Today (Tuesday 9 June), the House of Commons will have its Second Reading debate on the European Union Referendum Bill. The Commission has published a briefing on the Bill for the debate, which is the first opportunity that parliament has had to consider the Government’s legislation.
As we note in our briefing, we are pleased that the Government has already built into the Bill many of our previous recommendations for changing the legislative framework for referendums, including some of those we made after the Scottish Independence Referendum last year. Despite this good news, however, there remain some important outstanding issues that will need to be resolved as the Bill progresses through parliament.
One of the most significant of these issues is the date on which any referendum will be held.
There has been some media speculation over the last few days about the timing of any poll. However, we have not seen any firm commitments from the Government on this beyond the requirement in the current legislation that the referendum must be held no later than 31 December 2017, on a date which will be specified in secondary legislation.
Whilst the Commission does not take a particular stance on the exact date that any poll should be held, we have been clear that there are specific dates that it should not take place.
On 5 May 2016, there are already a range of significant polls taking place including: elections for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, the London Assembly and Mayor of London, and local authorities and mayors in many parts of England.
The Commission is clear that voters and campaigners should be able to engage fully with the important issues at the elections already taking place in May next year. Adding a further poll on this date, particularly one that may include elements of cross party campaign activity, could add further complexity to the picture. Linked to this we have also been clear that on issues with the constitutional significance of the UK’s membership of the EU, such debate should take place at a time that allows the full participation of voters and campaigners, uncomplicated by competing messages and activity from elections which might be held on the same day. This was the case with the referendum on Scottish Independence last September, which saw record levels of participation.
So we have called for an amendment to the Bill to ensure that the EU referendum will not take place on 5 May 2016 or on the same day as any other scheduled polls.
Another area that we will particularly be looking out for during the debate relates to the section of the Bill that provides for section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) to not apply at the referendum. This PPERA provision places restrictions on the publication of promotional material about referendums by Ministers, government departments, local authorities and certain other public bodies during the period of 28 days immediately before polling day.
It’s not entirely clear what the Government’s intention is in removing this provision from the referendum, but it could mean that governments and others will be free to spend unlimited amounts of public funds promoting an outcome at the referendum right up until polling day. We have expressed our concern about this scenario in our briefing, which runs contrary to recommendations we have made after past referendums to improve the effectiveness of controls on the activities of governments in the lead up to a referendum poll.
So we will be watching the debate carefully to see if the Government offers any clarity about its proposed approach to the regulation of promotional activities by central and local governments and other publicly-funded bodies at the referendum.
Finally, under PPERA the Electoral Commission is required to assess and comment on the intelligibility of any question included in a Bill for a UK-wide referendum. We have begun to assess the proposed English and Welsh wordings of the referendum question included in the Bill, the English version of which is, ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’
Our report on the question will be ready later in the summer once we have conducted research with voters, spoken with experts on accessibility and plain language and talked to potential campaign and other similar groups. We will also consider views that are expressed in parliament during the debate whilst we conduct this wider activity.
These are just a few of the important issues that may be debated as the Bill progresses and we will be issuing briefings at each stage of the parliamentary process. You can keep up to date with our views here.
Head of Media and Public Affairs