Voting at age 16

Fabian speaks in the House of Commons Debate on lowering the age of universal franchise to 16 years.


If you would like to see Fabian's speech in this debate, fast forward the video to 11:59 am. Fabian's contribution ends at around 12:13 pm.


The transcript of the section of the debate where Fabian contributed is shown below.

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) on securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place. It is important, at this stage of this Parliament, and after so many years have elapsed since the hon. Gentleman's original Bill, that we should have the chance to debate-and, I hope, to vote on-this important subject.

Like most Members of Parliament, I spend quite a bit of time visiting sixth forms and meeting members of school councils, and teachers and pupils. Just last Friday, I was at Roundhay high school in my constituency, where I met the politics AS-level group-a group of about 20 16 and 17-year-olds. We had a discussion for about an hour and a half, and it would have been longer if they had not had to go to a different class. The quality of the teaching and, more important, the quality of the opinions and the questions, was absolutely brilliant. That made me realise that I was right to co-sponsor the hon. Gentleman's debate this afternoon. Listening to those 16 and 17-year-olds, I felt that they were well ready to make a decision about who should represent them in this Parliament, who should be the Government of the day and-something that we have perhaps overlooked-who should run their local authority. Local authorities are still important bodies in the lives of the young people in our towns, cities and regions. I felt reassured, listening to those young people.

I have been to many different schools, as we all have. I have visited Allerton high school, Allerton Grange high school, Carr Manor high school and Cardinal Heenan Catholic high school. I have listened to sixth-form groups in those schools discussing politics. They have asked me deep, searching questions about why I became a politician, what we do in this place and how that affects their lives. I feel that it is really time for them to have a chance to make their judgment, locally and nationally, in our elections.

Philip Davies: When the hon. Gentleman was in those schools, telling the young people how well educated, well informed and intelligent they were, and how they should be able to make all those decisions, did he also explain to them why he did not think they were intelligent, informed or educated enough to make a decision on whether or not to smoke?

Fabian Hamilton: I share the view of the hon. Member for Bristol West that there is not one age for everything. We allow our young people to drive at the age of 17, but not to vote at that age. Why are they deemed old enough to be in charge of a vehicle that could be a lethal weapon, but not old enough to vote? Why do we allow them to join the Army or get married at the age of 16, but not allow them to vote? There are different ages for different activities in our society. Also, protecting young people from the pervasive influence of the dangerous habit of smoking-[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) wish to intervene on me again?

Philip Davies: It was the hon. Gentleman who was leading with his chin and telling us how well informed and well educated those young people were. They are either well informed and well educated, or they are not. If they are so well informed and well educated, surely they are more than capable of making a decision on smoking, too. We cannot say that they are well informed in one area but absolutely clueless about everything else.

Fabian Hamilton: I do not believe that they are clueless; a lot of young people are well informed. The issue of smoking and health is different from marriage, driving a vehicle or fighting for one's country.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Could not the question of whether young people are well informed enough to make a decision about smoking be tested by giving them the vote, so that their representatives here could reflect what they thought on a range of issues, including their capacity to get a mortgage, an affordable pension or a job? All the decisions that we take here affect their lives, yet they have no say in those matters at the moment. The decision to smoke is just part of that parcel. The solution lies in giving them the vote.

Fabian Hamilton: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Indeed, if young people aged 16 were able to vote, perhaps their representatives here in the House of Commons might change their minds on smoking not being allowed until the age of 18.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Our colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) may have helped us a bit. The question essentially comes down to whether giving teenagers the opportunity to register to vote at 16 will do any harm. The answer is clearly no. Can it do any good? The answer is yes. On the point about smoking, only teenagers take it up: it is not an adult thing to do but a childish thing.

Fabian Hamilton: There is little I can add to the hon. Gentleman's points. I agree wholeheartedly with them.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend moves on from this point, let me say that the issue is also about our behaviour and how we respond to young people's concerns. We hear a lot about the grey vote, but we do not hear much about what younger people think or are worried about.

Fabian Hamilton: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is all the more important, now that we have an ageing population-as the hon. Member for Bristol West said, a much higher proportion of older people cast their votes-that we extend the franchise to 16-year-olds as well. As I said earlier, I believe them to be more than capable of making a judgment about who they want to represent them at the local authority level and at the parliamentary and governmental level.

Mr Sheerman: My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe)-and he is real friend, not just in the formal sense-put forward a ruthless logic, but that logic leads to the question "Why not 14; why not 12?" Adopting his logic, where should we set the age for voting?

