EU referendum: Lords set to defy David Cameron’s refusal to give vote to 16-year-olds

Labour and Liberal Democrat peers have agreed to work together on the EU (Referendum) Bill

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David Cameron faces defeat in the House of Lords over his attempt to prevent 16 and 17 year-olds voting in the referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union.

Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, who clashed in the last parliament over the Coalition’s decision to cut legal aid and bring in the bedroom tax, have agreed to work together on the EU (Referendum) Bill.  They will table a joint amendment to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds, who were allowed to vote in last September’s referendum on Scottish independence but who the Government wants to exclude from the EU plebiscite.

The Conservatives, with 229 peers, do not enjoy a majority in the Lords, where Labour has 212 peers, the Lib Dems 101 and there are 178 independent crossbenchers. In practice, about two in three peers take part in important votes.

Senior figures in the second chamber estimate that the call to extend the franchise is likely to be passed by a majority of between 80 and 90 votes.  That would force Mr Cameron to choose between accepting defeat or trying to overturn the Lords vote in the Commons.  Although he has a majority of 12 there, some Tory MPs could be swayed by the expected defeat in the Lords. One said: “I am open-minded about this.  We should have the debate.”

Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, the Labour leader in the Lords, said: “The outcome of this referendum will have a lasting impact on the lives of all UK citizens. To deny young adults a say in their future is just plain wrong. If the Prime Minister insists on resisting this sensible change to the Bill, it is almost certain that he would lose the vote in the Lords”.

Lord (Jim) Wallace of Tankerness, the Lib Dem leader in the Lords,  said: “We will be happy to work with Labour and others to achieve this for the EU referendum. Working together in the Lords would mean that it would have a good chance of being delivered.” He added: “It has been Lib Dem policy for a very long time to give 16 and 17 year-olds the vote. Last year’s Scottish referendum showed how successful it was in engaging young people’s interest.”

Mr Cameron said: “I think we should stick with the current franchise at 18.”  Ministers believe that allowing younger people to vote on Europe would create unstoppable pressure for them  to take part in general elections.

By convention, peers do not vote against proposals in a governing party’s manifesto. But Labour and Lib Dem peers argue that the Tories’ plans were not spelt out in detail. The Bill, currently being debated by MPs, is expected to go the Lords in September.

At talks in Brussels, Mr Cameron continued his efforts to persuade Britain’s EU partners to change the country’s membership terms. But Charles Michel,  the Belgian Prime Minister, warned him  that he would not be allowed to “dismantle” the EU and that handing a veto over EU laws to national parliaments “would be the end of the EU."