HL Deb 11 May 2004 vol 661 cc244-66

8.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

rose to move, That this House takes note of the Electoral Commission's reports on Gender and political participation and on Age of electoral majority.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these two reports are the latest in an excellent series by the Electoral Commission on the issue of democratic engagement. Tonight I should like to do three things. First, I should like to set out some of the issues that the first of these reports reveals. Secondly, I should like to suggest some of the things that we all, not just in government, must do now in addressing gender gaps where they exist. Thirdly, I should like to examine the broader questions raised by the second of these two important reports. My noble and learned friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, in his speech last month on this topic, made the point that there is not a crisis of political engagement in Britain as such, and that. although recent electoral turnout has fallen, other forms of participation are thriving.

Turning to the report on gender and political participation, let me first outline the positive messages. In terms of electoral turnout, any traditional gender gap that existed in the 1970s and earlier has closed over the past few years, with women in general now being on a par with men in voting. In cause-oriented activities, women are participating as much or more fully than men, with women more likely to sign petitions or boycott the purchase of products, and no gender differences are evident in attendance at demonstrations.

However, the report points to some worrying trends, with ethnic minority women being less likely to vote than their male counterparts. A small but significant activism gap exists in campaign politics, and when we dig deeper, the gender gap is widest in low-income socio-economic bands and among those with lower levels of education. Political interest among that group as a whole is worryingly low.

For me, the key issues that the report throws up are, first, that there is no gender gap at the aggregate level in terms of turnout. There is a significant gender gap in activism and campaign politics, but the most important issue arising from the report is the key role that institutional factors seem to play in increasing participation. In constituencies electing a female MP, turnout increases not just for women—by 9 per cent compared to that in a constituency electing a male MP— but for men too, by 5 per cent. In other words, for reasons that we do not fully understand, the presence of a female candidate appears to raise voter turnout, as the commission reported.

Currently, the proportion of women elected to the House of Commons is just under 18 per cent. This House fares slightly worse at just under 17 per cent. In that. the United Kingdom falls well behind many other countries, at No. 47 on the world ranking of women in the lower House. It is below Germany, with 32 per cent; Sweden, with 45 per cent; and Rwanda, with 49 per cent, to name but three.

What are the Government doing in those areas? In tackling the problems of democratic engagement more widely, we have launched an extensive programme of constitutional change including devolution—new democratic governance in London and elsewhere—and reforms to the judicial system. We have already taken steps to make voting more accessible. We have introduced rolling registration and postal voting on demand. Building on that, we have already piloted innovative voting methods aimed at making voting easier and more convenient, including all-postal voting, which led to increases in turnout among women in particular, which is especially relevant to our discussion. Those are some of the wider package of electoral reform issues that we are currently considering.

However, this is not just an issue for the Government; it is a shared responsibility with political parties, which themselves have a real and important role to play. We therefore need strategies to increase the number of women standing for election and being selected, including equal opportunity strategies and positive action by parties.

This Government introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which allows parties, if they so wish, to adopt measures that regulate the selection of candidates for certain elections to reduce inequality in the number of men and women elected as candidates of the party. I browsed the debate in this House on that Act and was delighted to see the strong depth of cross-party support for those measures, albeit with some thoughtful contributions about what representativeness meant. Nevertheless, there was strong support for the Act.

The question I therefore put to the House is why so little has been done subsequently. I shall illustrate where the Labour Party stands in that respect, but I do not want to do so with any sense of sanctimoniousness or piousness, because I do not think that, while we have made progress, we are perfect.

First, I turn to some of the institutional changes. The Welsh Assembly was the first elected body in the world to be composed of more than 50 per cent women, as a consequence of the way in which we legislated. In Scotland, women make up the majority of the Labour group. At Westminster, we currently have 95 women MPs—23 per cent of our total.

I shall be uncharacteristically direct to other political parties on this issue, not in a spirit of party animosity, because this is a genuine issue that all parties should address. Eight per cent of Conservative MPs are women—that is one-third of the Labour proportion, not one-third of the Labour total. I say with sorrow, rather than anger, that about 11 per cent of Liberal Democrat MPs in another place are women. That is about half the Labour total.

This House, largely unanimously, decided that it would take measures to allow political parties to try to ensure that the institutional factors that seem to be discriminating against women could be redressed to try to ensure that a House of Commons that is more representative of the balance in our society. That matters for a variety of reasons which time will not allow me to go into, but the question that I would put, not in terms of inviting a quick debating point, but as one to be reflected on, is, should not all parties, including the Labour Party, be thinking what more they can do to redress this lamentable situation? That Act is available for use by all parties.

We are looking at that issue ourselves in the run-up to the next election and, at present, 41 per cent of NEC-approved candidates in the Labour Party for the next general election are women, with nine of the 17 all-women shortlist seats yet to be completed and approved. Enough of that.

I now turn to the second report, which is about the age of electoral majority. At present, people must he at least 18 years old to vote and 21 to stand as a candidate. In the UK there is no standard legal age of majority. Different minimum ages apply in relationship to different activities. The Electoral Commission's research into that question led it to conclude that the minimum voting age should not, at present, be reduced to 16. As the Secretary of State has said, there needs to be a proper debate on this issue and I welcome this report as an important contribution to that debate.

We should also be giving serious and careful consideration to the results and recommendations of the Electoral Commission's review of candidacy. The majority of closely comparable countries already have a minimum candidacy age of 18 and many respondents to the commission's consultation felt that a compelling case would need to be made for retaining the current minimum age at 21.

This evening I have sought to be relatively crisp, given the lateness of the hour. I know that that will cause sorrow to all Benches, but I have sought to put across the main points that I wished to make in an abbreviated form. These issues are hugely important and worthy of serious consideration. The reports bring a valuable body of evidence to that debate and I look forward to lively discussion on these issues tonight and subsequently. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Electoral Commission's reports on Gender and political participation and on Age of electoral majority.—(Lord Filkin.)

