For and against lowering the voting age: a round table.

Under the Edinburgh Agreement between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government for a referendum on independence of Scotland it was agreed that the franchise could be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds for this vote. On January 24, 2013, the British House of Commons voted by 119 to 46 for a motion to rationalise the extension of the franchise in this respect throughout the United Kingdom. A month later the House of Lords debated the issue of voting age, a topic of interest to legislators in Canada and elsewhere who are concerned about ways to engage youth in politics. The following is an abridged version of some of the interventions for and against lowering the voting age. For the full text of all speeches see Debates of the House of Lords, February 27, 2013.



Lord Tyler: It would be patently inequitable, irrational and absurd to limit this reform of the franchise to one part of the country for one occasion only. As things stand, the same cohort of the Scottish population that will be added to the register for the referendum will then be refused a vote in the general election a few months later. That makes no sense. What if a Westminster, Holyrood or local government by-election poll takes place in Scotland on file same day as the referendum? Are 16 and 17 year-olds to be issued with only one ballot paper for the referendum, but excluded from choosing their representative? Would 16 and 17 year-olds be refused a vote in any subsequent referendum, such as on our continuing membership of the European Union? Quite apart from the issues of principle, let us imagine the complex bureaucratic nightmare of such markedly different registers for different purposes if these inequities are allowed to continue.

It is being trailed that the Scottish change was agreed only reluctantly because the First Minister demanded it in exchange for meeting the UK Government's insistence on one simple, approved question in the referendum and a supervisory role for the Electoral Commission. It has even been suggested that Mr Salmond made it a condition of accepting these other requirements because he anticipated that they would be refused. Some cynics take pleasure in noting that not only did the Westminster Ministers and all parties call his bluff, but all the signs are that younger people are just as doubtful about the merits of breaking up the UK as everyone else.

Whatever may have been the cause of this acceptance of a temporary change to the Scottish electorate, surely no one can deny that it would be irresponsible and damaging if it led to what the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House has always warned us against-namely an, "ad hoc and piecemeal approach to constitutional reform".

In its report, The agreement on a referendum on independence for Scotland, our committee also insists that the relevant authorities must act,

in accordance with their constitutional responsibilities of fairness and equal treatment. If that applies north of the border, surely it must also apply everywhere else in the United Kingdom. The case for equality in the franchise must make itself for the whole of our country.

However, to those Members of both Houses who regularly attend outreach programme--the substantive case for extending the franchise must be just as clear. Students of this age cohort are far better informed about the major issues of our day than I was at that age. Fifty years ago, most people inherited their opinions and political allegiances from their parents. This was all too apparent when I first canvassed in the 1960s.

It is of course also true that 18 year-olds at present are, on average, unlikely to have the opportunity to vote in a general election until they are well over 20. Even if the franchise is extend, 16 and 17 year-olds may not have that opportunity until they are 18 or more. However, getting on the electoral register with full entitlement to vote would be a natural end product of the citizenship course in schools. It would become part of the normal process towards complete legal maturity, and addressing it in school would deal with some of the fears about under-registration that have been expressed in this House.

When the Government bring forward regulations for individual electoral registration, they could easily stipulate that all 14 and 15 year-olds in school should be registered in year 10 at school, in readiness for entitlement to vote, once they turn 16. The Government would, in turn, have to bring forward the time at which national insurance numbers are issued, or establish an alternative identifier for this group. That is not that difficult.

This Simple but significant change would also help young people to appreciate that national elections are not the only occasions for democratic influence on the conditions in which they live. As Stephen Williams observed when he introduced a successful Motion in the other place on 24 January, this age group has shown a dramatically increased awareness of political issues and institutions in recent years. The audit undertaken by the Hansard Society has shown an increase from 17% to 31%, in a relatively short number of years, in that age group's general knowledge of the working of Parliament, bringing them into line with the older electorate. It should be a logical further step in the success of citizenship education to bring them into the franchise.

I know that some Conservatives resist the idea that a 16 or 17 year-old is mature enough to cast a vote in a local or national election. However, as I noted in the January debate, the Minister responsible, Chloe Smith, was not able to deny that a 15 year-old can be a voting member of the of the Conservative Party, and therefore vote for the election of its leader. What I am asking the Minister to do this afternoon is accept that there is now a strong case for a proper examination of this issue.

As a member of the informal cross-party group of parliamentarians who advise the Electoral Commission, I am very conscious that the commission, rather than party politicians, should be responsible for advising Parliament on extensions to the franchise. However, it is now nearly 10 years since the commission studied the issue. Its report promised a, "further formal review of the minimum voting age within five to seven years of this report".

That was nine years ago, in 2004. In July 2007, the then Prime Minister promised yet more examination of the case, including an analysis of, "whether reducing the voting age would increase participation in the political process".

Although the resulting Youth Citizenship Commission found strong support for votes for 16 and 17 year-olds, it also identified "a real evidence gap" on the issue. That was nearly four years ago.

There are two areas in which further evidence could be sought immediately. The first is the claimed tendency that those who start voting young, continue to do so throughout their lives. Secondly, we need to take account of the practical experience of secondary schools in Northern Ireland where completion...

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