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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 June 2015

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Referendum Questions

2. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effect of whether the question is posed in the affirmative or negative on the outcome of a referendum. (900396)

6. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the neutrality of the proposed EU referendum question. (900400)

The Electoral Commission has begun its assessment of the referendum question proposed in the European Union Referendum Bill and will publish its assessment before Parliament returns from recess in September. The Commission has previously reported on the neutrality of the proposed question as part of the assessment of the question contained in a private Member’s Bill in 2013. That report found that a number of voters perceived a bias if the phrase, “Remain a member of the European Union” is used in isolation. The Commission therefore recommended an alternative question, which it found to be more neutral but which did not use yes and no as response options.

The Electoral Commission has given its advice on the wording of the question in the referendum, and the Government have accepted its advice. Will my hon. Friend confirm that a similar approach will be taken to changes to the purdah rules?

It is certainly the case that the Electoral Commission has given advice on the purdah rules, which I will discuss when we reach question 5. Happily, I am not responsible for the Government accepting that advice.

The Electoral Commission has said that the most neutral question for the EU referendum would be: should the UK leave the EU, or should it remain within the EU? Does my hon. Friend not believe that the Government should accept the independent advice of the Electoral Commission as to what is the most neutral question and put that in the referendum Bill?

My hon. Friend slightly anticipates the situation. The Electoral Commission is currently assessing and consulting on two questions: the question in the Bill and the question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union.” It will provide its findings and recommendations to the House in September.

EU Membership (Costs and Benefits)

3. If the Electoral Commission will commission a lay-person’s guide to the costs and benefits of UK membership of the EU before the EU referendum. (900397)

The Electoral Commission is currently considering what public information it will provide to voters on how to register and cast their vote at an EU referendum. However, given that it is also responsible for designating lead campaigners as well as registering and regulating other campaigners, the Commission does not believe that it would be appropriate for it also to produce a guide providing information about the costs and benefits of EU membership first hand as campaigners would want to make such a case themselves.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the British public have a right to a completely objective guide to our membership in order to take an informed decision in the in/out EU referendum?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and that is what many of our constituents want. The issue is: who is best placed to provide that impartial guide? Given the complexity of the question—there are so many unknowns—and the importance of ensuring that the Electoral Commission does not in any way undermine its neutrality and independence, it may not be the right organisation to carry out that task.

If they are not the people to do it, I am quite happy to take on that task. It would be pointless having such a document because it will have pages and pages and pages of costs; I doubt that we would find a page on the benefits.

I will certainly put that offer back to the Electoral Commission. I am sure that it will be as enthusiastic as I am.