9.2 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Wallisford

My Lords, I am happy to take part in this debate and we are all grateful to the noble Lord for bringing these two reports to the attention of the House. I will confine my remarks to the report on gender and political participation.

The report is carefully researched and, as a result, its comments on the facts of a gap in the rate of participation in political and quasi-political activities by men and women carry a good deal of weight. Speaking very broadly, women have, from the general election of 1979 until the present day, voted in proportionately greater numbers than men. As the Minister has pointed out, women are, if anything, slightly more likely to sign petitions, to boycott or buy certain products and to be involved in church groups. Men and women have a more or less equal propensity to demonstrate or to take part in public protests. But, crucially, women are significantly less likely than men to be active within a political party, to belong to voluntary associations, consumer or professional groups and to sports or social clubs. This is the "activism" gap, as defined by the report.

Of course, the report deliberately avoids detailed discussion of the reasons for women's relative lack of involvement and success in active politics at a national level in the way that that was done by, for example, the Equal Opportunities Commission report of 2001, Man enough for the job? Nevertheless, the conclusions of the two reports and of many others are broadly consistent and mutually supportive in their analysis of the reasons for women's lower participation and success in active political life.

First, there is the influence of well paid work. The Electoral Commission points out that political activism rises with paid employment, increasing financial security and the level of academic achievement. Until fairly recently—this is me speaking, not the report—those three things were more usual for men than for women. However, given that women are now more successful not just in school but also at university, I wonder whether the changes in that balance will be reflected in a greater involvement of women in active political life in the future.

Secondly, the Electoral Commission points out that married men are more likely to participate in political parties than are married women, although the gap is smaller in households without children living at home. I wonder why neither of those findings surprises me. I recall the comment of a women friend and political colleague in around 1983 that women did not on the whole play much part in national politics because it was the third thing they had to do after, first, caring for home and children, and, second, work.

However, the new determining factor distancing women from politics, which this report defines, is what its authors call "political efficacy"—that is to say, the feeling that women have that they are less capable than men of influencing the political process. Later in the report comes the interesting analysis that, where there is a woman candidate or MP, women are more confident that what they feel counts and that what the MP does is relevant to their concerns.

The report concludes that it would be very valuable to increase the number of women Members of Parliament as a way of involving more women in the political process. It does not, I regret to say, recommend instituting proportional representation along the lines of the Welsh or Scottish models, the success of which in attracting more women into those institutions was highlighted by the noble Lord.

The report puts the burden of achieving a change in women's political activism on the political parties themselves. It makes some rather caustic comments about the relative lack of success of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in achieving that desirable objective, with which I must regretfully concur. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, laid down a challenge, in particular to the Liberal Democrats, on the matter. I shall not go into it in detail. A motion was put before the party conference suggesting that we take positive action to achieve a greater number of MPs permitted—the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, made this very point in the debate—by the legislation that the Government had recently introduced. I am afraid that that proposal was turned down by the membership. Ever since then we have been struggling with all sorts of measures to try to encourage, help and train women. I am afraid that positive action is required, as every country has shown, to achieve that first breakthrough in the number of women Members of Parliament.

I want more women to represent my party. A major reason is that the sight of any body wielding power that consists largely of men in grey suits is deeply depressing for women. As the report confirms, they are more likely to assume that such a body will not have their interests at heart. The history of nursery education in this country, to name but one item, seems to support the realism of that view.

However, the authors of the report do not make the connection that came instantly to my mind—namely, that the first election in which women voted in greater numbers than men was 1979, Mrs Thatcher's first election. I never thought that the noble Baroness took much interest in the promotion of women's rights; yet it is possible that, just by being there as a party leader, she made a difference.

According to the report, another factor discouraging women from active participation in political life is that they are less involved in trade unions than men and therefore do not benefit from the confidence-building, training and experience that active union membership can bring. We have a distinguished body of men and women in this House who got that political education within the trade unions movement. Is it possible that the current concentration of so many men and women in low paid. part-time and probably un-unionised employment is relevant? Are those workers missing out on chances for self-improvement and public service that were available in the past? It would certainly be a great pity if that were true.

An interesting bit of evidence to which the noble Lord referred is that, in areas in which all-postal ballots were piloted in May 2003, turnout among women was 13 per cent above that of men, compared with 8 per cent overall. By contrast, women's turnout was 5 per cent less than that of men, where e-voting was trialled on its own. Where both methods were trialled, the gap between the turnout of women and men soared to 24 per cent in favour of women. I am aware that my noble friend Lord Greaves has rational doubts about the safety of all-postal ballots, and, doubtless, careful monitoring to avoid fraud will be a necessary accompaniment to new methods of voting that encourage higher turnout. I hope that that can be achieved. Higher turnout is a prize worth fighting for.

The reports collects a lot of new material. It is broadly in line with other reports from, for example, the EOC and Fawcett that approach the matter of women's involvement in politics at a national level from a more evangelistic perspective. Increased involvement would be to the benefit not just of women but of the political process as a whole. In the UK, as elsewhere, we can ill afford to ignore the skills and abilities of women in the conduct of public life, any more than we can in business or employment, which are the subjects of the EOC's most recent report.

I could give many other reasons for seeking a larger role for women in Parliament, and so could many other Members of the House, but the report has illuminated some of the more obscure factors surrounding the gap between the participation of men and women in active politics. It has presented new research-based evidence in support of its conclusions. It has suggested a new reason for promoting more women into political candidacy; namely, that their presence on the Benches will make Westminster more relevant to women and encourage greater participation in the political process. For those reasons, I welcome it as a useful addition to the evidence on what helps and what hinders women in taking up their true place in national politics.

9.12 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, the noble Baroness addressed her comments to the report on gender and political participation. I shall try to provide some balance by addressing mine to the report on the age of electoral majority.

I shall address my remarks to the age of voting and to the age of candidacy. Before I do so, I shall address the relationship between the two, or rather the lack of relationship between the two. I have made the point before in your Lordships' House that the voting age and the age of candidacy need not necessarily be the same. The point that I have made, more than once, is that if we lower the voting age to 16, we empower 16 year-olds; if we lower the age of candidacy to 18, we empower the electorate.

