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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 612: debated on Thursday 7 July 2016

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

Referendum Manifestos

4. If the Electoral Commission will make an assessment of the merits of requiring lead campaign groups in referendum campaigns to publish manifestos. (905696)

Thank you for your earlier endorsement, Mr Speaker.

The Electoral Commission is collecting information to inform its statutory report on the EU referendum, and I will pass the hon. Lady’s suggestion to it for its consideration.

Rapidly after the referendum results, central claims on both sides evaporated—the extra spending for the NHS, the emergency punitive Budget, and the UK being the fifth largest economy—so surely, if we are ever to conduct referendums again in this country, should not the lead campaigns on both sides publish measurable claims in a manifesto, so that truth is not the casualty of the scramble for votes?

The Electoral Commission has no desire whatsoever—it certainly has no such power at the moment—to sit in judgment on the truthfulness of any claim made in any campaign. The hon. Lady’s idea that lead campaigns should produce manifestos is an interesting one that I will pass on to the commission for its consideration of the referendum overall.

May I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that the Electoral Commission does not waste its time carrying out such an assessment? Manifestos are for political parties and, by definition, a referendum is on a single issue.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, but the Electoral Commission will carry out an assessment of the conduct of the EU referendum, including a survey of people’s levels of satisfaction of several aspects of the referendum, and that will be produced in the report, which will be made available to hon. Members.

In advance of the Scottish independence referendum, the Government published “Scotland’s Future”—a comprehensive White Paper and blueprint for how the transition to independence would be managed. The complete lack of a coherent plan from the leave campaign and the chaos that has ensued has highlighted a huge disparity. What is the Government’s position on manifestos for referendums?

Certainly, prior to 9 September, I do not speak for the Government, and therefore it is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

As my hon. Friend will know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) pointed out, referendums are about settling a single question, not electing a Government on a manifesto. However, one thing that many people do want is facts. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be worth the Electoral Commission looking at whether a fact checker-style website could be a useful source of information, given the claims made in the Scottish and EU referendums?

It is important that the Electoral Commission remains independent in our political debates, and it has no desire whatever to sit in judgment on the truthfulness of any claim or counterclaim. It is important, however, that all sides are responsible in the claims they make, and there are various independent means of verifying claims, but that is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.