The voting age should be lowered to 14 and families given ‘baby ballots’ to give children a bigger political voice. This is the key recommendation of a new report from Demos called Other People’s Children.
Baby ballots would introduce a family weighting to the electoral system, and encourage parents or guardians to think in more detail about how different political parties would serve the interests of all children.
Although political parties often talk about ‘the family’, this rhetoric does not necessarily translate into child-friendly policies. Examples of the failure to protect children’s interests include the sale of playing fields to developers and the fact that child carers often earn less than supermarket shelf-stackers.
The Demos report shows that while children now have more say in family life, they are becoming the ‘invisible citizens’ of public life. The relationship between the child and public life is increasingly based on formal contracts between adults, whereas children’s quality of life is enhanced through informal, flexible links to their local community.
“Every parent tries to do the best for their children, but there are limits to how much the family can do without good public services and community support,” says Gillian Thomas, co-author of Other People’s Children. “Baby ballots would encourage parents to think about what political parties can offer their own children, and also to other people’s children. This would force politicians to make children’s quality of life a higher priority.”
Exaggerated fears about child safety have also led parents to exert more control over their children’s lives. A good example is the school run, which in part stems from fears about children walking to school or using public transport. However the school run contributes to the increase in traffic which worried parents in the first place. The end result is that children’s quality of life is reduced by air pollution and lack of childhood freedoms.
“The middle classes are in retreat from public services and public life generally,” says Gillian Thomas. “We are getting to a stage where children are neither seen nor heard in public, and it’s a vicious circle. The more children disappear from public life into a privatised world, the more affluent parents will resort to private services to run their children’s lives.
“This a worrying trend because we are creating a two-tier society where parents become disconnected from people without children. This can only increase the lack of interest and responsibility that adults feel towards all children. Unless we accept that we should all be concerned about other people’s children, it will be difficult to improve their quality of life.”
The fact that parents have perpetuated this privatisation of childhood offers politicians few incentives to make children’s quality of life a policy priority. And as the proportion of children in an ageing society drops and the number of childless adults increases, Demos predicts that the pressure for child-friendly policies will fall further.
The authors argue that direct political empowerment would improve the quality of children’s lives more effectively than introducing a bill of rights for the child. Children’s rights need to be legally upheld, which continues dependence on the adult world. Direct empowerment by extending the franchise would produce more independence for children.
Baby ballots would be issued at birth, and exercised on behalf of children by parents or guardians. Parents would be encouraged to cast their extra votes after family discussion, and to think explicitly about the child’s interests. Lowering the voting age to 14 would fit in with the government’s policy of creating ‘pathways’ to adulthood. According to the 2001 census, these measures would create 3 million new voters and 10 million baby ballots.
Other recommendations aimed at improving the quality of life for all children include:
- Giving schools additional responsibility for improving quality of life as well as educating students, and linking new funding to measures of success;
- Avoiding the bureaucracy of the proposed children’s rights commissioner by giving the new Equalities Commission responsibility for preventing child discrimination;
- Appointing a ‘national play leader’ to oversee a coordinated play strategy linked to health and education;
- Introducing ‘generational accounting’ at the Treasury which would show the impact of government policies on different age groups;
Notes to editors
- Other People’s Children: Why their quality of life is our concern is published by Demos on 6 February 2003. Gillian Thomas is a researcher at Demos; co-author Gina Hocking is a former head of poverty analysis at HM Treasury.
- The research project was funded jointly by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch and the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust.
- Other People’s Children continues a long-standing Demos interest in children and families, and in particular develops some of the ideas contained in the Demos pamphlet The Family in Question (1998).