European Union (Referendum) Bill

Electoral Commission Committee written statement – made on 29th October 2013.

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South West Devon:

(Representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission) The Electoral Commission has today published its statutory assessment of the referendum question contained in the European Union (Referendum) Bill ('the Bill'), which was introduced to the House of Commons as a Private Members Bill by James Wharton on 19 June 2013.

The Commission has a statutory obligation under section 104 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act (PPERA) 2000 to consider the wording of the question in any referendum Bill that is introduced to the UK Parliament and to publish a statement on its views on the intelligibility of that question. The question currently contained in the Bill is: 'Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?'

When assessing a referendum question, the Commission's assessment guidelines say that the question should be clear and simple. It should be easy to understand, to the point and not ambiguous. The Commission has a well-established process for making this assessment, which includes undertaking public opinion research through focus groups and one-to-one interviews, writing to interested individuals and groups to ask their views and seeking advice from experts on plain language and accessibility.

Having completed this process, the Commission has concluded that the wording of the proposed question itself is brief, uses straightforward language, and is easy to understand and answer. However they also found it could be improved, in particular to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or ambiguity about the current membership status of the UK within the EU. It therefore recommends that the question should be amended to make it more direct and to the point, and to improve clarity and understanding.

The Commission's consultation, analysis and research with the public has not, however, identified a single preferred wording for the question. Because of the complexity of the issues covered by this referendum question, its research suggests that currently, in the context of a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, a question using 'Yes' and' No' as response options would not be able to fully resolve those issues. The Commission's recommendations therefore highlight an important decision for Parliament, as to whether to retain or move away from the UK’s recent experience of referendum questions using 'Yes' and 'No' responses.

If Parliament wishes to retain the use of 'Yes' and 'No' as response options, then the Commission recommends that the referendum question should be amended to: 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?'

However, the Commission's research suggests that some people will perceive either positive or negative associations with the phrase 'remain a member of the European Union', although there was no evidence that this wording resulted in research participants changing their voting preference in any way. If Parliament decides not to retain a referendum question which uses 'Yes' and 'No' as response options, having taken into account the risk of a perception of bias which might be associated with that approach, then the Commission recommends amending the question to: 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?' with 'Remain a member of the European Union' and 'Leave the European Union' as response options.

This alternative version of the referendum question wording was also tested in its research with the public and was considered the most neutral of the questions tested. However, the Commission did not explore the impact of variations to the specific wording of the question and responses, nor did it receive views from would-be referendum campaign organisations about this approach. If Parliament amended the Bill in this way, the Commission would therefore need to undertake a further assessment of the intelligibility of the proposed wording, which it would do as quickly as possible.

The Bill also makes provision for a Welsh version of the referendum question to be included on the ballot paper, although a Welsh translation of the question was not included in the Bill as introduced. Following a request from the hon. Member for Stockton South, and in line with its Welsh Language Scheme, the Commission has also tested as part of its assessment process a translation of the question included in the Bill in Welsh. It is recommending that if the version of the question included on the ballot paper in Welsh is the amended yes/no question, it should be: 'A ddylai'r Deyrnas Unedig ddal i fod yn aelod o'r Undeb Ewropeaidd?' If Parliament decides not to retain the 'Yes' and 'No' question and the question included in the ballot paper in Welsh is the alternative question recommended, then it should be: “A ddylai'r Deyrnas Unedig bara i fod yn aelod o'r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd? Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

Copies of both the full question assessment and the accompanying research report, which sets out in detail the Commission's analysis and the rationale for the recommended changes to the question included in the Bill, can be found on the Commission's website at: www.electoralcommission.org.uk.