Oral Question: Voting Age

0

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): Does the Minister agree that if we were to go down the route of 16 to 17-year-olds having the vote, logic would dictate that they should also be able to stand for Parliament, stand as a councillor or stand as an elected mayor? Is that something he would support?

James Wharton: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. There is a need for a joined-up approach in such matters. There is a need to ensure that any change is fully considered in the context of all the other things we place age restrictions on—all the other things that we do or do not allow people to do at different ages, often for very good reasons. Whether that is buying cigarettes or alcohol, using a sunbed, voting, standing for Parliament or driving a car, we have different ages for different things for long-established reasons. Those ages are not set in stone, but they are in place for a very good reason in principle. There is a debate to be had, but the conclusion of that debate is not foregone.

17 Nov 2015 : Column 558

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.

Norman Lamb: rose—

James Wharton: I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but then I really must move on.

Norman Lamb: How does the Minister, who accepts that there is a debate to be had, intend to facilitate that debate so that we can have it perhaps during this Parliament?

2.30 pm

James Wharton: I recognise what the right hon. Gentleman says, but this debate has been ongoing for some time in our democratic process. I said earlier that at least two Opposition parties stood with it in their manifesto, but they were not successful at that last election. I am talking today about the progress I want this Bill to make. His point is well made, but it is not going to tempt me to go further today.

A broader issue underlies the clause: the transition from childhood to adulthood; the interplay between the different limits, age ranges and restrictions, which we have discussed already; and the desire to further the cause of democratic engagement and how to do it. This complex issue deserves the most serious attention, but it should not be an adjunct to this Bill on devolution, the purpose of which is to meet our manifesto commitment and deliver for areas affected. For those reasons, we do not support the clause. It is not the right place to insert such a significant legislative and constitutional change.

After careful consideration, we have concluded that clause 21 should stand part of the Bill. It was also inserted in the other place, against the then wishes of the Government, and removes section 9NA of the Local Government Act 2000, which currently provides that, where a council has been required to hold a mayoral referendum under an order made by the Secretary of State, and where that referendum has been successful and a mayor has been duly elected, the mayoral model of governance cannot subsequently be changed except by a further Act of Parliament. This provision currently applies solely to Bristol.

17 Nov 2015 : Column 559

Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab): On behalf of all parties in Bristol, I am grateful for the recommendation to retain clause 21, which, as I said the last time we discussed this in Committee, enshrines a fundamental democratic principle by giving the people of Bristol continued control over the system for determining their elected representatives.

James Wharton: Absolutely. That reflects the consensus we are trying to build around the Bill. Ours are the very actions of a listening Government working on a cross-party basis to deliver in everyone’s interests. Bristol was the only city to vote for a mayor in the mayoral referendums held in May 2012. We have considered the argument made, among others, by the hon. Lady—that the people of Bristol should have the same opportunity as those in other areas to petition for a change in governance arrangements. Clause 21 effectively places the people of Bristol in the same position they would be in had the mayoral referendum in 2012 been triggered by a resolution of the council or the receipt of a valid petition. Having carefully considered these arguments, we are prepared to see the people of Bristol in this position, and hence we support clause 21.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): The Minister has spoken about consensus. Of course, one issue, connected with the Bill, on which there is great consensus is the Government’s proposals to amend the Sunday trading laws—the great consensus being that we should not do it. Will he confirm that those proposals are not coming back, either in this Bill or in any other way?

James Wharton: I hear the hon. Lady’s comments, although I am not sure to which clause we are here to debate she refers. More generally, we always talk to hon. Members across the House and listen to the views of the public at large to determine the best course of action, but the issue she raises is not before the Committee this afternoon. As to what will happen in the future, she tempts me to go further than I can.

New clause 3, tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), would amend section 36 of the Representation of People Act 1983 to allow local areas to alter their systems for the election of councillors. His enthusiasm to push the boundaries of devolution, throughout our consideration of the Bill and more generally, has not gone unnoticed by Ministers or, I am sure, Opposition Members. When we last met in Committee, he flagged up the proposition that councils should be free to decide their own electoral arrangements in conjunction with their people. He suggested they should be able to have a debate and come to a decision.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s interest in voter engagement, which, as I have said, we all share, and I note the devolutionary nature of his proposals, under which a council could decide its own electoral system. That said, he will be unsurprised to learn that I have some concerns about how such complex proposals would work in practice and whether there is an appetite for them. Local councillors are currently elected under the first-past-the-post system, which is a well-recognised and straightforward system, as we saw in the outcome of the referendum to change to the alternative vote system in 2011. I accept that that was in relation to UK
17 Nov 2015 : Column 560

parliamentary elections, but two thirds of voters chose first past the post over the alternative vote, suggesting there is no public consensus for change.

I have concerns about the potential confusion caused by the possibility of voting systems changing from one poll to the next. We can imagine the pressures that councils and councillors could come under in considering the systems they might wish to employ. There would be a natural desire to consider, or attempt to second-guess, whether there might be some political advantage in adopting a different set of arrangements or sticking with the existing tried and tested ones. Even if appropriate safeguards could be introduced, which themselves would add to the complexity of the arrangements, the practical processes of switching voting systems would still be complex and costly. For example, a change to the single transferrable vote could, in many cases, require a major re-warding of an entire local authority area.

