Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Lord Maclennan of Rogart Excerpts
Monday 13th December 2010

(13 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Kingsmill Portrait Baroness Kingsmill
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I support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Hayter. My reason for this is that 16 year-olds today are a very mature bunch of people. They have been well educated, on the whole, and many of them have studied current affairs to a far greater degree than I did when I was at school. We encourage our 16 year-olds to take responsibility; we wish them to behave well and to pursue active citizenship. I can think of no better way of doing so than exercising the vote responsibly. It is patronising in the extreme to think that 16 year-olds are not interested in how our Government are run. Most 16 year-olds I know are extremely interested in this area, as were most of my children’s friends when they were 16. Some of the frustrations that we see on the streets today may well have arisen from the fact that people have not had the opportunity to be active citizens or to exercise the vote. This is, therefore, a wholly worthy amendment and one that I support.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart Portrait Lord Maclennan of Rogart
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In opening the debate on active citizenship from these Benches two weeks ago, I made clear my view that votes at 16 would be timely. I do not resile from that one little bit. I served in the mid-1960s on the Latey committee on the age of majority, which reduced the age of majority for certain civil purposes to 18. A year later I also served on the Speaker’s Conference on electoral law, which recommended that the age of voting should be not 18 but 20. None the less, Parliament rejected that advice and the following year voted for votes at 18. So, I have a track record of involvement in this debate.

However, it appears that what we are talking about in this amendment is not giving people votes at 16 but giving them the right to participate in a one-off referendum. That raises somewhat different issues. It is also clear that, throughout the debate in Committee, there has been lengthy opposition to and debates on amendments, which—if the process goes on in this manner—will have the effect, whether it is desired or not, of postponing the referendum. As many people as possible should take part in the referendum, so that we have a clear indication of what the public view is. Whatever side of the argument we may be on, to have the maximum turnout for the referendum is highly desirable. If we are to achieve that maximum turnout, it makes sense to hold the referendum on a day when people are turning out for other polls. That is why I favour the proposal of the coalition Government to hold the referendum on the day of the Scottish election and the local elections, when roughly 85 per cent of the electorate will at least be able to turn out. That seems a very strong argument for not holding up this process. Consequently, we should view somewhat askance an amendment that could result in denying people that opportunity, or at least the likelihood of there being a substantial turnout.

The second issue that causes me to hesitate about having 16 year-olds voting in the late spring—as is implicit in the Government’s attitude—is that it seems improbable that many of them would be on the register in time for that. Even if the decision were taken by this House to change the provisions and allow them to vote, it would have to go back for approval to another place. Consequently, we could expect substantial delays. Practically, their being on the register—which they would need to be if their votes were to be validated—is very improbable.

Lord Rooker Portrait Lord Rooker
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There is an easy solution to that. I think it is the case—I do not have children but I was at the DSS—that when you are 16 you are issued with your national insurance number. You are known about on the system. It would be easy for the DWP to know where all 16 year-olds are because it would be about to issue their national insurance numbers. That argument, with respect, is not a valid one.

Could the noble Lord also address the London issue? He skated over that when talking about the second election. The greatest density of voters in this country is in the 100-odd constituencies in London—the capital of the country, where there is no other election next May. The damage to possible turnout because there is not another election could be catastrophic. The 15 per cent who will not be voting are not evenly spread over the country. Has the noble Lord thought about that?

Lord Maclennan of Rogart Portrait Lord Maclennan of Rogart
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I take the noble Member’s point. However, the concentration of the media—the London-centred media—makes it highly likely that London is the least likely part of the country to be unaware of what is happening, or not to have been stimulated by the press, including television and radio, into recognising the importance of the issue. I envisage that being the proper possibility in other parts of the country, where other elections are happening. It is conceivable in Scotland, for example, that the voting system for Westminster will not be regarded as the first priority; rather, the structure of the Scottish Parliament and which Government will take their place in Scotland will. So, I do not altogether go along with the noble Lord.

