HL Deb 09 January 2003 vol 642 cc1106-22

11.24 a.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill does exactly what it says on the can. It would reduce the voting age in parliamentary and other elections to 16. There are two principal reasons for doing this. One is equity and justice. The other is the opportunity which it might give us to make a contribution to the revival of active democratic politics in this country, whose decline over many years we are all well aware of and much concerned with.

I turn first to the argument of equity, which I see as the main argument. In the process of a child's life from birth to 21 we accord it various responsibilities at various ages. At age five, a child is expected to know how to behave well—and can be thrown out of school if he or she does not. At age 10, a child can be convicted of murder and has criminal responsibility. At age 16, a whole slew of responsibilities are lumped onto children. They can get married; they can leave home; and they can join the Armed Forces. It is an age when we turn children out of children's homes. Sixteen is a great turning point in a child's life. At 17, we allow them to drive; at 18, we allow them to buy cigarettes and alcohol; and at 21, we accord them the most dangerous privilege of all, which is standing for election for Parliament.

The question is: where in that spectrum should we allow them to vote? I suppose it depends on whether a vote is regarded as a right or a privilege. Through the centuries a vote has been regarded as a privilege—for example, in arguing against women's suffrage. I remember from my own youth the argument against the extension of suffrage to the black population in Rhodesia—they were not ready for it; they did not know enough; and it was not a privilege that they were yet up to exercising. If we did give them the vote they would merely elect a monkey, as in Hartlepool. That is an argument founded on the idea that a vote is a privilege. If one follows down that route we in this country should have some kind of examination before someone is allowed to exercise a vote to prove that they understand the issues in question.

However, that is not the basis that we act on in this country. In this country, we regard a vote as a right. Rights should go with responsibilities. In this country, after our various efforts over past years, 16 is the age at which we accord children responsibilities. That is when we throw them out into the world, when we put the burdens of the world on their shoulders and that is when we should accord them the right to vote.

As the old adage says, "No taxation without representation". Much the same, to my mind, applies to all the other burdens that we place on children's shoulders. We have chosen to do it at 16. That is when they should have the right to have a say in how they are governed and how those burdens are placed on them.

Turning to the other aspect which is of opportunity, we are taking steps at last to see whether we can revive an interest in democratic politics in this country and reverse the gradual decline in participation in general and other elections. One of the most significant changes, to my mind, is the introduction of a citizenship curriculum in schools, so that children will go out into the world knowing something of what their rights and opportunities are in a world of democratic politics. It will be a little strange to say to those kids, "We can teach you about it before 16 but you haven't actually got any rights to exercise and get involved in these things until you are 18". That misses a tremendous opportunity to get kids involved at that age.

As part of the citizenship curriculum, children could be encouraged to register for voting and encouraged to participate in whatever elections are taking place at the same time. There is so much practical application and involvement in the modern curriculum. One could even have it as a project: "This is what I did during the 1986 local elections. These were the issues. These were the positions I took. This is what I did. This is my participation in it." There are elections of one form or another most years—certainly every other year—in which children could be involved. There is no reason why it should not be part of the curriculum—if children so wish they could pursue it and to be involved.

There is no bar on politics in schools. We teach extensive politics under the headings of environmentals and history. There is a great deal of politics in that. Not to include the full span of current politics, current involvement and current issues seems to me to be a great missed opportunity.

We should not be afraid of political debate and political radicalism at that age. A lot of the current Cabinet were active politically at that age. Yes, now they do not hold the opinions that they held then but that does not invalidate the fact that when they were 16, 17 and 18, they were active politically and held views which were a valid set of views for them to have at that age. We should not deny children the right to vote merely because with mature reflection 40 years on they do not hold the view that they held then.

Therefore, there seems to me to be a great argument in favour of getting the young involved politically. It provides the opportunity to revive real democratic debate. We can also find other ways of involving young people. There seems to me to be no reason why we should not allow them to stand for election to parish councils. It is hard enough to get good people on to parish councils in any event and if a young person is prepared to participate and put in the necessary amount of time, why not? We should encourage them to be part of other semi-democratic bodies such as school governing bodies and so forth. That happens in some cases, but not as widely as might be the case.

