The Wales Bill and the vote for 16 year olds

voting, election, 16 year old, Wales, politics, Alex Veeneman, Kettle Mag
Written by Alex Veeneman

On 11 November, an amendment in the Wales Bill, the bill currently in Parliament to devolve powers to Wales, was included to allow the Welsh government the ability to set the age limit for a vote in a referendum on tax, should one be called by the Welsh Assembly.

The amendment was tabled in the House of Lords by Lord Dafydd Wigley and Lord Dafydd Ellis-Thomas of Plaid Cymru, and had been confirmed by the Wales Office minister, Baroness Randerson. This could allow 16 year olds to vote in the referendum if it is called, a move inspired by the independence referendum in Scotland held in September, where 16 year olds could vote.

In the debate, Lord Wigley said the ability for 16 year olds to vote was a long held position of his party, and opened up democracy for a new generation.

“As might be expected, this amendment was drawn up partly in response to the decision of the Scottish government to empower 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the September referendum, as well as the outstanding take up of that right,” Wigley said according to a report from the Wales Online web site. “Whatever people’s politics, I hope that I would be correct in asserting that the decision to allow those aged 16 and over to vote in that plebiscite was commendable, and opened up democracy for a new generation.”

The move was also supported by other members of the Lords, including the Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard.

An Assembly matter

The amendment was supported by Wales’ main political leaders, First Minister Carwyn Jones, Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood.

In a letter to Baroness Randerson, Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb and Parliamentary Under Secretary Alun Cairns, the leaders wrote that action was necessary to tackle the lack of youth voting turnout, citing statistics indicating that 49 per cent of 16-17 year olds are absent from voting registers in the UK, and the turnout of 18-24 year old voters at the last Welsh Assembly election was only 35 per cent.

“We are committed to improving young people’s democratic education and engaging them in the work of democracy in Wales,” the leaders wrote. “However, whilst education is of course a devolved and inter-linked matter, power lies with the UK Parliament to bring about the meaningful and long-lasting changes to Wales’ electoral administration processes that our nation clearly needs.”

Crabb however said that the matter of what age limit the voting should be is a matter for the Assembly.

“I know that there are strongly held views on allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in a referendum but I have listened to the views in the House of Lords and decided that this is a matter on which the Assembly should decide,” Crabb said according to Wales Online. “The Assembly has the power to call an income tax referendum – and it is right that they decide the age of those who can vote on this issue.”

In a separate letter to the UK Government, the Welsh Assembly’s presiding officer, Dame Rosemary Butler, said the Assembly should set the age limit.

Debating the voting age

The voting age limit for the General Election and Assembly elections however is to stay at 18, the report adds.

While it is unclear when a referendum on tax is to be held, the amendment has raised again the debate on the age limit on voting.

In a statement, Steve Brooks, director of Electoral Reform Society Cymru, said the move to reduce the voting age to 16 was essential, and such a move should be extended to all elections, including the General Election.

“This change should be one further step toward extending the franchise across all UK elections,” Brooks said. “With Scotland having already extended the franchise to younger citizens in the recent referendum and overwhelming votes in favour at the National Assembly for Wales, it is time for Westminster to catch up.”


In a telephone interview, Jess Blair, an analyst with the Institute of Welsh Affairs think tank, says there were a lot of questions raised, and the movement only from Westminster appeared to be on this amendment to allow votes on the referendum. It is unclear if this would signal a move to lower the voting age UK wide.

“I don’t know if the UK government will reduce it,” Blair said.

Blair added that while 16 and 17 year olds could make very important decisions, especially considering the events in Scotland, the issue of tax may see a decline in turnout amongst youth merely because of the subject, in comparison to the independence referendum.

“The tax referendum is not a clear cut referendum,” Blair said. “Income tax is difficult question for those who aren’t paying income tax and aren’t aware of the implications.”

On the whole however, Blair says the issue of the age limit on voting is still up for debate. The Wales Bill passed a third reading in the Lords last week, and has been sent to the Commons for further consideration.

What do you think? Should 16 year olds be able to have a vote on this referendum? Should the voting age be lowered UK wide? Have your say in the comments section below.