How can referendums in the UK be improved? Lessons learned from the EU referendum

Today, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. The report touches on a variety of areas in relation to the conduct of referendums, including the role of referendums, the role of the civil service during referendum campaigns and cyber security. PACAC’s chair, Bernard Jenkin, outlines his committee’s findings, which they hope that the government will take heed of so that the country is ready for any future referendums.

Today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has published its latest report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. With Holyrood demanding a new Scottish independence referendum, it is clear that referendums have become a permanent part of the UK’s democratic system, with major implications for our system, which is based on representative democracy. PACAC’s report highlights the importance of clarity in relation to the role and purpose of referendums, and ensuring that referendums are conducted fairly and effectively.

PACAC argues that referendums are appropriate for resolving questions of key constitutional importance that cannot be resolved through the usual medium of party politics. PACAC also argues, however, that referendums are less satisfactory in the case of what might be called a ‘bluff call’ referendum when, as last June, the referendum is used by the government to try to close down an unwelcome debate. As well as a clear question, the outcome in either case must also be clear. That means there should be more clarity and planning by the government holding the referendum, so there is less of a crisis of uncertainty if they don’t get the answer they want, as in the EU referendum.

PACAC considered four other areas in relation to the conduct of referendums: the fairness of the so-called ‘purdah’ period; the administration of the referendum; the role of the civil service during a referendum campaign; and cyber security.

On purdah, the government claimed at the time that the purdah provisions would impair the functioning of government. However, these provisions were of critical importance to the fair conduct of the referendum. The purdah provisions should be strengthened and clarified for future referendums and PACAC supports the Law Commission’s proposals to consolidate the law regulating the conduct of referendums. Additionally, PACAC asserts that the purdah restrictions should be updated to reflect the digital age, and extended to cover the full ten weeks of the referendum period, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

With regard to the administration of the referendum, the evidence gathered during PACAC’s inquiry suggests that, while not without some faults, the EU referendum was on the whole run well.  PACAC commends the Electoral Commission for the successful delivery of the referendum, which was of enormous scale and complexity.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned to improve planning and delivery in the future. During the EU referendum, one of the most significant problems was the collapse of the voter registration website, just hours before the registration deadline on 7 June. The government said that the collapse of the website was caused by ‘unprecedented demand’, with 515,256 online applications to register to vote recorded on 7 June alone.

According to the Electoral Commission, the problems that led to the website’s crash were aggravated by a large number of duplicate applications to register to vote. 38 per cent of applications made during the campaign were duplicate applications.  PACAC supports the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that the government should develop an online service to enable people to check whether they are already correctly registered to vote. This would be of invaluable assistance in preventing the Register to Vote website from collapsing again in the future, though PACAC says that the possibility of this collapse being the result of a cyber-attack cannot be ruled out. This is because the crash had indications of being a DDOS (distributed denial of service) ‘attack’, which PACAC understands is common and easy to do with botnets.

Another area PACAC identifies as requiring improvement is the designation process. During its inquiry, witnesses from both Britain Stronger In Europe and Vote Leave argued that there was a lack of clarity on the criteria used to designate campaigns. Additionally, Vote Leave argued that earlier designation would have been fairer, as the late date of designation brought several budgeting and cash-flow issues. PACAC recommend that the Electoral Commission review the designation process to examine where greater transparency could be achieved. This review should address whether earlier designation would have been fairer, and whether there should be a more explicit fit and proper person test for those applying for designation.

On the role of the civil service during referendum campaigns, PACAC regrets that the government did not accept the recommendation made by its predecessor committee, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), that there should be a new paragraph in the Civil Service Code to clarify the role and conduct of civil servants during referendums. The manner of the presentation of some government reports, particularly those from the Treasury (which have proved to be so inaccurate), and the decision to spend £9.3 million on sending a leaflet to all UK households advocating a Remain vote, were inappropriate and undermined public confidence in civil service impartiality. By clarifying the role of civil servants during a referendum campaign, PASC’s recommendation would have helped to avoid such controversies.

On cyber security, PACAC argues that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in referendums or elections. Lessons with regards to the protection and resilience of IT systems against possible foreign interference must also extend beyond the technical as while the US and UK understanding of cyber is predominantly technical and computer-network based, Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding mass psychology and how to exploit individuals.  PACAC commends the government for promoting cyber security as a major issue for the UK, but argue that more must be done and that permanent machinery for monitoring cyber security in respect of elections and referendums should be established.

As alluded to already, PACAC is critical of the government’s lack of contingency planning for a Leave vote. In the run up to the 1975 referendum, Whitehall prepared for a possible UK exit from the Common Market with a ‘fairly intensive’ programme of Cabinet Office led contingency planning. In contrast, in the run up to the EU referendum last June, PACAC was alarmed to learn that the government’s official position was that there would be no contingency planning. The only exception to this policy was planning within the Treasury to anticipate the impact of a Leave vote on the UK’s financial stability. Although PACAC was relieved to learn that work was undertaken within the civil service on the potential implications of a Leave vote, civil servants should never have been asked to operate in a climate where contingency planning was banned. PACAC recommend that in the event of future referendums, civil servants should be tasked with preparing for both possible outcomes.

It is essential that referendums are well run, that they are conducted fairly, and that they command public trust and confidence.  PACAC hopes, therefore, that the government takes heed of its recommendations, so that the country is ready for any further referendums in the future.

PACAC’s full report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum can be read here.

About the author

Bernard Jenkin MP is the Chair of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee and the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex.

One thought on “How can referendums in the UK be improved? Lessons learned from the EU referendum

  1. A shocking whitewash. History is written by the victors – Winston Churchill. Although this report owes more to Donald Trump than Churchill

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