Speaking in the Second Reading of the EU Referendum Bill Paul Tyler, Lords’ Political Reform Spokesperson, used his speech to highlight the need to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the EU Referendum.
Last Friday, as part of the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme, I spent an extremely interesting hour with the sixth form at Sir Thomas Rich’s School in Gloucester. The students were articulate, informed, inquisitive, mature, enthusiastic, committed and challenging—above all, they were clearly ready and willing to be full citizens in our democracy. In short, they were typical 16 and 17 year-olds. They were more knowledgeable than many of their 60, 70 or 80 year-old fellow citizens and they were quite ready to compete in debate with Members of Your Lordships’ House. Indeed, I think they would well match the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby.
I see that the noble Lord is in robust good health but I venture to suggest that the young citizens in Gloucester are likely to have longer experience of the outcome of this vote than he will. That is the big difference. When it comes to the referendum on the future of this country—as part of the European partnership of nations or adrift in the Atlantic—this age group will have a far greater personal, long-term interest than most of us here. It is unthinkable that they should be refused a vote.
It is unthinkable that these young people, whose future is so much at stake, should be refused a vote. The Intergenerational Foundation has pointed out already how top-heavy our democracy is—as is, indeed, our demography. The argument that has been used in the past, that this age group is immature, ill-informed and not interested, is belied by the hard facts of 18 September 2014, which put paid to those objections. As noble Lords will know, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, my right honourable friend Michael Moore, negotiated the inclusion of this cohort in the franchise for the Scottish referendum. He persuaded his colleagues in the coalition Cabinet that this was a choice of such long-term significance—with little likelihood of early review or reversal—that they had to be involved.
They rose to the challenge: 109,593 registered, 75% of them voted and already the comparison has been made with the 54% of the later age group of 18 to 24 year-olds who turned out and the 72% of those in the 25 to 34 year-old cohort. As has been said often in this House, they debated the issues with great intelligence and personal integrity, ignoring vested interests. One of the best witnesses of that is the leader of the Conservatives in the Holyrood Parliament. Moreover, they seem to have voted with more balance and maturity, rejecting the myths of the separatists, unlike many middle-aged men in Scotland.
Ministers in both Houses have failed so far to produce any rational objection, having accepted it in the Scottish case, to the inclusion of these new citizens in the decision-making process. This morning I reread the Hansard for the debate in the other place and searched in vain for any explanation for this extraordinary position. The most moving speech in the other place was by Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Totnes, who argued that there should be a free vote on this issue. I noted today that a number of noble Lords in other parts of the House thought that might be appropriate. I hope that the Government will think very carefully about that.
Even in your Lordships’ House, this argument has been accepted on the similar referendum in Wales—that it should be on that extended franchise; with the help of my noble friend Lady Randerson, the coalition Cabinet agreed. More recently, on 15 July in this House, we accepted the strength of the case in relation to local authority elections, by voting for the amendment that I moved to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, with a majority of 221 to 154. Of course, it has already been fully enacted for local elections in Scotland.
I have no doubt that the claims of EU citizens working and living here, together with UK citizens working and living in other EU countries, will be successfully argued in the coming weeks, in your Lordships’ House. I hope so. Our conference a few weeks ago overwhelming voted for an amendment, to which I spoke, to support them.
However, the clearest case of all is that of young citizens whose future will be so dramatically affected by the huge implications of the referendum decision. Is this choice any less long term in its significance than that on the ballot paper on 18 September 2014 in Scotland? I dare Ministers to explain why Scottish and Welsh 16 and 17 year-olds are mature enough, interested enough and well informed enough to be allowed to vote for their futures, but their English and Northern Irish counterparts are not. Ministers are fond of citing the essential elements that keep the United Kingdom united. What could be more significant that that solid building-block of our democracy, the franchise? Surely that is one of the things that holds the United Kingdom together. Can they really justify one electorate for Scotland and Wales and another for England and Northern Ireland?
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said at the beginning that what is in the Bill is a starting point and basis for the franchise. I put it to your Lordships’ House that we have to move from that starting point into a much more logical and rational position. It is unthinkable that Ministers should ignore the hint that even the Prime Minister has given that we will have to move in this direction, and I hope that they will recognise that they should accept the inevitable.