These concerns might not be insurmountable, but the proposal represents a fundamental change to the building blocks of our democratic processes and would require significant consideration, development and consensus, and I am clear that the Bill, although both devolutionary and enabling, is not the right vehicle for such a change. On raising the proposal last time, the hon. Gentleman suspected that the idea might need to brew a little. He will sense from my comments that I believe it has brewed nowhere near enough. I therefore ask that he does not push it to a Division.

Finally, I turn to new clause 9, which would introduce a requirement through regulations for local government electors in an area to approve certain boundary and structural changes via a referendum. The boundary and structural changes involved relate to the establishment of new unitary local authorities, the merger of authorities or movement from one authority area to another. Clause 16 already gives the Secretary of State wide regulation-making powers regarding structures and boundaries. The regulations will allow modification of the existing processes, as provided for in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, for making changes such as merging councils or moving to more unitary structures. These regulations can be made only where all the affected councils agree. I doubt it would be right to include a requirement for a referendum, and nor do I believe referendums to be sound practically in this context.

Our democracy is founded on the traditions and principles of representative democracy, which have served us well and stood the test of time. In general, we believe that decisions on public matters are made most effectively by those democratically elected to represent the area affected. All past experience suggests that this is the case with changes to local authority boundaries and structures. The democratically elected local representatives are best placed to take local decisions on these issues. Of course, they will want to take account of the views of the electorate—of those who live and work there, of businesses, of those who contribute to the life of local communities. However, how they seek these views—the kind of consultation exercises they undertake—is a matter for them. It is not for the Government to tell elected representatives how to undertake their roles.

Hence, it would not be right to require referendums—to require a particular way of ascertaining the views of local people—or for the result of such an exercise to
17 Nov 2015 : Column 561

determine the decision on proposed boundary or structural change. The referendums envisaged by the new clause would not be sound in practice. First, it would only require a referendum in a part of the area—the part becoming unitary, for example—yet such a change would have implications for the surrounding areas, so I am not clear that this approach would be right in any event. Secondly, such boundary and structural changes are almost invariably part of some wider reform. To present the question as simply one about some council structure or boundary risks being misleading and oversimplifying complex arguments. With those explanations, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), after what I am sure will be an interesting discussion, will not press his new clause.

In conclusion, I have explained that the Government cannot support new clauses 3 and 9. We are content for clause 21 to stand part of the Bill, but we are opposed to clause 20.

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): I am glad to hear that the Government are in listening mode. I am pleased about clause 21, but I hope that the Government will now listen to the arguments in favour of clause 20 and reducing the voting age to 16 in local government elections.

More than 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK are denied any part in our democratic process. In recent years, pressure has developed to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. The Electoral Reform Society has argued for it, and in 2006 the Power commission was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to find out what was happening to British democracy and why people were disengaged from politics.

The commission drew up a set of proposals and recommendations to increase political participation and it presented them in a final report, “Power to the People”. One recommendation was to lower the voting and candidacy age to 16, with the exception of candidacy for the House of Lords. The Power commission explained its recommendation thus:

“Our own experience and evidence suggests that just as with the wider population, when young people are faced with a genuine opportunity to involve themselves in a meaningful process that offers them a real chance of influence, they do so with enthusiasm and with responsibility. We recognise that few people take an interest in a sphere of life or an area from which they have been deliberately excluded.”

John Redwood: Will the hon. Lady remind us why during 13 years in office up to 2010, Labour, which had big majorities, never wanted to do this?

Liz McInnes: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. Sometimes pressure needs to build up before change is made. It is correct to say that the Labour party did not make this change in 13 years in office, but I am going to talk about the build-up of pressure and the involvement of various organisations. We saw in the Scottish referendum that there is a real feeling that our young people are affected by the democratic process. To take the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments to their conclusion, we would never make any changes whatever, simply because we did not do so in a previous term of office.

17 Nov 2015 : Column 562

I was quoting the Power commission on young people feeling excluded and therefore not being interested in politics. The commission proposed that reducing the voting age to 16 would be an obvious way of reducing the extent of such exclusion for many thousands of young people. It would increase the likelihood of their taking an interest and participating in political and democratic debates if they actually felt that they could influence such debates.

John Stevenson: Logically, if 16-year-olds have the vote, they should clearly be entitled to stand as candidates as well. Is the hon. Lady comfortable with the idea of a 16-year-old being able to get elected to a position that has executive authority?

Liz McInnes: The Power commission did not recommend that 16-year-olds should become candidates, but rather that they should have the vote to raise their awareness of the democratic process so that when they reach an age when they are eligible to become a candidate, they will have played some part in the democratic process.

Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab): During my election campaign, I spoke to hundreds of young people who were not only enthused by the political process, but actively wanted to engage in it. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an absolute myth that young people are somehow not interested in politics, not capable of holding public office and not capable of voting? Does she further agree that the right thing to do is to give them that right to vote, so that we can bring about more engagement by young people, which is more actively needed than ever before at this time in politics?

