Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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My Lords, first, I take the opportunity to acknowledge the noble Lords attending today to support this Bill. I particularly want to thank those who have made a special effort to attend today and speak on this important issue. I look forward to hearing everyone’s contribution to this debate; I know that many others would have liked to be here today but are unable to be present. It is clear that there is strong cross-party support for this issue and for action to be taken.

I also want to put on the record my thanks for the pioneering work of Baroness Howe, who tabled this Bill in the previous Parliament, before her retirement in June 2020. She set a high bar for those of us concerned with online safety.

Before I set out the reasons for this Bill, I want to set out what it seeks to achieve. It is a very simple, one-clause Bill that seeks to ensure that regulations are brought into force to commence Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act by 20 June this year. In brief, Part 3 requires commercial pornographic websites to introduce age verification so that children are unable to access pornographic material. It requires the appointment of a regulator to oversee the age verification and to instruct internet service providers to block sites without age verification or which contain illegal and extreme pornography.

It seems remarkable that this Bill is even needed. The Digital Economy Act received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017, and it has been almost five years since Parliament passed that legislation into law. I am not sure what the correct adjective is to use: “shocking” does not seem to be strong enough, but it is shocking that, almost five years after legislation was passed to protect children from accessing pornography, the Government have continued to fail in their obligation to introduce this part of the 2017 Act and provide the children of the UK with some level of protection from accessing pornography online. Indeed, the July 2021 report of the Communications and Digital Committee of your Lordships’ House said:

“The Government’s inaction has severely impacted children”.


It is not just children who are failed by the Government’s inaction; it is also women who are let down by this legislation not being brought into force. As I said, Part 3 of the DEA provided for a regulator with robust power to deal with extreme and violent pornography. We do not have to cast our minds back too far into the past to see the harm caused by extreme pornography. Just last spring, a woman who should have felt safe walking home in the early evening through the streets of London was attacked and died at the hands of a man who was addicted to the type of pornography that Part 3 of the DEA seeks to address. We will of course never know what might have happened in the case of Sarah Everard if this legislation had been in force, but what we can say with certainty is that action would have been taken to address the type of pornography to which her attacker had formed an addiction.

This legislation should have been in force in 2018, but there were several delays in getting the framework in place. Just as everyone thought that Part 3 was about to come into effect, it came to light that there was a departmental error: the department failed to inform the EU that the legislation was going into force, and implementation was delayed again. Two weeks after the EU notification period was concluded, in October 2019, the Government announced that they were not going to implement the legislation after all, despite spending £2.2 million to ensure that the BBFC was ready to be the regulator. The implementation of the legislation was shelved. The Government gave no indication that they were going to take this course of action; they did not consult with interested parties or speak to children’s charities or the many organisations helping women across this country. They simply buried the legislation.

The question that has never been answered is why. When the Government made their decision in 2019, we were told that new proposals would be brought forward in early 2020 for pre-legislative scrutiny. While Covid could be advanced as a reason for delay, it is surprising that pre-legislative scrutiny of what is now the online safety Bill did not start until May 2021; more than 18 months after the Government promised new proposals, pre-legislative scrutiny began. As of today, the online safety Bill has completed that pre-legislative scrutiny and is still a few months away from starting its parliamentary journey.

Five years after Parliament legislated that age verification be placed on pornographic websites, children do not have the protection of that technology to keep them safe online. While the Government will probably respond that the online safety Bill will fix the problem—and it may well do—the jury is definitely out on that matter, since the Bill as currently drafted does not have robust age-verification measures contained within its provisions and pornography is not mentioned on the face of the Bill. Put simply, the online safety Bill, as currently drafted, is less robust in protecting children compared with Part 3 of the DEA. The online safety Bill as drafted covers only user-to-user content. It does not cover all commercial pornographic websites. It is unacceptable that protection for children online should be diminished in any new law.

Whatever form the online safety Bill takes when it receives Royal Assent, one abiding problem remains: what are we going to do now? Five years is already too long to wait for protections to be put in place, given that the online safety Bill is unlikely to receive Royal Assent before 2023, and the Government tell us that it may take 18 months for Ofcom to be ready to assume the role of regulator. What do the Government propose that we do now and for the next few years? We face the prospect of almost 10 years having passed between age verification having first been raised in the Conservative manifesto as a way of protecting children online and that vital safety measure being put in place on commercial pornography websites.

A child who was eight years old when this proposal was first put forward in 2016 will be an adult when the protections will finally be in place; they will have gone through their formative years and been exposed to untold harm online. Potentially, they will be in the grips of addiction by the time this protection is made a legal requirement, if it is at all—yet it could have been avoided. If the Government had only done what they were supposed to do by law, that child, who will be an adult by the time the online safety Bill is implemented, could have been protected.

The charity Naked Truth helps adults facing this reality. One person they have helped is Jack from Manchester. Jack says that he was first exposed to pornography when he was 11. His story is a common one: a group of boys looking online and coming across pornographic material. By the age of 16, Jack was addicted to online pornography. He says, “Some of the things that I saw made me excited, yet others shocked and disgusted me and made me feel almost sick. Yet as I explored this world more and more, I found that the things that first made me gasp in shock and disbelief slowly started to become attractive.” He became desensitised to what he was seeing online.

As Jack entered adult life, his addiction had taken hold and he could not stop. It infected his entire life. Jack continued, “It took me over 10 years to rid myself of pornography addiction that started at a young age. Its effect on me, my mental health and attitude to women has ruined my life as a teenager and young adult and still deeply affects these aspects of my life to this day. I wish only that there were a way to stop and protect children—like I once was—from pornography, so they would not make the same mistakes I made and have the inappropriate exposure that I was first exposed to.”

There are hundreds of thousands of children like Jack across the UK. According to research by DCMS, 80% of children aged six to 12 have viewed something harmful online, while over 50% of teenagers believe that they have accessed illegal content online. Jack and the millions of children like him are the ones that Part 3 of the DEA was enacted to help, yet they have been failed. We cannot allow children to continue to be let down, especially when there is legislation on the statute book right now that would protect them. If passed, this Bill before the House today would ensure that protection was in place this year.

It is important to understand that it is not just a matter of waiting for the online safety Bill to come into force. The position is not that the online safety Bill will do all that Part 3 would have done—albeit a number of years late—but that the substance of the Bill as currently drafted is considerably less than what Part 3 of the DEA would deliver in a number of respects.

First, commercial pornography sites are not captured by the current draft of the online safety Bill. The Joint Committee scrutinising the Bill has recommended in its report that the Bill be amended to include pornography—a position supported by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the other place in its report published on Monday. We await the Government’s response, but the Bill at present would allow many pornographic sites to continue operating in a non-regulated manner.

Secondly, how age verification will operate and to which parts of the online world it will apply are unknown. The Bill documents state:

“The proportion of businesses required to employ age assurance controls and the type of controls required are unknown at this stage, this will be set out in future codes of practice.”


The Joint Committee proposes that the age-assurance design code be utilised to cover age verification, but we do not know how that will work. The design code relates to the processing of data and the Information Commissioner is clear that they do not believe that it covers content. So we are as yet uncertain about how age verification will continue—and even whether it will operate at all. That clarity and certainty can be delivered by Part 3 of the DEA.

Thirdly, and in a similar vein, there is no requirement to block extreme pornographic websites. The Government’s 2021 Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls strategy states:

“Through the new Online Safety Bill, companies will need to take swift and effective action against illegal content targeted at women … The Government will work with stakeholders and Parliamentarians to identify priority illegal harms which will be specified in secondary legislation and may include those of particular relevance to women, such as ‘revenge porn’, extreme pornography”.


Again, we have a lack of certainty about how women will be protected from online pornography, despite the strategy saying:

“The Call for Evidence showed a widespread consensus about the harmful role violent pornography can play in violence against women and girls, with most respondents to the open public surveys and many respondents to the nationally representative survey agreeing that an increase in violent pornography has led to more people being asked to agree to violent sex acts”.


Fourthly, it is not clear whether the wide list of actions that are considered enforceable under the draft online safety Bill will be effective in preventing harm to children or violence to women. Part 3 of the DEA relies on the regulator asking ancillary services to block services or requiring ISPs to block websites to enforce the provisions. Under the draft online safety Bill, only in rare situations will a court—rather than the regulator, Ofcom—direct an ancillary service to take action against an ISP or other service to block access to a provider, and it is not clear how proactive Ofcom will be in ensuring that websites are implementing the duty of care as set out in that Bill. There is so much uncertainty surrounding the online safety Bill, yet we have sure and certain legislation on the statute book right now. My Bill would ensure it was brought into force this year.

It is disappointing that the Government have continually ignored pleas from across this House and the other place to implement this legislation. If the Government continue to be unwilling to implement Part 3 of the DEA, what then is the alternative? Are there any other measures that they plan to bring forward in the interim to ensure that children are protected? Speaking in the other place on 10 June last year, responding to the Ofsted review on sexual abuse in schools and colleges, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education stated:

“The Online Safety Bill will deliver a groundbreaking system of accountability and oversight of tech companies and make them accountable to an independent regulator. The strongest protections in the new regulatory framework will be for children, and companies will need to take steps to ensure that children cannot access services that pose the highest risk of harm, such as online pornography. In addition, the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have asked the Children’s Commissioner to start looking immediately at how we can reduce children and young people’s access to pornography and other harmful content. That work will identify whether there are actions that can be taken more quickly to protect children before the Online Safety Bill comes into effect.”—[Official Report, Commons, 10/6/21; col. 1162.]


That was seven months ago and, apart from some press reports stating the views of the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales, we do not have any clear indication of what interim measures the Government are going to take to reduce access by children to pornographic and other harmful content online.

When Part 3 was delayed, the Government said that preventing children’s access to pornography is a critically urgent issue. The slow pace of responding to the Ofsted report suggests that the Government think otherwise. The Government say they are going to identify action that can be taken to protect children, yet the one action they can take, legislative action—namely, the implementation of Part 3 of the DEA—is the one thing they continue to refuse to do. The Joint Committee, when reporting on the online safety Bill, stated that age assurance needed to be in place within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. I understand that the Government believe it could take two years for a regulator to be in place to properly administer age verification. If it will indeed take two years for Ofcom to get ready to be the regulator and consult on its role and legal powers, surely the Government should start the process now.

I appreciate that there is doubt about the steps Ofcom can take now to speed up implementation of whatever new regulations will be required to give effect to the online safety Bill’s provision in respect of pornographic sites. Mindful of that, an opportunity exists for the Secretary of State to utilise the Digital Economy Act 2017 to allow Ofcom to start work now. Ofcom could be designated under Section 17 of the DEA as the regulator. This would, at the very least, give it legal cover to undertake research into the size, shape and nature of the online pornography market in the UK, the readiness of the industry to respond to any new laws on age verification, the relevant technologies and related matters. Once that preparatory work is complete, it would have a clear idea of how it would need to respond when its responsibilities under the online safety Bill become clear and would be able to prepare a consultation process to ensure that regulation begins as soon as possible after Royal Assent.

Let me be clear: this is far from the preferred option but does, at the very least, represent a way forward and allows the Government to use Part 3 of the DEA to ensure that protections are delivered without delay once the online safety Bill is law. I ask the House to support this Bill and send a message to children and women across this nation that we value them. Real lives are being affected by the current lack of protection. We must take action to prevent more people like Jack falling into the addiction that has had a devastating effect on his life. We cannot allow another tragedy like that which happened to Sarah Everard.

While Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act will not solve all the issues in relation to online pornography, one thing that is certain is that the landscape will be much safer with those protections than without them. It is not just Members of this House who believe that; the general public want action on this issue now. According to BBFC research, 83% of parents across the UK want the Government to act and bring in age-verification measures now. It is within the Government’s gift to provide protection. That is why I ask that the Government take this Bill seriously and that, if they do not support it, they set out urgently their alternative proposals to ensure that children and women are protected to the same level as envisaged by Part 3 of the DEA while the online safety Bill makes its way through the House. I beg to move.

10:34
Baroness Benjamin Portrait Baroness Benjamin (LD)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, on tabling this Bill to debate this important issue and I declare an interest as a vice-president of Barnardo’s. It is frustrating that once again we find ourselves in this House debating the need to protect children and women from the dangers of online pornography, because this matter was settled in 2017 with Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, which should have been implemented by 2019. It goes without saying that children must not have easy access to harmful material online, and women and girls should no longer be placed at risk of abuse, violence and harm resulting from the ever-increasing deluge of online pornography. It is shocking that legislation exists that could alleviate some of those risks, yet it has not been brought into force.

Barnardo’s believes that many children in the UK are developing a view of sex and relationships that is void of context, especially in relation to consent and violence, which will stay with them well into adulthood. Research shows that pornography has wide impacts on the development of children and young people, including poor mental health, low self-esteem, sexual aggression, violence, child-on-child sexual abuse and the shaping of future sexual behaviour. Another generation of young people will face these same issues unless we act now.

It is not just children and young people who will be protected by Part 3 of the DEA; it also seeks to protect women and girls from the harmful influence of violent and extreme pornography on men and boys. All the research highlights that male sexual violence against women and the distortion of sexual relationships have their roots in extreme and violent pornography. This is why, on 7 May last year, I and a group of other parliamentarians, women’s organisations, head teachers and children’s charities wrote to the Prime Minister expressing our concerns regarding this issue. This letter was written because of the tragic death of Sarah Everard, who was murdered at the hands of a man addicted to extreme pornography. This has sparked women from all over the UK to share their stories. Listening to these stories, it is clear that pornography plays a significant role in increasing violence by men against women.

I raised these issues almost a year ago, in debates in this House on the Domestic Abuse Bill. We know that Part 3 of the DEA will not end sexual violence or protect all children from harm, but it is the very minimum we can expect and trust our Government to do. At the beginning of last year, I wrote to the Government to ask why they have failed to implement Part 3 of the DEA and to encourage them to implement it as an interim measure while the online safety Bill is considered by Parliament. I was informed that implementing Part 3 as an interim measure would not be possible because of the time it would take to designate a regulator under Section 17 of the DEA; that it would take two years for a regulator to be designated and for the relevant consultation to conclude. I was given no information as to why this would take two years—that was two years ago. The BBFC, which was designated and then de-designated under the Act, could have been reappointed as the regulator under Section 17.

In March 2021, had the Government redesignated the BBFC as regulator, interim protections for children and women could have been in place within 40 days. Protection would be in place pending the online safety Bill. Had the Government acted at that time, commercial pornography sites could have been regulated and age verification put in place by the summer of last year. It is still open to the Government to follow this course and I so wish that they would.

Here is the reality: the Bill we are debating today is not actually needed. All that is required is that the Government do what they are obligated to do by law and implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. If the Government refuse to do this, it will take time for Ofcom to be designated as the regulator once the online safety Bill is eventually passed. But the Government do not need to wait until the online safety Bill is in place: they could designate Ofcom now.

