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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 07:05 GMT 08:05 UK
First time voter packs mooted
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff

Polling station
Only one in five first time voters turned out in 2001
First time voters would receive special packs to help them understand how the UK's political system works under new proposals.

Conservative shadow minister for young people Charles Hendry has come up with the idea, which he wants trialled in two very different council areas.

Mr Hendry told BBC News Online that voting watchdog the Electoral Commission supported the plan "in principle".

He said the packs should be part of efforts by politicians of all parties to show why young people should want to vote.

"The pack would have an explanation, trying to be as lively as possible, about what each level of government does," said Mr Hendry.

People were being put off voting partly by confusion over the different roles of councillors, MPs and MEPs, he suggested.

There is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about who does what
Charles Hendry
Tory frontbencher

"There is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about who does what," he went on.

The packs could contain case studies with details about how different types of politicians could help voters campaigning on a local issue.

There would be details too of how to contact the political parties, but the pamphlets would not be party political.

Youth test

Mr Hendry is asking rural Wealden Council in East Sussex and Lambeth Council in London if they would pilot the idea.

Commercial sponsorship could help finance the scheme, he said.

With only one in five first time voters turning out at the last general election, engaging the youth vote is seen as a major challenge for the political process.

We as politicians have an important role to play in actively going out and seeking the views of young people
Stephen Twigg
Schools Minister
Mr Hendry and Schools Minister Stephen Twigg met up with young voters, including members of Britain's Youth Parliament, on Tuesday to discuss how citizenship lessons were getting them interested in politics.

At the Hansard Society event, the Tory MP argued relying only on citizenship classes would let the politicians off the hook.

"We have to persuade you that what we are doing is worthwhile and worth your interest," he added.

Mr Twigg said he did not think young people were apathetic but instead they did question the value of the formal political process.

The best citizenship lessons gave pupils the chance to get involved in debate, he said.

Rights information

The minister said he wanted all secondary schools and many primary schools also to have their own student councils, although he did not want to enforce this by law.

"We as politicians have an important role to play in actively going out and seeking the views of young people," he said.

Several of the young voters speaking at the forum pushed for school pupils to be given more information about young people's rights.

And they asked whether Ofsted inspections of the citizenship classes would take such concerns into account.

Mr Twigg said the rights issue was one which the government would look at in more depth.

Real listening

Raji Hunjan, director of the Hansard Society's citizenship education programme, said young people should be taken seriously on their own terms and language.

"It is not just about young people learning to speak like adults," she said. "It's about politicians being able to listen to what you are saying and get past the grammar and the text message slang."

She warned there had to be action before a "monster" emerged of a frustrated group of young people who could not vote and did not feel people were listening to them.

One Cambridgeshire schoolgirl who organised a walk-out protest against the Iraq war told how her school had said the conflict was "too political" to be discussed in classes.

Later, Alison Goldsworthy, who chairs Liberal Democrat Youth and Students, said the first time voter packs would be a welcome step but action was needed.

"Giving the vote to those at sixteen would show a real commitment to listening to the views of young people and equalising the minimum wage for young workers would show that the government valued them as an equal part of society," she said.

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