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

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Baroness Coussins

Main Page: Baroness Coussins (Crossbench - Life peer)

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

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Friday 28th January 2022

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.