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Call 5: 16 and 17 year olds must be able to vote in all UK polls. Brexit proves this is a civil rights issue

By Jackie Brock

Will it be a Blind Brexit? Norway plus? Boris minus? Or are we due a People's Vote? Whatever we end up with, the distinguishing feature in public and media discourse on EU withdrawal remains the same: young people barely get a mention.

As we hurtle towards B-day the UK Government has been busy issuing ‘technical notices’ which gently imply crashing out of the EU could constitute a once-in-a-generation economic and social disaster. Given this risk, we think it might have been sensible and politically courageous to a) introduce legislation so young people across the UK could be involved in a decision with consequences that will impact them most, and b) set up a formal structure so they could influence government, negotiations with the EU, and the Brexit outcome.

Of course, neither happened. But the toxic effect of Brexit on our collective sense of security feels real and makes our call more urgent: 16- and 17-year-olds must be able to vote in all UK elections and referendums. The Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill, much postponed but due to be considered again at Westminster in late November, seeks to reduce the voting age to 16 in all parliamentary and other elections.

Why support it, and this call? Because evidence tells us that voting early lays down a lifelong pathway of political participation (research from Elias Dinas of Oxford University is just one example). Because political parties should be compelled to design policies for young and old. But most of all because of what the Brexit experience tells us about a failure in democracy.

Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament Jack Norquoy expresses the problem well. He tells us: “We find ourselves in the absurd situation where if you are a 16-year-old living in Dumfries you hold the right to vote in all Scottish and local elections — but if you are 16 and live 30 miles down the road in Carlisle you hold no such right. It is a glaring constitutional and rights injustice that millions of 16- and 17-year-olds are denied the right to vote in UK elections and referendums. Voting should not be a postcode lottery. It is a civil rights issue.”

In January the Scottish Youth Parliament launched its Brexit Manifesto ‘Rights Outright’, calling on all UK and Scottish decision-makers to defend the rights of young people as part of the Brexit negotiations. It sits alongside Children in Scotland’s and Together’s (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights) efforts to learn from young people on Brexit. In June we established a children and young people’s Panel on Europe to provide advice on EU withdrawal to the Scottish Government.

Our participation work on Brexit is not about being pro- or anti-. It’s about what is in the best interests of children and young people. And we know not all share the view that leaving the EU is an act of self-harm. One young person told the youth-led My Life My Say (MLMS) movement of their hopes that it would be "an opportunity for this country to get rid of some regional inequalities … and rebalance the economy”.

But other voices across the UK point to what exclusion from the Brexit process feels like, having once been promised to be listened to. Also speaking to MLMS, a young person from Carmarthenshire in Wales said: “We are always used as ammunition. Every government, every political campaign says that their policies will make young people happier and give them a better life, but as soon as young people actually speak up and respond to that in any way then we are just shut out.”

Evidence on where the majority of young people’s views lie seems clear. In August, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University reported that, taking an average of three recent UK-wide polls, 82 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds with a voting preference said they would vote Remain in a second referendum.

Political parties often think they lead on social change, not the public. Actually, it’s the other way round. Young people and those advocating for them will drive voting reform.

We want that to come as soon as possible. Because, as one of our members put it when asked about Brexit’s impact, ultimately “the ballot box is all that counts”.

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Children in Scotland. This is an updated version of her article published in the 25 Calls edition (October-November 2018) edition of Children in Scotland magazine.

Follow #25Calls to see which organisations have endorsed this call.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child noted increasing calls from children and young people to lower the voting age to 16 years old and recommended that the UK and devolved governments consult with children and young people on the issue.

25 Calls

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Children and Young People's Panel on Europe

Find out more about this group of children and young people who are working with Scottish Government

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Scottish Youth Parliament

Find out more about the Scottish Youth Parliament, the democratically elected voice of Scotland's young people

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Linked legislation

The Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill

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Find out more about this alliance of Scottish children's charities working to improve awarenessof the UNCRC

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