Indeed, when we are looking at the future of this House, we might even consider having a youth representation. How else are we to choose the democratic representatives who are to come here? It cannot be on the basis of parliamentary constituencies or we would rival MPs, and it cannot be on the basis of Euro constituencies because that is a recipe for apathy. To use proportional representation would make us more legitimate than the House of Commons. The template we have been offered is that we should be a House which represents all parts of the kingdom and all interests. Youth is part of that, and if you get people to vote for a group of which they believe themselves to be part and in which they take an interest, you have a hope of reviving real interest.

There are many ideas to be pursued, and if we are to revive democratic politics in this country we must be prepared to be adventurous and try different things. It may not work—so many things must come together to make it work. Giving votes to 16 year-olds has worked in Germany and there is greater participation and interest, but it may not work in this country. However, we have the opportunity to try things and we should consider votes at 16 now. Because of all that we have done to give responsibilities to 16 year-olds, it is right that we should give them the right to vote. We need to take the opportunity now to start at the base and revive an interest in democratic politics in this country.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord a question. Does he not believe that there is a danger of parental bullying of 16 year-old kids when they go to vote? That is a danger.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, surely the point of the secret ballot is that what a person does in the voting booth is entirely up to him. I suspect that a great deal of bullying of grandmothers goes on, too. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lucas.)

11.32 a.m.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, it is 34 years since a Bill was passed that lowered the minimum age for voting in this country. Much has changed in Britain since then. The attitudes of young people as well as attitudes towards them have moved on considerably. So it must be right to reconsider the question of what is the appropriate age to allow someone to vote. We should therefore thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for bringing forward this Bill.

The Bill is actually in full accord with Liberal Democrat policy that voting rights should be afforded from the age of 16. It will, of course, be suggested by some that many young people are not sufficiently mature, well informed or interested to cast a vote. My experience of elections, however, suggests that it would be quite wrong to suggest that everybody over the age of 18 has this maturity, level of knowledge and interest—while nobody aged 16 or 17 possesses these qualities.

This Bill does not suggest that voting should be compulsory for 16 and 17 year-olds. It would simply allow those who attain the age of 16 by the end of October 2004 to vote in public elections thereafter—if they wish to do so. The age at which it may be appropriate to vote will actually vary from person to person. Perhaps I would have been too young to cast my first vote at the age of 16. But by that age, I was the secretary of the Liverpool Wavertree Constituency Liberal Party and I had been treasurer of the Church Ward Liberal Association for three years.

In my sixth form at the Liverpool Blue Coat School, there were many of my contemporaries sufficiently interested in politics and current affairs to hold a sensible discussion and who would have been conscientious voters at the ages of 16 or 17. Sadly, from my point of view, they were overwhelmingly Conservative in the late 1970s—but they were certainly able to make an informed choice.

Nearly two years ago, I took part in a sixth form debate at Upper Warlingham school in Surrey together with representatives of the Conservative and Labour parties. The concerns of young people were eloquently addressed by the sixth formers present. An intelligent and well informed discussion was held on issues ranging from homelessness to the environment, from cannabis to student tuition fees.

There was no doubt that many of those young people were at least as ready as most voters to consider carefully how they would mark their cross on a ballot paper. But perhaps because those aged 16 and 17 are not able to vote, many of the issues about which they are most concerned are not fully reflected in the priorities of many politicians.

All those who believe in democracy must want to encourage democratic participation. It is my belief that if people do not engage in the process of choosing their lawmakers, they are less likely to respect the laws that are enacted, less likely to believe that change can come about in a fair and democratic way, and their opting out of the democratic process has many dangers. We should therefore encourage 16 and 17 year-olds to engage in the process as soon as they feel ready.

Someone who is 16 in 2004 might not have a chance to vote in a general election until he is 21 and has learnt to experience many facets of adult life, but not including voting for his Government. By then, the evidence is that he may well have come to the conclusion that voting is for someone else and not for him. There will, of course, be partisan interest by the parties as to what would be the effect of allowing younger people to vote. Indeed, Peter Riddell in The Times on Monday suggested that the only hope for the Conservative Party might be to raise the minimum age of voting to 56 and above. But let us put the interests of younger people first and let us encourage them to be responsible citizens as soon as they are ready.

11.37 a.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, we should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for giving us the opportunity to consider this matter. However, I must confess that I do not believe that there is any case in favour of giving school children at the age of 16 the responsibility of deciding which party shall be in power and what kind of government we shall have. I will come to more of that later.

