Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill (Lords)

Mark made the following contributions to a debate about extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds. 

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I agree with the Government’s view—I do not think the voting age should be lowered at all—but will the Minister give at least some consideration to the idea that there is a distinction between a normal election and a referendum, given the permanence or longer period for which a referendum would hold sway? Again, it is not a view I entirely agree with, but I think there are some colleagues even on this side of the House who would make a distinction between the two. Perhaps he could go into some detail on why the Government feel that that distinction should not be made.

James Wharton: My hon. Friend tempts me to go off topic. The European Union Referendum Bill has had a debate on this matter and has come to a conclusion to express the will of this place on the age of the franchise. I know this issue is of interest to a number of Members. Referendums are different from elections of other sorts, but I do not think that the difference is such that the concession should be made, certainly not through the vehicle of this particular Bill.

Mark Field: I very much agree with what the Minister says, particularly the way in which he has enunciated it. Particularly in the past 10 to 15 years, in many areas—smoking, using sunbeds, drinking—the age limit has been raised rather than lowered. Insofar as we can try to have a sense of working together and agreeing a single age, if anything we are moving in an upward rather than a downward direction. This leads to the question—I say this only because my late mother’s first vote was in an East Germany election in the 1950s and the electoral age in that part of Europe at that time was 14—why not 14, 12 or 10, rather than 16, as is being proposed?

James Wharton: My hon. Friend tempts me to go further down the path of debating the specifics of different ages, but he makes a fundamental and important point: we have different ages for different things. These matters need to be considered fully and in the round. Change should not be brought piecemeal or as an adjunct to a Bill. It would have to be done in a carefully considered way after proper and thorough debate.

Mark Field: In fairness, I think that I should clarify my position. I am against the idea of reducing the voting age, period, but I also think there is some logic that suggests that a referendum is a somewhat different sort of plebiscite from a routine election. It may happen only every 40 years, as in the case of the European referendum, and, although I suspect that we shall not have to wait quite so long for the next referendum in Scotland, there was at least the prospect of our waiting for a generation or more in connection with a referendum-related issue.

A broader point, however—and I thought the Minister had made it fairly clear—is that this would be a pretty important change in our franchising arrangements. It is not a measure that should be sneaked through as an additional clause in a Bill emanating from the House of Lords, or, indeed, from the House of Commons. It requires a broader analysis. I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s view—and I hope that we shall engage in some fertile discussion during the course of this Parliament —but the notion that a major change can be brought about simply by an amendment during the consideration of a Bill does not strike me as the right way to deal with the entirety of our franchising system.

Norman Lamb: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is an important issue, but I hope he will understand that those of us who are convinced of the case for change should take every opportunity to argue that case, and this is one such opportunity. Because we recognise that the world will not cave in, and that many positive consequences will flow from the measure, we see no difficulty in including it in the Bill.

Mark Field: Perhaps we are more sanguine about the events of 18 September 2014 with hindsight. It might have been very different had the result been a close-run thing, and had there been any suggestion that a change in the franchise of this magnitude might have been decisive in the overall result. That clearly was not the case: lest we forget, I remind the House that the referendum was lost by 10.6 percentage points, although the SNP does not remind us of that very regularly. As the right hon. Gentleman says, the world has not fallen in, but I think that the referendum would have been a lot more controversial had the result been a very close-run thing, and had there been any suggestion that that franchise change might have had a distinct impact on the result.

Norman Lamb: I was on the same side as the right hon. Gentleman in the referendum. I am half Scottish, and I passionately wanted Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. However, I am also a democrat. I accept the will of the people following a vote in a referendum of that sort, and I accept the right of 16 and 17-year-olds to be part of the decision-making process.

Mark Field: I entirely agree that inter-generational unfairness is a major issue that all of us in the political class will have to face before too long, but is not the real problem one that would not be solved by clause 20 or reducing the voting age: the real trouble is that very few people under the age of 35 bother to vote? The turnout level, even in the Scottish referendum, for 18 to 35-year-olds is much lower than for others. The truth for any political party is that there are twice as many voters over the age of 55 than under the age of 35 and they are twice as likely to vote, so there is four times the bang for the buck, as some would say.

Norman Lamb: I think there is a progressive struggling to get out. I can tell that the right hon. Gentleman wants to support this. He sees the argument in favour and he rightly points to the low engagement of people under the age of 25, but we have to ask ourselves why. During their teenage years young people are denied any involvement in our political process. Perhaps, as happened in Scotland with the referendum, if we give them the opportunity to have their say at an earlier age and if we start to teach more about the political process in our schools, they might understand that by participating they get a greater say in society and their interests may be better met.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I am sure that, like me, the right hon. Gentleman meets many sixth-formers when he visits schools and finds that they are often extremely well-informed. It is the older generation’s attitude to the younger generation that sometimes leads to young people becoming disillusioned. When knocking on doors during canvassing I often find that young people are very progressive-minded, certainly on matters such as climate change, the poor and poverty in the world.

Norman Lamb: I agree, and I think it is condescending in the extreme to suggest that someone aged 17 is not capable of making a decision about, for example—in the context of this Bill—who their local councillor should be, for goodness’ sake. Ultimately, that is what the Conservative party is saying—that they cannot be trusted to vote to elect their local councillor.

Mark Field: Perhaps this would-be progressive could have a stab at answering that point. I do not think that anyone denies that there will be a minimum voting age and therefore an arbitrary cut-off, and I guess all the Government are saying is that, all things considered, including issues such as the drinking of alcohol, driving and smoking, 18 seems a pretty sensible cut-off date, rather than 16. I fundamentally believe that, as well as having a right to vote, there is a responsibility to be engaged in politics. I suspect that, again, 18 is a slightly better arbitrary cut-off point than 16—or any other number we might wish to pluck from the sky.

Norman Lamb: I accept that where we draw the line is arbitrary to a degree, but I would tempt the right hon. Gentleman to be a rebel on this, because I think that deep down his instincts are with giving people aged 16 and 17 a vote.