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

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock

Main Page: Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Labour - Life peer)

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

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Excerpts
Friday 28th January 2022

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.