As for the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, of course one remembers well. Perhaps I may confess that I was born a Liberal, too, and that at the age of about 10 I started talking politics with my father, who was also a Liberal. I became very interested in the subject but the more I did so and the older I grew, the more I realised that experience of life and the world was necessary for one to exercise a useful judgment in voting. I must say that I am totally against the proposal in my noble friend's Bill and I see little chance of it reaching the statute book, thank goodness.

I hope that no one will take it amiss if I point out the limitations of the electorate as it is, with all men and women over the age of 18—or (shall I say?) with young men and girls over the age of 18—having the right to vote. I hope that your Lordships will not mind my reminding the House that I fought and won 10 general elections; that I never had a majority of less than 5,000; and that in the large and varied constituency I represented for 34 years at least two-thirds of the voters—certainly two-thirds of those who voted—were wage earners and their families. I had great respect for them and they did not hesitate to vote for or against me. But most of them, of course, in order to get the majorities that I had, must have voted for me.

The issues in every general election are varied, but every time we find among them the issues of foreign affairs and defence, which are very big subjects; the economy; the standard of living; poverty; the need for ever improving education; and the avoidance of crime, which has become much more of an issue more recently and difficult to decide. Indeed, we are told—I do not like to think of it—that even within Her Majesty's present Government there are various opinions on how to reduce crime.

In addition to the issues that arise to a greater or lesser extent at every general election, there are other issues which vary considerably. It seemed to me during the years that I spent as a Member of another place that relatively few voters understood the causes of all the variable important problems; less, sometimes, did they understand the nature of the variable policies put forward by the parties for dealing with those problems. They were not easy issues to understand. Indeed, the younger and less educated the voter, the more difficult they found them to be.

The lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, some 34 years ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, pointed out, increased the number of voters who found it difficult to understand the issues or their solutions. If we were to lower the voting age from 18 to 16, so bringing in vast numbers of semi-educated—and, indeed, sometimes under-educated—children, we would make democracy in this country even less reliable. For those reasons, I trust that the Bill will never be enacted.

11.43 a.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, it was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, argue most persuasively, as always, the case for his Bill.

It is fascinating to compare the setting of different voting ages in different countries historically. It might be assumed that a low minimum voting age would be associated with prowess and modernity, and a high minimum voting age with small "c" conservatism and even reaction. But if you were to assume that you would be wrong. Some 50 or so years ago, Professor C. Northcote Parkinson set out to rank the nations of the world according to their degree of civilisation overall as he saw it. Factors considered in this evaluation included, for example, long average life expectancy, low infant mortality, free access to good quality medical care and education, low crime rates, low road accident rates, minimal censorship and so on. Although this formula was devised by Professor Northcote Parkinson himself, few political commentators challenged it or disagreed with it.

The half-dozen countries deemed on this basis to be the most civilised in the world included the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Yet the minimum voting age in Norway and Sweden at around that time was 23, and in Denmark and the Netherlands it was 25. Conversely, the first major countries to lower their minimum voting age to 18 were the Soviet Union, and South Africa in the days of apartheid. As Desmond Tutu used to complain wearily, although neither he nor any other highly-educated black person had access to the ballot box, any semi-literate 18 year-old white labourer had full voting rights—and we all know what a farce voting in the Soviet Union used to be. So clearly there is no historical correlation between a low minimum voting age and what might be described as "national virtue".

Nowadays, of course, almost all democracies have a common minimum voting age of 18, in line with the age of majority. What is the case, therefore, for stepping out of line with most of the rest of the world and lowering the voting age to below the age of majority, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, bearing in mind that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under the age of 18?

One argument that I have heard was not mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. One accepts that Britain, albeit to no greater extent than the rest of Europe or Japan, is afflicted by a frankly inadequate birth rate, causing the average age of the population to go up and up, with many unfortunate consequences. One of these, although by no means the most serious, is that the average age of the electorate is obviously rising in tandem, posing the theoretical danger that the interests and aspirations of younger people may be sidelined.

