Skip to content

The time has come for votes at 16

January 19, 2013

The time has come for a vital step in the renewal of Britain’s democracy. Time to let another one and a half million people take part in voting for the people who run the country. Giving the right to vote to sixteen and seventeen year olds now has widespread support across the political spectrum. British citizens aged sixteen can already vote in some elections and their counterparts can do so in some of the world’s largest democracies.

So the time is right for me to have my second attempt as an MP to lower the voting age. On Thursday 24th January I will be opening a debate in the House of Commons on a votable resolution to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in all UK elections and referenda. The last time I tried was over seven years ago in November 2005. On that occasion my Bill was defeated by just eight votes. This time I am optimistic that the majority of MPs now favour change.

So why do I believe in trusting people in their late mid teens with the vote? Has the case for change got better in the last seven years?

First, I have long believed that 16 year olds are mature enough to vote, if they want to. Years of experience of talking and listening to sixth form and college students has convinced me that enough of them have the knowledge about their communities and the wider world to make judgements on how they want the future to look. The curriculum itself and extra curricula activities have made the current generation of late teens the best informed and engaged in our history. Traditional lessons such as history or RE are now taught in a way that enables students to understand their place in society and to weigh up evidence and make judgements. More recent subjects such as PSHE and citizenship give young people more preparation for the world outside the classroom.

Participation in the UK Youth Parliament has grown and most schools now have their own councils with elected representatives. Frankly, I have met many older voters in their fifties and sixties who are remarkably ignorant about the world around them. We don’t suggest taking the vote off people who have no qualifications and stubbornly held but I’ll informed opinions. So we should not continue to withhold the vote from the best informed generation of young people.

Today’s young people also have easy access to a wide variety of viewpoints. I’ve been re-reading the debates in the Commons from 1968, when the process began of reducing the voting age from twenty one to eighteen. MPs then were worried about eighteen year olds being influenced by their parents or older siblings. Much the same arguments about immature minds being easy to influence were advanced a hundred years ago against giving votes to women or to poor working men. In 2013 young people don’t just have the benefit of a good education. They also live in the internet age, with news and information at their fingertips. Family and peer group influences will always play a part in how everyone votes but all of us now have access to countervailing views.

Many people have argued that the best reason for giving sixteen and seventeen year olds the vote is the long list of other rights and responsibilities they already enjoy. No taxation without representation has been around for a long time. It is indeed still true that 16 year olds can leave full time education, start work and pay taxes. The waters are becoming a little muddied here as the education participation age rises to 17 this year and to 18 in 2015. But this includes work based learning such as apprenticeships. Ironically (for this Lib Dem MP) the Coalition Government has already lifted young people on the minimum wage out of the income tax net. But they still pay NIC and spend their wages on VATable products. So the Jeffersonian vintage maxim still holds.

But once you’ve worked your way through the rest of the list – joining the army, driving a car, joining a union and full rights over medical treatment among them, I believe that the most compelling right is the age of consent for sex. What can be more fundamental than the potential to bring another human being into the world?

Personally, I do not believe that every “adult” right and responsibility should come at sixteen. I differ from several campaigners on that one. There are good health reasons for controlling access to alcohol and tobacco. I’m not persuaded of the case for allowing candidacy at 16. We have only recently lowered that right to 18 and I want to see how that works out.

Giving more young people the right to vote would also go some way to rebalancing the demographics of the franchise. I wrote recently about how politicians fear alienating the “grey vote”, which is becoming more significant as our society ages. Older people are also more likely to turn out, giving them even greater electoral firepower. Our democracy is in danger of becoming a gerontocracy as the will of the old trumps the needs of the young.

If Parliament had accepted my proposals in 2005 the UK would have set an example to the world. That’s no longer the case. One EU member state, Austria, has allowed sixteen year olds to vote since 2007. Most German states, Lander and cities allow 16 year olds to vote. The Burgermesiter of Hannover, Bristol’s twin city, has to appeal to 16 year olds as well as 46 year olds. Brazil, one of the world’s largest democracies, has long allowed sixteen year olds to vote. Neighbouring Argentina followed their example just two months ago.

