The Lords, financial privilege and the EU referendum franchise

Meg-RussellDan Gover

The House of Lords amended the government’s European Union Referendum Bill in order to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum. Last week the Commons overturned the Lords amendments claiming ‘financial privilege’. Ahead of fresh votes in the Lords on the topic, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover explain this much misunderstood term.

Hot on the heels of the argument over tax credits, this week sees a new row over the constitutional propriety of the House of Lords challenging government policy. This time the topic is the rights of 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the EU referendum. On 18 November the government was defeated in the Lords on this question, with peers agreeing an amendment to give young people the vote. On 8 December the House of Commons overturned this proposal, citing ‘financial privilege’ because the extension of the franchise would have cost implications. The Lords is due to debate the matter again tomorrow, and there are accusations on both sides: on one hand that the claim of Commons financial privilege is somehow improper, and on the other that it would be improper for the Lords to press the matter any further. These are murky and little-understood constitutional waters, but having specifically completed a research project on financial privilege last year, we hope that we can offer some clarity.

Since last week’s Commons decision there have been many incorrect statements about financial privilege. For example, there have been claims that ‘the government has had it declared a “financial” matter’ in a show of ‘political chicanery’ in order to ‘ra[m] its agenda through’ parliament, and that as a consequence the Lords would be ‘prevented from voting against it’ because the move ‘takes away the right of the Lords to intervene’. It is exactly these kinds of misunderstandings that our project sought to clear up: through publication of a detailed report, as summarised in a journal article and a previous post on this blog. The shortest and simplest summary of our conclusions is contained in the presentation slides for the report’s launch in the House of Lords. A key conclusion was that the rules in this area are insufficiently clear, and that they need clarification because arguments over financial privilege are likely to become more common. This week’s events appear to prove us right.

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Votes at 16: What effect would it have on the EU referendum?

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The House of Lords has amended the EU Referendum Bill to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum. The issue will now return to the Commons, but what difference would such an extension to the franchise make? Alan Renwick and Barney McCay examine the evidence.

The House of Lords yesterday voted by 293 to 211 to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, meaning that the issue will return to the Commons. The Electoral Commission has said that if 16- to 18-year-olds are given the vote the referendum could be delayed by as much as 12 months. But how might it affect the referendum’s outcome? We cannot know for sure but by piecing together evidence from various sources we can develop some ballpark estimates.

How many extra electors?

The first question is how many extra eligible voters there would be if 16- and 17-year-olds entered the electorate.  In 2014, there were 1,534,192 16- and 17-year-olds in the UK, while the number aged 18 or over was 50,909,098, putting 16- and 17-year-olds at 2.9 per cent of the 16+ population.  The ONS estimates that this percentage will fall to 2.8 per cent by 2016.

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Elections, referendums, political parties and the Constitution Unit

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In the third of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, Alan Renwick documents on how the UK’s electoral framework has evolved since 1995 and illustrates how the Unit has shaped the implementation of changes. Looking forward, he identifies the franchise and the current gulf between citizens and politicians as key areas for future research.

Respondent Ben Seyd adds that the TV leader debates during the election would also benefit from clear guidelines and Jenny Watson reflects on how the Electoral Commission is building on the foundations that the Unit helped to establish.

Electoral law in the UK is sometimes described as unchanging. Speaking in 2011, for example, David Cameron declared that, ‘Throughout history, it [the electoral system] has risen to the demands of the time’. But this is inaccurate. In fact, if we contrast the electoral framework in place today with that in place in 1995, we find many changes.

Transformation of elections and referendums in 1995

Regarding the core of the electoral system, in 1995, all elections in Great Britain used First Past the Post (FPTP); other systems were used only in Northern Ireland. Today, by contrast, voters in Northern Ireland are unique in having to deal with only one system other than FPTP. Three different forms of proportional representation are used: for European Parliament elections in Great Britain; for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies; and for Scottish local elections and most elections in Northern Ireland. The supplementary vote is used for mayors and/or Police and Crime Commissioners throughout England and Wales. Even the Alternative Vote system – rejected by voters for Westminster elections in the 2011 referendum – is used for local council by-elections in Scotland.

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The new opposition: How will SNP MPs influence Westminster politics?

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Louise Thompson argues that the constitutional challenges we will see over the next 5 years will be a product of the changed composition of Parliament. Here, she specifically considers how SNP are likely to try and amend proposed constitutional reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech last week.

We are only a couple of weeks in to the 2015 Parliament, but we can already see signs of big changes from the previous Parliament, as well as some major parliamentary and constitutional challenges ahead. Last week’s Queen’s Speech proved what most commentators had already suspected; the first majority Conservative Government for nearly two decades will oversee a period of major constitutional change. This includes greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to English cities and an In-Out referendum on membership of the European Union to be held by the end of 2017. The constitutional ground is beginning to move already. The Prime Minister has already met with the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to discuss the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

As returning MPs took their seats in the chamber following the Queen’s Speech last week, they were met with a sea of unfamiliar faces as 182 new Members took their seats in the chamber. There is nothing new about a high turnover of MPs – the 2010 General Election saw an even higher turnover of Members. But the composition of the new intake, with record numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs, a massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs and the arrival of a much larger number of SNP MPs is very different to what the House has seen before. The challenges we will see over the next five years to the government’s planned constitutional reforms are very much a product of this changing composition.

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