Supporters of the idea said yesterday it was a logical step to allow those who were old enough to marry and pay taxes to have a say in an election.
Critics said that the measure would immediately lower the election turn- out and levels of voter registration. They said 16- and 17-year-olds were too naive and disinterested in politics to be entrusted with the vote.
The Liberal Democrats have adopted the issue as part of their strategy to appeal to youth.
Simon Hughes, the party's youth spokesman, said: "Young people can leave school, go into the services, and get married. If they can do all those things the logic is that they should have the right to vote."
The Liberal Democrats believe that 18-year-olds should be allowed to stand for office. "It would make more young people likely to vote if people of their own age were standing."
David Denver, a reader in politics at the University of Lancaster, said lowering the voting age would be a mistake.
"It would lower the turn-out because the lowest age group always has the lowest turn-out," he said. "I just think 16-year-olds are too young. They do not understand enough about politics or life in general."
Rachel Hodgkin, of the National Children's Bureau, carried out a study on the issue for the Gulbenkian Foundation late last year. The study concluded that the authorities should seriously consider lowering the voting age to 16.
She said the step was a way of tackling the "serious problem" of political disaffection among young people.
She said: "It's not that young people are not political. A lot of them are more energetically committed to single issues like the environment than previous generations.
"It is just that they are incredibly cynical about democracy and party politics."
The study for the foundation showed that young voters would vote on similar lines to older generations. But other research has found that teenagers are more likely to favour single issue fringe parties.
The Electoral Reform Society said the voting age was 18 in most Western countries with the exceptions of Liechtenstein and Monaco, where it is 20.
Only Brazil, Iran, the Philippines and Nicaragua have lowered the voting age to 16, the society said.
Eric Syddique, the society's chief executive, voiced concern about lowering the voting age in Britain. He said a mock election with A-level students had revealed that many young people were unable to distinguish between the politics of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn.
Neither the Conservative or Labour parties has any plans to lower the voting age.
Yet with the turn-out for 18- to 25-year-old voters falling from 69 per cent in 1987 to 55 per cent in 1992, many electoral reformers feel something has to be done to give young people more of a say.
Jan Newton, chief executive of the Citizenship campaign, a charity designed to give young people a greater say in the democratic process, said the change would be effective if introduced with other measures.
She called for education authorities to set up more schools councils and for local authorities to establish youth forums to give young people a part in the decision-making process.
"Too many young people still feel that voting makes no difference at all," she said.Reuse content