Liz McInnes: I think my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The 16-year-olds I know and speak to are very keen on the idea of greater political involvement. We keep going back to the Scottish referendum, but it was amazing to see so many young people participating in that very important debate. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them on an issue that was going to affect them. I feel that we have some 16-year-olds who are engaged in the political process, yet we deliberately exclude them from it.

2.45 pm

Clause 20 will allow anyone over the age of 16 to vote in local elections. The amendment was won by Labour and the Lib Dems in the House of Lords; it was not in the original Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. I believe it would be a retrograde step to remove this clause.

Clause 20 would have effect for all elections in England and Wales that currently use the local government franchise—for the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly, for police and crime commissioners, and for elections to the National Assembly for Wales and the European Parliament.

For years, there has been a consistent demand from young people for votes at 16. At 16, people become adults and take control of their own futures. They can leave school, work full time and pay their taxes, leave home, get married, join the armed forces—

17 Nov 2015 : Column 563

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Marcus Jones): Not without mum and dad.

Liz McInnes: I accept that young people cannot do all those things at 16 without the consent of their parents, but the fact is that they can still do them.

Contrary to popular myth, young people are interested in political issues—from climate change to racism, and from education to crime. I meet young people in my constituency, as I am sure do many of my hon. Friends, who are studying politics at A-level and are completely engaged with the political process, yet this country still denies them a vote.

In a democracy, voting is the fundamental way for our young people to express their opinions. As the Power commission report put it,

“it is worth remembering that we enlist 16-year olds into the armed forces and expect them to pay taxes if they are earning so they should be able to participate in the selection of those who govern them. We believe that any reform to encourage young people to engage politically will be very severely limited in its effectiveness while the current constitutional, party and electoral arrangements remain in force.”

Given that Government decisions will naturally affect the future, it is arguable that the young are more likely to be affected than older people by some political decisions.

Preventing 16 and 17-year-olds from voting sends a signal to them and to society that their views are not valid or important. The next generation of voters are the first to have received citizenship education in schools, yet they are being denied their full rights as citizens. This seems particularly unfair and unjust. At a time when some people feel that politics is not relevant to them, young people need to be encouraged to take part in democracy, not kept out of it. The Scottish independence referendum showed once and for all that 16 and 17-year-olds are more than capable of taking important political decisions. If young people are registered early and get into the habit of voting, we will see lasting improvements in turnout.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) secured a Westminster Hall debate on this very subject last year. She argued that the time was right

“to open the democratic system even further and to include 16 and 17-year olds among the people who are able to vote.”

She continued:

“We cannot expect 16 and 17-year-olds to contribute to our society through various means—economically, physically, intellectually or socially—in a capacity where we recognise them as an adult, but then give them the democratic rights of a child… We trust our young people to contribute to society in many ways, so we should start to give them their democratic rights.”—[Official Report, 6 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 7WH.]

I fully support that. I urge all Members to support the retention of clause 20, and to welcome our 16 and 17-year-olds to the democratic process.

Let me now say a few words about clause 21. I am very pleased that, on this issue at least, the Government are listening. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), who is present, and who has done a great deal of work in connection with the issue of the Bristol mayor. As I am sure everyone knows, Bristol was the only city to vote “yes” in the mayoral referendum of May 2012. I think it fair to say
17 Nov 2015 : Column 564

that the current mayor has proved to be a somewhat controversial figure, but my hon. Friend has rightly said:

“This isn’t about whether you support the current mayor or would prefer a different person in that office, it’s about whether citizens of Bristol should be allowed a voice about the post itself.

It’s about democracy, and the right of Bristol people to decide how they are governed seems to be a fundamental aspect of democracy.”

She has also said that

“citizens of Bristol deserve the right to reverse that decision at any point”,

and that the Lords amendments

“offering Bristolians that opportunity are to be welcomed”.—[Official Report, 14 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 372.]

I bow to my hon. Friend’s superior knowledge of the issue of the Bristol mayor, but I am very pleased that all Members seem to support clause 21, and I look forward to our giving Bristolians the same democratic rights as those enjoyed by the rest of the country.

Norman Lamb: I strongly support the amendment that was passed in the House of Lords, and I am very disappointed that the Government are proposing to remove it from the Bill. The Minister’s argument seemed to be “It is all horribly complicated, and this is not the right place to discuss it”, but I could not identify any particularly strong argument for why it is the wrong thing to do, and why 16 and 17-year-olds should not be given the right to exercise the vote like the rest of us.

I was interested by the intervention from the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). Indeed, I was encouraged by it, because the right hon. Gentleman appeared to recognise that there was some argument for 16-year-olds to have a say on some issues. However, he drew a distinction between referendums and voting in elections on a continuing basis. I think that he should go with his logic. If there is a case for young people to have a say in the future of their country, or on other big issues that are put before the country in referendums, surely there is a case for them to have the right to a say on who is elected as their local councillor. How on earth can the right hon. Gentleman sustain the logic of allowing a vote on a big national issue of enormous import while denying a vote on representation in a local community?