But this presupposes that most older people are either childless or, if they are parents, are unconcerned with or dismissive of the younger generation's interests and ambitions. I doubt, on the whole, that this is the case. But, even if I am over sanguine in supposing that there is no real clash of generations and that the late Sixties and early Seventies was a one-off aberration, I still submit that lowering the voting age to 16 would simply substitute the fire for the frying pan. Because, unless the retirement age were smartly revised upwards to, say, 68 or 70 for both men and women, there would be a danger that recipients of so-called "state" aid—I say "state" but of course the state has no money of its own; it all comes from taxpayers—students, the unemployed and the retired, would increasingly outvote the working population in matters relating to the allocation of resources. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, spoke of no taxation without representation. One could argue that there ought not to be any representation without taxation, but I shall not go into that issue now. For these and other reasons, I am afraid that I cannot support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

I have one final point. The noble Lord suggests that if the Bill is read a second time it should be committed to a Committee of the Whole House. But not much can be done with the Bill; the age cannot be altered because the short Title does not permit it. The Bill extends to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as to England, but I wonder whether the Scottish Parliament would be under any obligation to accept this proposal were the Bill to pass, or whether of its own accord it could decide to raise or lower the minimum voting age. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's answer when he comes to reply.

11.49 a.m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, the House is indebted to my noble kinsman Lord Lucas for giving us the opportunity to consider this proposal. The case rests on the undoubted failure of many in society to meet their responsibilities—at the moment a responsibility to exercise their vote seriously. The voting record is lamentable. It is an indictment of our society that the number who vote is declining. So before we reject my noble kinsman's Bill we should be careful to analyse what might be required to encourage people to take their duties more seriously.

There have been any number of initiatives in this area. Four years ago, Lord Jenkins chaired an independent commission examining different voting systems in an attempt to determine what system might more accurately reflect the wish of the electorate. The present lack of interest probably stems as much from disenchantment with the whole system as anything else—a sense of lack of involvement, the feeling among people that they have no ability to influence the larger political parties.

A number of initiatives are taking place at different levels. My noble kinsman referred to citizenship education. It is a sensible and worthy initiative at key stages 3 and 4 to encourage 14 to 16 year-olds to understand better the electoral process and the party system, the role of NGOs and much else besides.

I say with great respect to my noble friend Lord Renton that I do not share his concern that the educational level of 16 year-olds is such that they are unlikely to be able to make a contribution by exercising their vote. I have rather more confidence. I have no great concern that they will be bullied by their parents, as might be suggested. I seem to hear an echo from across the years. When the vote was to be extended to women, the argument was advanced that women were bound to obey their husbands so what on earth was the point of giving them the vote. I do not know whether your Lordships have ever tried to bully a 16 year-old. I do not recommend it.

Sustainable development, geography in the news and many educational initiatives rightly encourage 15 and 16 year-olds to look at the role that society should be playing in terms of wider responsibility. I take the view—it may be simplistic but I take it nevertheless in the hope that we can improve on our present rather lamentable record—that if we can encourage people who have been inducted in a way for which there is presently an appetite to consider their responsibilities in society and at the same time cement their interest by giving them the opportunity to vote, I quietly and confidently expect that that would be appreciated and that their views would be just as valid as those of Members of this House. I should certainly not wish to be so patronising as to suggest that the views of 15 and 16 year-olds are unlikely to be valid because of their lack of experience.

I accept, however, that this is a matter of judgment. I should not want the vote to be given to those below the age of 16. But 16 has a certain symmetry to it, bearing in mind the educational attainments of 16 year-olds. In terms of my own personal record, I think that I peaked as a politician at about 16. It has been downhill ever since in terms of lack of interest. I had a great appetite in this regard at that age, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I have no difficulty therefore in assuming that 16 and 17 year-olds would make an effective contribution.

I should judge such an experiment retrospectively to see whether it had been a success—not by the complexion of the government who might have been elected as a result of widening the franchise in this way but by seeing how many people continued to exercise their right to vote in future elections.

At present, the record of the 18 to 28 year-old age group is, frankly, even worse than that of the population at large. That suggests to me disenchantment. It suggests that not having been able to participate in a system about which they were taught two or three years before they were able to exercise their vote was something of a turn-off—an opportunity lost. It takes a great deal of time to return people to an interest in the subject and to an understanding of their responsibilities.

I commend my noble kinsman on introducing the Bill. I, for one, will give it my support.

11.55 a.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and to endorse what has been said in support of his proposal not only by my noble friend Lord Rennard but also by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne.