The right to vote is a right that can be exercised directly. The right to stand for election is very different. That right is, in effect, to offer oneself to a party for selection and to the electors for election. There is therefore a sifting process. All that someone is exercising is the right to put themselves forward for consideration. Ensuring that the voting age and the age of candidacy are the same may be convenient, but it is not essential. For the reasons that I have just given, it makes more sense, if there is to he a difference, for the age of candidacy to be lower than the voting age, rather than the other way round. In our history, there is, of course, a precedent for that.

I shall deal briefly with the voting age. 'There is general agreement that there should be a threshold, but at what level? The argument for lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 is essentially that young people mature earlier nowadays and that, at 16, one can do things that one can do at 18 years of age: principally, get married, join the Army and pay taxes. The problem with that argument is that it does not hold water. Other than in Scotland, people can marry at 16 only with parental consent, and they can join the Army at 16 only with parental consent. If they join, they will not be sent to the front line. Very few 16 year-olds actually pay tax. The law thus recognises that 16 year-olds are not the same as 18 year-olds. They are deemed not to be as mature as 18 year-olds.

If one is to argue that they are as mature, the law must be amended to allow 16 year-olds not only to vote but to marry and to join the Army without parental consent. The Armed Forces will need to be told that 16 year-old recruits can be sent to the front line, which would put the UK in breach of the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. If one adopted the point about taxation, one would have to give the vote to anyone who pays tax, which would create a rather distorted electoral register.

The argument for lowering the voting age to 16 is, then, not sustainable on the arguments presently advanced for it. One cannot simply lower the voting age to 16 without taking on board the other consequences. I see no particular willingness to do that.

As for the argument that lowering the voting age is a means of increasing voter turnout, that can be described as bizarre. The problem of a low turnout is the consequence of those already eligible to vote not voting. The voting age serves no value in seeking to explain a decline in turnout among existing voters. As for the argument that a habit of voting may be acquired when young, so too, as the Electoral Commission notes, may be a habit of non-voting.

On turning to the age of candidacy, perhaps I may give some historical background. There are precedents for MPs being elected under the age of 21. As far as can be determined, the qualifying age for election to the House of Commons has, in law, always been 21. Prior to 1695, that was held to be by the law of Parliament. However, several Members were elected while still minors. Some Members of Charles II's Pensioner Parliament are said to have been 14 and 15 years of age.

An Act was passed in 1695 that tightened up the penalties against minors serving, but that did not prevent the practice continuing. Between 1734 and 1832, 81 MPs were elected while under age, with all bar one being allowed to take their seats. Charles James Fox and Lord John Russell were both elected under age: Fox, in fact, had already made his name as a parliamentary debater before the age of 21. It was only after 1832 that the Act of 1695 was enforced.

I turn now to the pressure for change. Following the lowering of the voting age in 1969, pressure built up to lower the qualifying age for candidature. A call to lower the age of candidacy was made by the Young Conservative movement in 1970. Your Lordships will understand my longstanding interest in this issue if I say that I was responsible for that.

During the passage of the Local Government Bill in 1972, an amendment was moved to lower the age of candidacy for local government elections. The Government responded by setting up a Speaker's Conference on electoral law. The conference reported in July 1973 and recommended that the qualifying age for candidature be lowered to 18. The issue is thus not one that has recently arisen. The case for it has been made for some time and has the authority of a Speaker's Conference behind it.

What are the arguments against lowering the age of candidacy to 18 years old? I addressed those arguments in an article that was published in Public Law in 1980. Two of the arguments were practical; namely, that the lowering of the voting age needed time to bed in and that lowering the age of candidacy would, in any event, have little practical effect. The first of those is no longer relevant. The second is open to challenge.

Lowering the age of candidacy may help the parties recruit new candidates. Parties increasingly have difficulty in encouraging supporters to be candidates in local elections. Allowing 19 or 20 year-olds to stand as "flag-waving" candidates in hopeless wards provides an opportunity for a party to make a stand as well as allowing the candidates to gain valuable experience.

A third argument against lowering the age of candidacy was that it was not necessary for the age of candidacy to be the same as the voting age. As I have already argued, that is true. But, by itself, it is not an argument for leaving the age of candidacy at 21. It is simply a recognition that the two ages need not be the same.

The real argument about why the age of candidacy should remain at 21 was that 18 year-olds did not have the maturity to be MPs. However, the argument about maturity applies more to the voting age than it does to the age of candidacy. If most of those in a particular age range are immature, there is an argument against giving them the right to vote. That does not carry over to the age of candidacy. If the age cohort includes some mature individuals, why deny the parties and, more importantly, the electors, the right to make use of their services? As I said, lowering the age of candidacy widens the choice of electors. If a party wishes to select a mature 19 year-old, or even an immature 19 year-old, it is able to do so. It is up to electors whether they elect that person or not.

That brings me back to my opening point. By keeping the age of candidacy at 21, we are limiting the freedom of choice of electors. We should not be dictating to electors who they can or cannot choose to speak for them. I am all for widening the freedom of choice of the electors. The case for electors to make the choice is recognised by the Electoral Commission. Indeed, it touches on the fact that it has been suggested that there should be no minimum age at all, a suggestion with which I have some sympathy. The commission acknowledges that there are practical difficulties with that. It therefore recommends that the age of candidacy be the same as that for reaching full citizenship; that is, 18.

My reasoning is somewhat different from that of the Electoral Commission, but I reach exactly the same conclusions. The voting age should remain at 18 for the time being and the age of candidacy should be lowered from 21 to 18 and, as far as I am concerned, the sooner the better.

