The Sketch: Save the children? Let's stop 16-year-olds from voting

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The Independent Online

It's wonderfully flexible, the ten-minute rule that governs the Ten Minute Rule Bill. Yesterday's Bill went for 37 minutes before being extinguished. The proposer tried to persuade us that 16-year-olds were informed, intelligent, mature and interested enough to vote. He must know some very odd 16-year-olds. I prefer Friedrich Hayek's suggestion: citizens should be allowed just one vote in their life, when they are 50.

But then none of us, even us 50-year-olds, knows enough to vote on anything. It's the problem of a modern democracy in a high-spending state. There's just too much to know. For instance, the Health Bill that went into its second reading yesterday. It contains legislation to reduce hospital- acquired infections. Which of us knows how much of a problem these infections are? How many deaths a year do they cause? Five thousand, you say? That's the official figure that's always been used by everyone from the Prime Minister down. Yet a report from the Select Committee in the summer revealed that the 5,000 deaths has been extrapolated from research in the 1980s. In America. Not in this century; not on this continent.

So we don't actually know the scale of the problem, nor do we know what to do to deal with it. Close down wards? But that would lengthen waiting lists. How would Patricia Hewitt prioritise those two targets? Superbug control vs access to health care.

She said she didn't know either. Knowledge doesn't help knowing. She said it wasn't acceptable to meet one target at the expense of the other and suggested without quite saying it, that it wasn't her job to obey the rules just to make them.

This regulatory hygiene regime hardly needs a full debate in the House of Commons. Especially when a huge and fundamental change like increasing the presence of private health providers in the NHS never gets a public debate at all. That gets fought over tooth and nail in smokefree rooms in Whitehall well away from public view.

Are 16-year-olds really competent to judge whether primary care trusts should be able to manage regional ophthalmolgic services? Incidentally, what's your view on that? That's a rhetorical question, by the way.

Then there's the smoking ban. I favoured no smoking in public, until I heard Patricia Hewitt commend it.

She told the House she had "struck the balance" between being "irresponsible" and "over-protective". She had done this by banning smoking in 99 per cent of public places. That's quite a balance. It would have happened without legislation, she said, but not quickly enough.

Photos on fag packets, that's what would bring rates down. Photographs of Patricia Hewitt smoking. That would stop 16-year-olds smoking. And voting, come to that.