I have to confess that, originally, when the idea of reducing the voting age from 18 to 16 was mooted as policy for my party, I was somewhat sceptical about it. I have since changed my mind. The main reason for that is the seriously worrying decline in the level of voting and public interest in politics. I believe that a reduction in the voting age is part of the remedy.

The great majority of young people now stay on at school until the age of 18. If the voting age were to be reduced to 16, half of those who stay on would have the chance while at school to vote in a general election, given the four-year average length of a Parliament. Certainly, half of all students in Scotland and Wales would have the chance to vote for their national Parliament or Assembly. Almost certainly, everyone would have a chance to vote in a local election.

Students in years 12 and 13 are capable of taking an active and lively interest in politics. Anyone who has stood as a parliamentary candidate in a general election would agree that school students in their A-level years are one of the most challenging and lively audiences that one could meet. They ask difficult and perceptive questions. I remember an occasion when one of my opponents in the old Kensington constituency was "mangled" by the sixth form at Holland Park comprehensive school because he talked to them as if they were a bunch of 12 year-olds.

The fact that some people, such as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, have changed their minds since they reached the age of 16 is no argument for saying that 16 year-olds should not have the vote. Indeed, some of us would say that the noble Lord's second thoughts were not as good as his original ones.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, suggested in his intervention that 16 year-olds might be bullied by their parents. I note that the noble Lord has three sons, and I wonder whether he would have told them at the age of 16 how to vote, and if he had whether he thinks they would have done what he told them out of fear.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, perhaps I may answer that point. If I had done so, they might well have voted the wrong way from my point of view for the wrong reason. That is my point.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, if older school students are allowed to vote, I believe that the casting of their vote could become a kind of rite of passage. It is much more likely to happen with 16 and 17-year olds at school than with those who are 18 or older. University students, particularly if they are living away from home and therefore away from their own constituency, are likely to take a reduced interest in politics because they have lost their constituency links. 'They will take a reduced interest unless they belong to that class of student politicians who are sometimes student political nerds. If 18 year-olds are not at university, they are mostly in the workplace, where there is unlikely to be a great deal of talk about politics.

There is, however, one big "if". I believe that a reduction in the voting age will have a real effect on the political process only if it is coupled with truly effective training in citizenship. I welcome the fact that there will be such training now. Students need to be told why voting matters, and how people fought for the vote. They need to know how, and why, men of the lower, middle and working classes fought for it in the 19th century and women fought for it in the early 20th century. They need to be told that politics is the most crucial profession and that, in our country at least, the majority of politicians are honourable people trying to do their best. I wish we had a domestic television programme comparable with the American programme "The West Wing", which shows politicians as idealistic and committed people.

Students should be taught that they not only have the right to vote but a duty, although not a legal one. I would strongly oppose any proposal to make voting compulsory. All of us with the right to vote have a moral duty. If students could vote while they were being taught about the importance of voting, it would get them off to a good start. For those reasons, and on behalf of our Benches, I give wholehearted support for the Bill.

12.1 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I compliment my noble friend on his eloquence in deploying cogent arguments for his Bill. I also express my appreciation of those who criticised it. The timing of the debate is felicitous, because the Electoral Commission is currently examining the minimum voting age in some depth. Its examination will include open public consultation to enable individuals and organisations to make their views known. I also hope that its report will assess the effect of voting at 16 in countries where it has been adopted, albeit that some such as Cuba and North Korea are single-party states. None of the seven countries where there is voting at 16 is European, although there has been an experiment in one of the Lander in Germany.

The Electoral Commission has already touched on the issue in its research paper Voter engagement and young people published in July last year. That paper pursued the research finding by MORI at the time of the last election that the overall turnout of 59.4 per cent of eligible voters was the lowest since the advent of universal suffrage. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to that in detail. Low turnout was particularly pronounced among young people, with only an estimated 39 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds casting a vote. It is also estimated that only 60 per cent of that age group were registered to vote. I shall make no comment on that but I am sure that noble Lords will come to their own conclusions.

Low turnout at elections concerns us all if it is not explicable by a considered decision to abstain. There is considerable speculation about the causes and possible remedies. Those who have studied the matter only cursorily, as I have, realise that if Parliament lowered the voting age, we might increase the total number voting, but we would not necessarily increase the percentage turnout if the inaction that characterised 18 to 24 year-olds in the previous election were simply to be extended to the 16 to 18 age group. Of course, that is an unwarranted assumption on my part.