9.19 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I have greatly learnt from and enjoyed the historical analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. As I listened to him, two points struck me. The first was that in addition to a much earlier Lord Russell and Charles James Fox, who I understand entered the House of Commons below the age at which we would now regard as attaining a majority, I seem to recollect that Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister at 23. The implication of such stories is that we should perhaps consider washing away all age bars of any kind and expect some tiny, political Mozart to stagger into the House of Lords and make a brilliant contribution. I do not for one moment rule it out. It would indeed widen the choice that electors are offered.

I should also like to congratulate the very eloquent noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on the way in which he followed his own brilliant, intellectual maze and ended at exactly the same point as the Electoral Commission.

That leads me to say that I believe the work and reports of the Electoral Commission are excellent, clear, decisive and very strongly based. In its report on women, the Electoral Commission very effectively destroys two of the oldest myths that exist. The first is that women do not participate in voting to the same extent as men. That myth has been destroyed not only by the Electoral Commission but also by the welcome given to it by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and my noble friend Lady Thomas, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, by the evidence that where a woman stands for Parliament, she is not disadvantaged in the eyes of the electorate, which, as noble Lords will know, was assumed for a long time. Indeed, many selection committees rejected women candidates on the grounds that they would be likely to lose marginal seats if a woman stood for election.

The second is that, in some ways even more interestingly, although the level of interest and participation on the part of male voters does not change, the level of interest and involvement on the part of female voters changes quite markedly, far beyond any statistical aberration. That also tells us something that we did not know previously. Other research has indicated that, fairly or unfairly, many women are considered to be more honest and approachable than men. That is not a record that I would like to put at too much risk, but it is a matter that the Electoral Commission may like to consider a little further.

When she spoke about the issue of women candidates, my noble friend Lady Thomas mentioned that many women lack self-confidence. Those of us who happen to belong to the female gender are very well aware of the truth of that. We in this House may be among the exceptions, but any of us who has tried to persuade able women friends to stand for Parliament, or even a local council, will know how difficult it often is for them to overcome their own sense of inadequacy and lack of confidence.

There is another factor, however, and it is one that I strongly recommend the Electoral Commission to look at in more detail. Figure 8 in the report strikingly explains why, if women are given a level playing field rather than special measures on their behalf, they do not achieve as many positions as candidates or Members of Parliament as men. It indicates that between the ages of around 18 and 40, particularly in the case of women with children living at home, there is a very marked difference in the level of participation. I refer not just to participation in political parties, but participation in the whole of public life.

That is hardly surprising. We recognise that women still bear a substantially greater part of the burden of raising children and looking after elderly relatives than do men, although I am glad to say that that is beginning to change. But the striking fact is that the years during which women and men bring up children—between the ages of 20 and 45—are the absolutely prime years for politics. They are the years when, if you enter an elected House, you are expected to devote a great deal of time to politics. This means that as long as women bear a disproportionate burden of the responsibility for the family, and they do, it will continue to be very difficult for women, without the specific positive action of the kind described by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, to be treated on an equal footing with men. I hope that the Electoral Commission will consider undertaking more detailed research into the particular issue of women with children and how far they are inclined to give up their participation in politics, and more generally in public life, at least for that period of time. Moreover, as we all know, starting again and re-establishing yourself is very hard in a competitive world, however able you may or may not be.

I shall make one further brief point about women before discussing young people. While I fully accept, as did my noble friend Lady Thomas, the strictures made by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, up to now—ith one major exception—t is fair to say that women have only broken through and thereby established, through role models, the sense that they can do so when there has been special action on their behalf. I give due credit to the Labour Party for having had the courage to introduce women-only selection. It would not be my most favoured method, but it created a huge breakthrough. It is largely because of the Labour Party that we now have, although it is not altogether impressive, far better representation, at 18 per cent, of women Members of the House of Commons. I also accept with some shame his admonition that both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats have a very long way to go in this respect. Until now, both parties have tinkered with the issue rather than taking the radical steps of the Labour Party in 1997. Indeed, it is slightly depressing to note that the level of women's participation declined between 1997 and 2001, and continues to fall.

However, one cannot avoid the big issue. All 10 of the legislatures with the highest proportion of women use as their method of election proportional representation. The reason for that is simple and human: where a constituency has multiple candidates—s even a country like Ireland, not one very advanced in terms of feminism until recently, has shown—he fact that voters choose from a mixed group means that out of a sheer sense of fairness, far more women are elected. Moreover, with the list system, as we discovered in the "zipping" procedure for the last but one European elections— deeply regret that we abandoned the system—e were able to achieve equal numbers of men and women.

The Welsh have been even more radical by creating constituencies for men and women together, thereby establishing a 50 per cent share of the electorate for each in the legislature. That exemplifies the way we need to go.

I have reached the limit of my time, so I shall conclude with one further point, which will bring in what I wanted to say about young people. In reading these commission reports, good as they are, we cannot totally avoid looking at the much broader situation of the loss of trust in politics per se. The figures recording trust in the Government have fallen from 56 per cent in 2001 to 22 per cent today. I am not making a party point because that is true for all of us: elected, formerly elected, and appointed politicians. We have to face the fact that Members of the Houses of Parliament are increasingly being seen as remote and part of a political class to which many of our fellow citizens do not feel they belong. Members of Parliament are regarded as people who are increasingly retreating into themselves.

One of the great questions we have to ask the Electoral Commission to look at in the next few years is what can be done to improve and increase not simply the participation of women and young people in politics but, above all, trust in the business of democratic politics. That will be a very big challenge, even for such an excellent commission as this has proved itself to be.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, at this time of night, and having taken part in the previous debate, which lasted four and a half hours, I do not intend to say much about the commission's report on gender and political participation. Indeed, I say with some diffidence that I cannot help wondering whether it was worth spending time and money on the survey, given that the analysis and the conclusions were fairly predictable.

I do not intend to say anything about the gender profile of election candidates; but the main reason that people—women in particular—are reluctant to vote nowadays is surely that, rightly or wrongly, they imagine all parties, or at least all mainstream parties, to be much of a muchness, in stark contrast to the state of affairs 20 or so years ago, when the battle lines were very clearly drawn. None of the current parties seems to reflect their particular beliefs or concerns.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, the point made in the Electoral Commission's report was that, if anything, women are more enthusiastic voters than men. They just do not participate in political parties as much as men do. That is the difference.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that intervention. I had not totally taken that interesting point on board.

