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European Referendum: all you need to know (but were afraid to ask)

European Referendum: all you need to know (but were afraid to ask)

🕔16.Jun 2015

With the House of Commons committee stage of the European Referendum Bill beginning today, Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale looks at the likely battleground facing MPs and the Government.

The European Union Referendum Bill 2015-16 requires the UK to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017.

This will be the first opportunity for the British people to have a direct say on the vexed question of EU membership since a referendum held in 1975 resulted in a 67-33 per cent decision to remain in what was then termed the Common Market.

The latest Bill outlines a voting franchise, campaigning implications, conduct, financing, donations and the many technical regulations ahead of the campaign and also sets out in black and white the question voters will have to answer before 31 December 2017:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”

The Bill is due to receive Royal Assent and pass into law by November. Between now and then, however, MPs and Peers will seek to amend the legislation in various ways. How far they succeed in changing the Government’s original wording depends on how successful the whips are in defending the Conservative’s slender majority of 10.

The main points of at stake include:

Voting age

Perhaps one of the most contentious issues is the adoption of the Westminster franchise and therefore not allowing 16 and 17 year olds the opportunity to vote in the referendum.

An SNP amendment to the motion to pass the Bill, suggesting it was undemocratic not to allow 16-17 year olds the vote among other measures, was comprehensively defeated at second reading.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats advocate widening the voting age to 16 and the SNP enjoyed a large turnout from younger voters during the recent independence referendum. Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn has already tabled amendments to change the Bill to allow for this.

Purdah

As it currently stands the Bill scraps the period before an election or referendum, known as purdah, during which the Government is forbidden from making major announcements, and the civil service is effectively suspended. If purdah is not respected, it may cast suspicion over any result and invite a legal challenge. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve made this point during the second reading and suggested the suspension of purdah could be seen as the Government trying to “load the dice”.

Who can vote?

The Government has favoured the Westminster franchise for the referendum, the same group of voters allowed to vote at the General Election, with a small amendment; the franchise is being extended for peers.

The franchise excludes European citizens living and working in the UK, a principle supported by the Labour Party. However, the SNP has tabled an amendment which would change the Bill to allow all European voters a chance to participate.

During the second reading debate, Alex Salmond pointed out the Government could face a legal challenge given that Maltese and Cypriot voters would be allowed to vote given their Commonwealth connections, but not other European nationalities.

Devolution

A number of MPs from the devolved regions have expressed concern that the Bill does not explicitly prevent the referendum being held on the same day as any other elections, principally the London Mayor, Northern Ireland Assembly, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May 2016, and local elections on 4 May 2017.

Alex Salmond has submitted an amendment which would impose a double majority requirement for withdrawal which would have to be supported by a majority of the whole of the UK and majorities in each of its four constituent parts (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). There is no voting threshold for the referendum in the Bill as it stands.

The question

Eurosceptic Kate Hoey (Lab, Vauxhaul) believed the wording of the question should be changed to prompt voters to clearly state whether the UK should ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ in the EU, rather than the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers currently proposed. It seems unlikely though that MPs will agree to re-write the wording of the question.

Finance

Some ‘No’ voters have suggested that unlimited campaign spending will favour the business backed ‘Yes’ campaign. Conservatives have tabled amendments 9 and 10 which would guarantee an election period of 16 weeks and would prevent European Union bodies from influencing the outcome.

The Lords

Plans for the referendum will encounter opposition in the Lords, as the Government has no majority in the ‘other place’. The Conservative Party boast the highest number of peers at 228, however this leaves them a long way short of a majority as there are potentially 787 votes available in the Chamber, although the number of ‘active’ peers is closer to 600.

However given the Conservative’s democratic mandate on this issue and the Salisbury convention, peers are unlikely to derail the Government’s plans notably, although could tweak significant elements if the Commons do not make progress.

When do we vote?

The date of the vote itself will be legislated through a statutory instrument, meaning there will not be a date outlined in the legislation when the Bill becomes an Act. However, there could potentially be a clause introduced into the Bill, probably by the SNP, preventing the vote being held on certain days—namely on the day of any local or national elections.

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