Votes at 16 – a step in the right direction

Last week, after months of hard work, we had a major success in the House of Lords with an amendment, to which my name was attached, that extended the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds in the upcoming EU Referendum. The amendment received significant support in the House of Lords, being approved with a majority of 82. However this is not the end of the line, the amendment must now be approved by MPs.

Recently I attended a screening of the much acclaimed film Suffragette. What struck me was how remarkably similar the arguments opposing the enfranchisement of women in the early 20th century were to the reactionary arguments put forward by the Government and its supporters in the Lords in our recent debate. Their argument, seemingly born out of ignorance, is that this age group is somehow incapable of making an important decision. Ministers claim it is not possible to assess the ‘individual’s state of development’ at that age. These patronising, archaic attitudes belong in the 19th, not the 21st century.

I have spoken in support of the cause of Votes at 16 so often that it is difficult not to repeat myself, but the statistics speak for themselves. The argument that this age group is immature, ill-informed and uninterested is belied by the hard facts of the Scottish Referendum in 2014. 109,593 of the age group registered, 75% of them voted, in comparison with only 54% of 18 to 24 year-olds.

Fortunately the principle of votes at 16 has enjoyed support from both the Crossbenchers, and some Conservatives at both ends of Parliament. Lord (Michael) Dobbs, best known for House of Cards (of which I am an avid fan), argued that whilst the issue of the franchise and maturity is in need of more general debate, the referendum will not wait for it. On that issue, that we need specific consistency with what happened in Scotland. Lord (Andrew) Lansley also spoke in support of enfranchising 16 and 17 year old voters, saying:

The singular nature of this is that these 16 and 17 year-olds of whom we are speaking will be able to vote at the next general election—but at the next general election they will not be able to change the outcome of the referendum. So often in the past, one of the reasons that has been adduced for not extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds is that, “You will access your civic rights and will have your chance to vote, and at subsequent general elections you will have the chance to change the Government if you don’t like it”. On this referendum they will not have that subsequent chance. If they do not like it, I am afraid they are stuck with it. In the course of what I hope will be next year’s extensive debate about the future of the country in which they have to live, I, for one, would not want to argue to 16 and 17 year-olds that they should not participate in that election.

Last week, David Cameron described this vote as “a huge decision for our country, perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes. And it will be the final decision.”

That is the strongest argument I have heard for extending the franchise to this particular group. The Prime Minister is absolutely right, and it must surely follow that this group of our fellow citizens cannot be denied a say in that decision.

My hope is that MPs of all parties see past the archaic arguments proffered my Ministers, and will support enfranchising this group of articulate, informed, inquisitive, mature, enthusiastic, and challenging young people, who are keen to have their say on the UK’s future.

My full speech at report stage:

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