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Whilst Prime Minister David Cameron might himself be a pro-European figurehead, his party are not united on the subject matter and with growing tensions and a growing public appetite for minor parties, the Manifesto pledge was made, by 2017 the UK would hold an ‘In/Out’ referendum deciding its Union fate.
European Union Referendum Bill 2015-2016
On 28 May 2015, the European Union Referendum Bill 2015-2016 was introduced to Parliament, receiving a massive majority in the House of Commons. The Bill details the way in which the campaigns must be held, this includes; conduct, financing and donations.
Perhaps most importantly, the Bill confirms the question that will be put to voters on the referendum ballot paper under section 1 of the Bill:
Before the final Bill was decided, a number of contentious issues were raised at the second reading of the Bill (9 June 2015). The key points of interest were:
Will 16 and 17 year olds be able to vote?
Perhaps the most contentious issue was that of voting age, would 16 and 17 year olds be able to vote? The Liberal Democrats, Labour and SNP all favour lowering the national voting age, whilst the Conservatives have opposed this, although several high profile MPs did defy party Whips and position themselves in camp 16-17, most notably was Dr Sarah Wollaston MP (Totnes). Wallaston clarified her position during an interview with the Torquay Herald Express:
There was, however, fierce debate about who should be included in the franchise and on this I think we should look at the experience in Scotland, where including 16 and 17 year olds was enormously positive.
It’s interesting to note nearly a quarter of 16 year olds are expected to live to 100 and the vast majority will be living with consequences of the EU referendum for far longer than the MPs and Lords who will be setting the rules.
Those consequences will be profound for our young people and as such I believe they should be fully included in the debate and given a voice.
Other notable voices during the ‘Age Debate’ came from former SNP leader, Alex Salmond MP (Gordon), who ignited fear factor tactics for the Labour party. During the debate, Paul Farrelly directed the following question to Mr Salmond:
Paul Farrelly: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Conservative Government are playing into his hands in alienating 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland from decisions taken in this Parliament?
Alex Salmond: Both the Conservative and Labour parties have played into the Scottish National party’s hands on many occasions, but this issue is so important that I appeal to the Foreign Secretary not to play into our hands but to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum.
Final decision: The Government has stated that the current voting age of 18 years old will remain. If 16 and 17 year olds were to be included in the voting demographic statutory amendment would be required. The Government has stated this is not the time to do that.
Notably however, Europe minister David Lidington has now opened the door for legislation to be introduced on the issue at a later date.
What will happen during purdah and the civil service?
As it currently stands the Bill coincides with the period before an election or referendum, purdah, during which the Government are forbidden from making major announcements and the civil service is effectively suspended.
The fear is that if purdah is not respected, it would likely cast suspicion over any referendum result (as brought before the House of Commons by former Attorney General, the Rt. Hon. Dominic Grieve QC MP during the Bill’s second reading).
Final decision: As of 16 June 2015, it was announced that the issue of purdah would be readdressed during the Bill’s Report Stage in “autumn”. A spokeswoman speaking on behalf of the Government said: “We want to make sure we get it right”.
Who will make up the democratic franchise?
The SNP led the way on this point of contention; Alex Salmond MP, the SNP spokesperson on Europe pointed out that under the Westminster franchise, six ex-prisoners would be allowed to vote.
Alex Salmond: The franchise to be used is not the general election franchise, because Members of the House of Lords are to be empowered to vote. I know that Conservative Members are frightfully worried about the idea of prisoners being accorded the right to vote because of the European convention, but there are six ex-prisoners in the House of Lords who will be enfranchised by the Foreign Secretary’s proposals.
Final decision: The Government has favoured the Westminster franchise for the referendum, the same group of voters allowed to vote at the General Election, with a small amendment; the franchise is being extended for peers.
However, the SNP has tabled an amendment (amendment 18) which would change the Bill to allow all European voters a chance participate. Alex Salmond pointed out the Government could face a legal challenge given that Maltese and Cypriot voters would be allowed to vote (given their Commonwealth connections), but not other European nationalities.
It is unlikely that the amendment will pass.
What date will the referendum take place on?
A number of MPs from the devolved regions have expressed concern that the Bill does not explicitly prevent the referendum being held on the same day as any other elections, principally the London Mayor, Northern Ireland Assembly, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May 2016, and local elections on 4 May 2017.
Green MP Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion) has tabled amendment 17 which prevents the referendum from taking place on the day of an election in one of the devolved regions.
During PMQs, Cameron stated that:
“I do not think it should be determined by the timing of other elections. It was possible to have the AV vote and other elections on the same day…people are capable of making two decisions”
The statement has come across adversely for what has been a highly favoured amendment proposal.
Final decision: On Monday (15 June), the Government conceded to requests and tabled an amendment that will ensure the referendum is not held on 5 May 2016, leaving September 2016 and May 2017 as the potential dates for voting.
The Double Lock
Another SNP led amendment tabled by Alex Salmond is amendment 16 which changes the thresholds required for an ‘out’ referendum result.
Salmond’s amendment imposes a double majority requirement for withdrawal which would have to be supported by a majority of the whole of the UK and majorities in each of its four constituent parts (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).
Salmond argued: “It would be outrageous, disgraceful, undemocratic and unacceptable to drag Scotland out of the European Union against the wishes and will of the Scottish people.”
Final decision: As it stands, prior to any debated amendment, there is no voting threshold for the referendum in the Bill. The United Kingdom will make a unified decision, per vote –strong union rhetoric from the Government. It is also unlikely that amendment 16 would gather support from English MPs.
The proposition was rebutted by Labour MP, Mike Grapes (Illford South), who stated during the debate:
Mike Gapes: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He is surely aware that the population of London, which is the powerhouse of our economy and dependent on relations with the European Union, is almost double that of Scotland. Using his argument, should not London have a separate say too?
Referendum Bill and parliamentary timeline:
Final comment… for now
It is worth mentioning that the above timeline is not completely confirmed. Much of the progress of the Bill will be dependent on how smoothly and quickly the debates in both the House of Commons and House of Lords can take place.
The House of Lords has also been somewhat of a contentious topic. It is no secret that the Government can expect opposition on the Bill from the House of Lords. Opposition is expected because members of the House have stated that the Government has no majority in the ‘other place’ (Commons).
However given the Conservative’s democratic mandate on this issue and the Salisbury convention which ensures that major Government Bills (often made during Election Manifestos) are able to move through the Lords regardless of whether the Governing party hold a majority in the house, it is unlikely peers will derail the Government’s plans notably, although could tweak significant elements if the Commons do not make progress.
Salisbury Convention: In practice, it means that the House of Lords do not try to vote down at second or third reading, a Government Bill mentioned in an election manifesto.
Extra pressure will be put on Backbench MPs to ensure they follow the party line. More than ever, the Whips will be needed to ensure rebel back benching is kept to a minimum. The Government will be keen to ensure that the referendum is held as quickly as possible, before too much momentum for the ‘No’ camp is gained. This will require quick succinct amendments and a timely passing of the Bill gaining assent, however with the Bill being such an emotional and heavy weighted subject matter, the likelihood of the Prime Minister experiencing an “easy ride”, is somewhat optimistic.