Moves to allow younger people to get a vote sooner have been given new impetus by plans within the Welsh government. If they are approved, everyone from age 16 will be able to vote in local authority elections in Wales. It is empowering and fantastic news.
In Scotland younger people are already able to vote from age 16 in local and Scottish government elections. So now, within the corridors of Britain’s building societies, is it not time to ask the question: ‘Why should only older customers get to vote?’. I think it is.
Every single one of our country’s 44 remaining – and precious – building societies should be encouraging customers – so called members – to take up the voting habit. Each year every building society asks its ‘qualifying’ members – pretty much every customer – to vote at the annual general meeting. They can vote on a variety of issues: to elect directors, reappoint the society’s auditors and approve (or reject) the directors’ remuneration report. But in every case, any customer under the age of 18 is disenfranchised from this voting process.
Despite closely following building society annual general meetings over the years – and organising them when I worked in the industry – I have yet to hear a whisper from a director about reducing the minimum voting age to 16. To ignore this is frustrating, unimaginative and outdated.
A few years ago, before the Scottish Referendum which first gave young people the vote at 16, this empowerment of the young was on no one’s agenda. But it now should be. The time for change feels just right. Building societies, a vital competitive force in financial services, could demonstrate their difference once again and show they embrace the young. Be forward thinking and customer-centric.
Scotland has Scottish Building Society, the world’s oldest and headquartered in Edinburgh. It is a small society with only six branches but it is situated right at the heart of a country happy to empower everyone over age 16. In Wales Principality Building Society is thriving with headquarters in Cardiff. It has over fifty branches with some located just outside the Welsh border. It boasts more than half a million members which makes it the UK’s sixth largest society.
So should not the push for greater member democratisation be coming from these two societies? Should they not be marching to the tune of their governments? When I asked them this question neither said they had any immediate plans to change. The Building Societies Association, the industry’s trade body, also confirmed it had yet to discuss extending member voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds.
Change could come swiftly if building society directors swung behind the idea and got existing members to vote on it. But there is a problem. According to the industry’s trade associate, the Building Societies Act 1986 and the Family Law Reform Act of 1969 throw spanners in the works. The Family Law Act defines someone is a ‘minor’ under age 18 and the Building Societies Act is clear that a minor cannot currently vote, even though they can be deemed ‘members’. It seems to need MPs to change the definition of ‘minor’ in the Family Law Act in order for 16 and 17 year olds to get a building society vote. Given the current political environment where Brexit dominates and uncertainty rules, there is unlikely to be the time or inclination for MPs to get to grip with changing the Family Law Reform Act.
So it looks as if we are unlikely to see all 16 and 17 year olds be able to vote in building society elections anytime soon. But, with the moves underway in Wales and Scotland, maybe there is a way for Principality and Scottish Building Society to see if they can act to support the cause of votes for the young.
The rewards could be huge. Younger members, empowered by the vote, will become more engaged with their building societies from an earlier age. They will feel more involved and more valued. Crucially, they are also likely to remember, as they go through life, that it was their building society which was among the first to invite them to participate in real grown-up democratic elections.
My view is simple. Young building society members are already old enough to have their own savings and current accounts. So why not give them a building society vote.
Do you have a view? email email@example.com or just use the reply box below.