Sixteen and 17 year olds could be allowed to take part in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union following a landmark vote in the House of Lords in favour of extending the franchise.
The government, which strongly opposed the move, suffered a huge defeat on the issue as peers argued that lowering the voting age would help to engage teenagers in politics.
The Lords voted by 293 to 211, a majority of 82, to back the reform as they delivered the latest in a succession of blows to the Conservative legislative programme. Ahead of the vote, David Cameron’s spokesman repeated his opposition to lowering the voting age.
The scale of the defeat leaves him with a dilemma over whether to try to reverse it in the Commons or to whether to accept defeat and agree to widen the referendum franchise.
UK news in pictures
UK news in pictures
1/18 23 June 2017
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a news conference at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 23, 2017
2/18 22 June 2017
Cosplay fans (L-R) George Massingham, Abbey Forbes and Karolina Goralik travel by tube dressed in Harry Potter themed costumes, after a visit to one the literary franchise's movie filming locations at Leadenhall Market in London, Britain
3/18 22 June 2017
Racegoers cheer on their horse on Ladies Day at the Royal Ascot horse racing meet, in Ascot, west of London
4/18 21 June 2017
A reveller walks among the tipi tents at the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, South West England
5/18 20 June 2017
A police officer lays some flowers passed over by a member of the public, close to Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, after one man died and eight people were taken to hospital and a person arrested after a rental van struck pedestrian
The Borough Market bell is seen in Borough Market in central London following its re-opening after the June 3 terror attack
Two women embrace in Borough Market, which officially re-opens today following the recent attack, in central London
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan attends the re-opening of Borough market in central London following the June 3 terror attack
People walk through Borough Market in central London following its re-opening after the June 3 terror attack
News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch, with one of his daughters, visit Borough Market, which officially re-opened today following the recent attack
A woman reacts in front of a wall of messages in Borough Market, which officially re-opened today following the recent attack, in central London
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Millwall fan and London Bridge hero Roy Larner on 'Good Morning Britain'
Richard Arnold, Roy Larner, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on 'Good Morning Britain'
15/18 11 June 2017
England players celebrate after defeating Venezuela 1-0 to win the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea 2017 at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea
16/18 11 June 2017
England players celebrate with the trophy after the final match of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2017 between Venezuela and England at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea
17/18 11 June 2017
Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee celebrates winning the Elite Men Columbia Threadneedle World Triathlon Leeds
Danny Lawson/PA Wire
18/18 11 June 2017
Two men drink beer outside the Southwark Tavern which reopened for business today next to an entrance to Borough Market which remains closed in London
Allowing 16 and 17 year olds to participate could be a boost to the pro-EU campaign as younger voters are viewed as more likely to support Britain’s continued membership.
That would enable about 1.5m younger voters to take part in the referendum, which Mr Cameron is committed to holding by the end of 2017.
Supporters of the move pointed to the decision to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence as a greater proportion of them took part than 18 to 24 years olds.
One effect of widening the franchise could be to delay the date of the referendum as electoral staff would have to enrol newly-qualified voters. The Electoral Commission is understood to have warned the government that the process could take as much as 12 months, which would deal a heavy blow to the prospect of a referendum in the first half of next year.
Mr Cameron is thought to favour an early vote, while some Eurosceptics would prefer the “Brexit” vote being held in 2017, allowing them to build the case for quitting the EU.
Lord Faulks, the Justice Minister, argued that the move could be viewed as favouring one side in the campaign.
He said: “We wanted to avoid any allegations of interference and we fear changing the franchise, including this particular change, could be seen as doing exactly that, and could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the referendum.”
But Labour and Liberal Democrat peers joined forces to force through the amendment to the EU Referendum Bill, which the government hopes to get on to the statute book by January.
The Labour peer Baroness Morgan of Ely said evidence from Norway and Austria showed that the younger people started voting, the more interest they took in politics.
“At 16 they are taking life-changing decisions on the future direction of their lives, they are deciding on which A-levels to take, or which vocational courses to follow, and if they find someone they want to marry they can even do that,” she said.
Lord Hamilton of Epsom, a former Tory minister, claimed the move was an attempt to “tilt the whole playing-field” in favour of the pro-EU camp.
Lord Blencathra, another former Conservative minister, said Parliament had already prevented 16 and 17 year olds from many things, including watching pornography, buying tobacco and using sunbeds.
“We cannot say young people should be permitted to vote at 16 because they are more aware and mature and then push up the age to 18 for almost everything else they can do,” he said.
But Lord Tyler, a Lib Dem peer, said the same arguments being used against extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds were used in the past to try to prevent women voting.Reuse content