(On Behalf of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission): The Electoral Commission has today published its report on the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union (EU referendum), held on 23 June 2016. The report looks at the key issues that arose on the way to polling day, including the conduct of campaigners and the Electoral Commission’s regulation of them, and provides data on the views of voters and the experience they had throughout this period. The report also points to a number of recommendations that would improve the administration, regulation, and delivery of future referendums.
Recognising its direct involvement in the management of the poll, the commission has also enabled an independent report conducted by two academics which has been published today. The commission has also today published three related reports respectively evaluating its public awareness campaign, international observers’ scheme, and an independent report on the experience of registered campaigners. The commission will publish further reports relating to the referendum, including a report on the analysis of campaigners’ spending and donations at the referendum and a report detailing the costs of the administration of the referendum in full, in 2017.
The evidence gathered by the Electoral Commission to inform its report shows that the referendum was delivered without any major issues. Its public opinion research with voters finds that they had a positive view of the EU referendum process, with 77% being very or fairly confident that the referendum was well-run. People were also satisfied with the process of registering to vote (87% said they were generally satisfied). People remain highly satisfied with the procedures for voting in the referendum, whether in person at a polling station (97%), or by post (99%).
The Electoral Commission’s report acknowledges that this success was due to the over 100,000 members of staff who were working in around 41,000 polling stations across the UK and Gibraltar on polling day. It recognises the counting officers and their staff, as well as the 11 regional counting officers and the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland whose professionalism and diligence were critical components of the organisation of the referendum. Electoral registration officers are singled out for praise in the report for processing 2.1 million additional applications to register to vote in the weeks before the referendum, as well as electoral services staff who coped with a record high electorate of 46,500,001 and 72.2% voter turnout.
The Electoral Commission had a leading role in the referendum. Under the framework of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) the commission had a number of specific statutory responsibilities and functions in relation to the delivery and regulation of the referendum. It designated the two lead campaigners and produced guidance for all campaigners, of which there was a total of 123 registered campaigners—63 indicating they supported “Remain” and 60 supporting the “Leave” side. The discharge of these duties was in addition to its responsibility to promote public awareness of the referendum, the question put to the electorate, and how to vote in it.
The work for the EU referendum undertaken by the electoral community, the Electoral Commission, and campaigners was done at a time when important elections were taking place, under high levels of public scrutiny, and with uncertainty about the date of the referendum until four months before the poll. The report notes that careful management of the potential risks associated with the timing and profile of the poll was needed to successfully deliver the poll. Nevertheless, the Electoral Commission once again reiterates its recommendation that referendum legislation should be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with.
The report also calls for the important changes which have been applied to the legal framework for recent referendums to be incorporated into PPERA, which sets out the standard framework for referendums. This would ensure that they would apply for all future referendums, and would remove the need to draft completely new legislation on these aspects for each future poll. In addition, the commission recommends that a generic order for the conduct of referendums, which it has called for since 2004, should be introduced by the Government now. This would remove ambiguity over the detailed rules for the conduct of referendums each time one of these polls is called. To build on the successful approach taken in both the EU referendum and the 2014 referendum in Scotland, this legislation should also require the designation of lead campaigners shortly before the referendum period, rather than during the first six weeks of this period, as currently set out in the legislation.
The Electoral Commission also suggests that section 125 of PPERA should be significantly redrafted to clarify the nature and scope of the restriction on activities by Governments and other publicly funded bodies during the referendum period. It should be clear which activities are restricted, and whether there are any specific exemptions; it should be clear when the restrictions apply; and it should be clear who is responsible for enforcing the restrictions, and what the penalties would be for any breach of the restrictions. The commission is therefore calling on the UK Government to consult on options for redrafting section 125 of PPERA, with a view to introducing amending legislation as soon as practicable, sufficiently ahead of any specific legislation for a future referendum.
One thing the commission has not recommended, however, is any role for itself in regulating the “truth” or the content of what campaigners say. The report sets out why it does not believe this would be an appropriate role for the commission given the breadth of its other functions. Instead, it is for campaigners and the media to scrutinise each other’s contentions and right that information is widely available for voters to do the same, but it is not clear that an independent body could, or should, be required to regulate the “truth”, which is likely to be highly contested.
While the commission has been pleased that the UK Government have incorporated many of its recommendations at each recent referendum, and that overall the legislation worked well for this poll, it is not practical to use different pieces of legislation from previous referendums and PPERA in order to draft legislation for each new referendum. It is therefore the Electoral Commission’s view that Parliament must now establish a clear standard legal framework for the conduct and regulation of future referendums.
Copies of the commission’s report have been placed in the Library and it is also available on the commission’s website: www.electoralcommission.org.uk.