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
17 Nov 2015 : Column 565

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.

The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) referred to the Scottish referendum, which engendered an extraordinary level of engagement among young people. I do not think that any Conservative Member suggested that the young people who voted in that referendum did not know what they were talking about, or that they ought not to have the right to a say. If Conservative Members believe, on reflection—given what happened in the Scottish referendum—that it was right for those young people to have a say, they should stick with the logic of that, and accept the case for including the measure in the Bill.

It is interesting to note that the turnout among people between the ages of 16 and 18 was very high in Scotland. I understand that, according to an Electoral Commission report that was published in December 2014, the turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds was 75%, as opposed to 54% among 18 to 24-year-olds. Given the opportunity, they engaged in the democratic process very readily, and I think we should all welcome that.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has made some fair points about the analysis of participation in the Scottish referendum, but does he not agree that that referendum was an almost unique event in terms of the enthusiasm that it engendered among all age groups throughout Scotland’s population, and that there is no immediate read-across from it to other elections and referendums?

Norman Lamb: I accept that it was a highly unusual event in terms of the degree of excitement and enthusiasm that it engendered across the population. I am simply making the point that the world did not cave in because 16 and 17-year-olds had had a vote in that referendum, and I do not think it would cave in if we gave people in the same age group the right to a say in who becomes their local representative on their local authority.

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
17 Nov 2015 : Column 566

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.

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is precisely because 16 and 17-year-olds had the biggest stake in the future of the country that it was important for them to have a vote in the referendum?

Norman Lamb: I think that is absolutely right, and indeed that is why I also think they should have a vote in the European referendum, because it is their continent as well as ours. They have a larger stake than we do in terms of the number of years they have on this planet so I accept the case the hon. Lady makes.

I have long held the view that this is right in principle. If someone can marry, join the armed forces and, perhaps most importantly, be obliged to pay taxes, if working, at the age of 16, then surely they have a right to a say about the level of that taxation and how it is applied by Government. It is surely actually a democratic outrage that people can be expected in our country to pay taxes but not have the right to any say over the application of them.

3 pm

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): Surely that argument makes little sense? My daughter, for example, is currently saving up to buy a laptop computer. She will have to pay VAT. She is 13; she will have no votes. Does the right hon. Gentleman propose a 13-year-old should have a vote on the VAT issue?

Norman Lamb: No, I am referring of course to the application of income tax to people’s employment rights. To take that argument to its logical conclusion, it would of course be ridiculous to suggest that a four-year-old should have the right to vote. I also made the point that someone who can join Her Majesty’s armed forces and defend this country has no right to vote on the critical decisions this country makes. The case is clearly very powerful.

This change would also have a beneficial impact. The shadow Minister talked about the extent of young people’s engagement in politics. I would draw a distinction. All my experiences show that young people are very interested in political issues, but they are totally disillusioned with, and disengaged from, the political process, and this would be one way of addressing that.

The problem goes further. David Willetts, a highly respected former Conservative Cabinet Minister, has made a powerful case about the broken generational contract. He talks about generational unfairness. As all of us in this House know, whether or not we are prepared to admit it, that older people tend to vote in greater numbers and that drives the manifestos of political parties, which in turn drives the deal that different
17 Nov 2015 : Column 567

members of our society get from the Governments of this country. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) agreeing with that point. That problem becomes worse if young people aged 16 and 17 are denied a say and political parties are not forced to listen and think about the interests of young people when shaping their manifestos. Their manifestos will consequently address the needs of older people, which, of course, have to be met, but we also have to ensure that there is, as David Willetts says, generational fairness. That is denied by not giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds.

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
17 Nov 2015 : Column 568

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. Where his party is choosing to place that arbitrary line will deny 16 and 17-year-olds the right to elect their local councillor in their communities. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks about that for more than a moment, surely he will agree that that is ridiculous.

I have gone on for too long, and I apologise for that. I urge the great right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster to have the courage of his convictions and I urge all Members to join those of us who will vote to retain clause 20 in the Bill.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am very glad to have the opportunity to raise the rights of local residents where there is some pressure for powers to be devolved. The kind of pressure I mean is where, for instance, a rural area finds itself under the control of an urban council, or an urban area is under a rural council. I am not going to raise the issue of the Isle of Wight as there is very little pressure now for a change—in fact, that change took place as long ago as 1996—but let us look at somewhere I am not so familiar with. Let us look at Lancashire-Yorkshire and where the county boundary was. Some areas have been part of Lancashire, but only since 1973. Before that, it was clear that the ancient boundaries were of Yorkshire.

Another example is Bradford and its environs. In Bradford there is quite a difference between those areas which are rural and those which are urban. Many would like to see changes to their own council, rather than the metropolitan council which is now in charge, and many others would not. It seems to me there would be almost no problem in allowing the more rural areas to have more responsibility for their own local affairs, for instance in planning, libraries and housing. They could take over all responsibilities for their area, but it seems to me more likely that they would want to take on the district responsibilities, leaving others, such as education, with their metropolitan brothers.

