Young People’s Representation Act 2015

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Doreen Henderson
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Young People’s Representation Act 2015

Post by Doreen Henderson »

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Ols ... sp=sharing

Mr Speaker,

I am incredibly proud to present the first piece of legislation of this People’s Government, a government that is committed to diversity and equality across all four corners of this country. The legislation before the house is very simple, namely it lowers the voting age to 16 across the United Kingdom and ensures that citizenship education takes place in schools.

Across history there have been many changes to suffrage, at first the right to vote was the preserve of a select few and over time it expanded and changed, to all men and then to women and then lowered down to 18. Mr Speaker, our political history has been one of gentle evolution in acknowledging that the right to vote is not a right that should only be entertained by the very few but should be encouraged as widely as possible.

It is important to note that at every point of this history of our national suffrage there has been opposition to change. Opposition borne out of fear of what this change would bring. Fear of collapse of institutions when working men were given the vote or when women fought and won the right to exercise their vote in equality of men. Students of history will know all too well that when change has knocked at the door of the status quo, the status quo has kept their hand firmly on the handle. But what happened when these changes took place was not some revolution that overturned the system, but the system showed its resilience to change and adapted to these new voices and perspectives and I firmly believe that our cultural heritage is ever the stronger for it.

As long as I have been in politics, political parties of all colours have courted the youth vote, but we have never truly been able to engage young people in the political process - and I believe that this was due to young people feeling they had no real impact or day in said political process. However, there has been a significant shift over the last decade and young people are becoming ever more engaged in politics. With the advent of social media and wider use of the internet we see young people engage in politics on a daily basis, and it is essential that we harness that drive and enthusiasm.

The prime example of youth voter engagement was during the 2014 Independence Referendum where 16 and 17 year olds were given the right to vote for the first time in history. And what we saw was a massive explosion of youth voter engagement. Young people for the first time in history believed that their voices and opinions would be heard and listened to. For the first time in history young people had a stake in the outcome of a vote. And evidence that has come from that referendum and the time proceeding has shown when given the chance to properly engage young people took that chance and ran with it. That, Mr Speaker, should be commended and this legislation commends and encourages it.

However, engagement alone is not enough. We must provide provision of education for young people so they are equipped with the skills and abilities to make decisions for themselves when it comes to their right to vote. Part 2 and Part 3 of this bill delivers on this and amends the national curriculum to include citizenship education so young people are provided with the understanding and knowledge of the political systems and how to engage with it.

I stress that no provision of this bill sets out political ideologies or what party is to be supported but a well-grounded understanding of how political and democratic institutions work, their rights and responsibilities and that diversity of opinion should be encouraged. So future generations will leave school with the confidence to engage in politics effectively and confidently.

Mr Speaker, I am immensely proud of this bill and I commend it to the house.
Doreen Henderson
Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (1987-Present)
Secretary of State for Business, Transport and Industry
Secretary of State for Diversity, Equality and Youth
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Re: Young People’s Representation Act 2015

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ORDER! Second reading! I call upon the Hon Member for [Conservative Designee].
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Re: Young People’s Representation Act 2015

Post by Liz Laird »

Mr Speaker,

I rise to outline the position of the Opposition on this important matter. I thank the Secretary of State for bringing this bill before the House in the timely manner in which she did. It is hugely important that the work of Government begin speedily after an election and I welcome the opportunity to discuss a piece of legislation straight off the bat. I do wonder, Mr Speaker, if this was the most pertinent selection to have been curated and why the Government saw fit to withdraw the matter of NHS operation and funding from the docket but kept this bill in. I realise they were making room for emergency funding for homelessness, which the Opposition has supported in principle, but I'm not sure the patients and medical staff working in our NHS would concur with the Government's priority in withdrawing work on the NHS to make room for a constitutional matter that surely could have waited another few weeks.

Mr Speaker, the Opposition welcomes efforts from the Government to engage more young people in politics. I am sure every member of this House would agree that youth engagement, and indeed voter engagement in general, is hugely important. There has been repeated studies that have demonstrated that public trust in the political processes is linked to robust political education. You will find no argument from the Opposition benches that more should be done to engage with voters and their respective communities, that we should work together to rebuild trust in politics, especially following on from the scandal over member's expenses, and that we should work to listen to the views of our young people.

