PARLIAMENT "should not continue to withhold the vote from the best educated generation of young people", a Lib Dem MP said today as MPs from across the parties spoke in favour of reducing the voting age to 16.
Stephen Williams (Bristol West) said there was widespread support among Parliamentarians and youth charities to extend the franchise to 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds.
The Liberal Democrats promised the change in their 2010 election campaign and the Labour manifesto pledged to give MPs a free vote on extending the franchise to 16-year-olds, but it did not appear in the Coalition Agreement.
The curriculum, he said, had changed markedly over the last decade, while the introduction of PHSE (Personal, Social and Health Education) and citizenship had "transformed the knowledge of young people about our democratic processes".
He said: "This generation of young people have had all the educational opportunities to understand the democratic system, yet we continue to withhold from them the opportunity to put that knowledge into practice. We should not continue to withhold the vote from the best educated generation of young people."
He added: "I believe that 16 and 17-year-olds have sufficient maturity and sufficient knowledge in order to cast a vote if they want to. We don’t have compulsory voting in this country so we would simply be affording the opportunity for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote if they wished... We do not have an electoral competence test for people aged 18 and above so I do not think we should apply it to people age 16 and 17 either. "
Making the change, he argued, would also rebalance the changing demographics of the franchise, adding: "Surely the act of bringing another human being into the world is much more fundamental than the opportunity to vote and if we think young people are capable of being good parents at the ages of 16 and 17, surely they can have the right to go and vote."
Huddersfield Labour MP Barry Sheerman said he had changed his mind on votes at 16 - and was now against.
He said: "We live in a country where childhood is being truncated, where it is being squeezed all the time.
"We now live much longer. As a percentage of life, childhood is a very, very brief period. I want to celebrate childhood.
"I personally believe we should not squeeze childhood. It’s being squeezed inexorably."
Green MP Dr Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion), a co-sponsor of the motion said lowering the voter age would boost voter turnout.
The backbench motion calls for 16-year-olds to be given the vote in all elections and referenda. If MPs back the call it will not bind the Government, but will increase pressure on ministers to act.
Scottish 16-year-olds are set to be allowed to vote in the referendum on independence and Mr Williams said other countries had also given the vote to citizens at that age.
But some MPs voiced reservations at the plans.
Tory Philip Davis (Shipley) pointed out the age at which teenagers could be sold cigarettes had now been increased to 18. He said: "If people aren’t capable as he sees and this House sees of making the decision as to whether or not to smoke at the age of 16 when why does he think they are capable of deciding which party should be in Government at the age of 16?"
Conservative Robert Halfon (Harlow) said the age for adulthood was a "mess in so many areas", with teenagers being able to buy a drink, drive and purchase cigarettes at different ages.
"Surely the answer is not just looking at what age the voting age should be, but actually to tidy up the law and equalise the age of adulthood for everything?"
Mr Williams said he did not agree, adding: "I don’t think there is an absolute age where young people acquire the rights and responsibilities for every single facet of their young life. I think it is appropriate to have different ages."
The last division on the issue, he said, took place in 2005 and it was lost by eight votes.
He added: "But I do think the mood of the House has now changed, the mood of the country has now changed and I think it is worthwhile making another attempt."