Sturgeon outlines ‘votes at 16’ referendum plans

NICOLA Sturgeon today said 16 and 17-year-olds are ready to “take responsibility for Scotland’s future”, as she set out plans to hand them the vote in next year’s independence referendum.

The franchise is to be lowered from 18 next year after the SNP Government demanded the change as part of the deal with the Coalition Government which brought about the historic vote.

The proposal is contained in a Scottish Government bill and comes ahead of a separate piece of legislation on the arrangements to hold the referendum itself, including the date, which is expected next week.

The Scottish Referendum (Franchise) Bill, published at Holyrood yesterday, paves the way for everyone aged 16 and above on the day of the referendum next Autumn to participate in the Scotland’s biggest decision for 300 years.

The Deputy First Minister visited James Gillespie High School in Edinburgh to meet pupils as she launched the bill.

“No-one has a bigger stake in the future of our country than today’s young people and it is only right that they are able to have a say in the most important vote to be held in Scotland for three centuries,” she said.

“In next year’s referendum, Scotland’s 16 and 17-year-olds will be given the opportunity to shape their country’s path by choosing what type of country they want Scotland to be.

“It is a straight choice. An independent country where we make the big decisions affecting our future here in Scotland or leave our destiny to be determined remotely. It is a choice about the type of country we want Scotland to be and I am confident that young people in Scotland will want to take responsibility for Scotland’s future.

“At 16, young people can marry, have children and pay taxes and it is therefore correct that they are given the right to vote on the future of the country in which they live. In modern Scotland, giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds is the right thing to do.”

The cost of extending the franchise will be about £358,000, with the referendum itself expected to cost about £10 million.

The legislation will give electoral registration officers the power to register those who will be 16 or over on the day of the vote. It will also provide safeguards to ensure that data is treated sensitively, after concerns about ensuring the right to privacy of under-18s in line with data protection laws. It emerged today that councils will compile a secret, one-off list of teenage voters to allow these to be registered without publicly revealing their identities.

There are about 120,000 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland, but figures last year showed that only 44,000 of Scotland’s were included in the 2012 local council electoral role.

The SNP had been hopeful that youngsters would be more pro-independence, but polling evidence does not indicate they are more disposed to voting yes than the rest of the population.

Former Tory leader Annabel Goldie questioned why the referendum is being “singled out” by the SNP to lower the franchise.

“The Scottish Conservatives are not hostile to debate on the different age limits for different activities but are not supportive of singling out the independence referendum for a trial extension of franchise to 16 and 17 year olds,” Miss Goldie said.

Labour’s Neil Bibby called for safeguards over the way that the issues over independence are brought before youngsters in the classroom by both sides of the debate.

“I’m also keen that our schools are given clear guidelines from the Electoral Commission about how the referendum is discussed and debated, to ensure that there is parity between both sides in the referendum in our classrooms,” he said.