Julian Huppert MP writes: Under-18s must have the right to choose their future

Our constitution has many interesting anomalies, but to me one of the most obvious has always been the way we treat the ‘nearly-adults’ in our society. Our 16 and 17 year olds are subject to a whole set of rules that are thrown out of the window when they turn 18; similarly, they are unable to do a whole set of things that they are suddenly allowed to on that most auspicious day. We don’t let these nearly-adults vote, have credit cards or bind themselves into a credit agreement. They can, however, commit themselves to an extended period in the armed forces.

People will differ on how best to address these anomalies. Liberal Democrats have long advocated lowering the voting age to 16, and I wholeheartedly endorse that, especially since some 16 and 17 year olds are paying tax on their income. No taxation without representation! But while the campaign for that goes on, we should still be doing our best to empower under-18s and give them their own say on their futures by other means.

The Armed Forces Bill, which recently passed through the Commons, provided an ideal opportunity to do so. Under present law, although there is an understanding that young people, can ask their commanding officer for permission to leave the forces, it is not a statutory right, and we have no idea how many young people are discouraged or bullied out of even asking.

To me, the right to leave before the age of 18 is crucial if we are going to allow non-adults to serve in the armed forces. It is vital that they be protected in law if they should discover that life in the armed forces is not for them.

It was for this reason that I brought forward an amendment, supported by my Lib Dem colleague Tessa Munt MP, to put pressure on the government to enshrine the right for under-18s to leave in legislation. This proposal had already been made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I then served on, and I am also indebted to the Quakers in Britain and their excellent Parliamentary Liaison Secretary, Michael Bartlet, for their tireless efforts on this issue.

I was delighted when the government indicated in its response to the Joint Committee’s report on the Bill that it wanted to clarify the situation. On 19 May Andrew Robathan, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, wrote in a Ministerial Statement, that ‘…following a review of discharge policy I am pleased to announce that, for those under the age of 18, the ability to be discharged will in future be a right up to the age of 18, subject to an appropriate period of consideration or cooling off.’

This is a major victory for young people in our country, and something that Liberal Democrats can rightly be proud of. I hope that we can achieve similar progress in other areas, so that future generations are empowered to make their own choices.

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15 Comments

  • @Heresiarch – Certainly is strange. But, I trust, not a reason to deny the vote to the unenfranchised, the unemployed, the most dependent members of society.

  • Most Conservatives seem to favour people being allowed to vote whenever they start paying tax. Whether that be 16 or 21. People are still children until they enter the adult world and that world includes having to go to work.

  • Oh and Tessa Munt is my MP and seems unable to respond to her e-mails let alone accomplish legislation.

  • A voting age of 16 is just as arbitrary as one of 18. Perhaps the vote should be extended to all those who can grasp pen in fist and scrawl within a box. Babies and toddlers are the most dependent of all members of society, we should allow them their democratic say.

  • @g – absolutely. Glad we’re agreed. But I fear you were making one of those facetious and destructive comments that you occasionally do. I personally would have been able to vote in greater knowledge and competence aged 12 than many who are far, far older. It is a perfectly reasonable question, but it is too unpalatable for most at the moment, so we must instead settle for 16 as a better arbitrary age than 18. (You missed the point on dependent altogether I think.)

  • Henry, perhaps we should give the vote to those that are competent, regardless of age? We could introduce a mandatory test.

  • @g
    And ‘competent’ means what, exactly? IQ threshold? Knowledge of current events? Able to name the Prime Minister? Able to name their local MP (that’s a hefty chunk of the voting population disqualified!)?

    I’m not really bothered whether the age of adulthood is 16 or 18, but it should at least be consistent. You can’t be mentally competent to join the army and raise a child whilst simultaneously being incompetent to have a valid political opinion. Either raise age of consent / army-joining to 18 or lower the drinking and voting age to 16. And the driving age is still 17, so 16-year-olds can wield a gun but not drive a car. It’s a mess.

    Perhaps we should just compromise and make the age of majority 17 for everything.

  • Catherine, I have no idea what competent would mean, but Henry does, because at 12 he was competent enough to vote, more so than “many who are far, far older”.

    I agree completely with your comment anyway.

  • @g – heh, sorry didn’t follow the thread properly 🙂

  • My personal opinion is that the age that one becomes an adult should be ‘levelled’. Not sure if it should be 16, 17 or 18, but should be one age. It is a fact that young people grow up quicker than they used to though. It does seem somewhat out-of-date that you can drive a car at 17, but not buy a beer. You can buy a lottery ticket at 16, but not bet in a bookies before 18. You can join the army at 17 (I believe) but not buy a stanley knife. You can have sex at 16 and start a family, but not look at an adult magazine. (I’m NOT suggesting this should be reduced to 16, but the point is the same). We need one age for all of these things. That’s a common sense approach.

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Jun '11 - 11:52pm

    “It is a fact that young people grow up quicker than they used to though.

    No it isn’t.

  • ‘g’ – I was, perhaps a little obscurely, pointing out that notions of competence are invariably false/difficult-to-define/understand in this context (as they are surely, at the age of 12, only based on my perception). I was therefore not – as perhaps was mis-understood – claiming to know what competence is.

    Setting any age-limit at all comes with a notion of an age at which you are judged to be competent or responsible by the state and that is ultimately what is at stake here.

    So I think we will both agree with Catherine on that one! 🙂

  • Malcolm Todd 24th Jun '11 - 11:55am

    I think Ian’s comment is the most sensible yet on this subject. I’ve never been convinced by this idea that the law should consider everybody to be a child in all respects one day and an adult in all respects the next. It’s entirely reasonable that one should acquire the rights and responsibilities of adulthood gradually over a period of a few years rather than all in one lump, overnight.
    Of course, in some sort of ideal, platonic society you wouldn’t have more or less arbitrary ages for anything – voting, military service, driving, sex, criminal responsibility — they would all come to you when you were individually mature enough, as judged by your community, your peers, your parents, yourself … But such a society is impossible to construct and utterly unlike what we’ve actually got — since the law has to work in a more objective fashion, a series of ages of responsibility for different areas of adult life is the best way of approximating the ideal.

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