It used to be the case that it was necessary for effective metropolitan districts to have all their responsibilities over a reasonably large area to enable them to cut costs. Now, however, things have changed. It is possible now for a district council or a unitary authority to share offices so that, for instance, a chief executive could be the chief executive of two, or even three, councils. That is perfectly normal in rural areas, and I propose that the possibility could be made available in urban areas. So it would not be unduly difficult to introduce those benefits. It should be made possible to do so, but there should be no compulsion. To allow such a responsibility to be devolved, I suggest that a referendum should be held. If a majority of people in an area vote yes, the change should take place, giving them direct control over their local area. That would make it easy for local people to express their preference, and I am very much in favour of that.

17 Nov 2015 : Column 569

Alison Thewliss: I rise to speak in support of the comments made on this side of the House about votes for those aged 16 and 17. It is odd that the House of Lords, the unelected Chamber at the other end, should have become the defender of the right of young people to vote in this country. Its wise intervention should be maintained, however, because our experience in Scotland of having 16 and 17-year-olds voting has been very positive.

It is interesting that, since my election to this House in May, every opportunity to discuss the matter has been met with the comment that it is neither the time nor the place to debate it. I should like to ask the Minister when the right time and place would be, because we should seize every opportunity to have these discussions. There is always a good time to get people involved in politics and in voting. Starting at local level, where local services are delivered to young people, is a good way of getting them involved because their schools, youth services and other local services are relevant to them at first hand. They can see what local government does and get directly involved in it.

It is interesting that lots of Members have mentioned the referendum. In my experience, speaking to young people during the two years that we spent debating the referendum was incredibly positive for their engagement. Anyone who saw the debate that filled the Glasgow Hydro arena with young people will remember that it was one of the best in the whole referendum campaign, with incredibly engaged young people making incredibly valuable contributions.

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, has become converted to this argument. She has said:

“I’m happy to hold my hands up and say I changed my mind. I’m a fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club now, for every election. I thought 16 and 17-year-olds were fantastic during the referendum campaign. I can’t tell you the number of hustings and public meetings I did, and some of the younger members of the audience were the most informed.”

That tells us everything we need to know about how young people ought to be engaged in politics and why they need to be.

John Stevenson: I am looking for a bit of consistency in the argument for reducing the voting age for 16 and 17-year-olds. Would the hon. Lady suggest that, if they had the right to vote and the right to stand for election, we should also consider reducing the age limit for alcohol consumption and for driving?

Alison Thewliss: There would be public health concerns relating to the alcohol question, and those are entirely different from democratic concerns. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) talked about party manifestos. If 16 and 17-year-olds were able to vote, perhaps they would campaign on issues such as those, but we do not know whether that is the case because they do not have the right to vote in elections to this place or to local authorities, which have licensing powers.

The Minister mentioned that parties that included votes at 16 in their manifesto had not been particularly successful. I have to correct him on that. The Scottish National party had that proposal in its manifesto and we were very successful. I know that 16 and 17-year-olds welcome and respect the rights and responsibilities that
17 Nov 2015 : Column 570

we have placed on them. If they are going to be subject to taxation, it is perfectly reasonable that they should have the right to vote.

Turning to some of the other matters under discussion, I am a huge supporter of the single transferrable vote, the system under which I was elected as a councillor. The introduction of that system made a huge difference to the local authority of which I was a member. Before the introduction of STV in Glasgow, only four of the 79 councillors represented the SNP; when the STV election was held, we fielded 22 candidates and we got 22 candidates elected.

The result of these changes can be seen in the Electoral Reform Society’s report of 2010, entitled “Working with STV”. It used Glasgow as a case study and interviewed officers from that council, one of whom stated that Glasgow “has a council again”. There is proper debate and scrutiny. More recent work by the Electoral Reform Society on the need for electoral reform has found that councils that do not have a system such as STV can become one-party states with uncontested seats and, in the worst cases, there is a risk of corruption due to the lack of scrutiny of council decisions.

3.15 pm

My understanding is that England already has lots of multi-member wards, with officers elected on a rolling basis. Those could be retained while introducing STV, which could mean fewer elections—providing a saving to the public purse—while bringing a good element of local democracy, accountability and proportionality to those councils. There would not necessarily be a need to change any wards, but a great deal more democracy could be brought into them.

Mr Andrew Turner: May I ask what would happen in single wards? All but one of the wards in my constituency are single wards.

Alison Thewliss: I appreciate that English local government is complex and has lots of different examples. In Scotland, we had a boundary review which looked at ward sizes and shapes. My experience, having been elected under that system in 2007 and re-elected under it in 2012, is that it works very well for our constituents, because they always have three or four representatives to take their issues to. At the very best, they have a good team of people standing up for their local area. At worst, if they have a councillor who is not doing what is needed, people have an option to go to two or three others who can represent them. That is good for our constituents, and they see the value in that arrangement. A process whereby local councils could decide on this issue by themselves might need further thought, but it is an interesting idea. If the House is not going to take any action to introduce STV, we should certainly allow local government to do it if it wishes to. There would be great value in that.

