Debating the EU Referendum Bill – Part 2

01 July 2015

Article by Aled McKenzie, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Picture of Houses of Parliament

Image from Flikr by Shane Global. Licensed under the Creative Commons

As discussed in a previous blog, the EU referendum Bill has reached the Committee Stage of debate in the House of Commons. Following on from scrutiny on 16 June, Debate continued on 18 June as more issues were debated.

Date

The UK Government tabled amendment 55 to rule out a date clash with the other elections scheduled for 5 May 2016, which include the National Assembly elections. This was welcomed by the Opposition. However, some have expressed concerns that the UK Government has refused to rule out holding the referendum on the same date as many of the UK’s local elections which will be held in May 2017*. Kelvin Hopkins MP stated “no other elections should be held on that day; we want a unique day for that vote”, and Pat McFadden MP said “in a referendum the focus is different” from an election.

As pointed out by Labour’s Mike Gapes MP, it is not only the local elections in the UK that could end up clashing with the date of the EU referendum. The French Presidential and German Federal elections will be taking place in 2017, and Gapes said he fears that the Ministers in these countries will be “somewhat exercised and diverted from considering matters to do with the possible negotiated terms, or the nature of the negotiation, if we had not yet set the date for our referendum”. He also pointed out there could be problems in Brussels as well as in Paris and Berlin if the referendum is held in late 2017, as Britain will be taking over the presidency of the Council of the European Union (often called the Council of Ministers) in the last six months of that year. He said:

We are debating the period of purdah. Just imagine what would happen if there were a meeting of the Council of Ministers in September 2017 and the referendum were to be held within 28 days of that meeting, in the October. What would Ministers be able to do or say during that period? Those Council of Ministers meetings have to be convened and chaired by the appropriate representative of the rotating six-month presidency, and there would have to be a British Minister present to represent the interests of the UK Government. What could those Ministers and their officials say and do during that period? There would be enormous complications if the Bill were to lead to a referendum being held in the last few months of 2017.

Franchise

As said in an earlier blog**, Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK and Gibraltar will be given the right to vote. However, as pointed out by Stephen Phillips MP, who is and isn’t a Commonwealth citizen when it comes to voting is unclear. Zimbabwe was first suspended from, and later withdrew from the Commonwealth. Yet Zimbabwean citizens retain their voting rights when it comes to voting in UK elections. Gambian citizens also, despite the country leaving the Commonwealth in 2013 retain their voting rights, with the UK Government claiming they will remove it at the next “suitable opportunity”.

The issue of EU citizens being unable to vote (unless they have Irish, Maltese or Cypriot citizenship) was raised again during the debate. Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said EU citizens resident in the UK would have “a very big stake” in the forthcoming referendum as “they will no longer have the automatic right to live and work in the UK” if the UK leaves the EU. Pat McFadden MP said Labour would not support extending the franchise to EU nationals as referendums held in other European countries have not included them in the franchise.

Support for lowering the voting age has had cross party support during debate on the subject. The Conservative position is for the voting age to remain the same, despite several Conservatives such as Sarah Wollaston MP stating they were in favour of lowering the voting age. Likewise, certain Labour MPs deviated from the party’s position on lowering the voting age. Barry Sheerman MP believed lowering the voting age could leave 16 and 17 year olds vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Conduct and Spending Regulations

Sir Edward Leigh MP raised the issue of how the funding for each campaign could be unequal due to the amounts the individual parties can spend during the campaign. He claimed the Yes campaign could likely have up to £17 million whereas the No campaign would likely have only £8 million. This is due to how political parties are permitted to spend a certain amount on supporting either side of the referendum campaign, and how much they can spend is determined by how many votes they received at the previous general election. He believes this could “affect the outcome” and that people will perceive the campaign as being unfair towards the No campaign. He has also raised concerns that this could lead to an increase in support for UKIP.

John McDonnell MP talked of the possibility of introducing electronic voting for this referendum, in the hope that it will modernise the system and increase turnout. The Minister for Europe said he was not “wholly unsympathetic” to the idea of electronic voting but said he had several concerns, primarily that the system could be subject to fraud. He was also not convinced it would lead to an increase in turnout, as some have claimed.

The next stage of debate will not be until the autumn, in order for the UK Government to consult colleagues and bring forward further amendments on some of the issues raised.

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