Last March, the Government wrote to me stating that it would take around two years for Ofcom to be designated as a regulator. If they had acted last year and designated Ofcom under Section 17 of the DEA, it could have laid the regulations and guidance before Parliament this autumn. By the end of the year, Ofcom would have begun its work as regulator, pending passage of the online safety Bill through Parliament. If, as the Government claim, it will take two years for Ofcom to be designated as a regulator under the online safety Bill, it could be 2025 or later before age verification and curbs on extreme pornography are in place. This is totally unacceptable.

While it is preferable for the Government to implement Part 3 of the DEA immediately, the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that Ofcom be designated now under Section 17 of the DEA and that it commence work to prepare to be the regulator is reasonable. It would be shameful if the Government further delayed action on age verification and protecting women and girls from the harm of violent pornography by failing to act now. Children and women have waited far too long for these protections. The Government should act now to alleviate any more harm and suffering.

A mother wrote to me telling me that her four year-old daughter was sexually abused by a 10 year-old boy, who told her, “I am going to rape you and you are going to like it”. Now when the daughter hears the word “rape” on the news, she asks her mother, “Did she like it mummy?” It makes me weep to tell this story, because childhood lasts a lifetime. This is why I support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. It is a moral issue.

10:42
Earl of Erroll Portrait The Earl of Erroll (CB)
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My Lords, I almost wonder what I can add to what the two previous speakers have said. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, in bringing this Bill; it is long overdue. I just do not know what went wrong inside the Civil Service and the Executive for Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act not to have been implemented. I entirely agree with the analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, that this could have been done very much more quickly. I do not understand what went wrong.

I will make two principal points. First, the online safety Bill does not even begin to cover adequately the point covered by Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. There are some suggestions from the Select Committee as to how it might be done through the age-appropriate design code, but I do not think that has the teeth of Part 3—its financial sanctions are the only thing that will really bite and make people comply properly. I will come back to that in a moment.

The second point is the constitutional issue, which I find quite intriguing. Parliament is supposedly sovereign; it legislates and sets the rules, and the executive departments carry them out. How, constitutionally, is it correct for the Executive to overrule Parliament? I am quite worried about the balance of power between the two arms of government. The delaying tactics used by DCMS were exasperating. It failed to do something that it also made a mess of about a year earlier in informing the EU about regulations coming into force. It knew it had to do that, so was that deliberate? I do not really need an answer—we can guess.

Then we have the BBFC being appointed the regulator, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, just said; it went off at a tangent and produced regulations about data protection and GDPR, which was not its job but the job of the Information Commissioner’s Office. Its job was age verification and making sure that people were not accessing the sites. We spent a huge amount of time on Part 3 because we recognised its purpose and importance. On the whole, we did a very good job—we realised that effective sanctions had to be in there or it would not work.

What really worries me is not just extreme pornography, which has quite rightly been mentioned, but the stuff you can access for free—what you might call the “teaser” stuff to get you into the sites. It normalises a couple of sexual behaviours which are not how to go about wooing a woman. Most of the stuff you see up front is about men almost attacking women. It normalises—to be absolutely precise about this, because I think people pussyfoot around it—anal sex and blowjobs. I am afraid I do not think that is how you go about starting a relationship. Starting children off, at the age of 10 or 11—goodness knows when they start watching this stuff—thinking that this is how you should treat a girl when you first start going out with her, probably in your early teens, is not a good idea. We could have stopped it. For some reason, the Executive decided not to. I would love to know who kept blocking it, because there are funny people in there—it really worries me.

We had support for it from the major porn providers. I wondered why, and discovered that quite a few of the directors had teenage children. They did not like teenagers looking at this stuff either. They would have gone along with it as long as it was done universally, to stop the smaller ones grabbing their market. It could have been done, and they were going to help police it. We even produced a BSI PAS 1296 on how to do anonymous age verification to make sure that people who wanted to browse a website —for instance, a parliamentarian—could do so anonymously, but they would be age-verified in doing it. I chaired the working group on it, which is why I know quite a lot about that bit. It worked, and quite a few age-verification and attribute providers worked on how to do it. There are various examples out there; we even had demonstrations for whoever wanted to go and see it, including members of the Executive, the Home Office, DCMS, the BBFC, parliamentarians and everyone. They worked.

The real problem is that the online safety Bill, which we were promised would deal with this, does not. It deals with the intermediaries; the bit that Part 3 of the DEA could not cover because, I suspect, it was lobbied not to by Facebook, Google and all that lot. Quite rightly, it attacks that part of it. However, by repealing Part 3, the Government are dropping the ultimate sanctions you need to sort out the sites you go to in order to see this stuff. That is where you need the protections. It is all very well people being checked half-way down a Google search or whatever, but by the time they have got to where the search goes, that age check will not be there. You must have it at the front end of the porn sites themselves. That is what we had in the DEA; I have no idea why the Government do not want it. Again, I wonder what the motives are of those inside government doing this.

What else can I say? I do not understand why they will not just implement it. If they need to pass this Bill to do it, please do so. If they just want to get on with implementing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, that is probably quicker, as we would not have to go through all the stages of this Bill in this and the other House. My plea to the Government is this: get on with it.

10:48
Lord McColl of Dulwich Portrait Lord McColl of Dulwich (Con)
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My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for picking up the baton from Baroness Howe and continuing to bring this important subject before your Lordships’ House.

I want to quote what the Government said in response to the Ofsted Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges which was published last June, as has been mentioned. A Statement was made in the other place on 10 June and in this House on 17 June which said:

“There is another thing that is not okay: the ease of access to and increasing violence of online pornography. This increasingly accessible online content, which often portrays extremely violent sex, can give young people warped views of sex and deeply disturbing views on consent.”—[Official Report, 17/6/21; col. 2071.]


That is why we are debating this Bill today. The Government appear to have been taken by surprise by the findings of the report last year. But it is not a surprise. The Conservative manifesto of 2015 acknowledged the impact of pornography on young people and promised action to stop children accessing this material.

In 2016, the Government introduced proposals for age verification by stating their concerns in terms very similar to the words used last year. The consultation document said:

“Pornography has never been more easily accessible online, and material that would previously have been considered extreme has become a part of mainstream online pornography. When young people access this material, it risks normalising behaviour that might be harmful to their future emotional and psychological development.”


The consultation document was issued in February 2016. Here I stand, nearly six years later, dismayed that the promised action has not materialised.

I do not doubt the Government’s good intentions with respect to the online safety Bill. I met the Minister with the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, last year to discuss the new proposals. But I said at the time—on Report on the domestic violence Bill—that I remained just as baffled after that meeting as to why the Government choose not to implement Part 3. I am not suggesting that Part 3 is a complete answer to all the issues around online pornography, but it is what we have available to us now. Doing nothing in the interim—before the online safety Bill comes into effect—is leaving our children and youth without protection from material that the Government acknowledge can lead to real harm.

It is not only children who are impacted by pornography. In our debates on the domestic violence Bill last year, it was clear that—as I said in Committee—sexual violence is an important part of domestic violence. During the debates, we heard about the links between pornography and acts of rough sex. The subsequent call for evidence to inform the tackling violence against women and girls strategy

“showed a widespread consensus about the harmful role that violent pornography can play in violence against women and girls”.

On 17 November 2021, when asked about the regulation of pornography, the Prime Minister said that

“people are coarsened and degraded by this stuff”.

I could not agree more.

I am left wondering why the Government do not use the legislation that is on the statute book to act now, as has been mentioned before. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but I hope his remarks will be more than the stock statements about how the Government are working on the online safety Bill. This was the position in March 2021, and we have not yet started debating the Bill in Parliament.

I started my speech by referring to the Government’s response to the Ofsted report. The response included that announcement that

“the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have asked the Children’s Commissioner to start looking immediately at how we can reduce children and young people’s access to pornography and other harmful content. That work will identify whether there are actions that can be taken more quickly to protect children before the online safety Bill comes into effect.”—[Official Report, 17/6/21; col. 2071.]

I hope the Minister will set out clearly today the Government’s short-term plans to achieve these objectives, and how they will also ensure that the plans include actions to protect women from the consequences of violent pornography. I urge the Minister—as I have done before—to include the implementation of Part 3 as part of the interim measures.

10:54
Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for securing the debate and add my frustration and exasperation to the voices of noble Lords who have already spoken. I declare my interests, particularly that of chair of the 5Rights Foundation and as a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill.

Here we are again, discussing our collective failure to protect children from violent misogynistic pornography and the negative impact it has on body image, self-esteem, sex and relationships. That failure can be measured, in part, by the need of schoolchildren to set up their own website, Everyone’s Invited, so that they could make witness to their tales of epidemic sexual abuse in our schools—about which we have done nothing. It can also be measured by the statistic released this week by the IWF that last year 27,000 seven to 10 year-olds in the UK posted self-generated sexual abuse images—a threefold increase on the year before. In a chilling conversation with colleagues a couple of days ago, the IWF explained how it hears in the voices of these young children language taken directly from the pornography they are mirroring. It is unacceptable to hear the despair of schoolchildren and fail to act. It is tragic to imagine even one child—of any age—mimicking porn for the pleasure of a paedophile, let alone 27,000 seven to 10 year-olds.

We will undoubtedly hear from the Minister that Part 3 of the DEA will be usurped and addressed through the forthcoming online safety Bill. However, that does not account for the failure of Government to implement legislation already fought for in this House, and already in law for five years. Nor does the fact that this measure is absent from the draft online safety Bill, or the recent refusal to accept my Private Member’s Bill on age assurance, give me any confidence that this is a priority for the Government.

Frictionless access to online pornography is not an equivalent to hazy memories of men who once read a soft-porn mag behind the cricket shed. It is a multi-billion industry delivering eye-watering violence towards women and girls, delivered by a tech sector proven to be driven by profit and with a wilful disregard for children’s safety and well-being. It is worth noting that 60% of pornography access by children aged 11 to 13 is not actually searched for—it is unintentional, often delivered algorithmically as content they might like. Waiting for the online safety Bill is no longer an option and access to pornography is not the only issue.

Ofcom’s own research shows that 42% of five to 12 year-olds in the UK use social media services— most of which have a minimum age use of 13. Ofcom’s chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes, in her evidence to the Joint Committee said that any code of practice under the Bill would take a minimum of 18 months to produce. This does not take into account the year of transition by which it becomes law. This is simply not good enough for an issue of this urgency. A child of 11 getting their first smartphone today will be 14 or15 before they benefit from the online safety Bill, and a child who was 11 when Part 3 was agreed will be an adult. Nor is it acceptable, as I have been told by Ministers and officials, that what is currently proposed by DCMS is a voluntary standard of age assurance rather than a statutory code of practice. Voluntary standards require volunteers and we have seen repeatedly that the sector will not act unless mandated to do so. Age assurance, which is any system of estimating or establishing age, must be subject to rules of the road so that we know that, whatever the technical approach —and believe me, there are many—both third-party providers that offer age checks and services that operate their own age-assurance systems are doing so to a set of agreed principles appropriate to the risk.

On 19 November last year, we had the Second Reading of the Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill, which would have given Ofcom the power to create a mandatory code of age assurance. On that occasion, I set out the arguments for a proportionate, flexible, secure, accurate, privacy-preserving regime for age assurance—one that would finally deal with the issue of underage access to pornography but also support the age-appropriate design code, with its landmark safety and privacy advances—as well as the further safeguards that we anticipate will be brought forward in the online safety Bill. I will not repeat in full what I said on that occasion, but rather refer the noble Lord to that debate and urge him to understand that this is not a question of technology but one of governance.

If government sets the principles of privacy, security, purpose limitation and fairness, we know that the technology is there. We have a vibrant safety tech sector in the UK, and it too has asked that the Government create mandatory standards so that it can be seen to meet them. This is not a zero-sum game. The sector is already checking age, but very badly. It is already taking excessive data from both children and adults, with little oversight over how it is used and with whom it is shared. We must now set a higher bar.

Royal Assent has been granted for age assurance. The Government have promised age assurance. Parents are desperate for age assurance and children will never be safe without it. Waiting for the online safety Bill is to condemn yet another generation of young people to a digital world that fails to protect them. That means it is government that now bears the responsibility for the failure to act.

In the name of the thousands of seven to 10 year-olds who will copycat porn for predators in the meantime and the young people who repeatedly ask that their digital lives be safer, kinder and more equitable, I ask the Minister himself to act and, when he stands to speak, to make a commitment that he personally will put this case, in full, to the Secretary of State and ask that she give government support to the Private Member’s Bill that is sitting at the ready and, in doing so, swiftly fulfil the ambition of Part 3 of the DEA.

11:02
Lord Browne of Belmont Portrait Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)
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My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Morrow for bringing this Bill before the House. It is disappointing that due to government inaction, my noble friend has been forced to move this Bill today. This is an issue that everyone across the House believed to be settled in 2017, when Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act was passed.

The Government tell us that this matter will finally be dealt with through the online safety Bill, but that Bill will not become law for at least 18 months, and provisions relating to age verification and pornography will not be in force until potentially a further two years after that. Indeed, it could be another four years before provisions agreed in 2017 come into force.

Even if the online safety Bill is enacted, there is no guarantee that the provisions or even the spirit of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act will be implemented. The draft online safety Bill does not extend to all commercial pornography websites and, unlike in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, pornography is not listed as an online harm. There is no guarantee that the online safety Bill will come anywhere close to providing the protection afforded under Part 3 of the DEA. That is why the Bill before the House today in the name of my noble friend Lord Morrow is critical.

It is clear that this protection is needed now. In 2016, prior to the introduction of the then Digital Economy Bill, the Government said:

“Pornography has never been more easily accessible online, and material that would previously have been considered extreme has become part of mainstream online pornography. When young people access this material it risks normalising behaviour that might be harmful to their future emotional and psychological development.”


That is why the DEA was enacted, and those risks have not receded. Young people are still at risk from online harm.

There is a substantial body of evidence which suggests that exposure to pornography is harmful to children and young people. Many have spoken in this debate already about the harm carried into adult life, which has a damaging impact on young people’s view of sex and relationships. For many young men, addiction to pornography which starts in the teenage years can often lead to the belief that women are dehumanised and to be treated as objects.

Evidence published by the Government in January 2021 which reported the experiences of front-line professionals working with clients who had either exhibited harmful sexual behaviours towards women or were at risk of doing so said that for young people, pornography is seen as

“providing a template for what sex and sexual relationships should look like”.

One worker is quoted as saying:

“‘Porn comes up in probably eighty or ninety percent of my cases … what they’ve done is influenced by what they’ve seen … For them, the internet is fact.’”


Pornography is becoming a young person’s main reference point for sex, and there is no conversation about issues such as consent. That is why Part 3 of the DEA was enacted.

Part 3 of the DEA was not just about protecting children. It also reflected the concerns of Parliament that women and girls should be protected from violence. Too often, pornography is a contributing factor in violence against women. In 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee reported on pornography’s impact on women and girls in public places and concluded that:

“There is significant research suggesting that there is a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexist attitudes and sexually aggressive behaviours, including violence.”


The Government’s 2020 literature review into the use of legal pornography and its influence on harmful behaviours and attitudes towards women and girls reports that

“there is substantial evidence of an association between the use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women.”