I also want to talk about local referendums. They are a good thing for local democracy and responsiveness to issues involving a local demand. People should be able to have a say on the matters that affect them, and that could also include the question of revising the way in which local government is set up in their area. The local government arrangements might not be working well, for example, or there might be no clear lines of
17 Nov 2015 : Column 571

accountability. There has been a great deal of debate on those issues in relation to elected mayors and to how the rest of the process below them would need to change.

John Stevenson: On that point about elected mayors, does the hon. Lady believe that the great cities of Scotland should have the opportunity to hold referendums to decide whether to have an elected mayor?

Alison Thewliss: People are not generally calling for that in Scotland. There has not been that tradition there.

Mr Graham Allen: That’ll be a no, then!

Alison Thewliss: If people wanted to hold such referendums, that would be absolutely fine. Lots of councils in Scotland have petitions processes whereby people can submit arguments to the council for consideration, and if they wanted an elected mayor, that could be achieved through that process. The Scottish Parliament also has a petitions process that would allow areas that wanted an elected mayor to take a petition to the Scottish Government. So there are processes in place that would allow for that to happen, if there were a demand for it. However, there is no tradition of elected mayors in Scotland. In Glasgow and other local authorities, we have a political head in the leader of the council and a strong civic head in the Lord Provost or the local provost.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) asked me the question about elected mayors in Scotland, but his own Conservative Government have acknowledged that we have no such tradition, because there was no suggestion of a mayor being imposed as part of the Glasgow and Clyde Valley city deal, as is happening in other parts of the UK. His own party does not seem to think that there is any rationale for elected mayors in Scotland. The Bill provides a good opportunity to try out a number of different measures that could improve local government and make it more democratic and accountable, and I support the principles behind these amendments.

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I shall make a few brief points about this part of the Bill. I spoke in an earlier debate, in which I trailed what I am about to say now. I am one of those who believes that we should allow voting at 16, but I do not think that this Bill is the correct vehicle for achieving that.

This is perhaps a case of having the courage of my convictions. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) also mentioned that. I have to tell him that people often confuse the names of our constituencies; I am often called the “Member for Norfolk North”, and I am sure the same thing happens the other way round. We are close geographically, and we also share a lot on the substance and the values in today’s debate, except that I see the courage of my convictions on engaging young people in politics as residing in doing the job properly, instead of doing it piecemeal. I shall therefore be speaking against clause 20.

As the Minister said, something coming merely by way of an amendment is not the way to do the job well. As other Conservative Members have said, omitting that much larger debate about the various ages of majority in this country does not do the job well either—and
17 Nov 2015 : Column 572

nor does failing to speak to young people as we take on this debate. After all, if it is about anything, it should be about them.

James Wharton: Although we do not necessarily agree on where this issue should go, I sense that we agree that if this step were to be taken—I do not necessarily support it—it should be after a proper process, in a way that will last the test of time and have real support across the House and from those affected by it. It should not be done via an amendment to a Bill that is about something altogether different.

Chloe Smith: I agree with the Minister, but perhaps I may put the question back to him, as the right hon. Member for North Norfolk did, by saying that perhaps we could discuss when we ought to have that debate. A natural follow-on from the various contributions that have been made today is moving on to have that debate properly. As I suspect the Minister will tell me, that is for another Minister to answer, but no doubt he will pass the message on.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) cited comments by Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Conservatives in Scotland. I am a big fan of hers, as many people are, even if the hon. Lady is not among them. As she said, Ruth Davidson has changed her view on votes at 16. Like me, Ruth Davidson also comes to the conclusion that this ought to be done for all elections. It does a disservice to this important reform to do it piecemeal and not to give it the respect of a full debate.

Alison Thewliss: Does the hon. Lady accept that in the absence of any other Bill, strategy or proposals for bringing about votes at 16 and 17, this measure is the best we can do in the meantime and that we should support every step to move the issue forward?

Chloe Smith: I am interested in that argument. Although it is for the Minister to give the real answer on that, rather than for me to attempt to give it, I think we run a risk of creating a patchwork. I do not feel comfortable with 16-year-olds in one part of the country being able to do something that their counterparts in another part of the country cannot. I am not hugely comfortable with the inconsistency, and I would far prefer us to debate this in the round properly.

John Stevenson: I agree with my hon. Friend that this is not the right forum for the discussion on reducing the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds. Does she agree that if that other debate ever were to come forward, it would have to include things such as the alcohol age and whether 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to have executive power, so that there is consistency?

Chloe Smith: I agree entirely. In fact, the next section of my notes tells me to acknowledge the points made by my hon. Friend about executive power and standing for office. We should also go through all the points relating to marriage, joining the armed forces, taxation, the use of substances, criminal responsibility and the age of consent for sex. They are all items in that much longer list. Before the Minister looks at me with absolute horror for moving his Bill on to something that is not included here today, I should say that I merely make those points to make the broader debate a real one.
17 Nov 2015 : Column 573

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) said when he was in his place earlier, we need to have that debate, and we might hope to do so in the next couple of years, because the topic is important.

