Electoral watchdog to consider lowering voting age to 16

Radical plans to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 are to be considered by Britain's electoral watchdog as part of efforts to reduce the public's disenchantment with politics.

The Electoral Commission has confirmed to The Independent that it will review the issue this autumn, the first serious assessment of its kind. Crucially, John Denham, a Home Office minister, has also made clear the Government will take the commission's recommendations seriously.

At present, those aged 16 and 17 can legally fight for their country, have sex and pay taxes, but they cannot vote in local or general elections.

With voter apathy an increasing worry among politicians, and turn-out at the general election last year reaching a 70-year low, the idea of reducing the minimum voting age is seen by some ministers as an invaluable way of combating the problem.

A new lobby group, Votes at 16 Campaign, a powerful coalition of organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, the Children's Society, Barnardo's, the British Youth Council and the UK Youth Parliament, is preparing to launch to coincide with the beginning of the review.

The Electoral Commission revealed that its chairman, Sam Younger, had ordered the review with a view to presenting its findings as early as next year. "There will be a review of the voting age and it will start in the autumn,'' a spokesman said. With necessary legislation unlikely this parliament, the earliest the change could come into force would be a general election called in 2010 or 2011, although it could be tried in local elections before then.

The Liberal Democrats and the Greens have in the past backed lowering the age but until now Labour and the Conservatives have tended to avoid the issue. Some Labour MPs are keen on the idea, pointing out that it was Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1969 that last cut the voting age from 21 to 18.

Both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are coming under mounting pressure to introduce the reform. Campaigners were boosted last week when the Commission on Local Government Electoral Arrangements in Wales, an independent review set up by the Welsh cabinet, recommended lowering the age to 16.

Alex Folkes, of the Electoral Reform Society, said: "We are very glad that the Electoral Commission has said it will definitely be reviewing the voting age. We are confident that such an independent review will conclude that votes at 16 is the right way forward, just as the Welsh Commission did.

"Lowering the voting age will help to re-engage young people with democracy and ensure that their voice is heard. With the introduction of citizenship education in the national curriculum from five to 16, giving people the right to vote at the end of that period makes sense in terms of joined-up policy.''

Mr Younger and Mr Denham heard a succession of young people raise the issue as a barrier to their involvement in politics at a conference organised by the Government's Children and Young Persons Unit in London last week.

The conference, attended by Baroness Scotland of Asthal, a Lord Chancellor's Department minister, and Stephen Twigg, Education minister, coincided with the publication of the unit's report underlining teenage disenchantment with party politics.

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