It could be argued—indeed, it has been—that voting at 16 might encourage the practice of voting, especially if the grant of the vote were accompanied by effective, impartial education in citizenship, its rights and responsibilities. Voting at 16 might have a salutary effect on the use of the vote in later life, not just by the newly enfranchised but by their parents and others whom they might influence positively. Of course, I respect the possibility that it could be the other way round. The obverse scenario is that an extension of the franchise is simply equated with an extension of apathy and the negative factors promoting low turnout.

Some bodies, notably the Electoral Reform Society, have already committed themselves to the principle of granting the vote to 16 year-olds. They are actively campaigning for it, with the support of a variety of youth organisations, including the British Youth Council, Children's Rights Alliance and the National Youth Agency. The ERS, in its submission on the Scottish Executive's White Paper on the future of local government, states, there is a far greater case for lowering the voting age than mere turnout". It puts forward arguments that merit attention. We have heard some of them during this debate. Like my noble friend Lord Lucas, it points to the inconsistency between the voting age of 18 and the age at which a young person can leave school, work full time, pay taxes, leave home, join the Armed Forces and receive social security benefit—all at 16. Taxation without representation appears to be the lot of a substantial proportion of 16 and 17 year-olds. But even younger people pay tax, although perhaps only in VAT on sweets. Elsewhere in its documents the ERS refers to the right to marry at 16 with parental consent. My only comment in general is that there is also a thrust in society today to increase rather than lower the age in some areas, especially, for example, in education. Many noble Lords remember, as I do, when the school leaving age was 14 and many young people went to work then. Our attitude to young people is now more protective. We want them to remain children while they grow up.

The ERS also argues 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". There may be some truth in that, but the electoral behaviour of 18 to 24 year-olds does not suggest that the right to vote in itself will make a real difference. I note the finding of a trial in Lower Saxony that suggests that 16 to 17 year-olds may behave differently from 18 to 24 year-olds and take a rather more active interest than the second age group.

It is also argued that the denial of the vote to these young people is based on similar grounds to the denial of the vote to women before the 1920s. That is a debatable point, too, which has been referred to by a number of speakers in the course of this debate. But at the end of the day, I come back to the Prime Minister's point in his shrewd answer to a question from Matthew Green, the Member for Ludlow, on 23rd January last year. He said: I am not sure that we would always want 16-year-olds to do all the things they can do".—[Official Report, Commons, 23/1/02; col. 887] He did not agree with the proposal to lower the voting age. He believed that it should remain as it is. I think that the Prime Minister was probably reflecting the protective attitude of parents who, however advanced and well informed—perhaps precocious—their children are, they wish them to have time to develop their powers of judgment and achieve a degree of political maturity before they vote. What is a proper degree of political maturity is another matter and that would be a debate in itself. But that is the ground on which arguments against a reduction in the voting age are largely based.

While the campaign for a lower voting age has many supporters, including, as we have heard, the Liberal Democrats—Liberal Democrat Peers have expressed it—the Scottish nationalists and the Welsh nationalists, I am not aware of any cross-party parliamentary body that has recommended a change in what some may regard as a totally arbitrary age line of 18. The Howarth Working Party on Electoral Procedures considered the matter, but it did not recommend a change and neither did the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into electoral law and administration. The Commission on Local Government electoral arrangements in Wales, on the other hand, has recommended a lower voting age to the National Assembly. But I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that to the best of my recollection the commission did not advance a substantive argument.

This is certainly not a proposal that is going away. We have been here before and certainly another place has. The increasing dependence of our ageing population on the young and the latter's corresponding increase in economic and political importance will ensure that the issue will remain prominent. We want young people to interest themselves in politics and we want to hear their views. We may be sure that the Electoral Commission's research will certainly fuel debate. There has already been one quite interesting debate in Westminster Hall.

My noble friend's Bill gives us all a chance to weigh the arguments, look at them again, and re-assess our own views. I am sure that we are very open minded in spite of our achieved maturity. I for one am certainly grateful to my noble friend for stimulating debate on the issue by promoting the Bill before us.

12.13 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on introducing his Bill, aimed as it is at enfranchising more young people. The noble Lord encourages us to be adventurous. He has certainly provoked very lively debate which, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, has said, will continue for some time. Indeed, the debate is going on inside and outside your Lordships' Chamber.