There is a second, more sophisticated reason why people are reluctant to vote, which is to do with the "first past the post" system we employ in this country. Reasonably intelligent people who live in marginal constituencies know that their vote can actually make a difference. Where the sitting MP has a majority of 10,000, 12,000, 15,000 or 20,000, the electorate tend to wonder what on earth is the point.

When confronted with this view, I always argue that the total popular vote cast for each political party really is important. If a party gains more than 55 per cent of the seats with less than 35 per cent of the vote, which could easily happen under the "first past the post" system, the government formed by that party should, in theory, be less inclined to push through draconian and unpopular measures than if they gained around 50 per cent of the popular vote. Unfortunately, not everybody buys that argument; perhaps one cannot blame them because, so often, reality conflicts with theory.

I turn to the age of electoral majority. Here I believe that the Electoral Commission has it spot on. It is absolutely right, and I am delighted and flattered to find myself in the same camp as both the commission and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who has enormous experience in these matters. Provided that the deplorable closed list system is not in operation—and that is an important proviso—it is by no means unreasonable to allow people to stand for election at 18. They will stand no chance of being voted in unless they happen to be exceptionally talented or exceptionally aspiring or, ideally, both. Should they happen to possess both those rare qualities, why on earth should they not be elected if a majority of voters judge them worthy of election?

To allow 16 year-olds to vote, on the other hand, is a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, we would be the only country in the civilised world to take such a step. That is not a conclusive argument in itself, but it needs taking into consideration. The second reason is the question of precedent, which is connected with the first. Countries which 50 years ago had unusually low minimum voting ages include—indeed, were confined to—the Soviet Union and white South Africa. Countries which at that time had higher than average voting ages—up to the age of 25, in some cases—included and I think were confined to, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, all highly civilised, well ordered, prosperous and liberal countries. As the report sets out, countries with minimum voting ages below 18 today include Cuba, Iran, North Korea and the Sudan, while those with higher minimum voting ages include Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan—Asian tigers, every one of them.

Thirdly, unless the age of retirement is raised to 70-plus, there is a danger that lowering the voting age to 16 might result in net recipients of state benefits being able to outvote the working taxpayers who effectively provide those benefits. The alarming consequences of that need no emphasis.

Is there any valid counter-argument? It is true that lowering the voting age to 16 in an era when life expectancy is rising inexorably would lower the average age of the electorate. In theory, that is a good thing. However, it would lower it by a year at most, which hardly counterbalances the disadvantages.

Finally, although there is no strict legal or moral reason why a government should not choose to ignore the carefully considered recommendations of an impartial, objective body that the Government have themselves set up, it is hardly a good idea to make a habit of it. The overriding of the commission's well argued conclusions about which regions were and which regions were not suitable for all-postal voting on 10 June, flying in the face of majority opinion in your Lordships' House, is quite enough to be going on with.

9.36 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I am firmly in favour of voting at the age of 16 and I shall explain why shortly. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, referred to standing as a candidate for election as a sifting process. I should declare an interest as somebody who is going through that sifting process. It feels far more like going through a grinder than a sifting process and I recommend it to all Members of your Lordships' House. It brings one down to earth in an amazing way.

I am not entirely certain that we need a thick, 82-page report in order to make up our minds whether people at 16 are old enough, mature enough and sensible enough to have the franchise. That is a matter of opinion and judgment. There is clearly no overriding principle as to what the age should be. I suggest that the principle is that we should set the lower age of the franchise at the lowest level that we think is reasonable and sensible. That is the only principle. It is just a matter of personal judgment.

A very long time ago, in the early 1960s, I was involved in a campaign that was launched by the Young Liberals for votes at 18. That was thought to be a quite dramatic and appalling thing to do by many people at that time. Only a few years afterwards, the government of Harold Wilson adopted and introduced it and we did not have a revolution. In many ways, it reinvigorated student and youth politics in this country, which was highly beneficial.

One of the arguments for voting at 16 is citizenship education. The time at which citizenship education could and should be really valuable is at sixth-form level, in FE and tertiary colleges and so on. Having the ability to vote would provide that added dimension. It would make citizenship education real rather than something for the future. That is an important point.

I would be totally against the suggestion from Camden that voting at 16 should be piloted in one place. If people have the right to vote at a certain age, they have the right to vote at a certain age. We should not have a situation whereby if you live in Camden, you can vote, but if you live in Tower Hamlets, you cannot. That is wrong in principle.

There is probably much greater consensus for lowering the qualification age for standing in an election to 18. too, really enjoyed the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The matter is quite topical in my own region of the North West. One of the candidates elected by members of my own party— the Liberal Democrats—to stand on our list for the European Parliament, a young lady called Miss Lyn-Su Floodgate, found out only in the past few days that she would not be allowed to do so, because she will he 21 on 27 May—that is to say, between nomination day and polling day. All the information available previously, including the information on the Electoral Commission website, suggested that she needed to be 21 on polling day, on 10 June. However, it has now been ruled by the Electoral Commission and the Department for Constitutional Affairs—or, at least, it has been advised to the returning officer in the North West—that Miss Floodgate ought not to stand.

It is all to do with when the qualification comes in. For some qualifications, such as the rule that one may stand for the council only if one has lived in a place continuously for 12 months, it is obvious that there should be a definite date that applies to when the nomination takes place. However, everyone knows when someone is going to be 21—it is not something that can be changed in the few days before polling day. It is only a technical detail. Clearly, whatever age one had as a qualification that sort of thing would occur, but it is ironic that we are discussing the possibility of lowering the qualification age to 18 when Lyn-Su Floodgate has been refused permission to stand, despite the fact that she will be 21 on polling day. That is a technical detail of which I hope the Minister might make a note and which might be considered, if and when new legislation is introduced.

