Devolution could give 16 year-olds the vote in local elections for first time

David Kingman reports on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, in which an opposition amendment has been inserted that would give 16 year-olds the right to vote in local electionsVoting

The right to vote in local elections could be extended to people aged 16 to 18 for the first time in England and Wales, under an amendment which has been inserted in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill that is currently making its way through Parliament. Could this actually become the law?

Democratic devolution?

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is the main piece of enabling legislation that the government wishes to implement as part of its agenda of devolving more political powers to towns and cities in England. Its main purpose is to provide government with the power to delegate its responsibilities over issues such as transport and healthcare, and to create the necessary new devolved bodies which can take them on, for example the new elected mayor for Greater Manchester.

Democracy is emerging as one of the most contentious subjects in the debates surrounding the new bill. Given that a large part of the rationale for devolving powers to towns and cities is that enabling decisions to be taken locally is supposedly more democratic than handing down edicts from Westminster, the government’s critics have argued that the proposed bill won’t give local communities enough say over the type of devolution which they will receive.

A particular source of controversy has been the issue of elected mayors: the government is keen that devolved towns and cities should have an elected mayor who can act as a representative for their area and take ultimate responsibility for its governance, but the public seems ambivalent, as they showed when nine out of England’s ten largest city authorities voted against creating new directly elected mayors during referenda that were organised by the Coalition in 2012. There is a sense that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the so-called “Northern Powerhouse”, was required to accept having a mayor against the will of council leaders, a feeling that was strengthened by the rather ambiguous statement delivered by Chancellor George Osborne last May that “…with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils. I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

It has also been suggested that new governance arrangements which are proposed for devolved areas, such as creating new mayors, should be subject to local referenda, although the government argues that as devolution was part of its election manifesto it already has a sufficient mandate to press ahead without directly consulting the public again.

The point of all this is that, whatever form of devolution is eventually implemented in the various parts of the country where devolution deals have been proposed, local elections are likely to become significantly more important. This is why the amendment to lower the voting age in local elections to 16 that was inserted in to the bill during its passage through the House of Lords by Lord Tyler, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for political and constitutional reform, is so significant, as these elections are going to shape really important aspects of public service provision to a far greater extent than they do now.

Will it pass?

Despite being opposed by the Government, Lord Tyler’s amendment (Clause 20) was passed in the House of Lords by a margin of 221 votes to 154, which means it has been included in the version of the bill which has now progressed to the House of Commons for further debate.

The Government opposed the amendment on the grounds that this was too significant a constitutional change to include as a rider in a bill where it wasn’t the main issue, but they were outvoted nonetheless. Clause 20 could potentially run into opposition in the Commons, where the Conservatives have a majority (which they don’t in the Lords). If they reject the amendment then it could be re-introduced when the Bill is returned to the House of Lords during final part of the parliamentary process, although it would then have to survive the stage known as “Ping Pong” where the final version of a bill is batted back and forth between the two houses until they both reach a version they are willing to agree on.

In order to give Clause 20 the best possible chance of making into the version of the Bill that becomes law, everyone who believes in extending the franchise should encourage their local MP to support it.