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Electoral Commission gives its advice to Parliament on the European Union referendum question

News release published: 29-10-2013

The Electoral Commission has today given its advice to Parliament on the proposed referendum question in James Wharton MP’s EU (Referendum) Bill, a Private Member’s Bill which has its next parliamentary stage on 8 November.

The question in the Bill tested by the Commission was:

'Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?'

The Commission tested the question with the public through a well-established process to make sure it was clear, unambiguous and to the point.

The research showed that a few people did not know whether or not the UK is currently a member of the EU and this presented a risk of misunderstanding.  However, amending the question to make the UK’s current membership status clear while retaining ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers presented difficulties with some element of perceived bias remaining in each version tested.

The Commission’s recommendations therefore highlight an important decision for Parliament: whether to retain or move away from the UK’s recent experience of  referendum questions using ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ responses.

If Parliament wants to retain the use of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ as response options to the referendum question, then the Commission has recommended that that the question should be amended to:

'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?'

If Parliament decides not to retain a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ question, the Commission has recommended the following referendum question:

'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?'

The responses would be ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ / ‘Leave the European Union’.

Research participants found this the most neutral of all the versions tested.

If this were Parliament’s preferred question, the Commission would carry out further testing immediately if the Bill is amended to ensure voters fully understand the different format and can cast their vote with confidence (see Notes to Editors 8).

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission said: "Any referendum question must be as clear as possible so that voters understand the important choice they are being asked to make. This is why we have rigorously tested the proposed question and have taken voters’ responses and understanding into account in developing alternatives.

"We found that a few people did not understand whether or not the UK was a member of the EU. Providing enough information to make this clear to people creates a risk of a perception of bias for  any question which offers ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ options. That’s why we’re presenting two possible questions to Parliament:  one that keeps with the recent tradition of “yes / no” referendum questions, and an alternative in a different format which was perceived by voters to be more neutral. Parliament will now need to discuss our advice and decide which approach the Bill should take."

Read the Commission’s full question assessment report (PDF) and the research report (PDF) here.

Ends

For further information and to arrange interviews contact Rosemary Davenport in the Electoral Commission press office on 020 7271 0704 (out of office hours 07789 920 414) or rdavenport@electoralcommission.org.uk

Notes to editors

  1. The Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by the UK Parliament. Our aim is integrity and public confidence in the UK’s democratic process. We regulate party and election finance and set standards for well-run elections and are responsible for the conduct and regulations of referendums held under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000).
  2. The Electoral Commission has a statutory responsibility under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) to report on the intelligibility of a question included in a referendum Bill, as soon as practicable once it has been laid before the UK Parliament. This is our 9th referendum question assessment report. This is the first time that we have undertaken an assessment exercise for a question included in a Private Members’ Bill (PMB). Our assessment process commenced once the Bill had received its second reading, on 5 July 2013.
  3. The Commission has an established question assessment process, which involves talking to voters across the UK, asking for advice from accessibility and plain language experts, and contacting political parties and campaigners to seek their views.
  4. The Electoral Commission appointed Independent research agency GfK NOP to carry out a qualitative research exercise to see how people reacted to and understood the question. The testing used a combination of one-to-one in-depth interviews and focus groups to test the question among a sample of participants in a range of locations across the UK. In total there were 15 focus groups, 26 in-depth interviews and 103 mini-depth interviews. 
  5. The Commission’s research with the public found that the wording of the original question is straightforward and easy to understand. This was also true for those participants in Wales who considered the Welsh language version. 
  6. The research found that two phrases in the original question, ‘should be a member’ and ‘do you think’, caused difficulties for some people.  Some research participants said that the use of ‘should be a member’ was unclear because it suggested that the UK is not currently a member of the EU and that the question was asking them if the UK should now join the EU. Others thought the phrase ‘do you think’ was too informal and implied that no action would be taken as a result of a Yes or No vote.
  7. We recommend that the wording of the questions on the ballot paper to be used in Wales should be: A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig ddal i fod yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd?’ The response options to this question would be “Dylai YES” and “Na Ddylai NO” or ‘A ddylai'r Deyrnas Unedig bara i fod yn aelod o'r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd?’ The response options to this question would be “Para i fod yn aelod o'r Undeb Ewropeaidd Remain a member of the European Union” and “Gadael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd Leave the European Union”.
  8. This would involve further research with the public to explore their understanding and attitudes to a question using this format. We would also consult again with potential campaigners and other interested groups or individuals.

Journalist