Mr Speaker, where I suspect we do differ is on the interpretation of what that means both in terms of the constitutional arrangements for elections but also on how we want to structure our society. Do we want a society in which 16 becomes the accepted point of adulthood? Or do we, Mr Speaker, still believe that 18 is the recognised gateway into joining society as large?

I want to take a moment to unpick the Government's arguments here, Mr Speaker, because whist, as I have said, I applaud the overarching aim of engagement, I do take some issue with some of the points that have been raised so far.

The Right Honourable Lady, the Secretary of State, opened her remarks by talking about the history of the expansion of the franchise. I did somewhat take issue with her arguably whiggish history on the matter. In her remarks she compared expanding the franchise to women and those over 18 to what is being proposed and stated the predominant thinking had been to expand the franchise as widely as possible. I do challenge that interpretation, Mr Speaker, historically speaking the franchise in this country was not expanded for an ideological rationale of having as broad a representation as possible but rather on the basis of equality and fairness in having all adults represented in the franchise. The basis, even when these discussions on who should be permitted to vote by society, was on equality of opportunity amongst the whole adult population. That, I would argue, has now been achieved Mr Speaker. All adults in this country, including those from Commonwealth realms and European Union are represented within the franchise. The discussion the Government wants to move us onto is whether the franchise should also include children.

And on that point, Mr Speaker, I think the Right Honourable Lady likely realises we diverge in our views. She is absolutely right to point out, Mr Speaker, that, historically, opposition to expanding the franchise to other segments of a society then divided along religious, gender or racial lines was at times hysterical. I want to make it clear, Mr Speaker, that is not what the Opposition is advocating for today. We have no objection to every adult having the right to vote. We have no objection to a free, fair and democratic system of government. Our opposition to this particular bill stems from three cast-iron beliefs; today's participation deficit is not solved simply by the right to vote, evidence in other countries does not support this as a solution to the issue of low democratic engagement, and that the accepted societal age of adulthood is and should remain 18.

Mr Speaker, in her remarks the Right Honourable Lady commented on an "explosion" of participation along young people during the single example we have in this country of this system being trialled; the Scottish Independence referendum. Mr Speaker, I would firstly say to the Right Honourable Lady that participation was always bound to increase on a single day when political parties had worked specifically for that outcome. The longevity of that participation is put into doubt by evidence in other countries as I shall explain. I would also, however Mr Speaker, challenge the notion that it is comparable to look at democratic engagement in an age bracket on a single-issue referendum and make a leaping comparison to democratic engagement in broader terms in the whole democratic system.

Mr Speaker, on the Right Honourable Lady's final point on, what she terms, 'citizenship and constitutional education', the Opposition find ourselves largely in agreement with the Government. We welcome the opportunity to educate young people on the economic, societal and governmental machinations of the country. I would highlight, however, that this is not quite the substantive change the Government is painting it as. In fact, citizenship is already a non-statutory curriculum subject at Key Stage 3 and 4, PSHE is already a non-statutory curriculum subject across every Key Stage, and the Government-funded PSHE Association, which writes schemes of study for those subjects already includes units of work on economic literacy, government and political education. Whilst I welcome putting these schemes of study onto a statutory footing, I do question whether this alone will have the impact she implies it will. Rather than taking what we do already and moving it from non-statutory guidance into primary legislation, I wonder if it would have been instead more effective to work with the PSHE Association, Institute for Education and Chartered College of Teaching to substantially reform the provision of economic and political literacy. I cannot see anything in the legislation introduced on political education today, Mr Speaker, that strikes me as new or different to what was already in place; it is simply in a different place.

Mr Speaker, I come then to the end of the Right Honourable Lady's statement and I find myself somewhat perplexed. Beyond a vague note, historically inaccurate, about the expansion of the franchise in the past, and a section about why political education is important, I found no crux of argument about why 16 should be the age in statute. The Government's rather lacklustre proposal of the bill seems to steer clear from making any sort of explanation as to why 16 was selected, what evidence they could provide in terms of psychology, neurology, sociology or anthropology as to why 16 was different to 17 was different to 15. I couldn't really see a coherent moral, ethical or philosophical rationale, perhaps about dependency or a legal argument about the rights already granted at 16.

I half expected, Mr Speaker, to at least come across the same, at least plausible and respected rationale offered by the Scottish Government in 2014; that 16 year olds are cognitively developed enough to vote, that they have a stake in the decisions taken in terms of employment, education or public services, that they have other legal rights at 16 that provide evidence we trust them sufficiently. I don't agree with these arguments, Mr Speaker, as I shall explain but I am somewhat disappointed the Government did not seemingly bother to put a case together.