As regards the other report, the Minister made some perfectly reasonable challenges to this party—the Liberal Democrats—and to the Conservatives. Those are challenges that we have to answer and face up to. I find the phrase "positive action" to be weasel words, because I do not really know what it means. When people say "positive action" nowadays, they appear to mean what we used to call "positive discrimination". In the old days, especially when discussing racial discrimination and promoting a racial balance, about 20 or 30 years ago, we differentiated between affirmative action and positive discrimination—the latter being discrimination at the point at which an appointment was made, or whatever.

Our party finds the question of discrimination at the point of choice difficult to accept. A great debate has been taking place in the party—and no doubt will continue— in which my noble friends on the Bench in front of me are on a different side of the fence from myself. I do not know how long I am going to live, but if I a0m alive in, say, 20 years—perhaps by then most bodies in public life will comprise 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women on average. It seems to me that there is no reason at all why that should not happen within a reasonable period of time.

In the Liberal Democrat group of my own local council in Pendle there are 24 members, 12 of whom are men and 12 of whom are women. That has been the case for as long as I have been involved in it: it is something that we thought was automatic and natural. I am making my own personal attempt to worsen that ratio slightly this year but, no doubt, women will gain seats on it as well.

We are talking about means and ends. Can we achieve liberal and democratic ends by what may be thought to be illiberal and undemocratic means? That is the age-old argument. It is not an unimportant argument; it is fundamental. Those of us who believe that we have to achieve the ends that we want through means that fit in with our philosophy and beliefs have to prove that we can do that. That is the challenge for us. In some ways, we have succeeded: our group in the Welsh Assembly is 50:50, while our group in the European Parliament will almost certainly be approximately 50:50 after the forthcoming elections, if we make the gains that we hope. The selection this time was made without any significant discrimination at the point of selection. Some of us believe that a single transferable vote and forms of proportional representation will help to loosen up the political system and provide a better gender balance. I am certain that that is so in Scottish local government, for example, where in many councils the old male-dominated culture still continues.

I do not believe, as my noble friend said, that we are tinkering with the situation in our party. I believe that we are taking radical steps. There is quite a buzz within the party, and a transformation of the culture of the party is taking place. We have to prove that that can deliver the goods. It will not deliver the goods immediately because by the very nature of a relatively small third party, where often one depends on the personal votes of your representatives to hold your seats, change will take time. I believe that that change is taking place, as the report sets out.

For quite a few years the approval, the selection and the election processes of candidates for our party have included 22 to 23 per cent women. The number of women on our shortlists and the number who are selected is now more than 30 per cent. That will result in a fundamental change over a period of time, but I entirely accept the Minister's challenge that we, as a party, have to deliver on this.

9.46 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I welcome the debate, despite its late start. It is a particular pleasure to me to be taking part because I was a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1998 when the committee recommended the setting up of the Electoral Commission. The following year, the Government acted on that speedily. Since then the Electoral Commission, under the chairmanship of Sam Younger, has been extremely active and has produced a whole shelf-full of reports. The two valuable reports that we are debating tonight are the latest of them.

The report on gender and political participation is a research report rather than a report from the committee itself. It contains a great deal of useful information. That information mostly reinforces what we already know, in particular the existence of the gender gap. As the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, pointed out, some of the findings are encouraging, particularly the fact that there is no gender gap in voting. Indeed, where there is a woman candidate there is a gender gap the other way. It is also apparent from the report that the United Kingdom ranks relatively high compared with most other European countries, although it is true to say that it has a long way to go to catch up with the Scandinavian countries where there is a reverse gender gap.

The report shows that equality in politics follows equality in other sectors and in particular that the gender gap lessens sharply among better educated and higher paid women. But there is, as would be expected, and as my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby pointed out, a large gender gap where children live at home because of women's greater involvement in child care. The report makes it clear that having women as candidates and as holders of elective office strengthens other women's participation in and satisfaction with the political process.

At local government level matters are not too bad although there is still a considerable way to go. Thirty-four per cent of Liberal Democrat councillors are women; 26 per cent of Conservative councillors are women and 25 per cent of Labour councillors are women. In the House of Commons the Labour Party is well in the lead with 23 per cent, against our 11 per cent and the Conservative's 8 per cent. The Labour lead is due to the adoption of all-women short lists before the 1997 election, although it is perhaps significant that the number of women Labour MPs actually fell by six at the 2001 election. All-women short lists are of course a controversial issue in my party as well as in others, as is apparent from the speeches from the Benches behind me. Even all-women short lists do not obviate the need to take other steps to make political careers more attractive to women. I might mention in passing that there is still no creche in the Palace of Westminster.

A more constitutional issue, that has already been pointed out by my noble friends Lady Williams and Lord Greaves, is that any system of proportional representation, be it STV, a list system or a top-up system, produces a higher proportion of elected women. That is a good part of the reason why there is a much higher proportion of women in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

Your Lordships' House needs to set a better example than we now do in terms of women membership. After taking into account the recent appointments, only 17.5 per cent of us are women, still slightly less than in the House of Commons. That is far too low. Of the new appointments that were announced a couple of weeks ago, only 14 out of 46 are women. The Appointments Commission scored best among that collection with four out of seven of those nominated being women. We in the Liberal Democrats were not quite so good with three out of eight, the Conservatives had only one out of five and Labour were, frankly, not much better with six out of 23. I believe that all parties could and should ensure that so long as Members of your Lordships' House are appointed, 50 per cent of new working Peers should be women. I see no reason why that should not be the case.

I might add that I am particularly delighted that my noble friend Lady Williams and I are both speaking in this debate because many years ago her mother used to go to Watford to heckle my wife's grandfather, the local MP, who was bitterly opposed to the presence of women in Parliament.

