In next month’s Scottish Referendum, 16 and 17-year-olds living in Scotland will get to vote. Photo: Getty
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Why 16 year olds should get the vote

At the age of 16 a British citizen can legally have sex, get married, join the army, smoke, leave home, claim benefits, and contribute to the public purse through taxes – but vote in a general election? Not yet.

Here’s a stark statistic for anyone interested in British politics: the three lowest post-war electoral turnouts in the UK occurred in the last three general elections – in 2001, 2005 and 2010. Less than two thirds of those entitled to vote went to the polls at the last UK general election, a slight improvement on the previous two elections – but, compared to 1950, almost 20 per cent fewer eligible voters exercised this hard-won right. Dwindling electoral turnout is not something a democratic country should overlook. The mandate of the government comes from the collective will of the people. But despite this, there are over 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK who are not legally entitled to have their say. By contrast, in next month’s Scottish Referendum 16 and 17-year-olds living in Scotland will get to vote on whether Scotland remains part of the UK, yet at next year’s general election, the same age group across the UK will have to watch passively while older citizens go to the ballot box.

It’s true that turnout in recent general elections has been poor amongst younger voters. Under 40 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted in 2001 and 2005 and, despite the close race in 2010, the youth vote only increased to 44 per cent – seven percentage points lower than in 1997. But this is no reason to continue to deny the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. Quite the opposite; extending the franchise to this age group would create an excellent opportunity to increase youth interest and participation in mainstream and especially electoral politics. Research suggests that politically literate citizens are more likely to participate in democracy, and schools and colleges play a key role in preparing young people for democratic life. Giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds would therefore help re-focus citizenship education lessons that were introduced by Labour in 2002 and which, despite being revised and slimmed-down by the current coalition government, continue to contain an important political participative dimension.

Preventing people from voting until they are 18 means that many citizens, in practice, do not get a chance to vote in general elections until they are well into their 20s. Whilst there is much to be said in favour of the Fixed-term Parliament Act introduced in 2011, one consequence of ensuring that general elections will not be held more frequently than once every five years (except where a vote of no confidence in the government is passed or where two-thirds of MPs support the holding of a general election) is that even more young people will be negatively affected in this way. This is extremely unfortunate given that the evidence suggests that unless young people acquire the habit of voting at an early stage they will carry on failing to vote as they get older. Of course, lowering the voting age to 16 would not be a panacea to youth disengagement from electoral politics specifically or mainstream politics in general. A range of additional measures are required, such as those set out in the report Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission published by the Political Studies Association earlier this year, including the formation of a standing Commission on Education for Citizenship to monitor provision in schools and colleges in England; compulsory electoral registration in schools and colleges across the UK; and the establishment of compulsory annual MP and local councillor constituency surgeries and political party policy forums aimed at young people to be held in local schools, colleges and community centres.

Young people have been marginalised in public policy in recent years and votes at 16 would help address this. They have borne the brunt of austerity measures, such as increased university tuition fees and the closure of youth centres, introduced since the onset of the global financial crisis. Despite this, research has demonstrated that young people are not apathetic – they are interested in “politics”, broadly defined, have their own views and engage in ways they feel are appropriate to their everyday lives. However, whilst alternative forms of democratic engagement, such as consumer politics, community campaigns, and the use of online technology are very important modes of political participation, the disengagement of significant numbers of young people from formal politics has very negative consequences for representative British democracy that must be tackled.

The likelihood of votes at 16 is increasing. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats made clear their commitment to this policy in their general manifesto and Labour leader Ed Miliband announced his support last year in his party conference speech in Brighton. The inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds in the referendum on Scotland’s independence will add to this pressure. The referendum is offering the next generation of Scottish workers, parents, educators, and even political leaders, the chance to have an impact on a decision which will shape their future. It’s time that more young people across the UK have the chance to do this in all elections. An inclusive conception of citizenship demands that the viewpoints of young people must be heard. If the political establishment are serious about listening to their views then across the political spectrum they should commit to lowering the voting age to 16.

Dr Ben Kisby is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln, UK, and an active member of the Political Studies Association. He is organising a PSA-funded event on young people’s politics on 5 September 2014 at the University of Lincoln, which is open to anyone who would like to come along. For more information and to register to attend please email: bkisby[at]lincoln[dot]ac[dot]uk. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the PSA.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.