An amendment that would have given long term British expats the ability to vote in the UK’s referendum on the country’s future in the European Union has been defeated.

Currently expats who have lived abroad for more than 15 years cannot vote in British elections, but there has been a major campaign for them to vote in the referendum based on the argument that it affects expats as well as those living in the country.

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A number of members of the House of Lords, the upper house in the British parliament, presented an amendment to allow them to vote but it has been defeated by 214 to 116 votes and there is currently no other move to change the voting system.

The upcoming Votes for Life bill will overturn the law that bans those who have lived abroad for longer than 15 years from voting, but it will not be passed before the referendum, which must take part by 2017.

One of those in favour of giving expats the vote, Baroness Miller, said that many long term expats had spent their working lives in the UK and drew government pensions as they had been nurses, civil servants and members of the forces, and therefore paid UK tax.

"Many other people working in the EU are there because they are flying the flag for Britain. They have been encouraged by successive governments of this country to expand their careers and look to the EU. For some this started when they were at university, with the Erasmus scheme getting them to spend time at EU universities, and for others it is because the UK has developed partnerships with firms such as Airbus," said Miller. "So governments have encouraged British citizens to look on the whole of the EU as a place to study, work and live, and they cannot now pull the rug from under their feet. They should at least give them a say in whether that rug is pulled."

It is estimated that there are around 500,000 British expats in Europe who have lived there for more than 15 years and five million worldwide. But Conservative Minister Lord Faulks said that while the government was sympathetic, its position is to leave the issue of long term expats to the Votes for Life bill.

"Removing the 15-year rule will be a complex and important constitutional change. It is not something that we suggest should in any way be rushed by way of a single amendment," said Faulks.

Faulks also pointed out that the date for the referendum has not been set, suggesting that the Votes for Life Bill could predate the EU vote, although adding that it is unlikely the change would be in time.

"It is very unfair that the people we are discussing have been led to understand throughout their lives that being in the EU means being part of a network to which Britain belongs. Now, when Britain may make a choice to leave it, they have no say in that whatever. That position is unfair," said Miller.