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It's about their future too - why 16 and 17-year-olds deserve a vote in the EU Referendum

by Hilary Benn MP

[first published by The Huffingdon Post, 8th June 2015, available here.]

 

By the end of 2017 the British people will have made the most important decision about our place in the world that they have faced for 40 years when they vote on our membership of the EU. That decision will have a huge impact on the future of jobs, growth and investment, and on our security and influence in the world.

Labour will support the Referendum Bill in Parliament and will campaign for a Yes vote. But we will also seek to amend the Bill to that British 16 and 17-year-olds are given a say in that decision, because it's about their future too.

Forty-five years ago the United Kingdom legislated to extend the franchise to 18-year-olds (previously you had to be 21 to vote). We were one of the first countries in the world to do so. There were those who opposed the change then - as there have always been people who stood against the extension of the franchise - and yet now it has become an established part of our democratic life.

Scotland has given us a glimpse of what enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds can mean. Over 80% of them registered to vote in the referendum last year. They participated and brought energy and vitality to the debate. And all of us who already have the right to vote and who value the opportunity it gives us to decide how we are governed should be hugely proud that young Scots voters showed that they had thought long and hard about the world they want to inherit.

In the same way, I am sure that in a referendum on remaining in the European Union - an alliance forged out of the ashes of the Second World War and centuries of conflict - young people will think hard about how we can continue to turn British ingenuity and creativity - in science, medicine, engineering and business - into jobs, apprenticeships and growth. We know this needs access to skills, investment and global markets, and that's exactly what the EU provides us with on our doorstep.

Young people will also have the chance to reflect on how we can best cooperate to tackle terrorism and conflict and deal with climate change, which, left unchecked, has the potential radically to alter the lives of everyone on our planet. Because of humankind's interdependence, this century has to be one of cooperation if we are going to deal with these questions. In each of these cases being part of Europe makes us stronger.

And to those who argue that young people aren't capable of making a decision of that importance, I say this: The law allows 16 or 17-year-olds to give full consent to medical treatment, leave school, enter work or training, join a trade union, pay income tax and national insurance, obtain tax credits and welfare benefits, consent to sexual relationships, get married, change their name by deed poll, become a director of a company and join the armed forces. So if they can do all these things, we ought to be able to trust them to participate in a democratic decision that will determine their future as much as it will ours.

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