Labour peers are set to further stoke the battle over the role of the House of Lords by resurrecting an attempt to lower the age limit for the UK’s EU referendum, just days after it was killed by MPs.
The House of Commons on Tuesday rejected a Lords’ amendment that would have allowed 16 and 17 year-olds to vote on whether Britain remains in the EU. The government invoked the “financial privilege” of the House of Commons to scupper the peers’ plan.
The Lords’ amendment triggered “financial privilege” because lowering the voting age would incur costs to the government from increased voter registration and the expenses of postal voting, a House of Commons official ruled. The government says the amendment would cost £6m.
Next week, the opposition intends to submit a new amendment, which will include measures to make the addition of younger people to the electoral register “low-cost or no-cost”, according to a senior Labour figure in the Lords.
This would exempt the amendment from the financial privilege rules, he said.
The issue is the last stumbling block for the EU referendum bill, which must pass both houses of parliament before a date can be set. Mr Cameron has promised to hold the vote by the end of 2017.
The row is the second major confrontation between the Lords and the government after peers scuppered George Osborne’s planned tax cuts.
The increasingly hostile anti-Conservative majority in the House of Lords is threatening to cause problems for the prime minister’s legislative plans.
It has prompted the government to seek to rein in the powers of the upper house; Conservative peer Lord Strathclyde has been charged with reviewing their role and is set to propose this month that the Lords should lose their veto over delegated or “secondary” legislation, such as the measure implementing tax credit cuts.
Labour leader in the Lords Baroness Smith accused Mr Cameron of breathtaking arrogance over the plan, which she said was “a Trojan horse for closing down wider parliamentary scrutiny of any secondary legislation, while openly using the latter to ram home contentious policies”.
Labour’s attempt to revive the EU voting amendment will propose that young people should be invited to register their details using school email systems.
A third of the government’s estimated £6m registration costs would be incurred anyway, when young people reach the current voting age of 18. The remaining two-thirds comes from sending letters and marketing materials to young potential voters.
Using the school email system would cut out much if not all of this cost, according to estimates by the Labour party.
If the Lords pass the new amendment on Monday, an independent Commons official must decide whether it is sufficiently different from the original one to be considered by MPs.
Labour’s move threatens to challenge longstanding parliamentary conventions. Under parliamentary convention, where an amendment is rejected by the Commons because it concerns financial matters, the Lords should not send back an amendment that “invites the same response” according to the clerk of the House.
Labour Peer and Shadow FCO Minister, Baroness Morgan of Ely, in whose name the amendment has been tabled, said:
“Whether or not Britain remains in the EU is probably the most important political decision of our time. 16 and 17 year olds should be given a voice.”
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