There is an irony in that we who are disenfranchised as regards general elections are taking the lead, as it were, in extending the franchise to younger people and having the debate. I should also say at this early stage that, as is usually the case as regards Private Members' Bills, the Government do not take a formal view for or against it in its progress through your Lordships' House. We will take no steps to oppose it.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would have expected me to approach this matter with some considered views. I decided at an early stage, knowing that I had to deal with the Bill, that I should form a focus group on the issue. That is very popular in Labour circles. The defining feature of this focus group had to be that all participants shared my surname Bassam and that they had to be aged seven to 14 years. In accordance with good practice in a democratic household, they were extensively consulted over this matter.

The good news from the noble Lord's perspective is that they all favoured the notion of reducing to 16 the age at which they might vote. The bad news is that were they to be able to cast their vote from that age onward I do not believe that it would greatly affect the prospects of the noble Lord's political party.

More seriously, the Government remain deeply concerned at the lack of engagement among young people in the democratic process. I know that one noble Lord at least mentioned the way in which turn out at general elections has been steadily reducing. I was recently reading an account of the 1950 general election at which 80 per cent of the population voted. It is widely understood that at the last general election just 59 per cent of the population voted.

Lowering the voting age may be seen as one way of addressing this issue although as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, reflected, extending and widening the franchise does not necessarily increase the percentage turn out at subsequent elections.

The question of the political and democratic engagement of young people goes much wider, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made very clear, than just the voting age. The Government have taken several legislative steps in recent years to modernise and simplify electoral law and processes so that they take account of, and are more relevant to, modern lifestyles and habits, including in particular those of younger people. For example, we have already introduced rolling registration, registration for those without a conventional address and postal voting on demand. Such measures make it easier both to register to vote and to cast a ballot.

We want to see in place elections that adopt a multi-channelled approach and take advantage of new technology with which young people are growing up and with which they are comfortable and familiar. To find out the best way of doing this we have enabled local authorities to carry out pilot schemes under the Representation of the People Act 2000 to test new ways of voting, such as through the Internet, telephone, SMS text messaging and so on, to ensure that they work and that they are safe and secure. We are committed to an e-enabled general election taking place, no doubt, some time after 2006. We consulted widely on e-democracy in our In the Service of Democracy consultation paper last year. That addressed the essential and vital point that engagement with the democratic process goes far beyond simply voting. It also specifically asked, young people, whether at school, university or work for their views.

We recognise that changing the voting system and lowering the age, as the noble Lord suggests, cannot of themselves address the issue of the engagement of young people including those who are perhaps uninterested in politics from the outset. But we are determined to identify—

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Although lowering the age of voting may not alone affect the engagement of young people, the Labour government of 1966 considered that it was a significant factor in reducing the voting age from 21 to 18. To further the examination and argument they appointed a Speaker's Conference in which I had the honour to serve. It recommended a reduction in the voting age. Have the Government given consideration to the appointment of a Speaker's Conference to focus on this issue at this time?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have not considered that approach. However, we established the Electoral Commission, which is actively considering all these issues. No doubt its reports and reflections on such matters will inform continued debate on the subject. I believe that that is perhaps the best way for us to address the issue.

In general, we are determined to identify other ways in which we can stimulate and encourage younger people to become involved. A number of initiatives have already been undertaken in the field. For example, through the "YVote?/YNot?" exercise, the Children and Young People's Unit explored with young people what can be done to ensure that they receive the information needed to bring issues to life for them, and thus encourage their participation. The Electoral Commission has researched, Voter engagement and young people", and has carried out campaigns and competitions aimed specifically at sparking the interest of young people, such as "Votes are power" and a design competition on the importance of voting.

As a number of noble Lords observed, the concept of citizenship was introduced into the school curriculum from 2002 to interest and inform young people in the democratic process. Above all, it has to be the case that we listen to young people to find out, and implement, what they want and need in order to enable them to play their full part.

I turn to the specific purpose of the Bill. As most noble Lords have noted, wider discussion of voting age and other electoral issues must be beneficial in raising the profile of electoral matters, in gauging public views, especially those of young people, and, most importantly, in informing policy-making. As has been mentioned, many bodies both within and outside government are presently examining the question of the voting age and related issues. The independent Electoral Commission is preparing to look at such issues, and we fully welcome that initiative.

