The SNP started it with a referendum on Scottish independence, Labour have joined in with an election pledge and now the coalition government has jumped aboard the teenage franchise bandwagon by allowing an amendment to the Wales Bill which would see Welsh 16 and 17 year-olds vote in a future referendum on devolving income tax powers for the Welsh Government.
The arguments for lowering the voting age are so puerile that they would frankly embarrass, well, a 16 year-old. Campaigners tend to trot out the following: That 16 year-olds can “fight and die for the country” (stated amongst others by former Labour MEP now Baroness Morgan), that they can pay taxes, get married, and “sleep with their MPs but not vote for them” – an argument memorably put forward on the floor of the House of Commons by someone from the Youth Parliament.
Yes you can join the army at 16 as a junior soldier, although only with parental permission. You cannot under any circumstances be put into a war zone and asked to fight and die for your country until you are 18. This is a matter of international, as well as national law. It is also prominently stated on the army website – something that campaigners have never bothered to check.
Taxes? You can pay them at any age at all if you earn the money. Scions of the very wealthy with trust funds, teenage stars or actors will pay them well before reaching 16. If eligibility to pay tax is a qualification for the vote then it won’t be long before MPs have to start canvassing toddlers. If the likelihood of paying taxes is the criterion, then 18 is still generous. According to a recent parliamentary question, less than four per cent of 16 to 18 year-olds actually earn enough to pay income tax.
This leaves us with sex and marriage. 16 year-olds may be able to have sex with anyone but anyone can’t have sex with 16 year-olds. Those with a duty of care to young people, teachers, youth workers and presumably MPs would be breaking the law if they have sex with someone under the age of 18 because the law recognises that 16 to 18 year-olds could be vulnerable to predatory behavior.
Marriage, like the army, cannot be done without parental permission before the age of 18. But the last Labour government raised the age at which you can bring a spouse into the country from outside the EU to 21. They did so because evidence suggests that every year large numbers of teenage girls from certain Asian communities are taken abroad and forced into marriage.
Sadly, following a legal challenge, the Supreme Court struck down the law and reversed the age for marrying foreign spouses back to 18. This should ring alarm bells for campaigners seeking to reduce the voting age. By doing so they will strengthen the argument that adulthood begins at 16 and open up a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences.
How long will it take for an aggrieved parent to demand that his 16 year-old should be able to marry a foreign national whom she has never met? How long before a teacher convicted of sleeping with a 16 year-old pupil takes a case to the Supreme Court arguing that the pupil was legally an adult?
There will certainly be plenty of newsagents who will wonder why MPs can believe that 16 year-olds are old enough to be given the vote but not old enough to be sold cigarettes or fireworks.
I have spent nine years working as a Special Constable in London and dealt with numerous juveniles who are afforded protections that would never be extended to an adult.
A 16 year-old I found begging in a station was taken in, given a cup of tea and some food, then reunited with her parents. An 18 year-old would simply have been asked to leave. I once arrested a 16 year-old who was carrying a gun. He was not imprisoned because of his age. Another teenager under arrest was not locked in a cell or handcuffed because of her age, enabling her to attack myself and various other officers. No action was taken. 16 and 17 year-olds who are arrested cannot be interviewed without an adult present and if they are convicted, will be treated far more leniently than an 18 year-old.
But despite the irritation it has caused me, I am glad the law gives extra protection to 16 and 17 year-olds who are on the brink of adulthood and I despise the hypocrisy of those who want to lower the franchise. On voting rights, they describe 16 year-olds as “adults”. On justice matters, the same people describe 16 year-olds as “children” deserving of even more leniency than they already get.
There are many 16 year-olds who would be more than capable of making an informed decision about who to vote for but we cannot legislate for individuals. Instead, we enable 16 to 18 year-olds to ease into the responsibilities which at 18, with the right to vote, they have to accept in full. Lowering the franchise would not undermine democracy but it would undermine the protections which we currently give to 16 and 17 year-olds. It is time for supporters to grow up!