David Hannay, member of the House of Lords and former Ambassador to the EU, reviews the progress of the EU Referendum Bill so far and comments on the amendments made by the House of Lords.
On 1 December the House of Lords gave the Government’s EU Referendum Bill its third reading and returned it in amended form to the House of Commons. There is no reason therefore why the Bill should not be on the statute book by the end of the year, thus clearing the way for an in/out referendum to be held at a time of the Government’s choosing before the end of 2017, more likely some time in 2016.
The return of a Conservative government with an overall majority in the House of Commons at May’s general election meant, in constitutional practice, that the in/out referendum promised in the party’s manifesto must be enacted. But that did not mean that the House of Lords could not scrutinise the Bill in detail and, if justified, propose amendments to it. That is precisely what it has now been done, its amendments falling into two main categories, the franchise for the referendum and the information to be provided to the electorate by the Government on the issues at stake.
The Government’s own proposals on the franchise involved some tweaking of the already fairly anomalous categorisation of the electorate by giving the vote to members of the House of Lords and to Gibraltarians. No-one objected to that. But then other, more substantial changes were considered – extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds; giving the vote to British citizens resident in other EU Member States for more than 15 years (a proposal contained in the Conservative party manifesto but not yet acted upon); and giving the vote to EU citizens who had been in this country for more than five years. The first of these proposals, votes for 16 and 17 years-olds, passed with a majority of over 80; it was agreed that experience in Scotland’s 2014 referendum, where this cohort had been given the vote, had shown a substantial and responsible reaction by young voters who were being asked to take a once in a generation, perhaps a once in a lifetime, decision. The other two franchise proposals, regrettably in my view, did not get sufficient support to pass; and a quixotic attempt by Eurosceptics to exclude Irish and Commonwealth citizens from the vote fizzled out.
On the provision of information by the Government to the electorate, there was a widespread feeling that the absence of any statutory requirement in the Bill was a mistake. Evidence from polling showed that many electors said that they did not have sufficient information to make a choice. And, while the two campaigns could be expected to try to fill that vacuum, their contributions would take the form of advocacy rather than of objective, factual information. After lengthy and detailed debates, the Government conceded the main arguments and agreed to amend the Bill to contain a statutory requirements for the following:
i) A report on the outcome of the reform negotiations in Brussels, together with the Government’s view on that outcome;
ii) A report on the rights and obligations of British citizens arising from our EU membership (and those at risk if there were to be a vote to leave). This would cover a wide range of rights, including individual rights, employment rights, environmental rights, access to agricultural, regional and research grants and much more besides;
iii) A report on some of the alternatives to membership currently enjoyed by countries outside the EU.
One further amendment has gone forward to ensure that neither side in the referendum campaign can “game” the process of registration as a designation organisation, either deliberately or by accident, in such a way as to deprive the other side of a free mail-shot and of access to funds from supporters. That should ensure that no such “gaming” takes place.
It is now up to the House of Commons to take a view on these amendments. If they accept them, they will be in the Act; if not the matter will return to the House of Lords. The provisions for the EU referendum we are going to have will depend on the outcome of that process.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick is a member of the House of Lords and is former Ambassador to the UN and the EU.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.