Norman Lamb: The hon. Lady cautioned against creating a patchwork of rights, yet of course the process the Government are undergoing with devolution is creating precisely that across our country, with different deals in every part of it. What is the danger in her having the courage of her convictions and voting with us to retain clause 20, in order to enable 16 and 17-year-olds just to vote for their local councillor? That is all we are asking for. What danger is involved in that?

Chloe Smith: The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to join him in the Lobby, but I would only further trash his reputation in Norfolk if I did. Joking aside, there is a distinction to be drawn between rights that people might have in different parts of the country and public services that people might have in different parts of the country. I would describe the latter as the substance of the devolution Bill—it is about how public services can be better delivered.

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would permit me to extend this point to something the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) proposes in new clause 3, which could be argued also to create something of a patchwork. I make the distinction between rights and public services, but new clause 3 brings in another category: methods of voting. I have concern about having a patchwork in that area, too. We would want consistency there, just as we would on rights, but I can see value in having innovation in public services more locally, which is why I support the Bill overall.

Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady recognise that it is in the nature of British constitutional reform that it tends to be pragmatic and incremental and that this opportunity in the Bill is at least a foot in the door towards what she is telling the House she believes in? Does she also recognise that this has already been done piecemeal—16-year-olds had the vote in the Scottish referendum, so she would not even be innovating with this measure?

Chloe Smith: Having been a Minister with responsibility for constitutional reform, I know well that it is often done in a pragmatic way. What I regard as pragmatic in this instance is to have this debate properly and thus respect the young people whom we seek to serve by looking properly at their rights and opportunities. That is the main thrust of my comments today.

I do not want to be seen as the champion in this House for votes at 16; I want to be seen as the champion for young voters. The technicality of the voting age is a very important signal, which we ought to be able to send to young people to say that they are valued in politics. That is the way I do politics and I am sure it is the way the hon. Gentleman does them; I would like to think it is how everybody else in this Chamber also approaches this crucial matter of democratic engagement. This important topic crucially affects a generation of
17 Nov 2015 : Column 574

people, who would indeed like to be involved in politics. It is not good enough to deal with it piecemeal and not to consider the full implications of what we are talking about.

I have a few brief points to make about what this younger generation is asking of us in politics. Political engagement has indeed changed. Demos carried out research for the National Citizens Service in which it says that we should roll up our sleeves, power up our laptops and get things done, rather than rely on the state to do things for us. My colleagues on the Conservative Benches will say, “Hear, hear to that”, because that is what we believe in. We are a centre-right party that believes in getting things done. We believe in local innovation, in individuals being self-reliant, and in helping people to take the opportunities that exist. I support this Bill in its entirety, because it promotes devolution for local areas.

What we can see in Demos’ research is a certain scepticism of the state. The state comes a fairly long way down the list—after individuals, charities and businesses—when it comes to getting things done. Young people do not look to the state alone to get things done. That can be seen in the Ipsos MORI research, “Generation Strains”, which demonstrates the scepticism with which today’s youngest generation views the welfare state, compared with older generations.

What we are seeing is an opportunity for us to embrace a whole new generation of voters; dare I say it, it is the generation to which the Minister and I belong. It is that generation that we need to be welcoming in to politics. What I am saying is that we should have the opportunity to do that properly; to change our campaigning styles to meet that challenge; and to embrace those values here in this House. We also have that opportunity in this devolution Bill, but let us respect our young people by treating their democratic rights properly in a debate that looks at the matter fully rather than off the back of a single amendment that has come from the other place without the chance to look at the issue in the round.

3.30 pm

Mr Graham Allen: I am surprised, but delighted, to follow the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). She is a very important performer in the democratic constellation, having been a Minister and given evidence to my Select Committee, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which could have been the perfect vehicle for bringing forward such proposals had the Government not abolished it—that probably tells us all we need to know.

I must say that the speed of reaction by Government to proposals from the Commons has not noticeably been a problem in my 20-odd years in the House. Some might feel that there has been a constant blur of democratic innovation in the House, but that has so far escaped me. Perhaps that happens when I am not in the Chamber. I might just be very unlucky.

I say to Members: when in doubt always read the title of the Bill. This one is Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. It says “devolution” and not decentralisation. We are not saying, “Here is Whitehall handing out a bit of power, but it is on a string and we can pull it back when we like.” Nor are we saying, “Power should lie at the centre, but let us try a little
17 Nov 2015 : Column 575

experiment on a very strong piece of elastic should the simpletons who are out in the sticks be unable to administer their own affairs.”

Devolution is entirely a different concept. It is about giving power away to a more appropriate level. Therefore, devolving power is, by definition, going to create difference and best practice. Lots of people will experiment, or innovate, on how they do things to suit themselves better in areas in which it is appropriate for people in localities to do those things. A patchwork, or a differentiation, or lots of different levels of change, is at the heart of devolution in a way that decentralisation never can be. Let us read the title of the Bill and let us try to make the Bill do what it says on the tin, which is to devolve power down to the localities rather than to have the localities as a means of administration of what the centre wants. That is a very, very clear distinction, which all of us who want to talk about devolution should understand.