But it’s here in the British Isles that the most relevant change has taken place. In 2006 the Isle of Man lowered the voting age. Jersey and Guernsey followed in 2007. The Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly want to give their sixteen year olds the vote but need Westmister approval. Most compelling of all is the recent agreement by the UK government to allow the Scottish Parliament the right to set the franchise for the referendum on Scotland’s future with the UK, in 2014.

So British citizens are already voting for their elected representatives in the Crown dependencies. Scots teens north of the border could hold the key to the future of the United Kingdom. The genie is now out of the bottle. It is time to trust all British sixteen year olds with the franchise. The time has come for votes at 16 and I hope enough of my fellow MPs will join me on Thursday to bring about this historic change.


My motion was passed by MPs, voting in favour by 119 – 46, a majority of 73. It won’t become law until incorporated into a constitutional reform Bill. This is unlikely before the 2015 general election.

The Hansard record of the debate can be read here

26 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2013 6:57 pm

    Although this is long overdue, it won’t save the Lib-Dems in 2015.

    • Richard Fagence permalink
      January 22, 2013 12:44 pm

      Mr Philip-Pritchard has (deliberately?) missed the point. Policies, suggested changes to exisiting legislation and new ideas aren’t about “saving the Lib Dems. They are about doing what is right rather than publishing short term gimmicks designed to catch the eye. That’s what makes us different from the other tired old parties and single issue factions. Incidentally, why is he holding a burning torch in the picture and wearing some kind of insignia round his neck? Can anyone explain it? Still, I’m glad he thinks it is “long overdue”. I do, too.

      • January 22, 2013 9:02 pm

        I haven’t missed the point.
        I believe it is being introduced with a desperate hope of gaining some votes. I had to laugh when you mention “tired old parties”. The Lib-Dems are over; to say they are tired would be an insult to Rip Van Winkle! The Lib-Dems are extinct.! I cannot even conceive how you could say other parties are tired when you are riding high on a public opinion of around 9%, which is regularly lower then UKIP. The British public will NEVER forgive your party for your lies.
        Finally my insignia is the “chain” of a Deputy Mayor and the torch is when I headed a torchlight parade of local children for the lighting of a beacon to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen last year.

  2. January 20, 2013 10:04 am

    NO most pensioners,have worked for 40 -45 years, it is only since around the 1970/80s that the work shy have come into their own element and so become a drain on Society. IF any Government ever believed in fairness, they would insist on e pension and add on benefits being earned by contributions, or credits from the dole office. i m old enough to remember the Assistance Board,and the visit fro the lady when Dad died, she insisted MUM topped renting the telly,I was the only one bringing in a wage (£3.3s)a weeks an apprentice plumber. Now a days I know of people here in Barton Hill, (on the sick for 15 18 years – with depression) who have a £40 a month Virgin/sky package as well as the latest iphone. (if I was home all day I would be depressed). Re-start the Manpower Services Commission, get the unemployed, and those with depression out snow clearing on the foot paths.
    A benefit should be earned not a right, as they are in most European Countries, France, Germany and Portugal do not have the problem we have as after 6 months benefits reduce

  3. January 20, 2013 10:12 am

    I am re-posting this as I posted in error

    NO most pensioners,have worked for 40 -45 years, it is only since around the 1970/80s that the work shy have come into their own element and so become a drain on Society. IF any Government ever believed in fairness, they would insist on a pension and add on benefits being earned by contributions, or credits from the dole office. I am old enough to remember the Assistance Board,and the visit from the lady when Dad died, she insisted MUM stopped renting the telly, I was the only one bringing in a wage (£3.3s)a weeks an apprentice plumber.I had 2 younger brothers. Mum was told to get a part time job, the only assistance she received was a voucher for school uniforms.
    Now a days I know of people here in Barton Hill, (In particular one man with a family whom have been on the sick for 15-18 years – with depression) who has a £40 a month Virgin/Sky package as well as the latest iphone. (if I was home all day I would be depressed). Re-start the Manpower Services Commission, get the unemployed, and those with depression out snow clearing on the foot paths.
    A benefit should be earned not a right, as they are in most European Countries, France, Germany and Portugal do not have the problem we have as after 6 months benefits reduce.
    I add that besides being a pensioner, I also work 5 days a week on a market stall

  4. January 20, 2013 10:40 am

    I’m all for it but let’s make the vote compulsory as well as the do in Australia.