While the report recognises that pornography is one among several potential factors associated with these attitudes and behaviours,

“it is clear that a relationship does exist and this is especially true for the use of violent pornography.”

The Government’s 2021 Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy reported that most respondents to the representative survey agreed that an increase in violent pornography has led to more people being asked to agree to violent sex and to a rise in sexual assaults.

It is clear that Part 3 of the DEA is needed today as much as it was in 2017. Children, young people, women and girls should not have to wait until the online safety Bill becomes law before they are protected from online harm. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the online safety Bill will be as far-reaching as Part 3 of the DEA. It is time for the Government to meet their obligations and to bring these provisions into force. I support the Bill.

11:08
Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, the whole House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for tabling a Bill that should not be needed but patently is. As my noble friend Lord Erroll said earlier, Parliament has been clear: children should be protected from viewing harmful content online through robust age verification, and women and girls should be protected from the effects of violent pornography being viewed on the internet and the associated risks to their safety that it brings.

Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 was passed to ensure that what was illegal offline was illegal online, and that violent and extreme pornography could be blocked. But more than that, the legislation sought to ensure that the protections for children offline were robustly put in place for the online sphere as well.

In an analogue world, before the internet, the shopkeeper stood between children and the top shelf or the purchase of adult video content. Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act sought to put in place a mechanism of age verification to ensure that protection was extended to the digital world. In 2019, it was extremely disappointing for those of us across this House who had argued for Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act that the Government decided to abandon implementing that legislation, stating that new measures would be brought forward.

I remind noble Lords of some of the statements made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, who was the Minister when the government U-turn was announced. She said that

“children are exposed to harmful pornography every day”,

and:

“Shocking things are going on”—[Official Report, 17/10/19; col.170.]


Yet here are we without any new protections for children or women, despite her assurance that the Government would demonstrate “urgency” in tackling the issue.

This emphatically is not about consenting acts between adults; it is about protecting children. Protecting children from the harm of films is something that has occupied some of my political life. While in the other place, serving a constituency in Liverpool— I am particularly pleased to see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool in his place today—along with the rest of the nation I was greatly affected by the death of James Bulger. It is hard to believe that it will be 29 years next month since that tragedy occurred. In response, I tabled an amendment to the then Criminal Justice Bill. It set out to make it an offence to show gratuitously violent videos to children. That amendment was not supported by the Government, but had cross-party support, with some 80 Conservative Members supporting it. With that support, including the then shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, the amendment made it into law as Section 4A of the Video Recordings Act 1984.

This amendment was based on evidence from leading child psychologists at the time. Their research focused on the impact of harmful videos on the development of young people. In the Bulger case, it was not pornographic content but a horror movie that impacted negatively on the children involved in his killing, but the issue remains the same. Children’s brains are not developed to be able to cope with the harm that such content poses to them. That is why they need to be protected by legislation.

Section 4A of the Video Recordings Act has become known as the “harms test”. The test allows for a video not to classified by the BBFC on the basis of the harm it may cause. If the video is likely to be viewed by children or would be of interest to children, the BBFC can take that into account when making its determination about what, if any, classification a video should receive. The harms test is not confined to children but applies to adults as well.

In 1994, when I proposed my amendment, the internet was relatively new, and no one could have foreseen the explosion in harmful content that is unregulated and available at the click of a button today. As my noble friend Lady Kidron told the House earlier in an excellent speech, this is not about people behind the bicycle sheds reading soft porn magazines. During lockdown, Ofcom reported that more people accessed Pornhub than watched BBC or Sky News, and it is freely available, readily accessible and open to children and young people to access freely. The British Board of Film Classification reported in 2020 that it was the most popular website for children viewing pornography.

It is a sad reflection that the world may have moved on, but much has stayed the same. In 1994, I tabled my amendment because psychologists stated that the development of children and young people is harmed by content that they access online. It matters because, as Ofsted reported in June 2021, it deeply affects children’s attitude. As the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, told us in her excellent speech, it affects our relationships.

As with the James Bulger case, it is often a tragedy that focuses minds on the problem. Last year, as the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, reminded us when he opened our debate on his Bill, there was the tragic case of Sarah Everard. He highlighted the link between violent pornography and violence against women such as Sarah. Just before her tragic murder in January 2021, the Government published research on the use of legal pornography and its influence on harmful behaviours and attitudes towards women and girls. It said that

“there is substantial evidence of an association between the use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women … it is clear that a relationship does exist and this is especially true for the use of violent pornography.”

Sarah Everard’s killer, as we know, was addicted to such material, and that begs the question: how many more tragedies have to take place before we take action?

When the Minister replies, no doubt he will point to the online safety Bill and suggest that it will take care of all the concerns that have been raised in the House today. Noble Lords cannot wait: how many more children have to be harmed; how many more acts of violence against women and girls will there be? The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, means that we do not have to wait two or three years before we act. I hope the Minister will tell us exactly what the Government’s expectation is for the timeframe for that Act of Parliament. Legislation stands on the statute book, and that legislation, Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, should be brought into force as this House, as Parliament, intended. At the very least, this should be undertaken as an interim measure until the online safety Bill is passed. It is for all those reasons that I am very happy to support the Bill and thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for introducing it and laying it before us.

11:16
Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for laying this Private Member’s Bill, so eloquently introduced by him and supported by all noble Lords who have spoken so far.

As others have said, we should not need to have a Bill to start Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017, which restricts use of porn sites to the over-18s, who must use age verification. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made the critical point that Parliament approved that legislation five years ago. As we have heard, the law was originally due to come into force in April 2018 but, after repeated delays, the Government announced in 2019 that they would not go ahead with it. The Government are hiding behind the proposed online safety Bill, saying that they will make sure that protection of children from online pornography will be covered. But as both the noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord Browne of Belmont, said, it looks as if the online safety Bill is very much less clear and effective than Part 3 of the DEA. Further, it now looks as if it will be at least five and possibly up to 10 years before that proposed legislation comes into practical force, and there is no guarantee that a Minister might not block parts of the online safety Bill, just as happened with the DEA.

My noble friend Lady Benjamin and others made important and critical points about the safety of women. Many of us speaking today have expressed those concerns during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, the core of this Private Member’s Bill is the protection of children now, and the key to making Part 3 work is a reliable age-verification process. It was moving to hear her say that the Internet Watch Foundation can attest to the need for it in the conversations it is having with children who have been groomed and abused.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, also referred to film classification and the prevention of harm to children. In its role as the age-verification regulator, the British Board of Film Classification reports that a significant and growing evidence base supports the case for preventing children’s access to online pornography. Recently, the BBFC carried out research into children’s exposure to online pornography. The findings include that more than half of 11 to 13 year-olds have seen porn, some being as young as 7 or 8. The majority of young people’s first time watching pornography is accidental: 62% of 11 to 13 year-olds who have seen porn stumbled across it unintentionally. Children see violent content that they find upsetting and disturbing, including content that they feel normalises rape. This comes back to the comments made by noble Lords about the murder of Sarah Everard.

The BBFC would refuse to classify any of this type of content on DVDs. Children do see porn on social media, but most of their viewing is done on dedicated sites. We know that there is now significant public support for the introduction of age verification, with 83% of parents and 56% of 11 to 13 year-olds in favour—so the young people want protection too. The BBFC would have been responsible for making sure that porn sites comply and would have been able to fine or block sites that did not, but it would be up to each site to decide its own system for age verification. It is good to hear that the BBFC has agreed a memorandum of understanding with the Information Commissioner’s Office and the National Cyber Security Centre at GCHQ to ensure that strict privacy rules are maintained.

However, this is all voluntary at the moment—for providers, that is. The BBFC’s voluntary age-certification scheme expects all providers to undergo an audit. One was carried out recently by the NCC Group, which ensured that there was no handover of any personal data. This is absolutely key, because it is vital that age verification is run separately and independently from online providers. Helpfully, over the passage of the past five years, despite the delay in the implementation of Part 3, age verification has improved. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, talked about anonymous age verification but, for me, it is the independence of the age-verification process from online pornography providers that protects the process from unscrupulous providers and thereby also protects the individual, particularly children.

This would counter previous concerns that too many children could circumvent age verification via a VPM or proxy. It would also reduce the risk of child sexual exploitation and abuse by predators grooming children by enabling predators to groom children by acting as gatekeepers to pornography. So can the Minister say whether he believes that, if made into law, the proposals from the BBFC, ICO and NCC Group would also protect the privacy of individuals? I ask that because one of the other concerns is about the private act of watching legal and consensual pornography that can at the moment be passed on and sold by one of the parties—known as revenge porn. Would this be covered under these age-verification rules?

We also need to ensure that there is no undue targeting of sexual minorities, especially people whose sexual preferences are secret; this includes many younger members of the LGBT community, including young adults. The potential for the hacking of personal data has been very harmful to many people in the past, so we need proposals to make sure that they are protected.

There is one thing that I have not heard anybody else mention in the debate so far. This matter is not just about legislation; it is also about education. Schools need to teach children about the dangers, and how to use the internet and social media safely and responsibly. Parents, whose own education in online data usage is often way behind that of their children, must be empowered to protect their children online, including through digital literacy education and advice and support for parents on best practice.

There is far too much illegal activity online, including child porn, extreme porn and revenge porn. Our existing laws must be properly enforced, which requires more officers, resources and training for police and prosecutors. Keeping children safe online is more difficult than ever, but it is also more important than ever. The Government, social media companies and online providers must do more to protect children from harmful content.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McColl. We on these Benches hope and expect that the Minister will give us a frank response, not the stock response, on why Part 3 has not yet been commenced. However, the one message from all the speakers so far is that time is of the essence and regulators need teeth. Voluntary arrangements do not always work, especially because two things have happened since the passage of the DEA: evidence shows that high numbers of much younger children are encountering online pornography; and age-assurance and verification processes have improved significantly and can now be managed independently of online pornography providers. We cannot wait.

11:24
Baroness Merron Portrait Baroness Merron (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for bringing forward this Bill and for laying out the arguments and rationale for it so clearly, as well as the background.

I agree that it is quite remarkable that this Bill is even needed. However, it is needed because we find a continuing situation where children have unfettered access to damaging pornography, which affects how they see, experience and play out in the world. Noble Lords have made important contributions and put challenges to the Minister, who, I fear, will be put in a position in his response of defending the indefensible: the fact that we still await protections. I hope that he will be able to make some positive comments in response to the debate that has taken place not just today but on many previous occasions.

As noble Lords have said, this situation is entirely baffling because it seems that, although legislation is in place and much of the preparatory work has been done, the department for some reason will not make a move swiftly to introduce age verification for online pornography. As the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, there has been a catalogue of errors for some reason and a failure to implement legislation that has been agreed. I hope that the Minister will give us some explanation as to why that is the case.

As we discuss this today, I feel that there is an even greater imperative because of the circumstances in which we are having this debate. Since Part 3 of the DEA was cancelled, in October 2019, we have lived through several lockdowns during which internet usage has soared. Yes, the internet is a great source of education and positive entertainment, but, as we have heard so clearly today, it can also have a very negative impact if the proper online protections are not there. In that case, it means that many children and young people find it easy to come across exposure to pornography that they have not even sought out. This is disturbing and harmful, with potential long-term and unhealthy consequences for their future adult relationships and their current relationships as children and young people.

It is interesting that, when Ofsted did a rapid review of sexual abuse and harassment in schools in June 2021, it reported that

“easy access to pornography had … set unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships and shaped children and young people’s perceptions of women and girls.”

In response to Ofsted’s findings, the Government asked the Children’s Commissioner to investigate actions that could be taken in the short term. I am interested in this point because this Bill gives the perfect opportunity for some action to be taken in the short term. As the letter sent by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and 60 others—including MPs, Peers, head teachers and non-governmental organisations—said, interim action can and should include the implementation of Part 3 of the DEA.

However, there is a further reason why there is a greater imperative at present. As we have heard several times in this debate, there is great concern about the obvious impact of pornography on violent acts committed against women, which have hit the headlines since the death of Sarah Everard. That will be on our minds for ever, and I hope that the Government will see that the need for action is ever more pressing.

This is of course an ongoing cross-party initiative, and today we have a Bill seeking to implement a settlement reached by representatives of all parties and none. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—it is right to do so regularly—and others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who deserve credit for their relentless focus on this subject. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, reminded us, we are dealing with a multi-billion-pound industry with a wilful disregard for the impact that it has on children. As she said, voluntary standards require volunteers, and, regretfully, we do not find voluntary co-operation as it should be. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. While no longer on the Front Bench, he has played a significant role during the passage of the Digital Economy Act, and has since leant his expertise to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill.

Given that we agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, seeks to achieve with this Bill, and knowing the Minister’s likely argument as we do, I will make two points to draw out the main issues. First, while the Government may say that this matter can be better dealt with in the online safety Bill, the fact is that the worst offenders and the most harmful material will not, as things stand, fall within the scope of that legislation. Secondly, even if we were satisfied that the online safety Bill will address these concerns, enactment will take several years, so there is no reason why Part 3 of the DEA cannot be enacted as an interim measure. Children’s lives will not be put on hold while we delay putting legislative provision in place. The Government have repeatedly promised to keep young people safe; that is a solemn promise, as I know the Minister understands. However, if this Bill is opposed today by the Government, I regret to say that that solemn promise will have been broken.

11:32
Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I apologise for my slightly tardy arrival this morning.

I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for introducing this Bill, and thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this very powerful debate. I acknowledge the valuable work done by the Joint Committee scrutinising the draft online safety Bill, and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. It is clear how much time and careful thought the Joint Committee has put into its scrutiny, and I hope I can give some positive comments in answer to the noble Baroness.

The Government share the concerns raised in both Houses, by parents and by those advocating on behalf of children’s safety online that a large amount of pornography is available on the internet with little or no protection to ensure that those accessing it are old enough to do so. While preventing children accessing online pornography is a key priority for the Government, I am afraid that the Government do not support this Private Member’s Bill, on the following grounds.

First, this is an unusual use of a Private Member’s Bill from a procedural perspective. The Bill introduces a new, stand-alone duty to commence regulations through pre-existing primary legislation. On its ordinary reading, this new duty would supersede the existing discretionary power that the Secretary of State has in that primary legislation to introduce commencement regulations. The Bill does not, however, make any amendment to that discretionary power, nor does it make any attempt to update the previous legislation to take account of the new statutory obligation that would have a significant effect on it.

Secondly, the Government have already taken the decision, announced in October 2019, that they would not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. We will instead repeal these provisions and deliver the objective of protecting children from online pornography through the forthcoming online safety Bill.

The proposed measures in the online safety Bill will mean that platforms will have clear legal responsibilities for keeping their users safe online. Services which are likely to be accessed by children will be required to protect them from harmful content on their sites, including pornography. Priority categories of harmful material to children will be set out in secondary legislation, so that all companies and users are clear on what companies need to protect children from.