I turn to the question of the voting age, which was largely passed over by the Minister, although it was the subject of an entertaining and, indeed, fascinating speech by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. On this, the Electoral Commission has given the thumbs down. I think that that was a mistake. Anyone who has been a parliamentary candidate will have spoken to A-level students at schools and will know that they are probably the sharpest audience that they will come across in the whole of the campaign. I must say that I remember an all-party meeting with the students at Holland Park Comprehensive during one general election when one of my opponents was figuratively torn apart because he made the mistake of speaking to them as if they were a bunch of 11 year-olds attending their first class on citizenship.

There arc plenty. of 16 and 17 year-olds who are mature enough to vote and. of course, we all know that William Hague was one of the political Mozarts and was, no doubt, mature enough at the age of six. Those who are not mature enough at the age of 16 or 17 probably will not vote and, if they do, they will probably balance each other out and will not distort the result. There is, as my noble friend Lord Greaves said, a great advantage in getting students involved at the time that they are studying citizenship. People aged 16 or 17 may well be more likely to vote than 18 to 24 year-olds. The only research mentioned in the report confirms this. It is a study of municipal elections in two German cities where the turnout among 16 and 17 year-olds was 6 or 7 per cent higher than among the 18 to 24 year-olds.

I also agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves that once young people have voted they are more likely to continue to vote in the future. The arguments in the report against giving the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds are extremely weak. The report pointed out that few 16 and 17 year-olds exercise their limited rights to marry or to join the Armed Forces and that few of them are liable to pay income tax. I regard as wholly irrelevant the fact that they can marry with their parents' permission and the fact that very few of them do; that is a far more fundamental step than voting in an election.

The report says that the research shows the primary reason for not voting among 18 to 24 year-olds was that they did not feel sufficiently informed, and felt it was better not to vote at all than to do so in an ill-informed way. The commission says of that, in paragraph 23 of the report: This seems to us a highly responsible attitude that recognises that voting rights are not to be taken lightly". Forgive me for being cynical, but the response is, in fact, a euphemism for "can't be bothered", and I think the commission is entirely wrong to take it at face value.

There are some points on which I agree with the commission. I do not think it is appropriate to have pilot schemes for the voting of 16 and 17 year-olds. I also think we should not have a lower age limit for local elections only, as has been suggested by some respondents. Young people will not be encouraged to vote if they are excluded from the most important and exciting elections: those for Westminster. I believe, with the Electoral Commission, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that we should reduce the age for candidates to 18, but not below that age, even if the voting age is reduced. It is important for all young people to make the most of school education, and the time demands involved in candidacy—and even more in the membership of a successful candidate—are inconsistent with that.

I would not, of course, reduce the voting age to below 16. But at 16 and 17 many young people have sufficient maturity to be able to cast a meaningful vote. Allowing them to do so will strengthen their long-term commitment to the democratic process. The fact that some of that age group do not have that maturity is not an argument for refusing to lower the voting age.

I regret, therefore, that I am unable to agree with the commission. But I certainly welcome both these reports as an important contribution to the continuing debate.

9.57 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to comment on these two important reports brought forward by the Electoral Commission on gender, political participation and the age of electoral majority. We come to these reports on the hack of some very heated debates a few months ago on the advice given by the Electoral Commission on the national pilot of all-postal votes in combined elections. It is hardly surprising that the actions of the Government on that occasion, in failing to follow the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, should flavour my comments in today's debate. I very clearly thought the Electoral Commission was correct.

The Government have, of their own volition, and as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, formed the Electoral Commission, on the recommendation of the standards committee, as an independent body with the purpose of looking into issues such as those we are discussing today: research into participation in politics at a local and national level; on a gender basis; statistics on voter turnouts; arguments for reconsidering the age for voting and candidacy. Their scrutiny and study of these complex questions are an invaluable aid to both the Government and the opposition parties when considering the widespread disaffection which exists today in terms of political participation.

On the matter of all-postal pilot schemes for the combined European parliamentary and local elections to be held on 10 June, the Government did not follow the advice of the Electoral Commission, the one independent body with the necessary expertise to make informed and reliable comments on what would be appropriate. I hope that greater attention will be paid to these two reports.

I am glad to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, today, and I very much agree with most of what he said. I am also glad that, I think I heard him say, the Government were not proposing to proceed any further with the lowering of the voting age to 16. Did I hear him correctly?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I said that we were going to consider and reflect on the report. We have not made a decision on the issue. We are reflecting on it.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I misheard the noble Lord. However, it would be appropriate for the Government to do that. It would perhaps give us a further opportunity to consider those matters.

There are a great many more questions to be raised about lowering the voting age than there are perhaps about some of the other matters dealt with in the reports. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, turned the argument around by saying that some will want to vote and will be mature enough to vote whereas others are not, and the mature ones may vote whereas the ones who are not so mature may not. In a way, a heavy onus of responsibility is created by enabling young people to vote. They may not wish to assume that responsibility at the age of 16.

The trouble is that children mature ever more quickly these days. Although the age of 16 may not indicate sufficient maturity to vote today, I dare say that in a few years they will all be earning a fortune through computer dot-coms and they will have to vote because they will be contributing so much in taxation that it would be quite wrong that they should not do so. However, that is a flippant aside and I do not think that this is a flippant subject. This whole question of who should be entitled to vote and what will attract people to voting is absolutely fundamental to our discussions and debates in the past years. Certainly for the time being, my view is that it is correct to keep the voting age at 18.

However, I think that the commission's recommendation that people should be able to put themselves forward at 18 as candidates for parliamentary or local elections is correct. There is a quite fundamental difference between 16 and 18. If one is entitled to vote at 18, as people are now—and this argument may come to bite me when we have eventually to consider 16 as the voting age—I think that they surely must be entitled to offer themselves for consideration as candidates. Indeed, many 18 year-olds are more than able to do that and more than persuasive in presenting themselves and in their political knowledge.

So I think that there is a fundamentally good reason why we should lower the age to 18. After all, as has been said, although one may put oneself forward, one will not necessarily be accepted. Some will be. Young people between 18 and 21 who take part in student politics already have to put themselves forward and sell themselves, not only at university but at the end of their school careers. I think that that is a very good example of how committed people can become at that age to pursuing an objective. If politics is an objective, then there seems no reason at all why they should not be able to do that as well.