Fabian Hamilton: I would answer my hon. Friend-and he is a very good friend-by saying that we have to make a judgment, and that young people have to demonstrate whether or not they are able to make the sorts of judgments we expect in their choice of who they want to represent them. In my experience-and, I am sure, in my hon. Friend's experience-a 14-year-old does not quite have the maturity or ability to make that judgment, whereas most 16-year-olds certainly do. The point was well made by the hon. Member for Bristol West-we will not have loads of 16-year-olds suddenly heading off towards the polling station when they become 16. In fact, the young people are more likely to be 17 or 18 when the election comes about-unless it is in local government, as many of our towns and cities have annual elections three out of four years.

The age may well come down to 14 as young people get more mature, but we are debating votes at 16. In that case, I think, as many hon. Members and most of my party colleagues think, that from 16 onwards young people are mature enough, bright enough and educated enough to make those judgments. [Interruption.] That is my view; I know my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has a different view.

Let me move on to the issue of school councils. I do not know whether many Members have attended elections for school councils or spoken to any school councils, but I have been invited, as I know many Members have been invited, to meet them-including often to primary school councils, too. [Interruption.] I am staggered-[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Shipley wants to keep on making comments from a sedentary position, I will allow him to make an intervention. Otherwise, I would be grateful if he stopped.

Philip Davies: If the hon. Gentleman is using school councils as an argument for extending the vote, he should remember that he himself said that they take place at primary school level, too. By that ruthless logic, I presume he is now going to advocate giving primary school children the vote.

Fabian Hamilton: I answered that point when I responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield. My judgment, as a parent of three children and as someone who regularly meets young people, is that 16-plus is the age at which young people are mature enough to make the sort of decisions we expect when they cast a vote. I do not believe five and six-year-olds are, although they do vote in some school council elections.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I would like to tell my hon. Friend about the young mayor of Newham, who has a £25,000 budget. In the most recent vote for our young mayor, 13,500 young people voted. That shows a thirst for engagement, and I think it is a thirst that we should recognise.

Fabian Hamilton: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is precisely the point I am trying to make. I was coming on to talk about school councils, because I have been impressed by the enthusiasm for voting, and by the interest, knowledge and understanding of what happens in a primary or a secondary school and of what a school council can achieve. It is on a very small scale, but it is a very good start. As the hon. Member for Bristol West said, if people get into the habit of voting at that young age, perhaps we will see a much higher turnout at elections.

I want to take Members back to what was a low point in this country's electoral history: the police and crime commissioner elections. I am not going to rehearse the reasons why those elections had such a poor turnout-in west Yorkshire, it was 13.7%-but I venture to suggest that if 16-year-olds had had the right to vote on 15 November, turnout might have been over 15%. That is still an absolutely appalling figure, but it would have made some difference. There was a thirst for and an interest in voting among young people-even in those elections, which were so badly publicised. Indeed, when I visited Roundhay high school last Friday, I was asked about the turnout of those elections and the reasons why they had taken place in November in the first place.

When I was at school-a long, long time ago, in the '60s and '70s-we studied a subject called civics. I know that that has since evolved, but I found civics very useful, and its modern counterpart, of course, is far more useful. The point about that subject was to understand the institutions of government, both locally and nationally. How many Members have had e-mails and letters from constituents-many such constituents are pretty mature, certainly well over 16 or 18-saying, "Dear Member of Parliament, I want you to do something about the state of the streets in my area", or saying that they want them to sort out their council house, their property, or the windows? They believe us to be councillors, too. I even got an e-mail the other day from somebody that began, "Dear Councillor Hamilton". She wanted me to sort out what was purely a local authority issue, and I had to point out that I have not been a councillor for 15 years.

My point is that if 16-year-olds were able to vote, the education they were receiving at school about our governmental institutions, about how our constitution actually works, would be far more pertinent and relevant, because the next year or the next month-whenever they pass the age of 16-while they were still studying, they could cast their vote in a local authority election that has a direct relevance to them, and now, of course, in the five-yearly police and crime commissioner elections, too.
We have an age of consent of 16. At 16, people can drive a scooter. At 16, people can fight for their country-[Interruption.] Sorry; people can join the Army at 16. At 17, they can drive a car. At 16, they can get married with parental permission.

Mr Sheerman: With parental permission.

Fabian Hamilton: Yes, with parental permission. We had a youth Parliament in the city of Leeds, as many cities do. The awards were given in the banqueting suite of our Leeds civic hall, and they were handed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). The turnout was brilliant. The enthusiasm and support from parents and young people were absolutely magnificent. That told me that increasingly our young people are able to make a judgment about who they want in this House; who they want to run their Government, because that affects them; and who they want to run their local authority. I therefore urge this House to vote for votes for 16-year-olds.