The suggestion that national insurance numbers could be used would be unlikely to lead to an outcome that carried much conviction.

Lord Rooker Portrait Lord Rooker
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Forgive me but that was not my point. The noble Lord was saying that we could not get 16 year-olds on to the register in time. The fact is that they are on a register now. It would be very easy to transfer them to the electoral register. It is known in government, electronically, where they are because they are about to be issued with an NI number. I am not suggesting that the NI number is used for voting but it would be very easy to put them on to the electoral register.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart Portrait Lord Maclennan of Rogart
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I would be interested to hear the views of the Electoral Commission on that. I do not regard myself as an expert on these matters but I doubt it is quite as easy as that, given that the timing for the Bill becoming law is decreasingly clear.

My final point may not carry so much weight but I believe that our 16 year-olds are increasingly very interested in politics, which is why I want to see a change in the voting age. However, I do not believe that in a few months’ time they are likely to be able to discriminate between different electoral systems when they have not been thinking about voting. It is highly improbable that even their teachers would be in a position to give them guidance on the virtues and merits of different electoral systems. We have heard arguments being put forward on the Benches opposite and conflicts between the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others about the merits of the supplementary vote as opposed to the alternative vote, or various kinds of alternative vote. Without prior discussion or only the most minimal educational input on this issue, it is extremely improbable that 16 year-olds would add greatly to the authority of the decision to be taken next May, if that is the date decided upon. Therefore, for the three reasons that I have given, I would prefer to see the system of voting change and for subsequent referenda to follow the electoral register.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton
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I would like to ask the noble Lord a very simple question. Can he tell your Lordships’ House which members of the public he thinks have been thinking about these issues with the necessary intensity to make the decision he has just proposed needs to be made?

Lord Maclennan of Rogart Portrait Lord Maclennan of Rogart
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A large number of people who have voted in previous elections feel that their vote did not count and that the relevant constituency remained dominated, come hell or high water, by the party which had been there for over a generation. I am bound to say that those people are likely to look at alternatives with a passion and concern not shared by a new voter, who may simply be mystified by what could appear to be a very academic debate. Consequently, I do not think that the noble Lord’s intervention has much substance.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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My Lords, it never fails to surprise me that when people want to resist an advance in the franchise all the same objections are made. They say, “These people do not know how to vote. They are not interested in politics; they are just not good enough”. That happened in 1832 and it has been happening steadily ever since, every time a reform is suggested, especially when people believe sincerely in the reform but do not want to implement it, as is the case with noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. They say, “Ah, but there are administrative difficulties. We are entirely for it in principle, but it is so difficult to transfer a number from one computer to another that we cannot do this”. It is almost a universal law that every time any advance in the franchise is proposed, the establishment is against it on the ground that people who are about to get the franchise are too ignorant and too stupid to deserve it.

In proposing this amendment, my noble friend has done a very nice thing. Given that we are talking about a referendum, we are not so worried about which constituency people are registered to on the electoral register. The constituency does not matter; this is a nationwide election. Therefore, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said in his imaginative intervention, once you have your national insurance number, people know that you are 16 and then you are eligible to vote. One could even experiment with e-voting given that we are not electing Members to represent constituencies but asking the nation a question: “Are you for AV, or not?”. We should not be so conceited as to presume that students, or their teachers, do not understand the issues surrounding AV. They can all read and write and people have been reading about this stuff for ages.

I remember that in the 1960s the only party which publicly supported voting at 18 was the Monster Raving Loony Party, and it was far ahead of the electorate in that respect. These really radical reforms always come from the outside, as it were. For some strange reason the Government want to hold the referendum on 5 May 2011; perhaps it should be held in 2012, but they want it on 5 May. However, they should not let that one little thing be an obstacle to achieving a good reform. If we can achieve this reform, it will make a tremendous difference. As regards the point about today’s 14 year-olds being eligible to vote by 2015, that is a great idea. We could easily amend the noble Baroness’s amendment to say that anybody who is likely to be 18 by 2015 should be eligible to vote in the referendum.