The age of reason

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
September 01, 2010, 9:53 PM GMT+0

The British public generally agrees with existing UK laws about the ages at which you can smoke, drink, vote, have sex, join the army or be sent to prison, but a significant minority is inclined to be more conservative than the current laws would suggest, feeling that certain activities should be restricted until 21 or even 25, our poll has found.

Eighteen’s all right

The age of 18 ‒ the most common age at which many hitherto proscribed activities become legal in the UK ‒ receives the most support among the public, with 53% apiece believing that the purchasing of cigarettes and alcohol should become legal at this point. 60% agree that 18 should be the age at which people can vote; 39% (the most significant minority) think the same about the watching of pornography, 51% about the entrance to a strip club, while 45% agree with the current law that people should not be able to get a tattoo before the age of 18.

Higher and lower limits

However, 18 is also a popular age for many activities whose age ‘limits’ are actually currently set higher or lower. While nearly 1 in 6 (15%) agrees that 17 should be the legal driving age (which it is), nearly half (47%) think that it should be higher, at 18. A cautious 22% think it should be as high as 21.

Similarly, the age of consent in the UK, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, is 16, under the Sexual Offences Act of 2000, and while 46% think that 16 is correct for heterosexual sex (compared to 33% who would have it at 18), the picture changes with regard to homosexual sex. For the latter, while 33% agree it should be 16, 28% think it should be 18, and a relatively high eight percent would have the age of consent upped to 21 (compared to one percent for heterosexual couples).

When it comes to putting people in jail, currently youth courts can convict children as young as under 10, but being sent to jail usually only becomes a long-term option from the age of 16 onwards. Fittingly, while a seemingly harsh 24% would allow under-14s to go to prison, 21% think that 18-plus would be better. 28% agree with the current age of 16.

And while 16 is the current age at which someone (albeit with parental consent) can join the army, only 29% agree with this age compared to 45% who would prefer 18.

Still too young for some

However, for some activities, it seems that even 18 is still too young for some. Serving on a jury and standing for Parliament are both legal at the age of 18, but for the first, 32% think the age should be 21, and a sizeable 25% think it should be 25 years or above. Only 28% feel 18 is the right age. Equally, when it comes to standing for Parliament, just 26% think that 18 is the right age, compared to 28% who feel it should be 21, and 28% who feel that it should be 25 or over.

Older is best

Indeed, for some things, most think over 18 is best. 27% think 21 should be the right age after which one can get a gun licence, while a similar 26% think 25 and over would be more apt. The current legal age is 21.

The highest age restriction though, is left to those people looking to adopt a child. This currently stands at 21 years, but a significant 47% feel that the age limit should be raised to 25 and over, compared to just 26% who agree with the law as it currently stands.

Survey details and full results