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

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

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Friday 28th January 2022

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.