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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Judith Duffy

16-year-olds 'more than capable' of being MSPs, Scottish Youth Parliament chair says

YOUNG people aged 16 and 17 are “more than capable” of being elected politicians – but would need support to work in an “extremely toxic” political environment, according to the chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament.

Proposals to lower the age for candidacy for Holyrood and councils from the current 18-years-old were outlined in a Scottish Government consultation on electoral reform last week.

Writing the introduction to the paper, Minister for Parliamentary Business George Adam acknowledged it would be seen as a “controversial proposal by some”.

However Sophie Reid, above, chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, argued that as 16-year-olds have the right to vote in Scotland, they should also be able to stand for office.

“I know so many young people that I’ve come across who are incredibly inspiring and their dedication to representing young people in Scotland, especially within the Scottish Youth Parliament,” she said.

“And I think that they would be more than capable of doing that as elected politicians.

“The unique perspectives that young people can bring to politics are much needed now more than ever, with major issues like education, mental health and the climate crisis, all impacting young people most.”

However Reid, who is 19, cautioned politics is an “extremely toxic” place at times and safeguards would have to be put in place.

She said she had been put off the idea of standing for office over the past couple of years after seeing particularly the difficult environment that women can face.

“Political parties would have to ensure that their internal processes and procedures were up to date and up to standard,” she said.

“I think there’s also a role of the public, social media and other media as well.”

She added: “If we put safeguards in place for young people, that would also help other groups as well, so women would also have an easier experience in politics – it doesn’t just help young people, it helps everyone.”

This issue is acknowledged in the consultation paper, which says enabling 16 and 17-year-olds to stand could raise potential wellbeing concerns, such as exposure of young people to intimidation such as hate speech.

The working hours of the Scottish Parliament and councils is also noted as a potential stumbling block, along with other concerns including the impact that holding office could have on a young person’s education.

Reid said that was a “fair point to make”, but she added: “Young people can leave school at 16 anyway, and there’s many different paths out of full-time education.

“And I think that leads into the ‘no wrong path’ campaigns, you don’t have to follow the traditional plan of going to school, then going to uni than getting a job, there’s other options out there, and I think that this would just become one of them.”

She added: “I think that it’s shown a willingness from the Scottish Government to actually give young people a seat at the table.

“And I think it shows decision makers are now starting to listen more to young people. But there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”

On the issue of having enough life experience, Reid said: “Young people are affected by so many different issues, so having their voice at the table is really important – just as we would say for women or ethnic minorities, there needs to be that broad range of voices there in the top decision-making roles.”

“I feel like you could say for anyone of any age, oh they’re not responsible. It’s about the individual.

“Sixteen-year-olds can marry, can vote, can join the army, so why shouldn’t they be able to stand?”

Chris McEleny (above) was a councillor from his mid-twenties for a decade and before entering politics he was involved in the trade union movement as a lay official of Unite, becoming the first ever young member on its national executive committee.

He said he has mixed views on the proposals, but ultimately thinks at the age of 16 a person does not have enough life experience to be able to fulfil the role well.

McEleny, who is now general secretary of the Alba party, said: “When I first entered politics I thought I was well prepared. I had been a shop steward of about 50 tradesmen.

“If you could sit across the table from employers to defend people’s jobs, represent workers in HR matters and negotiate pay I thought I could do the job of a councillor.

“But the reality is that when I became a councillor I realised there were literally thousands of services I had to make decisions on.

“At the age of 16, or 17, and to be honest even in my early twenties, it would have been very difficult to get a grasp of the huge complexities of local governments.”

McEleny said there was also the issue of credibility and being able to foster deals and relationships outwith council committees.

“I don’t think it would have been possible to build those relationships as a 16 year old,” he said.

“There’s also the point that elected office shouldn’t be seen as a career path,” McEleny added.

“If you’re elected at 16 or 17 then the likelihood is you won’t be able to serve an apprenticeship, if you go to further education you’ll not be able to do both your studies and your role as a councillor, or an MSP, justice.

“So we’d end up with a batch of people with no understanding of the world making decisions about people’s jobs, health, education, the environment and the economy.”

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