In essence, new clause 3 applies that principle to a number of fields, but most obviously to the electoral systems in this country. There is no longer one electoral system that applies everywhere in the United Kingdom. There is a massive diversity and plurality of electoral systems and we have decided that this is about horses for courses—I am talking about a typical British constitutional evolution. The last major one was around the way in which we elect people to the European Parliament. Then there has been change in our devolved Assemblies and Parliaments, and people are finding their way in different areas. They should be allowed to continue to change if that is what they wish to do in those areas, regions or nations. It should be a process of constant exploration. So why on earth can we not do that in the localities? With the consent of people in the localities, why cannot we try, if they so wish, to go for votes for 16 to 17-year-olds?

Given the immense power vested in the Secretary of State under the Bill—he could not be a better person to trust to use these powers, I am sure—he could use his discretion to try a pilot and see what happens and what the turnout is likely to be. Let us do a proper evidence-based analysis in a number of areas to see whether young people are interested in participating in that way. Trying to do that seems to be one of the benefits of devolution. Other places might be happy with first past the post and such a change might never occur there, but pressure might be brought to bear.

Some people say that it is wrong that there are one-party states in local government. I do not happen to be one of those people, but if we get enough momentum in a locality to say that the system should change and people say, “You know what? It might refresh us. We might do better if we had more challenge,” or whatever the logic of the argument and political debate taking place, they should try something else. Let them try an alternative vote. Let them try, if they wish, the single transferable vote. Let them be the arbiters and judges and jury about the electoral system that they want in their area.

Similarly on governance, if people wish to have a form of governance that includes a leader concept, a committee structure or a mayor, they should be allowed to try it. The imposition element—if people want to run their own affairs, they must do it in the way that the Government say and have a mayor—is one of the
17 Nov 2015 : Column 576

fundamental weaknesses of the Government’s proposal, and I do not list many. The Government say, “If you don’t want the mayor, you’re not going to get the powers.” That is unfortunate. It is counterintuitive to those of us, even the Secretary of State, who believe in devolution, and it has not done the cause any good.

If we genuinely, perhaps after one or two more Bills before 2020, get to a position where we trust local people to have the wit and creativity to devise their means of governance, they should decide whether or not they want mayoralty. The reason why only one city went for the mayoralty in the last round and the rest rejected it was partly that it was felt to be an imposition. It came close on the back of a number of elections where people had expressed a political view about who should run their locality. It was done in a clunky, clumsy way, and we can see the fingerprints from that exercise on the one that has been transposed into the Bill. That is unfortunate. Let us allow people to find a mayoralty if they feel that it is appropriate for their area. Let us allow them to test that or to experiment with it if they wish, rather than saying yet again, “You’re getting devolution, but only in the way that we in Whitehall say is appropriate.”

If, like me, hon. Members have had the opportunity to study a document about devolution, they will see that the Government are not doing any of us who care about devolution any favour at all in the way that these things are written. It is like a gathering of local officials and centralised, Whitehall officials with a very large lashing of LSD, and it is difficult for ordinary people, let alone politicians, some of whom are intellectually challenged, to understand what is meant by much of the documentation. That may be based on my errors, but I suspect, given the size of the smile on the Minister’s face, that he, too, realises that to an extent officials at local and national level have depoliticised the very thing that he and the Secretary of State have done so well in bringing the Bill to the House.

John Stevenson: I hope Members on the Government Benches are not intellectually challenged. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we look back at Governments of his party and of mine, we see that the present Government have done an awful lot to further the cause of devolution, and should be given credit for that effort?

Mr Allen: I know that the hon. Gentleman is an assiduous reader of my speeches, even more so than I am, and he will see that on Second Reading and a number of occasions subsequently I paid tribute to the Secretary of State for his determination to bring devolution to its present state. It is an extremely good foundation for my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on the Front Bench to build on in 2020.

I am surprised that we have got to this point in the debate today without anyone mentioning that devolution deals have been announced. I am surprised that the Minister has not mentioned that. I do hope word does not get back to the Chancellor about his omitting to mention the deals in Liverpool and the west midlands, in addition to the deals in Sheffield, the north-east and the Tees valley. I hope deals are rapidly on the way in my area—Nottingham/Nottinghamshire and Derby/Derbyshire. I believe there are 38 potential deals, covering up to 80% of the population.

17 Nov 2015 : Column 577

It may seem odd for someone on the Opposition Benches—I hope I am regarded as all-party on this issue—to point out that there are large areas, Conservative areas, rural areas, county areas, that have been left out of the party. If this is to be a genuinely democratic change of the order of developing national Parliaments and assemblies—a change that will lead to a federal United Kingdom, as my hon. Friends on the Front Bench said in The Huffington Post this morning—we cannot leave our friends in the rural areas, whether they are Conservative or not, out of the equation.

Share.

Leave A Reply