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Electoral Commission recommends change to EU Referendum question

Published: 01 Sep 2015

The Electoral Commission has today given its statutory advice to Parliament on the proposed referendum question in the European Union Referendum Bill 2015-16, which has its next parliamentary stage (Report) on 7 September.

The question currently in the Bill and that was tested by the Commission was:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”

The responses would be ‘Yes’ / ‘No’

Following its assessment process, the Commission has recommended that the question should be amended to:

‘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’.

The Commission has written to the Government and issued a briefing to all MPs recommending that this change should be made at Report stage of the Bill on 7 September.

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. We have tested the proposed question with voters and received views from potential campaigners, academics and plain language experts.

‘Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias. The alternative question we have recommended addresses this. It is now for Parliament to discuss our advice and decide which question wording should be used.’

The Bill also contains a Welsh language version of the question which would be used on ballot papers in Wales. We tested the Welsh language question and have recommended an amended version.

The Commission’s research

Our assessment found that the wording of the referendum question currently included in the Bill is written in plain language and is easy for people to understand and answer. However, we have concerns, based on our assessment, about the proposed question. This is because of what we heard through the consultation and research about the perception that the question encourages voters to consider one response more favourably than the other. This is in line with our previous research carried out at the time of the 2013 Private Member’s Bill on an EU referendum, details of which can be found on the Commission’s website.

The question currently in the Bill was tested with members of the public and the Commission also sought views from other individuals and groups to make sure the question was clear, unambiguous and to the point. The Commission’s established referendum question assessment guidelines (used for previous referendum Bills, most recently for the Scottish Referendum on independence in 2014) state that the question should be neutral, which means it should not encourage voters to consider one response more favourably than another or mislead voters.

There were two main reasons why consultation respondents and research participants viewed the question as biased – it only sets out the ‘remain’ option in the question, and the ‘yes’ response is for the status quo. Consequently, while the question is not significantly leading, we have concerns about the perception that this question will encourage voters to consider one response more favourably than another. These views raise concerns about the potential legitimacy, in the eyes of those campaigning to leave and some members of the public, of the referendum result – particularly if there was a vote to remain a member of the European Union. The views of campaigners in particular provided an extra dimension that had not been available in our previous assessment.

The Commission tested alternative questions and its assessment suggests that it is possible to ask a question which would not cause comparable concerns about neutrality, whilst also being easily understood. The Commission’s research indicates that the alternative question it has proposed addresses the concerns about potential bias that were expressed.

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

Ends

For further information and to arrange interviews contact Mazida Khatun in the Electoral Commission press office on 020 7271 0704 (out of office hours 07789 920 414) or mkhatun@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 the Commission’s 11th referendum question assessment report.
  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 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 5 focus groups, 24 in-depth interviews and 65 mini-depth interviews.
  5. GfK also conducted our two previous research projects, focused on questions included in a Private Members’ Bill introduced in 2013. We recommended then that the proposed question should be amended to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or ambiguity about the current membership status of the UK within the EU. We provided two alternative question wordings for Parliament to consider, the first of which is the question currently included in the Bill, the second is the question that we are now recommending it be amended to.  We provided two options in 2013 because, as highlighted at the time, we had not been able to fully test the question we are now recommending in the time available to us before we reported. We therefore made clear that, if Parliament amended the question in the Bill to include this wording, we would undertake further work to check whether this wording raised any new issues of intelligibility.
  6. The Commission’s recommended Welsh wording of the question on the ballot paper to be used in Wales is: “A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd? Aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd Gadael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd”
  7. This would not be the first time that a referendum in part of the UK has not used a ‘yes/no’ question. The most recent national referendums not to use ‘yes/no’ were those held in Scotland and Wales in 1997.
  8. The Electoral Commission’s Board considered the findings of the research and approved the recommended question on 17 August 2015. The draft minutes and papers from the Board meeting are available on the Commission’s website.


Journalist