Votes at 16

September 13, 2014 12:44 PM
By Lord Rennard in Speech in House of Lords Debate

My Lords, briefly, I support the principle of the amendments as a long-time supporter of the principle that 16 and 17 year-olds should be entitled to vote. It is now 45 years since a Bill was passed that lowered the minimum age for voting across the United Kingdom to enable 18 year-olds to vote. Nearly half a century since then, there have been great changes in how society sees 16 and 17 year-olds. We are no longer a society in which you get the key to the door at 21, or even 18.

Young people, perhaps through the use of social media, are often politically very aware. The excellent Youth Parliament debates, some of which have taken place in our own parliamentary Chambers, show that many 16 and 17 year-olds are as aware of many of the issues facing us today-if not more so-as many people who are rather older. I do not want this debate to be too stereotypical of UKIP voters, but I was amused by one man who voted for UKIP in the Clacton by-election last week because he was disillusioned with his MP, whom he had not seen since the previous election.

In contrast to this, some three weeks ago we saw 16 and 17 year-olds in Scotland considering very carefully what might be thought to be an even more important question than that at any General Election: whether Scotland should be an independent country. After significant deliberation, probably to the surprise of Mr Alex Salmond, this group of young people, according to the polling evidence, decided that it should not. Tonight we are considering whether young people in Wales could be as responsible, and I say: of course they are.

Thirty-eight years ago I watched a 16 year-old William Hague address his party conference. He told his audience that half of them would not be there in 40 years' time. I am not sure that he realised then that neither would he. However, my point is that it seemed a shame that he could speak eloquently from his party conference platform but not be able to vote in an election. I am the same age as William Hague, and at 16 I was secretary of the Liverpool Wavertree constituency Liberal Association. I was able to organise elections, knock on doors and suggest how people should vote-but not mark a ballot paper myself, much to my annoyance.

These amendments do not, of course, suggest that 16 and 17 year-olds will be made to vote irrespective of their political knowledge and interests, just that they should have the opportunity to vote. There are those who do not wish to see 16 and 17 year-olds voting. Perhaps they fear how those votes may be cast. A few years ago, the much respected columnist Peter Riddell cited opinion poll evidence suggesting that the best hope for the Conservative Party in the future would be to raise the minimum voting age to about 56. The average age of our Members is 68, but we should be able to show appropriate understanding of people in their late teens, encouraging them to participate in our democracy and to engage in the process through which laws will be made in Wales and elsewhere.