  5. Ian Tighe permalink
    January 20, 2013 2:26 pm

    I do not believe we should reduce the voting age. There is more of a case for increasing it. Just because others do it elsewhere does not make it right here and your narrative fails to justify such a proposal with any evidence of improved outcomes. When you think most aged 16/17 know nothing of our history and what makes us who we are, what then makes anyone believe they know anything about where we should go and what we should be. Sure you will find a small interested percentage but that does not mean the other 98% should get the vote. If you really want to renew our interest in democracy then bring our powers & sovereignty back from the EU to the UK, give parliament more power thus reducing Government power and put people in touch with our future and prospects through regular referenda on top issues that confront us all.

  6. Lisa permalink
    January 20, 2013 8:44 pm

    I couldn’t agree more young people should be given the choice to vote, I was classed too young to vote in the last election but was more informed than my parents and older siblings who chose not to vote. I will now have to pay three times as much to go to university in my home country and am having to consider loans to support myself and learning another language to study cheaper abroad. I also oppose bringing drinking and smoking ages down as these clearly impact health, but can’t quite understand why people who can pay towards the services of the government cannot have a say in how we believe that money should be spent. Besides if the young people gaining the vote choose not to vote then at least it is their choice. Though surely over 1.5 million voices shouldn’t be discounted and ignored, especially since a 16 year old in one election will be twenty in the next and in the current system even, be essentially ignored for two years though they can be paying in for four years.

  7. January 22, 2013 12:21 pm

    (Apologies for cross-posting from Lib Dem Voice)

    Whether or not the voting age should be reduced to 16, I don’t like the argument that “The time has come.” It is a rhetorical device used to imply that something is inevitable and we should just get one with it; it also allows advocates to portray their opponents as reactionary when they might have genuine arguments against.

    Whether the voting age should be 18 or 16 or any other levels is entirely a matter of political judgement; there is no “right” voting age. Frankly, we all know that there are 17 (15) year olds who are better informed, more mature and have a greater grasp of the matters at hand than some 19 (17) year holds.

    Having an arbitrary voting age of 18 (16) is therefore nothing more than a convenient device to avoid the far more contestable (and far more prone to gerrymandering/corruption) solution of applying some qualification or test. If we have to draw an arbitrary line in the sand, lets debate it, rather than suggesting that a certain age is natural and inevitable and that therefore “its time has come.”

    • January 23, 2013 6:49 pm

      Tom. Thanks. I mean it in the sense that there is no longer any real excuse for denying ALL 16 and 17 year olds the vote. Many other countries have changed, with no adverse consequences. And change is also happening in Scotland in 2014. So it is “timely” for the UK Parliament to take action.

  8. David permalink
    January 22, 2013 10:47 pm

    Isn’t it a contradiction to talk about the “a gerontocracy as the will of the old trumps the needs of the young”? Surely that is what a democracy is, the will of the majority? That you don’t like what the majority has to say is a sad indictment of your view of ‘democracy’. It is certainly not ‘obvious’ that 16/17 year olds should get the vote. Why should they? How little have they contributed to society at such a young age? In fact, surely it is societies that respect and venerate their elderly that we would aspire to model? No taxation without representation…another tired old motto, but even my 8-yo daughter pays VAT on sweets. No, the right to vote requires that you are in a position to contribute something back to society, and like everything else the young are being told that everything is their “right” without having to do anything to earn it. That is why prisoners cannot vote, because they threw that privilege away.

    And please, no more arguments about it being right because it happens in other countries. In some countries in the world, girls are ‘married’ and raped at 10 years old, slavery is all but tolerated, hard drugs are currency. Just because it is so elsewhere does not automatically make it right.

    I would write to my MP about this but unfortunately Stephen *is* my MP, so little chance of my views being represented at all.