There is a lot to be said for allowing that. Young people tend to admire their peers. As there will be only a few younger candidates, there will inevitably be a pilot study of whether younger people are prepared to vote for their own age group and whether that makes them want to take part in politics. Surely one of the things that is wrong at the moment is that people do not want to take part in politics. They see no relevance in it. If they did, they would want to do it. So there are very good reasons for lowering the candidacy age to 18.

Much has already been said about the gender gap not only as regards interest in politics but also participation at national and local level. That is hard to understand for noble Lords who hold a proud and privileged position as Members of this House. I speak as a minority voter. As someone who has been grounded in politics all my life I have never understood why people did not want to become involved in politics and committed to it. However, that clearly is an unusual and not a generalised view.

Slightly more than 50 per cent of the population is now comprised of women. In many areas of life in which women are encouraged to participate there is good evidence that, once the glass ceiling is broken, they take off. I spend part of my working life in the National Health Service. There is no better example than the health service of the progress that women have made as medical students and young doctors. There are now more women than men students in the health service. However, when women have children and gain other responsibilities, they account for fewer such jobs in the health service than men. There is an important issue here regarding the family responsibilities that women bear, and by and large it is women who bear those responsibilities. They try to balance many competing objectives. None the less such women are needed in Parliament.

Involvement in politics constitutes a huge commitment even in local government. However, it is probably slightly easier to manage the commitments of local government than those involved in national government. However, if we make too many allowances and try to make it easier for women to enter politics, it does not necessarily work. Many family friendly policies do not achieve their objectives. They do not necessarily result in more women entering certain areas.

The commission's report is extremely useful and helpful. Gender imbalance will not be easily resolved. But certainly all political parties—I say "all political parties" advisedly—must take an interest in it and be more proactive about it to try to get the balance right particularly as regards electoral processes.

The Electoral Commission is a body that was well worth forming. It is extraordinarily useful to have such a body that has time to devote to the relevant research and thinking on this very vexed question of how we reengage with the electorate, and how we make it interested in the politics that, after all, govern people's lives. I am convinced that the lack of interest in politics stems partly from the fact that we do not explain matters adequately. A great amount of the explanation of politics is left to the press, some of which it does very well and some of which will always be open to contention. However, I am not sure that that is where the explanation of politics should come from. It is up to us as politicians to try to make a persuasive case for what we do in the two Houses and to show that it is relevant and matters to men and women. We need to persuade people to get involved.

The final point that I wish to make is that it is more important when we consider ethnic minorities—people who have not necessarily been brought up with a tradition of the democratic process. Sometimes it is less relevant to them and the more that we can ensure that we engage the whole of those communities in what we are trying to achieve, the better.

So, I welcome both reports. Not just for myself, but I hope for everyone else, tonight has done them a great justice and I know that we will take account of what the reports say as we think further about this extremely important matter.

10.10 p.m.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, as we know, short debates are often, if not always, the best. I will try to follow that principle myself in my few concluding remarks.

I was impressed by the response of the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Thomas, to my rather sharp challenge and their acceptance that positive action is needed—and for explaining why that is needed. I respected that. I did not know that the Liberal Democrat conference had turned it down. All I can say, again with humility, is that we have sometimes had experience of obtaining the most unlikely votes at our conferences, and sometimes one has to try again— to put it once more with feeling back to the membership.

The noble Baroness was right that PR systems can increase the proportion of women candidates. Closed list systems have improved the proportion of both female and ethnic minority representatives and parties are also probably stimulated to offer a slate of candidates which demonstrates that they are offering a balanced ticket. The Government have given a commitment to review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral systems for the House of Commons and we will fulfil that commitment later this year.

All I would say, while not resiling from that manifesto commitment, is that it should not be used as an excuse for not addressing such issues within parties. We would miss an opportunity if we put it off and said, "Well. maybe PR will solve it for us. We do not need to do difficult things". I would urge that that should not be the response.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, as he does so often, gave a beautifully closely argued speech, which I enjoyed greatly. I was fascinated by being reminded of minority MPs and, again, of Charles James Fox.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, was correct to signal that the issue of confidence and trust not only in governments, but in parties involved in national politics, is incredibly complex. But, that cannot be disassociated from the fact that the legislature looks so different from the population at large. I acknowledge that we are not looking for a crude representativeness in all dimensions. Nevertheless, there is no good reason why one should not have representativeness in gender terms.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, did their very best to upset me by reminding me yet again of the electoral pilots Bill and I will try to treat that with courtesy and pass over it.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, remarked on the almost unhappy experience of Miss Floodgate in that she was disqualified because she was not 21 at the date of nomination and that invalidated her from election. In government, we should keep that issue before us to see whether that is correct and whether there will be an opportunity to look at such matters. I was not sure that I was convinced by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the issue is just a matter of time, because there was an implication that we should wait while society's changes take the matter up. I apologise if I misjudged him, but I had a sense that he was saying that institutions will reflect society over a period of time. My experience is that that has not been the case. I give way gratefully and apologise if I have misrepresented him.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for intervening at this time of night. I was saying not really that but that it requires immense commitment from those of us who believe in a cause to bring that cause about. That does require some time, but time on its own will not do the job.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that and I totally agree with him. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was right to signal that we have to look at what is in the nature of political careers that may deter some women from what they want to do. That does not mean that women are wrong, it may mean that the way in which we behave is wrong. The noble Lord turned the challenge hack to me and to other parties rather adroitly by saying, "What about nominations to this House?", which is strongly in the control of party leaders. "Touché", I say to that and I will reflect on it. It was noticeable that most noble Lords said they were persuaded of the Electoral Commission's argumentation for reducing the age of candidacy to 18. Again, that is food for thought by the Government, and we shall give it thought.

I thank all those who spoke in the debate, even at this late hour.

On Question. Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at sixteen minutes past ten o'clock.