HC Deb 18 December 2001 vol 377 cc148-9 3.33 pm
Matthew Green (Ludlow)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to provide that a person aged 16 years or over is entitled to vote in a parliamentary or local government election. The Bill is an attempt to use common sense to tackle civil rights and the health of our democracy head on. I am sure that no hon. Members consider marriage, a full-time job or having children to be lesser responsibilities than voting, yet that is what successive Governments have effectively told us by failing to tackle the voting rights of 16 to 18-year-olds. We expect young people who work to contribute taxes, so why cannot they have a say in who spends their hard-earned money at local and national level? We treat them like adults one minute and children the next.

Let us be consistent. If we expect young people to be accountable and responsible, we must afford them responsibilities and respect. Young people under 18 can die fighting for their country, so is it not madness that they cannot elect the very people who send them to war? Respect and equality are at the heart of the Bill: giving 16-year-olds the vote is a fundamental right.

Why bother, some may ask? After all, we have all heard in the news about the increasing apathy of young people towards politics. I am sure that some will say, "What is the point of giving young people the vote if they are not going to use it?" Giving young people the chance to vote can only benefit society. It will empower young people and give them a greater sense of responsibility in society. We will make politics more relevant to the young and encourage personal responsibility by giving them a stake in the future.

We cannot deny someone their rights simply because they choose not to use them. If we played that game, we would have to forfeit the rights of almost half the population in the UK, given the results of the last general election—some democracy we would have if we did that.

Unlike some adults, young people are interested. A research poll carried out following the general election for Charter 88 and the YMCA came up with some surprising results. It seems that young people are still interested and have faith in the political system. Some 62 per cent. believe that voting is an important way to defend the public interest, and 61 per cent. believe it makes the Government responsible for their actions. More than half believe that voting is instrumental in getting the right people elected who will represent their views.

We cannot take young people for granted. As the research also shows, if we fail to nurture young people's interest in politics, we lose it. As many as 47 per cent. of 16 to 17-year-olds said that voting could have a lot of influence; that dropped to only 35 per cent. once they reached their early twenties—a 12 per cent. drop in just five years. How can we tell young people that we are interested in their views, yet at the same time not let them have the vote? Young people are judged old enough to start a family and contribute taxes. We should now allow them to elect the Government who will spend their taxes and provide the hospitals in which their children are born.

The change has the support of the Electoral Reform Society, the British Youth Council, the YMCA, the National Youth Agency, the UK Youth Parliament, the Children's Rights Alliance, the National Black Youth Forum and the Care Leavers Alliance.

The last time that the voting age was lowered was under the Representation of the People Act 1969, which came into force for the 1970 general election and allowed 18 to 20-year-olds to vote for the first time. I understand that a total of 81 Members of this House had the opportunity to vote that year, which they would not have had otherwise. Without giving anyone's exact age away, I shall mention a few of them, including my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I understand that he insisted on using his vote, with his father driving him from Hereford, where they had moved to, to north Wales to make sure that his vote counted at the age of 19.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Moms) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), were also able to vote for the first time in 1970 thanks to the lowering of the voting age. They could not have done so if the voting age had not been lowered the previous year.

We all know how quickly youthful passion and idealism can fall victim to cynicism and apathy. How many more Ministers, Chancellors or perhaps even Prime Ministers will be encouraged if we foster young people's interest in politics early on?

The citizenship curriculum that is being made compulsory in September 2002 will teach all young people about the political process: 16 and 17-year-olds will be better informed about politics than ever before, and probably better informed than most adults. Young people are the future. We want to encourage their interest in the community in which we live as well as the world around them. We must motivate young people before they lose interest, and there is only one way to do that—give them the vote.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Matthew Green, Mr. Andrew Stunell, Jane Griffiths, Angus Robertson, Lembit Öpik, Dr. John Pugh, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Paul Marsden, Mr. Alan Reid, Adam Price and Mr. Roger Williams.