    • January 23, 2013 6:52 pm

      David, we don’t apply either a cognitive or economic interest test to people aged 18 and above.
      Re gerontocracy – this is a structural change in society, which the franchise should recognise.

      • David permalink
        January 26, 2013 3:44 pm

        But that is not a cohesive argument. If no test can be applied then why 16? Why not 14, the age at which a person can sign up to Facebook? One could equally argue that the same logic which says “I can do …. at 16, why can’t I vote?” would suggest *increasing* the age at which those other things can be done. No cigarette sales to under 18’s? Sounds like a good idea…

  9. Paul permalink
    January 24, 2013 12:10 am

    I would personally remain a stout fence-sitter at this point, and partially because I have seen no real, objective evidence adduced.

    Argument 1: 16 year-olds are mature enough to handle it. Well, what is maturity, or what is “mature enough” in this case? The flexibility of that question (and again I wouldn’t want either to agree or disagree that 16 year-olds are “mature enough”) for me makes it inadmissible as qualitative evidence.

    Argument 2: The young have much more information at the fingertips than ever before and can therefore make better judgements. While this is obviously true, the question for me is not the evidence at their fingertips, but the stability of their standpoints. Personal opinions on politics can change as much as they do on anything else in your younger years. People voting at 16 may find themselves regretting their choices, or perhaps the reasons and arguments for their choices in two or three years. A counter-argument might therefore be to look at the development of the brain and its choice-making processes (a topic on which I am utterly ignorant) in order to judge the right age at which to introduce voting.

    Argument 3: 16 year-olds already are able to engage in “adult society” in many ways, why not give them this one too? A counter question that may help to demonstrate the wobbly logic on which this rests might be something like: ‘Teenagers cannot vote until 18, so why should they be allowed to do all these other things at 16/17?’ Perhaps wobbly logic is the wrong phrase – too harsh – but the argument cuts both ways (again, not that I advocate increasing the age limits for particular or indeed any things as they stand).

    Argument 4: Old people are more likely to turn out and so we risk turning into a gerontocracy. This is certainly a valid and important point. However, introducing the vote to those over 16 is not the only solution, or indeed in any way in which I am aware the effective one. Another solution might be to attempt to incentivise more greatly all those who can already vote, targeting those in their 20s, say, in particular.

    Argument 5: Other countries do it, so we should too. This would only hold water if the other countries had qualitative evidence for their change in policy. I don’t honestly know whether they did or not.

  10. Mike Chappell permalink
    January 30, 2013 9:28 am

    I remember debating this with Cyril Smith in now deceased LibDem News years ago. I have always been in favour and unlike Stephen want candidates at 16 too. Let the public decide. However I have never seen the fuss ok a yearly local election vote is possible but only 40% maxof 16/17 year olds will be affected in a 5 Year General election cycle and say only 70% (Generous) of those vote that’s only about 30% 0f 16/17 year olds affected atiny fraction of the electorate but a big boost for those who want to get involved at that age.

  11. February 11, 2013 2:59 pm

    People get married at the age of 16 & we trust them to start a Family & hold down a job so
    I’m in favour of people ove 16 being given the Vote

  12. J Manson permalink
    April 3, 2013 9:11 am

    As MPs are representatives of their constituency, I’m interested to know whether the push for this came from the people of Bristol, and what level of post you got on it relative to other issues.

  13. February 14, 2015 4:45 pm

    Want to copy posts from other websites rewrite them in seconds and post on your site, or use for contextual backlinks?
    You can save a lot of writing work, just search in google:
    Daradess’s Rewriter


  1. House of Commons to debate “votes at 16”: MYPs have their say – find out how to have yours! « UK Youth Parliament
  2. LED Lighting News » Blog Archive » MPs debate voting at 16: Politics live blog
  3. “A new age for democracy – 16!” Historic Commons 2:1 vote to lower franchise: UKYP responds « UK Youth Parliament
  4. “A new age for democracy – 16!” Historic Commons 2:1 vote to lower franchise | Votes at 16
  5. The genie is now out of the bottle. It is time to trust all British 16 year olds with the franchise… writes Stephen Williams « Steve Beasant

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: