My Lords, I am privileged to open Second Reading of the EU Referendum Bill. The Bill will enable the Government to deliver our manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union before the end of 2017.
That commitment was rooted in our desire to give the British people the final say on an issue that goes to the heart of the governance of this country—an issue on which we have not directly consulted the people for more than 40 years. Since 1975, the United Kingdom has held referendums on devolution, as well as on our voting system, and in the long years since that vote in 1975, the UK’s relationship with the European Union has changed beyond all recognition. Whether noble
Lords believe that this change has been for good or ill, or somewhere inbetween, it is right that the people now get to have their say.
Voters in other member states have had their opportunity. Their Governments have continued to ask for their consent. Indeed, in the past four decades, there have been more than 30 referendums on the EU right across Europe—Ireland alone has had eight—but not one has been held here, to give the British people their say, since 1975.
Of course, the referendum does not stand in isolation. This Government are committed to negotiating a new settlement for the United Kingdom in Europe: a settlement that ensures that the European Union is able to meet the challenges of the 21st century; above all, a settlement that addresses people’s concerns about the European project.
The negotiation will be difficult. There will be noise and possibly setbacks along the way, but the Government are confident that we can negotiate a new deal to put to the British people at the referendum.
I will now briefly set out the provisions of the Bill. The EU Referendum Bill does what it says on the tin. It will enable a robust and fair referendum to take place and, crucially, it will enable a referendum that is also seen to be fair.
The Bill is simply about the mechanics of the referendum, and is based on existing electoral law: particularly the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It sets the end of 2017 as the deadline to hold the referendum. It also rules out
The Bill also sets out who is entitled to vote. This is a vote about the future of the United Kingdom in Europe, so it is right that we use the Westminster franchise as our starting point for this referendum, which is of vital importance to this nation’s future. This means that British citizens in the UK, British citizens who have been abroad for less than 15 years and resident Commonwealth and Irish citizens will have a vote. Noble Lords will already be aware that we have added Members of this House to the franchise, in line with our normal practice for referendums.
I am aware of the strong feelings of some noble Lords about extending the franchise. I have heard calls for the enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year-olds. The Government remain firmly convinced that the Westminster franchise should remain the basis for this referendum. Including 16 and 17 year-olds would be a major constitutional change. We do not believe that this Bill, or any other Bill not directly addressing the franchise in general, should be the vehicle for doing this. Any such change should enjoy the support of Parliament and the country as a whole, after a full and proper debate.
I have also heard calls to extend the franchise to EU citizens resident in the UK. The Government recognise the strength of that feeling. Many EU citizens have made the UK their home and have made significant contributions to life in this country. No one would wish to deny that. However, this is a vote about the future of the United Kingdom in Europe so it is right that we use the Westminster franchise as the basis. Using a franchise that does not include other EU nationals is entirely consistent with the practice in other EU member states and with the EU treaties themselves. I suspect that many of the British public would view the inclusion of EU citizens as a crude attempt to fix the result.
In addition, many noble Lords will be aware of the Government’s manifesto commitment to extend the franchise to British citizens resident overseas for more than 15 years. The Government will bring forward a Bill separately to amend the Westminster franchise to enable this, on which noble Lords will be able to engage in due course.
Finally, we have added British, Commonwealth and Irish citizens in Gibraltar. The Government believe it is right that Gibraltar should take part. Broadly speaking, the EU treaties apply to Gibraltar, and Gibraltar votes as part of the South West England region of the UK in European parliamentary elections.
The general election franchise is the right basis for such a crucial referendum, with the modest additions of Commonwealth and Irish citizens in Gibraltar and Members of this House. I am sure that noble Lords will have followed this debate in the House of Commons. Various proposals were made to expand the franchise, including lowering the voting age and adding EU citizens, each of which was firmly rejected. Nevertheless, as always, I look forward to listening to the views of noble Lords on these important issues, both inside and outside the Chamber, in the coming weeks.
I will say a little more about the addition of Gibraltar. The Government have remained in close contact with Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar throughout this process. I know that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and the Minister for Europe are all very grateful to the honourable Fabian Picardo MP and his Government for their engagement. Wherever possible, the Bill leaves it to the Gibraltar legislature to make provision to implement the referendum in Gibraltar. As a result, Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar intend to introduce their own referendum Bill in the Gibraltar Parliament, which will be complementary to the UK legislation. I know that Gibraltar’s inclusion in a referendum was an important point for Members of both Houses during consideration of the Private Member’s Bill in the last Parliament. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Dobbs, who sponsored that Bill in difficult circumstances.
As well as the franchise, the Bill sets out the question to be asked at the referendum. The Electoral Commission carried out detailed research and consultation over the summer. It concluded that the question should be amended to ensure the maximum level of neutrality. The Government brought forward an amendment on Report in the Commons to reflect this recommendation.
The question is now settled as: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”. Voters will be able to mark one of two options: “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union”. This departure from a yes/no answer is novel but the Government agree that the change will strengthen the perception that the neutrality of the referendum is beyond doubt.
The Bill also deals with electoral administration rules. Clause 3 and Schedule 3 to the Bill set out the overarching framework for the conduct of the EU referendum, and provide for the appointment of the chief counting officer, regional counting officers and counting officers for the administration of the poll. The framework follows that used for the conduct of the parliamentary voting system referendum in May 2011. The Government have also prepared draft regulations which will eventually be made under powers in the Bill and which will supplement the provisions in Clause 3 and Schedule 3. We published that draft by way of Written Ministerial Statement in this House and the other place in July and we consulted over the summer. We are now taking account of comments from the Electoral Commission and others to produce final draft regulations, which will be subject to Parliament’s approval before being made. This early action will give electoral administrators across the United Kingdom and Gibraltar the certainty they need to begin their preparations.
The Bill also provides for the crucial campaign rules, using the established and well understood framework set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. To that, we have added best practice from the alternative vote and Scottish independence referendums in a range of technical areas as set out in Schedules 1 and 2. Taken together, these will ensure a fair and transparent campaign. I am sure that noble Lords will not have failed to notice that the main focus of Committee and Report in the other place was Section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Section 125 concerns restrictions placed on government and public bodies on publishing certain material in relation to the referendum in the final 28 days of the campaign. The other place voted to reapply the Section 125 restrictions in full and to create a power to make exceptions to these restrictions through regulations. As is proper, any regulations made under this new clause will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses. The Government are also bound to consult the Electoral Commission and any regulations must be made at least four months before the referendum date.