Mr Speaker, I spoke earlier about our three reasoned objections to this bill and I would like to spend some time going through them.

Mr Speaker, the root aim of all of our work, across the political spectrum, is to engage more people, especially young people in politics. That is a laudable objective and I stand by it. The Opposition finds no qualm with this and we shall support the Government in that aim. However, this bill doesn’t do that. Low participation among young people is not caused by a lack of political education, though a more informed electorate is always welcome. We know this because citizenship and PSHE is already taking place in our schools. There are GCSEs available in these subjects and in various key stages, they’re compulsory. This has yet to improve participation among 18 year olds, why would it among 16 year olds? The Government has failed to outline the distinction and the evidence for it. Political parties are welcome places to young people, Mr Speaker, many parties accepting young members from 16. We campaign with them and for them and give them to structures to influence policy, including through the UK Youth Parliament, and we have yet to see this increase participation and engagement at 18. Mr Speaker, the Opposition welcomes the expansion of political education, provided it is carefully structured to avoid bias as the Right Honourable Lady rightly pointed out, but it is not an aim in and of itself. This would need to be a precursor to expansion of the franchise with evidence it was having an impact on engagement. To do otherwise is to ignore evidence and treat political education as a bolt-on to justify a predetermined end goal, which I suspect is what the Government have done here.

Mr Speaker, evidence from examples in Brazil and Norway highlight that where these countries did expand the franchise to younger voters, it didn’t have the impact the Government are suggesting it would in the UK. These policies did not result in an increase in participation among young people. In Brazil, in fact Mr Speaker, disillusionment increased among the young as there was not a substantial change in the behaviour and attitudes of politicians. In Norway, where they did trial an expansion in a similar vein to the Scottish example, there was very ,very little change in participation among people beyond the first vote. Mr Speaker, we need to tackle the behaviours and attitudes of politicians on issues important to young people who are already in the democratic system before we could consider expanding the franchise.

Mr Speaker, I do disagree with the arguments usually put forward by proponents of Votes at 16. To those that say 16 year olds are cognitively developed enough to vote, I point to research readily available that brain development does not stop until 21 and that in other pieces of legislation, including those put forward by the Party Opposite when they were last in Government, we make clear legal differences as a result of this. The Sexual Offences Act 2003, for instance, makes a clear distinction between the treatment 16, 17 and 18 year olds on the matter of consensual sex. That is because, as was argument by the Labour Government at the time, there are substantive differences in cognitive development and maturity between these age groups. Indeed, Mr Speaker, there is an argument to be made that if we are to judge a person's ability to participate in society by their intelligence, maturity or their cognitive development or understanding of politics, many adults would not qualify. This is not an acceptable rationale when many adults also do not fit that descriptor. We deliberately place protections on young people to protect them at 16 in our criminal justice, social care and foster care systems. No area of life is suddenly and abruptly started at 16.

Rather, Mr Speaker, the law and society ease young people in, granting more freedoms and civic rights and responsibilities over time as they mature and grow, as they join communities and as they develop a stake in society. They cannot get married without a parent’s consent, they cannot join the military without the same and cannot be deployed into armed conflict. In the foster care system and social care system, they are considered minors and require a guardian until 18. This is because society already views them as below the age of adulthood. We protect them from undue influence of adults around them and society is already structured to guide them towards adulthood piece by piece.

Mr Speaker, some argue that taxation is the justification. They say that because children at 16 can pay tax and be employed they should be able to vote. I argue many adults do not, and rightfully, pay tax, not because of their age but because of their earnings. The guide to paying taxation in this country is not based on age but on earnings and ability to pay. Our democracy works on a basis of adulthood.

Mr Speaker, the Opposition will oppose this bill on the grounds I have outlined. 18 is a measured, reasoned age for the civil responsibility to vote. It gives us time to educate our young people on politics and the constitution, which we agree with the Government on, and it ensures our young people are protected from undue adult influence and potential harm. Teach our children about politics, absolutely, but we are confident in saying; we agree with the social care, foster care, criminal justice system and society; adulthood begins at 18.
Liz Laird MP | Conservative and Unionist Party
Member of Parliament for Winchester
Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Children and Skills
Shadow Secretary of State for Health

Formerly: MoS for Schools
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