Children of armed forces personnel living abroad with their parents will have a vote in next year’s independence referendum after MSPs voted to change the law.
Young people aged 16 and 17 are eligible to vote in the referendum but no mechanism existed to allow children of overseas servicemen and servicewomen, who are normally resident in Scotland, to have their say.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that Holyrood had to “do all we can” to ensure the children of overseas military personnel have a vote in the referendum on 18 September next year.
The reform for 16- and 17-year-olds was approved in an amendment to the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill which entered the first stage of parliamentary scrutiny at Holyrood’s referendum bill committee yesterday.
However, the reform approved by the Scottish Parliament does not extend to over-18s, with Holyrood unable to alter the rules.
This means that those aged 18 and over still living with serving parents will be classed as resident overseas voters, who are not allowed to vote under UK law.
Ms Sturgeon insisted it was a “myth” that Scots serving in the military overseas would be denied a vote.
She said that although “the numbers affected are likely to be very small”, it was “nevertheless important” to allow them to have a say.
Ms Sturgeon said: “As the voting age for the referendum has been lowered to 16 – and 16 and 17-year-olds are more likely to still reside with their parents – it is possible that this could have the effect of preventing some young people living outside Scotland to be with parents in the services from registering to vote.
“This amendment will amend the Franchise Act to provide a mechanism for such young people aged 16 or 17 on the date of the referendum to register to vote in it, if they can provide an address where they would be resident in Scotland were it not for the fact that they reside at a place to be with a parent or guardian who has a service qualification.
“For those who cannot provide such an address, a previous address in Scotland can be given.”
Scottish Government papers have estimated that the numbers of 16- and 17-year-olds affected is likely to range between “zero to low hundreds of individuals, with the number likely to be towards the lower end of this range”.
However, Labour MSP Drew Smith, speaking at the committee, expressed concerns that 18-year-old children of military personnel based overseas would be excluded. He asked: “There isn’t anything that we can do to assist those people?”
Ms Sturgeon admitted that the Scottish Government did not hold powers to alter the situation.
“Eighteen-year-olds in any circumstances will be termed overseas voters,” she said.
“Overseas voters are not on the Scottish Government register and the local government register which has been used for the referendum.
“That is the position and we will not be able to alter that.”
SNP MSP Annabel Ewing, speaking at the committee, said: “The voting system is set by the UK government in the Representation of the People Act, and we have identified that that is where the responsibility for this lies.”