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

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Baroness Scott of Bybrook

Main Page: Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Conservative - Life peer)

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

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Friday 28th January 2022

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.