PACAC’s report on the EU referendum opens important questions that deserve further attention

Yesterday, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report (summarised here) on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. Media headlines have focused on the committee’s concerns about possible interference during the referendum campaign by cyber hackers but, as Alan Renwick writes, the report also raised other important issues that deserve further attention.

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) yesterday published a report on the conduct of last year’s EU referendum. The headlines in media reporting of this for the most part highlighted the committee’s concerns about possible interference during the referendum campaign by cyber hackers. But the MPs also draw out various other important lessons that might be learnt for any future referendums held in the UK. These deserve our careful attention.

Many of the proposals ought to be uncontroversial. The committee adds its weight to calls for extension of the so-called ‘purdah’ period – when state resources cannot be used in support of either side in the campaign – beyond the current 28 days. That would prevent any repeat of the pro-Remain leaflet that the government sent to all households last year at a cost of over £9 million to taxpayers. It would be a desirable step – though, as I suggest below, not the only necessary step – towards the creation of a level playing field in referendum campaigns.

The MPs also urge an updating of the purdah rules – written in 2000 – to reflect the realities of campaigning in the digital age. There was confusion last year as to whether those rules allowed a website promoting the government’s position that was created before the ‘purdah’ period to remain live during that period. The committee sensibly argues that his should be reviewed with a view to providing clarity.

Turning to the system for registering to vote, the committee – again very sensibly – argues for changes designed to minimise the danger of any repeat of last year’s website crash, which forced a last-minute extension of the registration deadline just days before the vote took place.

Beyond these important but perhaps rather technical recommendations, the committee also wades intriguingly into much deeper waters regarding the very purposes of holding referendums. It labels the 2016 vote a ‘“bluff-call” referendum’: ‘The UK Government initiated the process which led to the referendum, despite being against the suggested proposal, and with the aim of using a negative result to shut down the debate about the question at issue.’ (paragraph 19).  It describes this as ‘a questionable use of referendums’ and urges ‘future Parliaments and governments to consider the potential consequences of promising referendums, particularly when, as a result, they may be expected to implement an outcome that they opposed’ (paragraph 24).

One of the unfortunate features of political discourse since last June has been a tendency for anyone asking questions about the proper role of referendums to be labelled a ‘Bremoaner’ who cannot accept the expressed will of the people. That PACAC is willing to raise such questions is therefore significant. Its Chair is Bernard Jenkin, who was a Director of Vote Leave. Kate Hoey, a leading figure in the UKIP-backed Grassroots Out group, is also a member, though she was not present at the meeting where the report text was agreed. Of those, besides the Chair, who were present at that meeting and endorsed the report, four backed Leave in the referendum and two supported Remain. By no measure, therefore, could this be labelled a Bremoaner cabal.

The committee is not saying that the question of EU membership should not have been put to UK voters. But its intervention points to the legitimacy of considering how – for what purposes, in what circumstances, and by what mechanisms – any referendum question is put. That is very welcome.

Closely related to this, the committee also points to deficiencies in the information that was available to voters during the campaign. It says:

There could … have been more positive efforts to explain, and therefore to plan for, the consequences for voters in the event of either outcome. This would have required providing impartial consideration of the outcome which the Government clearly did not want. (paragraph 19)

It later adds:

Referendums are the creations of Parliament and the Government. Parliament and the Government are therefore accountable and must take responsibility for the conduct of referendums, and the fairness of the question, and there should be proper information about, and planning for, either outcome. (paragraph 26)

The committee does not spell out exactly what it means by ‘proper information’. But it makes these comments in the context of concerns about the government’s failure to plan for the aftermath of a Leave victory. Its recommendations seem to imply a requirement for government or parliament to set out what it expects will happen in the event that either option put before voters is adopted, and then to ensure that this information is widely available to voters during the campaign.

If this is what the committee members have in mind, it is a very welcome proposal, in line with what happens – to varying degrees and in varying ways – in countries such as Ireland and New Zealand. In these places, impartial information is provided to voters by an official body that is strictly independent of government. That body is charged with setting out the options clearly and in some cases also explaining the arguments relating to these options.

I have for some time argued that something like this could improve how referendums are conducted in the UK. But there are problems. How do we ensure that the information provided by the information body is genuinely unbiased? How, indeed, should ‘unbiased’ even be defined in this context? How do we deal with the fact that parts of the media in the UK have little regard for the truth when it gets in the way of the arguments that they want to promote? Can anything be done about biases that are introduced not by government, but by the structure of the media?

In order to work out how the ideas that PACAC has begun to open up might be further developed, therefore, some very careful thinking is needed. To that end – and in order to examine in depth some of the other issues that the committee’s report touches on – the Constitution Unit will at the start of May begin a research project generously funded by the McDougall Trust that will examine experience in Ireland, New Zealand, and other countries with innovative approaches to referendum conduct. We are also currently assembling an independent Commission on the Role and Conduct of Referendums, which will report in 2018. PACAC’s report has done much important thinking, and raised some key questions for further exploration. Our forthcoming projects will add to that, by exploring further and making concrete proposals on how the conduct of referendums in the UK can be improved.

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

About the author

Dr Alan Renwick is the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.

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