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

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Baroness Blower

Main Page: Baroness Blower (Labour - Life peer)

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

Baroness Blower Excerpts
Friday 28th January 2022

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.