The online safety Bill will deliver more comprehensive protections for children online than the Digital Economy Act. The draft Bill goes further than the Digital Economy Act, protecting children from a broader range of harmful content on a wider range of services. The Digital Economy Act was criticised for not covering social media companies, where a considerable quantity of pornographic material is accessible, and which research suggests children use to access pornography. The online safety framework will cover many of the most visited pornography sites, social media, video-sharing platforms, forums and search engines, thereby capturing sites through which a large proportion of children access pornography. We expect Ofcom to take a robust approach to sites that pose the highest risk of harm to children, including sites hosting online pornography.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, have addressed the issue of violence against women and girls. Of course violence against women is abhorrent. The Government Equalities Office commissioned research into the relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual behaviours, to better understand whether there are connections, as referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, also made powerful points about this. The online safety Bill will impose legal duties on companies to address damaging content online. This will include removing illegal and extreme pornography, as well as applying the Bill’s duties to legal pornography on major platforms. It will also mean that platforms in scope will need to protect children from accessing the most harmful material, such as pornography.

A number of noble Lords also referenced extreme pornography. The duty set out in the Bill for illegal content will apply to instances of extreme pornography. For all content that amounts to a relevant offence, platforms will be required to ensure that they have the systems and processes in place to quickly take down such content once it has been reported. Under the Bill, a limited number of criminal offences that pose the greatest risk of harm online will be listed in legislation as priority offences. For priority offences, platforms will be required to implement systems and processes to minimise the uploading and sharing of such content. This new approach will be more robust than the Digital Economy Act, as it will capture extreme pornography, as well as other illegal pornography, including non-photographic child sexual abuse content that is not included in the definition of extreme pornography referred to in the Digital Economy Act.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked what these new laws will mean for revenge pornography. This is already a crime under Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. Platforms will need to take action to prevent explicit illegal content circulating or face enforcement action. In addition, the Government recently confirmed that the revenge porn offence would be widened to include threats to disclose intimate images with the intention of causing distress. Section 69 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 recently extended the offence to include threats to disclose such material. These provisions came into effect on 29 June 2021 and are not retrospective. The extension of the offence applies to England and Wales.

Our ambition is to ensure that we are fully equipped to respond to the changing nature of violence against women and girls and, most importantly, to continue to put victims and survivors at the heart of this approach. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, has highlighted, the Government published a new Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy last July.

The Government recognise the concerns that have been raised, including from the Joint Committee scrutinising the draft online safety Bill, about protecting children from online pornography on services which do not currently fall within the scope of the online safety Bill, as referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron. The Secretary of State said during her evidence session to the Joint Committee scrutinising the draft Bill that the Government are exploring ways to provide through the Bill wider protections for children to prevent them accessing online pornography, including on sites that are not currently within the draft Bill’s scope.

It is worth quoting at length what the Secretary of State said on 4 November last year:

“I do not believe that the Bill goes far enough in preventing children from accessing commercial pornography. That is tied into age verification and there are elements of that that I have asked officials, subject to parliamentary counsel and write-around, to look at further, to see whether we can do more. I realise that there is a gap. I am not going to call it a loophole. There is a gap, and I think we need to close that gap somehow if we can.”


The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about algorithms in reference to this subject, and how we will be dealing with them. Companies will fulfil their duties under the proposed new law by assessing the risks of harm to users from their services and putting in place systems and processes to mitigate them. As the noble Baroness said, algorithms play a very important part in how many companies operate their services, and they need to consider how they could cause harm and take steps to mitigate it. The regulator will set out steps that companies can take to fulfil their duties in codes of practice.

The use of age-verification technology is key to this. We will expect companies to use age-verification technologies to prevent children accessing online pornography or to demonstrate to Ofcom that the approach they are taking delivers the same level of protection for children.

It is important that the Bill be future-proofed—I hope this goes some way to answering the questions raised by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton—so it will not mandate that companies use specific technologies to comply with their new duties. This is similar to the requirement in the Digital Economy Act, which did not mandate the use of a particular technology. Where age-verification technologies are used, it is important that they are robust, effective and privacy-preserving. This is needed to ensure that children are appropriately protected and that the public have trust in these solutions.

The Government take data security and privacy extremely seriously, which is why both Ofcom and in-scope companies will have duties under the Bill relating to user privacy which will apply to the use of age-assurance technologies. Standards also have an important role to play here by creating consistency and providing transparency for regulators. The Bill has been designed such that Ofcom will be able to set out expectations for the use of age-verification technologies in its codes of practice and accompanying guidance. This includes referencing relevant standards or principles. Companies will need to adopt these standards or demonstrate clearly to Ofcom that they have achieved an equivalent outcome.

So, we have given Ofcom, as the regulator, a broader range of enforcement powers than Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act to take action against companies that fail to act. Ofcom can issue fines and require companies to take specific steps to come into compliance or remedy their breach, and it can set deadlines for action to be taken.

Ofcom will have a suite of enforcement powers available to use against companies, which include imposing substantial fines up to the greater of either £18 million or 10% of qualifying annual revenue. Under the Digital Economy Act, it was £250,000 or 5%. Ofcom can also require companies to make improvements and, in the most serious cases, pursue business disruption measures, including blocking. There will also be criminal sanctions for senior managers in tech companies if regulated providers do not take their responsibilities seriously. The new regime will apply to companies that provide services to UK users, wherever they are located. We consider this approach necessary given the global nature of the online world, and the Government expect Ofcom to prioritise enforcement action where children’s safety has been compromised.

Ofcom has been mentioned a lot today, particularly with regard to time and preparation, so I am going to digress briefly to talk a little about what we have been doing with Ofcom in preparation. We have achieved a positive outcome through the challenging spending review, securing continued funding across online safety and allowing for the delivery of the Government’s commitment to make the UK the safest place to be online.

As we know, the online safety Bill represents the largest and highest-profile expansion in Ofcom’s remit since its inception. Ofcom is currently recruiting a significant number of staff to ensure it has the necessary expertise to implement the framework as intended and act as the online harms regulator. To effectively support the DCMS in taking the Bill through Parliament, Ofcom will work to create a strong evidence base to help inform its regulatory strategy and framework. It will also be overseeing the implementation of key operations and processes in its organisation as it steadily expands its operations for the regime going live.

Commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act would create a confusing and fragmented regulatory landscape that tackles individual concerns in a piecemeal fashion. It would also subject businesses to two different enforcement regimes, with potentially different regulators.

In answer to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, our analysis indicates that it would take a minimum of just under two years to implement the provisions of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, so a commencement date of 20 June 2022, as set out in this Bill, would be impracticable even if desirable. The Government would need to designate a new regulator, that regulator would need to produce and consult on statutory guidance and the Government would then need to lay regulations before Parliament ahead of any new regime coming into force.

I am going to digress once more to talk about the interim measures we have taken. I hope this reassures noble Lords that there is not some sort of void in children’s safety at the moment. We have a comprehensive programme of work planned to ensure we maintain momentum on child online safety, until the legislation is ready. Ahead of the online safety Bill, the video-sharing platform and video-on-demand regimes are already in force, with Ofcom as the regulator. They include requirements for some UK services to protect children from harmful content online, such as pornography. In addition, the Government have published an interim code of practice for providers to tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse. This code sets out steps that companies can take voluntarily to tackle this type of abuse.

In July 2021, the Government published our Online Media Literacy Strategy. The strategy supports the empowerment of users, including young people, with the skills and knowledge they need to make safe and informed decisions online. In addition, the new relationships, sex and health education curriculum is clear that, by the end of secondary school, pupils should have been taught about the impact that viewing harmful content such as pornography can have. This covers both the way that people see themselves in relation to others and how pornography can negatively affect how they behave towards sexual partners.

As part of the interim measures, in response to the Ofsted review following the Everyone’s Invited website ad campaign, we funded the NSPCC to launch a dedicated helpline and we moved to strengthen the delivery of the new relationships, sex and health education curriculum with additional support and briefings for teachers. That subject came up in a Question earlier this week.

On timing, we are committed to introducing the online safety Bill as soon as possible in this parliamentary Session. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the online safety Bill will receive Royal Assent within the time it takes to implement the Digital Economy Act, making any benefits of an interim regime minimal at best. The Joint Committee that scrutinised the draft online safety Bill published its report in December, and we are carefully considering its recommendations.

It is worth reiterating that our intention is to have the regime operational as soon as possible after Royal Assent. In the meantime, as I have just outlined, we are working closely with Ofcom to ensure that the implementation of the framework takes as short a time as possible following passage of the legislation.

I am aware that I have not answered the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, about delays to the Digital Economy Act. I will have to write to her on that; I am afraid I do not know the answer. I have tried to answer all other noble Lords’ questions. I will study Hansard carefully and, if I have failed to answer or missed any, I will write.

I reiterate that, today, we heard some powerful arguments for and accounts of the urgent need to increase protections for children online. We will be able to deliver the strongest possible protections through the online safety Bill, rather than Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, we are not hiding behind this Bill.

Finally, and to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on a personal note and as a parent—the father of a daughter and a son—I will reflect the tone and tenor of this debate to the Secretary of State. The noble Baroness made it clear that she is also very committed to this legislation and to enacting it at speed. Also speaking personally, I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton: a return to an analogue world is quite appealing.

11:49
Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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My Lords, I will be brief in my few closing remarks. I have listened intently to what the Minister said. I thank him for his comments, but I must be frank and honest: I am disappointed, but perhaps not surprised. I will leave that comment there.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken the time to speak on this issue and to support the Bill. It is heartening that there is still a great degree of unanimity across the House on the way forward on this issue. I also thank the Minister but, although I have listened very carefully, I will reserve judgment until a later date.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, helpfully reminded us of the timescale and the opportunities that the Government have missed over the last five years. The implementation of age verification is a catalogue of government delays. The process simply repeats itself: there are promises by the Government that something will be done, and great hope is expressed in new legislation and that change is imminent, but all it amounts to is another delay.

The Government first delayed the implementation of Part 3 of the DEA in 2019, promising new legislation. However, given how long it took for the Government to bring forward the online safety Bill, they could have acted at any time since 2019 to bring in Part 3. That has not happened and, having listened to the Minister, I am still concerned. If they had done so, age verification and protections against extreme pornography could have been in force by now.

At the start of last year, the Government wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, indicating that it would take 22 months to designate Ofcom under the DEA and have it regulate the legislation’s provisions. If they had only commenced Part 3 of the DEA on that date, it would have meant that, even by the Government’s timetable, age verification would have been operational in this country before the end of this year. I fear that the online safety Bill will mean yet more delays. It could be four more years before the protections that Parliament enacted in Part 3 of the DEA come into force.

If I were to do them justice, I would name everyone who has spoken today. What an array of speeches we have heard, made with passion and commitment. I thank all speakers most sincerely. We were reminded by many of them that a generation of children could grow up without benefiting from protection online. That is all the more shocking when legislation already exists that could be brought into force to protect them. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has worked tirelessly over many years to help protect children and young people from harm, both offline and online, reminded the House of what can be achieved with cross-party support. It is clear that cross-party support exists for Part 3 of the DEA.

I echo what the noble Lord, Lord McColl, said: Part 3 is not the complete answer to all the issues concerning online pornography—we have accepted that from day one—but it is what we have available now. Clearly, this is a provision that could be brought in now, and built on and improved through the online safety Bill.

As my noble friend Lord Browne reminded us, there is little or no defence for government inaction in this matter. The Government’s own research highlights the harm from online pornography and the issues that arise when children are exposed to it. The Government have the data, and they know the harm that is carried into adult life and the devastation it brings to families and society. That is why it is time for them to act.

Three years on from the Government announcing that they would not progress Part 3 of the DEA, the problems have not gone away. The internet is still an unregulated place for our children. It is surely time for action.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement) Bill [HL]

Friday 28th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Second Reading
11:55
Moved by
Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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My Lords, voting is the sheet anchor of our democracy. This proposal to extend votes to 16 and 17 year-olds is an idea whose time has come. It already happens in Scotland and Wales within the United Kingdom. The Federal Republic of Germany, one of the greatest of our modern democracies—indeed, a democracy largely created by us in the 1940s—is about to introduce votes for 16 and 17 year-olds at the federal level under the new coalition agreement of the Government who are taking office, but votes for 16 and 17 year-olds in the federal states of Germany go back a long way and were first introduced in Lower Saxony 27 years ago in 1995.

I am struck by the fact that there is consensus in Scotland across all political parties in favour of the introduction of votes for 16 and 17 year-olds, which is universally regarded as a democratic success and led to a huge promotion of civic engagement in that great nation. Ruth Davidson, who has now joined us as the noble Baroness, Lady Davidson, and is a former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, describes herself as

“a fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”.

She said:

“We deem 16-year-olds adult enough to join the army, to have sex, get married, leave home and work full-time … they are old enough to vote too.”


She said of the experience of the independence referendum, when Scotland first introduced votes for 16 and 17 year-olds, that

“it appears 16 and 17-year-olds considered the facts just as rationally—if not more so—as everyone else.”

The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, an esteemed Minister in this House and another former leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, is a strong supporter of votes at 16. When the legislation passed through the Scottish Parliament to introduce this reform, she said:

“The bill heralds an exciting era for our young people. It is an opportunity for them to continue their high level of engagement on topical affairs that we saw in the independence referendum.”


So this is not a party-political issue. Indeed, I believe that it is simply a matter of time before it is introduced. The House of Commons voted against it last week, with most Conservatives voting against, but I suspect that in the next Parliament or the Parliament after there will be consensus across the political parties for introducing this reform into national elections across the United Kingdom and local elections in England.

The evidence from Scotland is striking. In elections since the vote was extended to 16 and 17 year-olds, the participation of 16 and 17 year-olds has been at 75%—very significantly higher than the participation of young people in elections in England and the participation of the next age group going up in Scotland. Some 97% of those surveyed who voted said that they would vote in future elections. The accumulated survey evidence shows that not only has participation in elections risen significantly among 16 and 17 year-olds but, crucially, engagement in other aspects of civic affairs, including voluntary associations, the signing of petitions and engagement in public campaigns, has risen too.

The reason for this should not be any great surprise. All habits in life that stick start young. That is an almost invariable rule of life. If we want people to vote as a matter of course, which we do, we need to start young. Everyone accepts that 16 and 17 year-olds are young adults. It is absolutely right that we inculcate the most fundamental democratic practice, which is voting, at that age. When we look at the older age group, all the evidence is that once people start voting they invariably vote thereafter. The big problem we have is that such a low proportion of the over-18s start the practice of voting. Those who never start it early very rarely then take it up in due course.

Why should we think that starting voting at 16 and 17 is much more likely to promote participation? It is partly because of the facts. I have given the facts in respect of Scotland and there are now more than a dozen democracies worldwide that have voting at 16 and 17. The same pattern is observed in survey data in those democracies, notably Austria, which was the first European country to introduce voting at 16 and 17 back in 2007. Again, participation was higher, as was the continuation of participation.

The reason why we should expect it is that voting is part of the process of becoming a full citizen and adult. Just as 16 and 17 year-olds are preparing themselves for full participation in adult life in so many other ways by gaining qualifications, taking on personal responsibility and developing the range of interests that then informs their life, so, too, participating in elections and regarding democratic participation as a fundamental part of being an adult and a citizen needs to take root.

It is in that spirit that votes for 16 and 17 year-olds should go alongside two other reforms whose time I believe has also come. The first reform should be the automatic enrolment on the voting register of all 16 year- olds. When I was a student back in the 1980s, it was the practice for all over-18 year-olds at university to be automatically enrolled at that institution. Turnout was much higher than it has been since we have had individual enrolment on the voting register, with no obligation on academic institutions to register.

The second reform that I think is vital is that the automatic registration of 16 and 17 year-olds should be at their place of education, so that it becomes part of the process of becoming an adult and civic education that you vote, and there should be a polling station in every school, college and university to promote participation and make it easy for young people to participate—to make it an accepted part of what a 16 or 17 year-old does in May or whenever of each year that they vote. If there were a polling station in every school that had a sixth form, think what would happen. The politicians would all turn up. I can assure your Lordships that, if this was a big focus of voters who were all going to be turning out, then just as candidates visit care homes for the elderly, all of them would be in those schools too. It will not be just a question of mock elections, it will be real elections, not just for school councils governing what happens inside schools. As a former Education Minister, I can tell your Lordships that there is a huge move towards democracy within schools, and this is part of that process. It will be real politics that they will be really engaged in. Candidates will take a very full part in the work of schools in respect of democratic engagement, because they will have such a big interest to do so. If 16 year-olds were automatically registered at their place of study and there was a polling station in that place of study, we would see participation at 90%-plus, because it would be what young people do: when they go to school on voting day, they participate in the election—and once they have all begun that process, it will become a life habit and it will be a bedrock of our democracy.

The German coalition agreement which is leading to the extension of voting to 16 and 17 year-olds in federal elections is entitled Dare More Progress. That harks back to the great statement from the great educationalist John Dewey that the solution to the ills of democracy is more democracy. I believe the time has come for us to dare more progress. One of the solutions to the ills of democracy is more democracy among young adults, starting with the extension of the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds. I commend the Bill to the House, and I beg to move.

12:04
Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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My Lords, it is an absolute pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I am sitting here wondering whether I would have stayed on at school to the sixth form if there had been a polling station. It might have ignited my interest a little more than education did.

I rise to make a couple of points and to support the noble Lord in his tireless attempt to get the vote for 16 and 17 year-olds. For the past two decades, I have had the privilege to spend time with many young people, first as the founder of Into Film, which runs thousands of film clubs across the UK in state schools, and now as chair of the 5Rights Foundation, which seeks to build the digital world that young people deserve. From this front-row position, I have repeatedly observed that in the political arena children are often spoken about but seldom heard, and that when it comes to investing money or political capital the interests of the young are woefully underrepresented.

Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says:

“States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”


That is why the working group on General Comment 25 on the relevance of children’s rights in the digital world, which I was lucky enough to chair, decided to undertake a global consultation with young people as part of our process. Colleagues from the University of Western Australia organised workshops with local partners that involved more than 1,000 children in 28 countries. The inclusion of children at this scale was unprecedented in the writing of a UN treaty, but when last year the General Comment was formally adopted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child it was not only widely embraced as a ground-breaking document in relation to the digital world but celebrated because, in spite of the fact that treaty documents are not known for their poetry, it vibrated with the lived experience and views of children from Kigali to Berlin, Karachi to Boston and beyond.

As an interesting aside, it was notable that there was greater consensus among our young contributors about the needs, values and practical application of children’s rights in the digital world than there was among the global community of experts and politicians. Any world in which young people already had a voice would have already seen the passage of the much-delayed online safety Bill, the introduction of age assurance, which we discussed this morning, and fair taxation of the tech sector.

Part two of Article 12 states that

“the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.”

But the reality of the current political process is that the preoccupations of those with votes to bestow become the preoccupations of the political marketplace in which votes are spent. As a result, we fail to represent the young. They have the worst employment rates, are paid less for their labour and have become burdened with debt for their education. Even in this period of eye-watering public spending of £400 billion to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, children and young people, who have suffered disproportionately and in ways that they may never recover from, have got a truly paltry settlement.

Again, we have consigned them to be poorer, to live at home for longer, to pay more for what we all took for granted and to look forward to bearing greater responsibilities for looking after the old—while leaving them the unpaid cheque. While we ask this under-represented group to suffer the consequences of decisions that older populations make in their own interests, we also demand that they make life-defining choices and show adult behaviours before the age at which they can vote: choices that tacitly require investment in a future over which they have no purchase. In doing so, we demand high levels of those same qualities that we doubt they own: those of maturity, commitment and wisdom.

My experience is that young people display wisdom, energy and foresight in copious quantities—but anyway, the right to vote is not contingent on maturity or wisdom. If it were, many of us adults might be considered unfit. Voting well or correctly is not a consideration here, but having a voice in the present and the future is. The arguments about introducing an unfit cadre into the electoral equation sound suspiciously like other arguments for exclusion made at other times about other groups.

The question that we need to answer is not about their suitability but about ours. We have allowed a crisis to develop—a lack of engagement and faith in the political process that threatens its legitimacy. We have failed to deal with many of the most intractable issues of the day, and we have left for the next generation a multitude of fiscal, environmental and political debts. Lowering the voting age is not a question of our altruism. It is about recalibrating power and ensuring that the long-term interests of the young form part of the political marketplace in which they can spend their votes.

12:10
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, Parliament has previously lowered the voting age in this country, from 21 to 18. That was in May 1969. In the 53 years since, there have been numerous attempts in both Houses of Parliament to lower it again. The first attempts to do so found little support, but support for the principle has grown considerably with every opportunity since then to discuss it. It has been my party’s policy for a long time and I think it is now the policy of all the main opposition parties, as well as many Conservatives. It is an idea whose time has come, and it will happen as soon as there is a change of Government—if not sooner.

The principle has already been embraced by this House, ironically ahead of the elected Chamber. In 2015, a cross-party amendment supporting votes at 16 in the EU referendum was carried here by 293 votes to 211. If that vote had not been subsequently overturned, the result of that referendum would have been even closer. Perhaps that reveals that the real reason for opposition to this proposal is not one of principle, other than the principle of trying to stay in power.

In my view, young people had a particular right to vote in the EU referendum because it was their future that was at stake, but that is really the case in every election. Young people aged 16 and 17 are now able to vote in local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales, and many of them, but not all, have chosen to do so.

Many of us here have experience of speaking to sixth-form groups across the country and in the excellent Education Centre here in Parliament. We know that many of the groups we speak to are well informed, articulate and clearly able to participate in the democratic process. They talk about David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and serious issues affecting the country and the rest of the world.

I have listened to arguments against allowing young people to vote at the first election after their 16th birthday. Most are based on trying to create the impression that such a measure would mean that young people must blow out the candles on their 16th birthday cake, when and with whom they are allowed to do so, and then immediately rush down to a polling station. Allowing votes at 16 does not make voting compulsory at that age. I am sometimes asked by sixth-formers whether I believe in making voting compulsory, as it is in Australia. I simply reply that, in my view, politicians are unpopular enough without fining people who do not vote for them.

If people are allowed to vote from 16, their first general election vote is likely to be possible sometime between the age of 16 and 20, while if the minimum age for voting remains at 18 for UK elections, their first vote is likely to become possible between the ages of 18 and 22, by which time it may be too late to begin the habit of voting.

If partisan considerations are put aside, I suspect that many people base their view of this issue on their own memories of being between 16 and 18. Some of us will remember the famous speech at the Conservative Party conference by the 16 year-old noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond. At that point, I was the 16 year- old secretary of the Liverpool, Wavertree constituency Liberal Association and was organising election campaigns as well as doing my O-levels. I was also a member of the Electoral Reform Society, and I agree with what it said some time ago, 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”.

We should act to address that problem.

We need to ensure that citizenship is taken seriously in schools. We should support the aims of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy, of which I am secretary. We should take every reasonable step to register young people to vote and afford them that right without the nonsense of having to opt in to the right to vote or obtain photo ID. We do not require people to opt in to the right to receive emergency medical support or the protection of other emergency services or our Armed Forces, so at the very least we should register all young people automatically, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said. The best time to do so would be when we issue them with their national insurance numbers.

In a previous debate here on a Bill to provide for votes from 16—one that was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, from the Conservative Benches in 2003—the Minister replying from the Dispatch Box was the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. He said then:

“While the Government are not necessarily opposed to the policy that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is seeking to push forward, we argue that his Bill is premature”.—[Official Report, 9/1/03; col. 1120.]


Nineteen years later, I believe that this Bill is long overdue.

12:17
Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Portrait Lord Hannan of Kingsclere (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for introducing this measure. I was struck by the metaphor with which he opened: that voting is the sheet anchor of democracy. Of course, a vessel needs a lot more than a sheet anchor. It needs bows, bridges, rigging, sails, bulwarks and all the rest of it. In other words, to function, democracy relies on much more than a periodic right to mark a ballot paper. It relies on a series of norms and precedents; on a measure of restraint from the winner and a measure of acceptance from the loser; and, above all, on both sides being prepared to accept the rules and not to alter them for partisan purposes.

I am afraid that around the world we have seen a retreat from democracy as defined in that fuller sense. A number of organisations measure it: Freedom House, the democracy index of the Economist Intelligence Unit and others. They all tell a similar story: after decades of improving democracy, at some point in the last five or 10 years that progress stalled and began to go into reverse, often in countries where there is still a vote and people still have the franchise. But as in Venezuela, Russia or Iran, it is a meaningless vote because the other things you need to sustain a democracy have been vitiated or lost.

We see this happening even in some of the oldest core democracies in the world. In the United States in the last couple of decades, we have seen the deplorable way in which losers automatically go to law and dispute the results. Indeed, just over a year ago, we saw the readiness of the losing candidate to go along with an attempt to prevent the validation of the vote. It seems to me that when, in that country built constitutionally on the idea of popular sovereignty, there is this unwillingness to accept votes that go against you—this readiness to treat democracy as contingent—that should alarm us here.

By the way, the kinds of people who were the first to condemn Trump were usually not equally ready to condemn the attempts to overturn the 2016 referendum in this country, but it is pretty much the same thing. You either believe in the process that all the sides have agreed in advance is going to be valid, or you do not. The same hypocrisy applies the other way, of course. The people who were most ready to condemn the democracy blockers here were willing to overlook some of Trump’s excesses.

That, in a way, is the problem. It is in some ways remarkable that we ever elevated process over outcome. It is an extraordinary thing and may come to be seen as a blip that the American electorate were more loyal to a desiccated piece of parchment hanging in the National Archives than to a real flesh and blood candidate. Yet that readiness to accept the results, and to elevate process over outcome, is what makes for a free society.

Are we confident that this attempt to change the franchise is being done purely in a disinterested spirit as a way of strengthening our democracy? Or might we allow the possibility that it is being advanced in some quarters, again, as an outcome-led measure—that people assume that 16 and 17 year-olds will vote in a particular way, reason backwards from that conclusion and come up with all sorts of more general arguments for it? Can we confidently say that the extension of the franchise to 16 year-olds, first in Scotland and then in Wales, was wholly divorced from any consideration of how they might vote in either referendums or general elections? Your Lordships’ Chamber discussed the measure that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, mentioned to extend the franchise to 16 year-olds in the EU referendum. Can we confidently say that those who were voting for the extension of the franchise had no particular vested interest in how that vote would go—that it was sheer coincidence that they happened to put those two issues together?

I cannot definitively answer that question; we all have our own motives and principles, and I am not peering into the souls of other Peers. I simply make this observation: the first time that I stood here on a Friday, the first of these debates that I participated in, last year, happened to be on a measure about the legal age at which you were allowed to take Botox as a treatment. Unlike today—when, as usual on a Friday, I am in a minority of one or two—there was an extraordinary consensus on all sides. Every speaker argued that it was right to raise the age of consent for Botox from 16 to 18. That was the message that came from the Cross Benches, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives.

We heard all sorts of arguments, including one or two from Peers who are present today, about how this was consistent because we treated 18 as the age of consent in almost every other regard. Peer after Peer stood up to explain that 18 was the age at which you could get a mortgage, buy a bottle of wine, get a tattoo or buy a knife; and, one after another, people said, “Yes, absolutely right. There is such a thing as an age of maturity and, if we have decided that 18 is that age, we must end these loopholes on things like Botox and tattoos.”

Well, that is fine—but if as a country we have decided that that is the age of maturity, are we seriously going to argue that, while 16 and 17 year-olds should be prohibited from doing all those things, they should have the right to vote on whether everyone else is allowed to do those things? Are noble Lords seriously confident that that will be seen as a purely disinterested measure without any partisan calculation behind it? I suggest that one way to encourage turnout and tackle the cynicism of some of our voters is visibly to stop playing partisan games with the franchise.

12:23
Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. He has been utterly consistent over the years in his attempts to move electoral law in this direction. However, I do not think that repeated attempts at something necessarily imply their soundness. I am surprised that someone as committed as he is to the UK’s international affairs has said so little about the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This recognises that individuals are children until they reach the age of 18.

The recognition that young people are defined as children is the foundation of our thinking about them when we wish to keep them out of harm’s way, particularly in conflict. In the late 1990s, I worked for the late Baroness Williams of Crosby in her attempts to prevent children from joining the Army. Her campaigning was rewarded in 2000 by the then Labour Government, who signed and implemented the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to

“take every feasible step to ensure that children below the age of 18 years do not take part in hostilities”.

I hope that the noble Lord will not propose that we remove parental permission to allow children to join the Army after he has given them votes. However, the logic of his argument will inevitably take us there. If you can vote and stand for elected office at 16, it logically follows that you would stand—at this point no one has disputed that. I find it hard to understand how you could vote for elected office but be barred from standing for it. If that were to happen, as I argue would be the next step, then it would be an obscenity if you yourself were to call on others to make the ultimate sacrifice but would not lead from the front in doing so yourself. A child deciding to send an older man or woman into war does not fit with my moral compass, I am afraid.

I also want to argue a general point—one picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere—that, before we move to a system whereby we decide to lower the age of voting, we need to think about the rights agenda as a comprehensive whole. I refer to the legal fragmentation that exists when we consider someone a “child” for the purpose of considering their status as a rights-bearing individual, as opposed to when we sanction them for wrongdoing. This framework overall is confused and irrational, and requires a comprehensive rethink across the board.

I personally consider it an abuse by the state to continue to hold to an age of criminal responsibility of 10, on the one hand, with all the irreversible damage that it will do to a child, while denying them full employment rights until they are 18. Not only do we deny them employment rights, but we detract from their rights by having different categories of minimum wage, as if a strapping 17 year-old in a warehouse is somehow less capable of stacking shelves than a 44 year-old.

However, employment rights are perhaps a debate for another day; I will stick to this one. I want to highlight some of the other inconsistencies and confusion of who is and who is not a child for the purposes of this legislation, something which the supporters of the Bill might wish to consider. The Gambling Act prohibits those under the age of 18 from gambling or placing a bet in a casino or betting shop. If we can vote at 16, and thus, as I argue, stand as a candidate at 16, surely we ought to be able to take a flutter on an election result at 16. Moreover, we have moved the minimum age for participation in National Lottery games from 16 to 18 since last year; I understand that that was a Labour amendment. The direction of travel when we look at contemporary harms, rightly, is to move the age upwards, not downwards.

The Children and Families Act 2014 was concerned with the health effects of smoking, and banned smoking by adults when children under 18 were present in a car. In this case, the state was expected to infringe on the Article 8 rights—respect for a private life, family life and so on—to protect the health of “children” under 18. In the same space, on health, the parties opposite are all over the place, wanting a ban on the sale of tobacco products to under 21 year-olds; I think that is the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. One gets the sense that, instead of defending the autonomy and choices available to young people, there is a lack of proportion in these kinds of policies. On this one, I would have thought that young people needed education on the harmful effects of substances, not bans under the guise of “protection of childhood” while we move selectively to change the definition of childhood in the Bill.

When thinking about young people as rights-holders and duty-bearers, we as lawmakers still have some way to go. I want to talk in more positive terms of what we might do to engage young people in participating as active citizens; voting is only one criterion of that, sheet anchor though it might be. As we become a more “rights-bearing” society, while simultaneously becoming more litigious, it is increasingly obvious that citizens have a rather patchy understanding of their rights. Citizenship education, which is a relatively recent innovation in this country, introduced to the curriculum 20 years ago, is still rather inadequate.

One of the reasons why society is so polarised is because people have very different understandings of what is and is not within the law. One area that we see a lot of is a lack of public understanding around discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Another is the boundary between freedom of expression and what is referred to as hate speech. These issues create friction and contestation every day, day in and day out.

My point is that before we can make voters out of our citizens, we need to share some basic concepts about the duties that they owe to one another that go along with the rights that they will exercise. One 16 year-old will be very different in maturity from another, but if they have both benefited from better knowledge of the public square then they will be better equipped to live well together in it. Voting is simply one component of that democracy. I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for his determination but I suggest that his efforts to improve our democracy would bear more fruit if we spent more energy on changing the culture of politics rather than the processes of its manifestation.

12:30
Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Adonis on bringing forward this Bill. I thank him for giving me a timely reminder that legislation can sometimes be empowering rather than oppressive.

I have long been an enthusiast for the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds, since long before I joined a political party, and have found the arguments against it reminiscent of those once marshalled against votes for working people and for women. That the Government opposed this measure in their 2019 manifesto means little given that, by definition, the disenfranchised category could not endorse that; I suspect that it was not determinative in that election but I could be wrong about that.

Given the shenanigans contained in the pending Elections Bill, I have no doubt that some would ideally like to raise the voting age, perhaps to 39, or indeed reintroduce the property qualification, but I am not among their number. Of course, I accept that maturity is a gradual and organic process—and, judging by some of the behaviour that I have witnessed even in the Palace of Westminster over the years, it may not be complete at any particular age.

Still, the law requires some fixed, if necessary, arbitrary ages for the allocation of rights and obligations in a society. As voting is such a fundamental democratic right, it seems better to err on the side of enfranchisement rather than deprivation, particularly when general elections may come four or so years apart. To be just under 18 when a general election is held may leave a young citizen without an effective say until they are nearly 22. That is a long time, not just in politics but especially in a young life that we wish to include in and inspire with our democratic rituals.

I wish to make six arguments in favour of the age of 16. The first is probably older than the Boston Tea Party: no taxation without representation. Many young people work for low or no pay and, frankly, it is outrageous and an unjustified discrimination that they have a lower minimum wage of under £5 an hour when under 18. Those who perform vital and totally unpaid caring work in their homes for younger siblings, parents or grandparents are effectively subsidising the state with their unpaid labour, often at significant cost to their own health, education and life chances.

That leads me to my second argument—namely, that the electorate and successive Governments neglect the interests of the disenfranchised in public spending and prioritisation decisions over, for example, children and young people’s health, especially mental health, and other services. This warping of priorities becomes especially dangerous in the context of climate catastrophe, for example, which is perhaps more readily ignored, sometimes to the point of delusion, by those less likely to live to see its more dramatic consequences.

Thirdly, I must point to other things we believe it is appropriate for a 16 year-old to do, including consenting to sex; marrying or joining the military with parental consent; otherwise leaving home; driving a moped or, I believe, a small tractor, not that I have had experience of that; flying a glider; drinking a beer, cider or glass of wine with a meal in a restaurant; investing in a cash ISA, apparently—I guess for some but not for others; consenting to medical treatment; and changing their name by deed poll. I say to the two noble Lords opposite who just spoke that Botox is harmful, as is putting yourself in the field of battle, but voting is not.

With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness who is chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in 30 years as a human rights lawyer, I have never heard an interpretation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that says it prohibits voting under the age of 18.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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The noble Baroness referred to my role as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I want to make it clear that in this debate I am speaking in a personal capacity, not representing the EHRC. I was in this House prior to becoming chair so have spoken on these matters in the past.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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Indeed, but I was referring to the noble Baroness’s expertise rather than suggesting that she was speaking on its behalf. I am grateful for her clarification.

Fourthly and crucially, we think it acceptable for children to bear criminal responsibility for their actions at just 10 years old—a frankly barbaric state of affairs that your Lordships’ House neglected to remedy at the end of last year. I remember that the Minister was in the Chamber at that time, as was I. There is a whole eight-year gap between facing potential criminal sanction under the laws of the land and being able to elect those who shape them.

My next argument is that to extend the franchise in the manner proposed by my noble friend Lord Adonis could serve to enliven a crucial stage in the educational journey, making the learning of citizenship, humanities and applied science a vital practical exercise, not just an academic one, with, as my noble friend said, electoral candidates spending more time in schools and young people’s spaces, to the benefit of their own understanding of their constituents’ challenges. Like many noble Lords, I have had the enormous privilege of speaking in literally hundreds of schools and colleges over the years. My predominant experience is of secondary school-aged children increasingly concerned and curious about the state of the world, though not always encouraged and empowered to believe that they might affect it for the better. However, they might.

That brings me to my sixth and final argument, which concerns not what the vote could do for these young people but what they could do for the vote. That is not in a partisan sense, because I do not believe the noble Lords opposite need to be so pessimistic as to assume that any group is lost to one side of the argument or another in politics. How many in your Lordships’ House rely on children—or even, dare I say it, grandchildren—for advice or practical help, with matters relating to technology in particular? Who better to help to shape debates about online harms or the increasing algorithmic determinism that is in danger of hardwiring inequality and injustice into the human experience? In reciprocity, who better to lead the charge towards enfranchising our younger people than the mostly older heads of a wise and kindly, if unelected, Chamber demonstrating its imagination and independence?

12:39
Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for having the chance to speak in this debate. I have an interest to declare in that I have a 16 year-old daughter. She is English, she lives in England, and she tells me that she supports this Bill because it will empower her as well, she adds, as others in her year group. Interestingly, she did not add the word “politically” until prompted. Teenagers do not put things into silos, as adults tend to; for them, everything is connected and part of the same world. If we trust 16 year-olds enough to get married and pay taxes, we should also trust them with the equally important business of voting. This may be a familiar argument; nevertheless, this inconsistency in responsibilities looks with every passing year increasingly wrong.

Regarding earlier comments, the teenage years are a tricky time, and there has to be a balance between empowerment and protection—but empowerment is a form of protection, and that should be acknowledged. This is also the direction in which countries are moving because of a growing sense that it is the right direction. One advantage of some countries paving the way is that there is increasing evidence about the effect of their moving the minimum voting age to 16. Studies are positive; in an article published last year in Parliamentary Affairs, its authors Jan Eichhorn and Johannes Bergh say:

“In none of the countries, for which data are now available, researchers could find negative effects of the lowering of the voting age on young people’s engagement or civic attitudes. In many instances the opposite was the case. Enfranchised 16- and 17-year-olds were often more interested in politics, more likely to vote and demonstrated other pro-civic attitudes (such as institutional trust). In many instances, young people enfranchised earlier were more engaged than those classically enfranchised at 18 and longer-term research from Austria and Latin American countries suggests that the effect may at least partially be retained throughout further years of life, resulting in turnout increases.”


As the noble Lord has said, analysis following the Scottish referendum showed that 16 and 17 year-olds had higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24 year-olds, with 75% voting and 97% saying that they would vote in future elections. In Austria, voting among 16 and 17 year-olds has been higher than for over 50s, so these are effects that can be widely observed.

The effect of this change is perhaps more far-reaching, in a beneficial way, than one might at first have imagined. Extending the franchise is about deepening our democracy because of the further political engagement and empowerment that this will allow our young people, as my daughter believes. But it seems clear, too, that the 16 to 18 window is a key time when the interest in politics of young people needs to be capitalised on by society, including through education, otherwise it can be lost.

In 2011, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a lower age, basing that resolution on the evidence that had by then already been gathered. It is my belief that it is just a matter of time before this becomes law, as it should be, across Europe. It is being seriously debated in Ireland, and Scotland and Wales are of course very much in the forefront of this change, alongside Austria and parts of the systems of other European countries, including Germany and Switzerland, as well as further afield. But within the UK, England, along with Northern Ireland, is starting to look like an outlier.

Surely, we cannot maintain indefinitely a situation whereby young people in one part of the UK have different rights to others in this fundamental respect. Of course, the minimum age for general elections across the UK remains 18, and England does not have its own Parliament, as it should have. Nevertheless, what is in effect a democratic deficit in England for young people needs to be—using the current terminology—levelled up, including, dare one say it, for any possible future UK referenda. As much as they are able to do so, Scotland and Wales are doing the right thing; England needs to join them so that we are on the same page on this for all elections.

12:44
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I am an enthusiastic supporter of this Bill and am delighted to have the opportunity today to put some of the reasons on record. I spoke in support of a similar private Member’s Bill in the name of Lord Tyler back in 2013 and, sadly, very little has changed since then—in England, at least—so noble Lords with long memories will have to forgive me for recycling much of what I said nearly nine years ago.

I believe that it is time now for the Government to look favourably on this Bill and make the most positive and progressive change to the electoral system since the voting age was reduced to 18 in 1969. The first argument, as others have said, is of course consistency. Why should a 16 year-old be regarded as capable of consenting to medical treatment or to join the Armed Forces, or be required to pay income tax and national insurance, but not have the right to vote for a representative in Parliament?

Secondly, despite assertions by some that 16 and 17 year-olds know nothing and have too little experience to contribute their say as to who runs the country, we should remember that compulsory citizenship education in schools was introduced in 2002. We could argue that this age group is likely to be better informed, better educated and more thoughtful about this issue than some older segments of the population. As well as having citizenship on the curriculum, 85% of secondary schools have school councils and there are 600 elected members of the UK Youth Parliament, which was established in 2000. Each member serves for 12 months and is voted in by their peers. Not having the vote at 16 undermines citizenship education in key stages 3 and 4, and it is unfair to make school leavers wait for what could be several years before they are first allowed to exercise their right to vote.

Thirdly, you could argue that young people have more of a stake in participating in elections, given that the general demographic is an ageing one, so 16 and 17 year-olds should have the vote to balance out the interests being expressed at the ballot box. Some studies have shown that 16 and 17 year-olds are more likely to vote than certain other age groups—for example, the over-70s and those between 18 and 30—so the argument that the UK would end up being embarrassed by an even lower turnout if we gave the vote to 16 year-olds cannot necessarily be substantiated. Even if it could, I agree with what the Power commission said in 2006: that a potential embarrassment of politicians is no “reason to reject reform”.

Then there is the objection we sometimes hear that 18 is the most common voting age around the world and there is no public support for the UK to go out of line with the norm. All I can say is that not so long ago—the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, touched on this—the norm was that only men could vote, so keeping things as they are rather than making logical and progressive change cuts no ice in a sensible political debate. A case study of Austria, where the voting age was reduced to 16 in 2007, concluded that democratic quality was not jeopardised by extending the franchise and that the votes of the under-18s reflected just as much of a range of political views and preferences as did those of the over-18s. The case study also made the important general point that voter turnout in elections is by no means the only expression of political engagement, and that under-18s demonstrated just as much engagement as under-30s when it comes to activities such as contacting politicians on specific issues, collecting signatures on petitions, campaigning, demonstrating or working for an NGO—to give a few examples. Denying them the form of political engagement that is voting is illogical and unfair.

The right to vote at 16 is supported by a huge range of organisations, which would take far too long to list today but is led by the British Youth Council and others. I sincerely hope that the Government will take their head out of the sand on this issue and do the right thing for 16 year-olds and for democracy.

12:49
Baroness Blower Portrait Baroness Blower (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, except to say that she has already made a lot of my arguments so I will confine myself to those issues which matter to me as a previous teacher and worker in education. I want to make a few remarks about the role that education plays in this and the fact that it should be important in the curriculum, and in education and classroom practice.

I was once privileged to watch a primary school lesson for a class of eight and nine year-olds. The teacher expertly conducted a discussion with her class about the most important letter in the English alphabet. Like most year 4 teachers, she knew exactly what outcome she wanted from her class and they did indeed conclude that the most important letter was X —a letter or, in fact, a symbol. The reason why it was the most important letter was that it is used in our process to declare your democratic right by voting in elections. The teacher also engaged in a debate about the fact that a cross, or an X, is sometimes used to indicate that something is wrong but, like an extremely good classroom teacher, she said, “But we know in this classroom, don’t we, that if you get something wrong, it gives you the opportunity to do it again and get it right the next time”—something that might also be said about voting. However, I digress.

Throughout the education system, there is the opportunity to engage in teaching about democracy, whether it is about the X or the cross in a year 4 class or dealing with much more complex issues through citizenship teaching. The opportunity is there, but I agree that it is insufficient. Citizenship does not have the priority that it should in our curriculum and I agree with those noble Lords who have said that a review to make it more central would be an extremely good thing. Many other speakers agree.

One crucial thing about education, apart from developing skills and learning knowledge and so on, is that it should help young people to lay down helpful lifelong habits and attitudes. Those might include reading for pleasure, listening to others before you speak, speaking truth to power and, of course, voting. If you are in a primary or secondary school and the curriculum helps with that process, that is a good thing and, by 16, you can begin to lay down such habits.

In the UK, as has been referenced, we have an ageing population, so it is ever more important that young people are engaged in their own future in a serious way. I know a number of young people who went to COP 26, which shows that young people really do want to have a seat at the table and a voice. We have heard references to youth councils and youth parliaments, which provide extremely good opportunities for those of secondary school age to be active in the political sphere. Of course, as other noble Lords have said, Austria has shown the way.

Critical to this debate is that democracy is not a spectator sport. A thriving democracy requires participation. I was intrigued by the information in the Library briefing, which showed inconsistent support from the public for votes at 16 and 17. But the real-life experience of 16 and 17 year-olds in the independence referendum in Scotland—as referenced by a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Adonis—was that they were more likely to vote than 18 to 24 year-olds. It is fervently to be hoped that that vote at 16 or 17 has laid the foundations for lifelong engagement in the democratic process.