Throughout the world, 18 years of age is by far the most common minimum age for voting. Some 142 countries set their voting age at 18 for at least one of their chambers of parliament: 171 chambers altogether have a franchise at 18. Only three, Korea, Indonesia, and the Sudan, set the voting age at 17, with a further three, Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua, permitting voting at 16, and just one, Iran, setting the age at 15.

As has been acknowledged, the age of majority in the United Kingdom was last reviewed in depth in the 1960s by the Latey commission, whose recommendation was brought into effect through the Representation of the People Act 1969. There has been no further legislative move on this subject since then, although an amendment was proposed to reduce the minimum voting age to 16 during the Committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill in 1999. However, that legislation had been drawn up to implement the recommendations of the Howarth working party, and was fast-tracked on the understanding that it was purely a vehicle to implement those recommendations. We took the view that amendments on other issues could have endangered its fast-track status. Therefore, the amendment was opposed and defeated at that stage.

Any decision on the major step of further reducing the voting age cannot be taken in isolation, or without widespread public debate. 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—

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. I wonder whether he could consider why extreme regimes have a higher incidence of voting at the age of 16 than other kinds of democratic regimes. Can he express a view as to why that might be the case?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my noble friend makes an interesting observation. No doubt the point relates to the issue he raised earlier about bullying and intimidation. Obviously, we wish to reflect on such issues. For that reason, it is also right that the Government should reflect on the results of the research currently being undertaken on the potential impact of reducing the minimum voting age.

As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, pointed out, the Electoral Commission expects to launch a number of public discussions and reviews as part of its work. There will also be extensive consultation, which we greatly welcome. The report will be followed by recommendations that the commission believes to be most appropriate resulting from its extensive consultation. We, as government, will give serious consideration to any recommendations made by the commission following its review.

We remain neutral on the issue. I should perhaps observe that the Bill is technically deficient as drafted; for example, while providing for young people to vote at the age of 16 and thereby facilitating their eligibility, it does not include provision for their registration as electors. Therefore, it would not work. However, putting that to one side, we greatly welcome the debate that the noble Lord has stimulated by bringing forward the Bill. In a sense, we hope that the debate will form part of a wider and deeper consultation on how we encourage and improve the participation of young people in the electoral and political processes of our country.

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the Minister concludes, can be reply to my question about whether the Scottish Parliament has the powers unilaterally to alter the voting age?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my understanding is that it does not have that power.

12.27 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords, who have spoken, especially those who have chosen to support me. My noble kinsman came riding to my aid in that regard, and I warmly thank him for his contribution. I must also express my thanks to the Liberal Democrat Party. I have to confess that my family, too, is a Liberal family. Indeed, the previous Lord Lucas was a Minister in a Liberal government. I should perhaps therefore repay some of my treachery by being grateful for the support of noble Lords from those Benches on this occasion.

I take the strictures of my noble friend Lord Renton most seriously. I have listened to him over many years, and have thus been educated by him. However, I do not agree with him on this occasion. If we are putting someone in a position where he can take the responsibility of starting and bringing up a family, with all the difficult decisions that that involves as regards looking forward and considering such issues, and if we tell him that he is free to commit himself to fight and die for this country as a member of the Armed Forces, as well as taking other similar decisions, it is very hard then to say to him that voting involves taking a much more responsible and difficult decision. I believe that we should follow the consistency of our previous decisions and say that 16 is the age at which we grant this sort of responsibility.

I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy for his elegant tour d'horizon of the issues; and, indeed, if I may put it this way, for his lack of opposition. I also thank the Minister for his response. We should not allow ourselves to be too hemmed in by the practice in other countries. This is a domestic issue.

In granting responsibility and rights to 16 year-olds, we have chosen to take a particular route. Therefore, we should follow that internal consistency.

Similarly, I am not put off by the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on what happens in other regimes. We should be extremely grateful that 15 year-olds can vote in Iran. That has brought a measure of democracy to that country and, indeed, an interest in political radicalism. I do not believe that the 15 year-olds are the source of power for the mullahs; neither has Brazil suffered notably in its recent elections—at least from the noble Lord's point of view—from the fact that 16 year-olds are able to vote. I should be surprised if the noble Lord were to disagree with that. It does not seem to me that such parallels should be drawn in this respect.

All in all, I have learnt a great deal from today's debate. It has given me much to consider. I look forward to the further stages of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.