Pat McFadden's speech in response to EU Referendum Bill

I rise to oppose the Government’s proposal to reject Lords amendment 1 and to support the amendment passed by their lordships which extends the franchise for the European referendum to 16 and 17-year-olds.

There is an ongoing, more general debate about franchise extension, but today I want to concentrate on the case for extending the franchise to younger voters for this particular referendum. Constitutional referendums are not like general elections, which come about every five years, or local elections, which come about every year. It is 40 years since this issue was voted on in this country. Major constitutional referendums are a once-in-a-generation choice, perhaps a once in a lifetime choice, about the country’s future direction. Our contention is very simple: it is that the young people of this country deserve a say in the decision that will chart our country’s future.

There are basically two points to be made: the argument for young people to have a vote, and the practicalities of implementing that decision.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): Why did the right hon. Gentleman’s party not choose to move this amendment before their lordships decided to impose it on us?

Mr McFadden: We moved it both in Committee and on Report, so I think that the hon. Lady’s memory fails her on this occasion.

On the first point about younger people having the vote, every British citizen, by virtue of the passport that they hold, has the right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) said, to live, work and study anywhere in the European Union.

That right has opened up opportunities for millions, and it is used by the many British people who live and work elsewhere in the European Union. Those driving the argument that the UK should leave the EU have at the heart of their proposal the idea that the free movement of people should be stopped and withdrawn. Whatever they are for—it is often not easy to figure that out—they are certainly against that. However, if we do withdraw and go down that road, then reciprocal action will be taken against British citizens. Therefore, the rights, opportunities and futures of our young people are on the ballot paper.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): In my constituency, people aged 15, 16 and 17 are telling me that they will vote in the next general election, that it is very important to them whether we are in or out of Europe, and that they want this vote because it determines their future. Next door in Gower, where the majority is only 27 votes, people are telling me that if their MP does not vote for them to have a vote, they will vote against him, so this will have a far-reaching impact on the general election as well.

Mr McFadden: I entirely agree that young people have an interest in this issue, for the reasons I have been setting out.

The argument is not only about the legal rights that we hold. This referendum, one way or another, will affect future trade patterns in our country. It will have an impact on investment, on funding for our universities, on our farmers, on regional spending, and on very many other areas of national life. It will say a huge amount about how we view ourselves and how the rest of the world views us. This is very much about the United Kingdom’s future, and we believe that young people, including young people aged 16 and 17 at the time of voting, should have a say in that future.

Then there is the question of practicalities. We already know from the experience of last year’s referendum on Scottish independence that 16 and 17-year-olds can successfully take part in a national poll. Young people there were able to engage in discussion and debate and to exercise their democratic choice in the same way as anyone else. Arguments about their lack of capacity to understand or engage were proven not to be the case. The post-referendum report by the Electoral Commission said:

“109,593 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland were registered to vote at the referendum and 75% of those surveyed after the poll said they had voted.”

Importantly, it continued:

“97% of those 16-17 year olds who reported having voted said that they would vote again in future elections and referendums.”

So we know that young people can take part and that, given the chance, many of them will do so; the issue is whether the Government will give them that chance.

This should not be a partisan choice. There is nothing intrinsically Conservative, Labour or nationalist about extending the franchise. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives has described herself as a “fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”.

Some Conservative Members, as far as I recall, supported this proposal when we debated it in Committee and on Report, yet Ministers are still standing in the way.

The Government have said that extending the franchise in this way will cost £6 million, which has been enough to define the proposal as engaging the financial privileges of this House. But of course Ministers could ask this House to waive our privileges and accept the amendment. That is what has happened many times in the past when the Government have supported amendments. It could also happen now, and it is a course of action that we would support. In the end, this is not about the proposal being unaffordable; it is about the Government not wanting to do it. According to the autumn statement, total public spending in the next financial year is estimated to be £773 billion pounds—£773,000 million pounds, and the Government want to deny young people a vote for the sake of six of them. They would not even have to spend that amount every year; after all, this is a once-in-a-generation choice.

Let us be clear what this is about. Let us not make a constitutional crisis over a small amount of money or use an argument about what is, in the end, a straightforward policy choice in the Government’s wider campaign to neuter the House of Lords. The issue is this: do we believe that 16 and 17-year-olds should have the vote in this referendum because they have a right to have a say in the future direction of our country? We do, and that is why we support the amendment that was added by their lordships and will vote for it when the House divides.

 

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