Democracy, as we know, is precious. It is not a spectator sport. We need to engage in it and, frankly, 16 is an appropriate time at which to start engaging. I therefore support this Bill and indeed commend the idea that we should have automatic enrolment, which might be done in schools or places of education.

12:54
Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for raising this issue. As a former further education lecturer who specialised in teaching 16 to 18 year-olds and as the founder and a supporter of Debating Matters, a competition designed to engage that age group politically, I am passionate about the issue of whether adults are paying attention to encouraging this age group to be informed and empowered. I just disagree that giving them the vote is the way to do it.

I have a question: why has the demand for votes for 16 year-olds become so popular among policy pundits and politicians? It is not because of a mass movement of teenagers demanding the right to vote. Unlike previous fights for the vote, such as for working-class male suffrage and by the female suffragettes, there is no mass agitation on the streets. However, a lot of energy goes into a rather top-down campaign. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, I especially noted the enthusiasm for votes for 16 year-olds after the 2016 Brexit referendum. That referendum result was often posed generationally as a vote by selfish oldies, blue-haired pensioners in the provinces and middle-aged gammon in red wall areas—all those reactionary types of old people—selling out the future prospects of the under-18s, who would have to live with the consequences for longer. There is a danger that this leads to attempts at, or an aspiration to, generational gerrymandering.

I also worry that there is an attempt here to flatter the young as a homogenous group while going hand in hand with stirring up ageist prejudices. More broadly, there is a trend sometimes to assume that the young should be listened and deferred to as a progressive act in and of itself. The self-conception by many people in institutions and political parties that they are too “pale, stale and male” means that there are often attempts to butter up the young. At a recent debate on gender identity and trans prisoners in this House, a variety of noble Lords suggested that this House is just too old fogey-ish to understand that the young are pro-trans identity and that we oldies should all get with the programme. Often, the inference is that those of us who are gender critical are old dinosaurs from an earlier era of the women’s liberation movement. Should we assess the merits of a case through a generational prism? If the majority of young people are censorious and support no-platforming, for example, should we just give up on the principle of free speech to satisfy a younger cohort? I do not think so.

To come back to the matter directly in hand, my core objection is that lowering the voting age to 16 would compromise voter independence. I want to explore some of the contradictions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, emphasised that the focus of this expanded franchise should be schools. That is a reminder that 16 to 18 year-olds are indeed still at school and are not currently considered independent adults. Logically, those who talk up votes for 16 year-olds should view teenagers as young adults capable of making all decisions for themselves; I would listen to them then. Yet the opposite is the case, as swathes of infantilising cross-party initiatives make the young even more dependent in the present period on adults, who are charged with treating them as people to be protected, looked after and chaperoned. You have to be 18 to buy cigarettes and alcohol, adverts for under-18s are banned, and so on and so forth. Try being a 16 year-old and having a drink in a pub and see whether adult society thinks that you are responsible enough to be trusted to make up your own mind and make your own decisions.

Indeed, as we have heard, everything from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to legislation and safeguarding rules defines those under the age of 18 as children these days. In that context, the state acts as a hand-holding protector. This hardly suggests a contemporary confidence in that age group as capable of adult responsibility. I might disagree with that, but you cannot have it both ways. Our society seems to be increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of these young people as morally autonomous adults, their very age making them dependent on state institutions—and, by the way, therefore open to state political influence. I suggest that, while that is the case, we cannot give them the vote. I stress the importance of independence not to query the competence of the young but to avoid degrading the meaning of voting, which is ideally a democratic right exercised by autonomous, independent citizens and not to be viewed as an extracurricular extension of civics lessons.

To conclude, 16 to 18 year-olds can be smart, inquisitive, mouthy, politically savvy and inspiring; of course, they can sometimes also be immature, infuriating and narcissistic—if someone asks us to remember what we were like at 16, I am afraid that is it. The point is not that 16 year-olds are not smart, bright, wonderful, brilliant people. The argument that has been used today is that, to demonstrate our interest in their interests, we must give them the vote, like a bribe or something. The idea that the only way that politicians will notice issues concerning 16 to 18 year-olds—or anyone younger, for that matter—is that they have the vote surely insults the democratic process and patronises the young, as though they need something to see that they are being taken seriously.

Political parties are failing at the moment to inspire the young who are voters. They are failing to inspire 18-plus voters who can vote. Perhaps we need to concentrate on improving politicians rather than expanding the franchise, which might be a distraction from much a deeper problem. I remind those who have argued today that votes for women are the same as votes for young people that those who opposed votes for women in the past did so on the basis that they were dependent and childlike. Now we actually want to make dependent, childlike citizens have the vote. I would watch that conflation of childhood and adulthood, because it insults both sides.

13:01
Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, the whole House knows that this Bill will not reach the statute book, but this is a really worthwhile debate and I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Adonis for having introduced the Bill and covered the ground in his opening speech so comprehensively and persuasively. I have enjoyed listening to the comments of all noble Lords and will do to the rest of the debate.

Ever since 1832, the direction of travel has been to widen the franchise, to deepen it and to extend it to a greater proportion of the population. It is in this spirit, I hope, that we are debating the Bill today. The most recent Act of 1969, referred to earlier, was not the last Act in this process; that was the Act of 2006, which enabled young people both to vote and to be a candidate for Parliament. Only as recently as 2006 has that been the case.

We already know the Government’s arguments against the Bill. When the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, she will remind us that it was not in the Conservative Party manifesto and that reducing the voting age to 16 does not accord with other significant rights and responsibilities which take effect only at 18. All of this is true, up to a point. I discovered only the other day that you can become a director at 16, which could be added to the list given by my noble friend.

The question we should ask ourselves in this debate is whether there is a case for change. As the House knows, the future belongs to the young. If we are to nurture our democracy, which is fragile enough as it is and has to be fought for in every generation, we must enable all our adult generations to feel that it is theirs as well as anyone else’s. This process can definitely begin at 16.

For example, take the recent COP 26. It was a school teenager from Sweden, as well as national treasures such as Sir David Attenborough, among others, who contributed as much to global awareness of the climate change issues at stake as any conventional politician. I think there is abundant and encouraging evidence that young people really care about the environment; they recognise the damage that pollution has done over the years and the sheer scale on which this has been taking place, which threatens our very existence on the planet. Global climate change matters more to the young than to anyone else—because it is their lives that will be decisively affected by it and what we collectively decide to do about it. I believe this means the young are becoming more and more interested in politics in the widest sense too.

If we are going to enable and encourage young people to take a constructive part in society, there have to be peaceful ways in which they can do so. Having the vote, which is our precious right to put an X on a piece of paper with a pencil and put it in a ballot box, will be a key part of enabling them to be constructive. I think it would be a mistake to assume, by the way, that arguing for the franchise to apply from the age of 16 means that one is furthering any one political cause or party: I see no evidence that young people have any more of a tendency to vote en bloc as any other age group.

As it happens, before Christmas I was invited to speak to a school sixth form. It was Chiswick School in west London and I had a really enjoyable time talking to three different A-level politics classes. I can tell noble Lords that they certainly had some very pertinent questions about this House. By the way, I enjoyed it so much that I hope they invite me back. In preparing for this debate, I got in touch with those same sixth-formers and asked what they thought about the Bill. So I sent it to them, along with the Library briefing. I am not suggesting that this is a comprehensive piece of scientific research, but the findings deserve attention given that the Bill is aimed precisely at the very people that these sixth-formers represent. I am very grateful to the teacher and the students concerned for the time they took to take part, which was very welcome.

I can report to the House that, in a straw poll among the sixth-form politics students at Chiswick School, two-thirds were in favour of this Bill and reducing the age to 16 and the rest were evenly divided between those who were unsure and those who were against. I will share some of the individual comments with the House today. They cannot be here to speak for themselves, but these were comments that were made this week and given to me. First, the comments in favour:

“16 year-olds have the ability to participate in society and be as independent as adults. At 16, you can work, leave home, enlist in the military etc. If 16 year-olds are somehow too immature to vote, then they shouldn’t be allowed to do these things either.”


Here is another:

“It would increase participation and encourage young people to get involved in politics. However, many 16 year-olds can be easily misinformed by social media and might not know how to ‘smartly’ vote. However, some adults also don’t know what they’re doing when they’re voting too, so it’s very circular. I’m more inclined to say, ‘Yes, do lower it’, but I wouldn’t even trust myself to vote yet.”


Here are some more comments in favour:

“I would go even further and reduce the voting age to 14 because this would begin the habit of voting from a young age and likely lead to higher turnout.”


“I believe our generation are no more susceptible to media bias and peer pressure than the overwhelming amount of over-50s who currently take up the turnout statistics, living through Facebook hiveminds and conspiracy theories.”


“I feel unrepresented within Parliament.”


“Our future shouldn’t just be in the hands of those who won’t have to live in it.


There were a couple of comments that were not in favour, and I will read those out too:

“Everyone would vote for the same thing without even understanding what’s going on and be peer pressured and follow the trend. I’d hypothesize that around 70% of young people would vote for the same thing because of each other’s influence.”


Finally:

“At 16, people may not have enough life experience to make political judgments, as it is not taught in most schools. Also, they might be easily influenced by the media and popular trends. For example, ‘Ooh, wouldn’t it be funny if this guy wins? He’s such a joke, let’s vote for him’.”


I will leave my observation on that last comment there. Time is against me and I am sorry that I cannot read out more, but it is very important that these voices be heard.

I end by saying that I remember casting my first vote. I went to Pembridge ward library in the constituency where I grew up and it was terribly exciting. It was a lovely day, by the way, and I cast my vote and later that evening, the party for which I voted was kicked out of office. So, I learned a political lesson in June 1970 which I have not forgotten. In conclusion, I commend this Bill to the House because its time will come.

13:09
Baroness Greengross Portrait Baroness Greengross (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for introducing this Private Member’s Bill. The Bill is part of a conversation about how we should prepare our young people for participating in a modern democracy, and we need to be much better at doing that.

Much of my professional working life has been spent advocating for older people, but, at the same time, my volunteering work throughout my life—in this country and abroad—has always been with young people. This experience has taught me that between the ages of 16 and 18, people mature and develop considerably and will often only just start grappling with big political and social issues. I am not totally convinced that the voting age should be lowered immediately, but I think it should be in the longer term and I am interested in seeking views and input immediately from young people. In fact, I see the engagement of young people in our political system as crucial, as many of the decisions we make today will impact on their lives for many years to come, and we need to prepare them immediately for having the right to vote.

As a species, we are going through a phase of unprecedented transformation. How do we prepare young people to participate in our democracy so that they can make sense of the increasingly complex challenges that face us? Historically, we have educated children from the ages of five to 16 mostly through imparting information and expecting this to see people through their lives. In 2022, we all now have access to an overwhelming amount of information—one of the wonders of the internet age. The challenge is filtering information so that complicated political or scientific ideas are not ignored or given the same status as conspiracy theories or other misinformation.

In his 2018 publication 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Dr Yuval Noah Harari argues that today, the last thing we need to be doing in schools is imparting even more information, as most students have already received far too much. Instead, he argues that

“people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.”

He goes on to say that this has been the ideal of western liberal education for centuries, but up until now our education system has often failed to fulfil this ideal.

In this country, citizenship has been a statutory subject on the English national curriculum since 2001. This followed the 1998 Crick report recommendations that stressed the importance of teaching democracy in schools. In 2010, this was scaled back to a broader goal that schools should prepare students for life in modern Britain. This change saw a shift towards teaching knowledge rather than skills and practice—the very thing that Dr Yuval Noah Harari argues we should try to move away from.

In 2018, the House of Lords published a report entitled The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century. This publication was critical of the state of citizenship education in England, saying that it has been allowed to

“degrade to a parlous state.”

The report called for a statutory entitlement to citizenship education from primary to the end of secondary education.

It is crucial that in this increasingly complex and changing world, we prepare our citizens with the tools they need to make sound, informed choices when participating in our democracy. Whatever age we allow people to start voting, we need civics education that not only teaches them how our democracy works but teaches them critical thinking, so that they can separate the wheat from the chaff. Once we have made these improvements to citizenship education in England, we should work towards a change in the voting age, which I would strongly support.

13:14
Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, 15 to 20 years ago, I did not feel very strongly about this issue, but I have changed my mind and I now strongly support a reduction in the voting age to 16 for three reasons.

The first is a rising concern about political disengagement in Britain. We see declining party membership—the Conservative Party 20 years ago had well over a million members, and it is perhaps 150,000 now. There is a rising level of active dissatisfaction with conventional politics in Britain. That is not a consequence of current scandals; it has been a trend for some time. I have with me a committee report from 2014 on voter engagement in the UK which marks all the problems that we were then facing. We have reached a point where, according to public opinion surveys, satisfaction with democracy in Ireland is twice as high as it is in England. That should not leave us entirely happy. If people despair of conventional politics, political activity will move on to the streets and that is not a good thing for a stable society.

My second concern is that citizenship education in schools has not progressed; it has gone backwards in the last 10 years. It has been pushed out of the curriculum. It takes place in independent schools. Sitting here and thinking about which schools have invited me to go and talk to them, I think I have spoken to a majority of the independent schools in West Yorkshire over the years—there are not very many of them—but state schools are too busy with getting through the national curriculum to have spare time for this. If the voting age went down to 16, secondary schools would engage much more actively with the political dimension of citizenship. We would find ourselves much more engaged with them as well.

My third concern is the shifting age balance of the electorate. I have a life expectancy a great deal higher than that of my grandfather, as with the rest of us, and we know that the elderly vote in large numbers— 95% in many areas—whereas the young do not. That means that our politics stress, when elections come, what we do about the health service—I hardly used the health service until I was 65; I have used it quite a lot since—old-age pensions, and so on, and they are not so much about proper spending on education, opportunities, the transition to work and training. That is bad for the future of the country. The age divide in British politics, politically, is something that should concern us just as well. We now know that the elderly tend to vote Conservative and the young increasingly tend to vote for other parties.

I have to say that I was disappointed with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan. I was following with great sympathy for the first three and a half minutes—I enjoy his lively articles in the press, and I increasingly enjoy the liveliness of his speeches in this Chamber—but he came to a very disappointing and lame conclusion. What I thought he was coming to say was, “What the Conservative Party now needs is a Disraeli moment. The Conservative Party is becoming the party of the old and we need to recapture the young, and the way to do that is to seize this issue, push it through ourselves and engage with secondary schools and with the young”. I look forward, perhaps within the next two years, to reading an excellent article by him in which he explains why he has finally changed his mind and come to this conclusion. I hope then that he manages to persuade his party in turn.

A range of issues have been raised in this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, talked about changing the culture of politics. Getting citizenship education into schools much more actively is part of the way we have to change the culture of politics. Again, sitting and listening to this debate, I remembered how many universities I had been to, in many campaigns, with full lecture theatres having active discussions about the political issues and students coming up to me afterwards. That does not happen in schools, and 50% of 16 to 18 year-olds do not go on to university. It is those people whom we really need to get to if we want to reinvigorate our democracy. We have a passive electorate at present. There are fewer opportunities for political participation as local democracy has been cut back and squeezed by this Government and their predecessors. We need to have a much more active and engaged electorate if we are going to maintain the stability and cohesion of our society. That is partly why I feel so strongly that votes at 16 is part of regaining that sense of engagement and participation.

We have discussed whether 16 is the right age. It is clear from this debate that there are a variety of age points in the transition from childhood to adulthood—10, 16, 18, 21—and which should be when the right to vote is gained is a matter of choice. It is therefore a matter of political choice, and I vote for 16. My noble friend Lord Rennard also remarked on the problem of registration. Under-registration of the young is a very serious problem which requires us to move further towards automatic registration. Perhaps when the national insurance number is given out, voter registration should be automatic, but that is a matter for when we debate the elections Bill.

I am persuaded that, if we want to reinvigorate our very damaged democracy and do something about the often bitter disgust our voters have for what they call the Westminster bubble, extending voting to 16 is one part of how we can regain public confidence and public participation.

13:21
Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Adonis for introducing this debate. As my noble friend Lord Stansgate and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, it has been a very good and worthwhile debate. I think that all noble Lords, whether they are supportive or otherwise of the Bill, would agree that improving voter engagement is crucial to democracy in this country. Yet our political system in England locks out the very people who will be living longest with the consequences of any election result. It is time for that to change. There are many technical, practical, political, and even emotional reasons for this change to happen, but one thing is certain: our politics is missing out on the energy and insight of young people. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about how children are often not heard and not given a voice. This is a failure on all our parts which we have an opportunity to change.

Noble Lords have talked about how they enjoyed visiting schools and debating with children and young people, and this was always one of the most rewarding parts of my job when I was in the other place. As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, we are always impressed by the lively discussion of, knowledge of and passion that young people have for the subjects they are interested in and care deeply about, whether it is climate change or another subject. We saw how passionately involved young people were in the Scottish referendum, as has been mentioned. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, talked about how it was not just political engagement in an election that they were excited about; they also engaged with many other activities that are important to our communities and society.

We have heard that in the Scottish referendum, the proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds who voted was high: 20% greater than the turnout among 18, 19 and 20-year-olds. This clearly demonstrates that 16 and 17-year-olds are enthusiastic in their desire to take an active part in their futures, and that when they have the opportunity to vote and get into the habit of doing so, they grasp it with both hands. My noble friend Lord Adonis explained what a democratic success this has been and how, importantly, it had cross-party support. We also heard that there is evidence that once a young person has left school and moved away to college or university—the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred to this—getting registered can be challenging. Young people can all too easily slip out of the system and then out of the habit of voting, whereas participation from 16 makes it much more likely that the habit will be set. My noble friend Lord Adonis also drew attention to how this has increased civic and community participation, which can only be a good thing.

A 16 year-old can vote in referendums in Scotland, in local elections in Scotland and for their preferred candidate standing for the Scottish Parliament, but they have no say in who gets sent to Westminster. Do noble Lords believe that the capacity needed to pick a representative for this Parliament is in any way different from that needed for the Scottish Parliament or, indeed, a local authority? Now that 16 and 17 year-olds are also able to participate in Welsh elections, it leaves England and Northern Ireland as the democratic laggards of the United Kingdom. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, talked of his daughter’s frustration that being English meant that she could not vote yet. Britain has become a democratic postcode lottery, and this needs fixing.

Alongside reducing the voting age to 16, we have heard discussion from noble Lords about how important civic duties, such as registering to vote, how to vote and how political systems work, should be a crucial part of the school curriculum. A number of noble Lords reflected on the situation as it stands now, but my noble friend Lady Blower was particularly clear in her assessment of schools, and said that provision is currently insufficient. We need to ensure that young people have the confidence and understanding required to register to vote and then to take part, as well as having more awareness of how they can genuinely influence their own futures and what the effect of the vote can be on their daily lives. This should be true at all democratic, not just parliamentary, levels. Children and young people should understand the importance of voting in local elections, for police and crime commissioners and so on, because all of this affects them and their families directly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, talked of the importance of preparing young people to participate in our democracy, and I think we all agree about the importance of that. But we need to think about what sort of democracy we want to be. Do we want to be a democracy that looks for reasons to exclude, or do we fundamentally want to be a democracy that looks to the future and supports our young people in how they can be active participants in that future? My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti mentioned the Elections Bill, and I anticipate that we will be having very lively debates on these issues in the near future—but, in the meantime, we strongly support my noble friend Lord Adonis with this Bill.

13:28
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the Lord, Lord Adonis, for raising this important issue, and all noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate. As noble Lords will be aware—we have spoken about it a lot during the debate—the question of voting age is something of a perennial topic of parliamentary debate. That is as it should be: the franchise is the foundation on which our democracy rests, and it is only right that we give ongoing and careful consideration to how we define the limits of that franchise.

The Bill focuses on the age limit of the franchise: in other words, at what age should one be granted the right to vote? If passed, the Bill would reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 in UK parliamentary elections and in all local elections in England. The question at hand today is whether that would be the right age at which to grant an individual the right to vote. I thank all those who have offered their considered views and thoughts on this most important subject.

In 1969, the UK became the first democracy to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, reminded us, for national, regional and local elections, and other democracies soon followed. The point of this history lesson is not simply to highlight the UK’s role as a world leader on this issue—although that is something of which we should be rightly proud. Rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that lowering the voting age was not done in isolation. In that same year, 1969, the Family Law Reform Bill was making its way through Parliament, and a key provision of the resultant Act was to lower the age of majority from 21 to 18 years.

Dr Mycock, an academic expert in this field, recently published a very interesting and informative paper on this period of our history. He summarised as follows:

“amid a period of significant cultural and social change”,

the lowering of the age of the franchise was

“a consequence of the desire of political leaders to align the voting age with what society increasingly perceived as the new age of adulthood, 18.”

It was part of a

“package of reforms which attempted to streamline the age at which young people were seen to become adults.”

Since that time, the age of majority has remained unchanged. The age of 18 is recognised as the standard age of majority in the United Kingdom—when one moves from being a child to an adult, and when one gains independence in making a range of decisions. The UK has similarly maintained the age of 18 as the rightful age to enfranchise people. It has done so in line with the national and international consensus on what age one attains adulthood.

In fact, as I shall set out shortly, there is a respectable case to be made that the age of adulthood in the United Kingdom has recently, in some respects, been further streamlined towards the age of 18. I emphasise this trend to make the point that the Government’s position on voting age is consistent with our approach to wider matters around granting rights and responsibilities.

The Government’s stated position on the matter of voting age is well known, but I repeat it here for the record. The present Government were elected on a manifesto which stated unequivocally:

“We will maintain the voting age at 18—the age at which one gains full citizenship rights.”


Full citizenship rights are not accrued until an individual reaches their 18th birthday. Yes, as many Members have pointed out, it is true that young people are able to do some things at 16 and 17. However, there are limitations on the degree of autonomy they have to exercise those options. For example, it is true that an individual may join the forces at the age of 16. They may also get married and, in some cases, they may opt to do both. In each instance, however, individuals under the age of 18 require parental consent.

Moreover, under-18 year-olds joining the forces will not be permitted to serve on the front line and be put in a position where they risk losing their lives. That reflects our commitment to uphold the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Similarly, we do not call on citizens to participate in jury service until the age of 18 or above.

In a range of other matters, all recent Governments of all colours have taken the view that people must be 18 years of age to make significant decisions and shoulder certain responsibilities. I will list some examples; we have heard some this afternoon. Persons under the age of 18 have no capacity to enter into credit or hire agreements. They cannot own land or property in the United Kingdom. Since the Gambling Act 2005, 16 and 17 year-olds have not been able to gamble at a casino or bet on most gaming machines. Since the Fireworks Regulations 2004, they have not been able to possess fireworks. Since 2007, they have not been able to buy cigarettes or e-cigarettes. Since 2011, they have not been able to use sunbeds. Since the Education and Skills Act 2008, all 16 and 17 year-olds must be in some form of education, apprenticeship or training until they turn 18. We do this to ensure that they have the best possible start in life.

Within this context, it seems there would be an inconsistency in our overall approach if we were to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds. How far can it be reasonable to argue that a person may be deemed sufficiently mature to vote, but insufficiently mature to use a sunbed; or to say to a 17 year-old, “We trust you enough to vote, but not enough to buy a pint of beer”?

I have set out the case that the UK considers 18 to be the age at which a person attains adulthood. In this respect, the UK is entirely in keeping with the international view. Most democracies around the world consider 18 to be the right age to enfranchise young people. They include the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and almost all European Union countries, with the exception, as we have heard, of Malta and Austria—and Hungary, but only if people are married. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said: Germany is looking at it, but at the moment legislation has not gone through. As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, reminded us, Part 1 of Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as

“every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”

I shall move on to public opinion, because not much has been said about that. The Government’s position on this matter is also in keeping with public opinion. A 2019 survey by NatCen, a social research organisation, found that the majority of the public—60%—believe that the voting age should remain at 18. Furthermore, the public were relatively split in their support for changing the voting age, with 19% in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 compared with 16% who supported increasing it to 21. These figures are echoed in Ipsos MORI data referenced by YouGov in 2018, which found that when the public were asked whether 16 and 17 year-olds should be given the right to vote, only 34% were in favour. However, the wording of the question affected responses: only 26% supported lowering the voting age when the question changed to whether the voting age should be reduced from 18 to 16.

Allowing proper debate on the issue, which has occurred on an almost yearly basis in Parliament since 2010, is key. A fundamental change to the national franchise, such as enfranchising 16 and 17 year-olds, requires consensus across age groups, not just in the one group in question.

I turn now to the devolved Administrations and the decision taken by the Welsh and Scottish Governments to extend the local and devolved franchises to 16 and 17 year-olds, which was brought up by the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Rennard, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and many others. Many speakers both here and in the other place have suggested that the UK Government and England should follow their example. The devolution settlements provide for a strong United Kingdom and recognise the different circumstances which influence local government electoral policy. It is for the devolved Administrations to make decisions on elections within their competence, and both the Welsh and Scottish Governments have taken the view that the voting age should be lowered to 16. Many of those who advocate that the United Kingdom Government should follow suit do so on the grounds that lowering the voting age would increase democratic engagement, among young people in particular—but that has yet to be seen.

I will be the first to acknowledge that many young people are deeply engaged with politics and with issues they care about and which matter to them. We heard much from noble Lords in this debate about the issues in which young people are interested. I note the number of engaged young people from both primary and secondary schools who are regular visitors to our House. It is a wonderful opportunity to educate them about how the system works. Their interest is evident well before the age of 16. Partly for this reason, I am not persuaded by the argument that 16 or 17 year-olds need to be able to cast a vote in a ballot in order for them to become politically engaged, educated or motivated. Indeed, I would go further than that. Voting age is not the key factor in developing young people’s interest and engagement in politics, and nor should it be.

Our approach should be one that encourages young people. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock, Lady Kidron and Lady Falkner, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and many others noted the importance of education and preparation for involvement in democracy. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for her lovely quote about preparing young people for democracy, which I think is the important part.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blower, brought up citizenship in the national curriculum. It is an important part of the national curriculum and schools should take it up. I have been to many schools over my political career over 20 or 30 years. As other noble Lords have said, it is a wonderful day to spend with young people, talking about the things you are passionate about and the things they are passionate about, which is what you find. If ever we are involved in schools, it is important that we encourage them to take up and teach the national curriculum on citizenship, particularly the part on democracy, as it includes parliamentary democracy, the power of government, and the role of the citizen and Parliament in holding those powers to account. It should also teach pupils about the different electoral systems used in the United Kingdom. The curriculum also requires that pupils are taught about the actions that citizens can take in democratic and electoral processes to influence decisions locally, nationally and beyond. In short, the intention is to provide our young people with the responsibilities and experiences of later life—in this case, being granted the right to vote.

Alongside this, we should continue to provide education about our democracy in a non-partisan way. We should encourage young people to engage in debate, and perhaps to volunteer to support causes they are passionate about. We have heard what those causes are; the main one at this time is probably the environment. This is a better way of preparing them to make decisions about where they sit politically. There are also many third-sector organisations, such as Bite the Ballot, which does excellent work with young people in this area.

Before I finish, I will bring up a couple of things that came up that were perhaps not necessarily relevant. The noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Wallace, brought up automatic registration. I am not going to go into that today. We have had many debates on it and will have more in the future. When national insurance numbers are issued to young people, in the paperwork is also a leaflet that tells young people how to join the electoral register, which was an important part of a recent Bill.

I also thank my noble friend Lord Hannan of Kingsclere and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, who challenged the House, which I think is an important thing to do, about what is really behind the call for this change. I quote my noble friend Lord Hannan, who talked about “partisan games”. I will leave it there.

In conclusion, I note that Parliament has debated the voting age in a number of contexts and, to date, it has repeatedly voted against changing it. Most recently, I think in the Elections Bill, there was a vote on Report. The lowering of the age from 18 to 16 was defeated by 327 votes to 236. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that he believes the political view has changed. I am not sure that it had a couple of weeks ago in the other place.

However, I have welcomed the opportunity to revisit this important topic again today, and I have little doubt that we will revisit it again in the not too distant future. As I set out, the Government believe that the voting age should remain aligned with the age of majority, at 18. This is the point at which many other key rights and obligations as a citizen are acquired. Having been elected on a manifesto commitment to retain the current voting age on these grounds, the Government will not support the Bill.

13:44
Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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My Lords, we have had a very good debate, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I do not reiterate the arguments, except to note that the majority of noble Lords supported this reform, which I think is an idea whose time has come. I have always thought that the acid test of whether a reform is worth while and valuable is whether, in a liberal society, once it has been introduced, anyone would think of reversing it. The tendency towards lowering the voting age towards 16 goes back 30 years; it is not just Austria, which made the change at its national level in 2007—the process started in the Federal Republic of Germany, when Lower Saxony reduced the voting age to 16 back in 1995. The tendency across all democracies since then has been to debate the issue and for proposals to come forward—some not to go through first time, but then they go through subsequently.

We have seen that process already within the United Kingdom. The vote at 16 and 17 has been granted in Scotland and Wales, and it would be inconceivable that it would now be reversed in Scotland and Wales. It is not just that all the political parties including the Conservative Party support votes for 16 and 17 year-olds in Scotland—but so, overwhelmingly, do the public. After the experience of votes for 16 and 17 year-olds, recent surveys in Scotland show that more than two-thirds of the public now support that reform. When it was introduced at the behest of all the political parties—it was not gerrymandering, because all three supported it when the measure went through—because of the experience of the constructive engagement of 16 and 17 year-olds in the independence referendum, public support gathered pace, and it is now overwhelming.

This has the future written all over it. It will happen. It may not happen in this Parliament; if it does not happen in this Parliament, it will probably happen in the next. One thing I am very confident of is that, in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, after it has been introduced, almost no one will be speaking in this House against votes for 16 and 17 year-olds. We will hear no speeches like that of the Minister and others, which were deeply reactionary. On that basis, I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 1.48 pm.