Report: The costs of delivering the June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union

About this report and about the referendum

This report sets out the operational cost of running the referendum. The objective of publishing this information is to ensure transparency and accountability in the use of public funds in the running of major polls. This report covers:

the Electoral Commission’s costs, including grants given to the designated lead campaigners the costs of mailings for the designated lead campaigners the costs of RCOs and COs

Although we published a costs report following the last UK wide referendum in May 2011 (on the UK Parliamentary voting system), we haven’t carried out comparisons between the costs of that poll in 2011 and the costs of the referendum in 2016. The referendum of May 2011 was held on the same day as a number of other elections, which meant that many of the costs incurred in running the referendum, such as the hire of polling stations and count venues, were shared with those other elections. As a result it is difficult to compare the figures in any meaningful way.

We are publishing this report now as we have only recently settled the final claims from COs. Completing the claims process took longer than originally thought as the majority of claims were submitted close to the deadline and generated more queries than had been anticipated. As a result, our analysis of the claims was delayed. The announcement of the early UK Parliamentary General Election in April 2017 also exacerbated this as resources had to be diverted – by both local authorities and the Commission – to ensure the successful delivery of that poll.

This report does not cover spending by campaigners or referendum campaign broadcast costs.

Details of the expenditure of registered campaigners, including designated lead campaigners, are available on our searchable online database, PEF Online,  and are discussed in more detail in our ‘Report on the regulation of campaigners at the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union held on 23 June 2016’ (March 2017).

Our report on the EU referendum, published in September 2016,  provides an analysis of the administration of the referendum. This included the experience of voters and campaigners, the management and delivery of the poll, the regulation of campaigners at the referendum and the provision of information for voters.

At the referendum on 23 June 2016:

  • a total of 46,500,001 people were registered to vote
  • 33,577,342 electors cast a vote – a turnout of 72.2%
  • 16,141,241 people voted Remain – 48.1% of all valid votes
  • 17,410,742 people voted Leave – 51.9% of all valid votes
  • there were 25,359 rejected ballot papers
  • 382 COs set up 41,050 polling stations
  • 107,100 staff worked in those polling stations
  • over 51,500 staff worked on verifying and counting the ballot papers
  • over 8.5 million postal votes were issued to electors, representing 18.4% of the UK electorate, of which 7.3 million (87.6%) were returned
  • there were 123 registered campaign groups, and two official lead campaign groups were designated by the Electoral Commission:
    • Vote Leave
    • Britain Stronger in Europe (Britain Stronger in Europe was the campaign name for The In Campaign Ltd)
  • the Electoral Commission distributed 28 million information booklets to households across the UK

View the local totals for all voting areas and the overall result.

Referendum total cost and cost breakdown

Cost of the referendum

The total cost of the conduct of the referendum was £129.128m.

Cost breakdown

£7.998m in operating costs by the Electoral Commission, including:

  • £1.642m direct staff costs
  • £6.025m public awareness activity costs
  • £0.331m costs of the administration of RCO and CO claims

£26.589, relating to the designated organisations:

  • £1.200m grants to Designated Organisations
  • £25.389m in designated organisation mailings and other Royal Mail costs

£94.541m in CO and RCO costs including:

  • polling station costs
  • postal vote costs
  • poll card costs
  • count costs
  • fees for RCO and CO services

A more detailed breakdown per category can be found in section 3: The cost of the referendum.

Detailed information about how the referendum was funded

Legislation enacted by the UK Parliament, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), sets out the legal framework for referendums and gives the Electoral Commission specific responsibilities. It also specifies that there will be a Chief Counting Officer (CCO), with overall responsibility for running a referendum.

Before a referendum under this legislative framework can take place, specific additional legislation is needed, covering details such as:

  • the date of the referendum
  • the referendum question
  • specific rules for running the referendum

The UK Government was responsible for the detailed legislation for this referendum. The European Union Referendum Bill was introduced to Parliament on 28 May 2015 and passed into law on 17 December 2015.

Several pieces of secondary legislation were also required before the referendum could take place. This included regulations to specify the detailed rules for the administration of the poll and to provide funding for the Counting Officers (COs) and Regional Counting Officers (RCOs) to deliver the referendum.

The European Union Referendum Act 2015 enabled the CCO to appoint an RCO for each of the eleven electoral regions in Great Britain. These regions were the same as those used for European Parliamentary elections. There were nine regions in England, with Gibraltar included in the South West electoral region, plus Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland was a single voting area, with the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland as the CO.

The European Union Referendum (Conduct) Regulations 2016, which were made on 25 February 2016, specified the rules for the administration of the poll and were largely modelled on those used for the May 2011 referendum on the voting system for UK Parliamentary elections.

The funding allocation for the EU Referendum followed the existing framework established by the UK Government for the funding of both UK Parliamentary and European Parliamentary elections. Under this framework the Cabinet Office calculated a Maximum Recoverable Amount (MRA) for each Counting Officer and Regional Counting Officer within which they could allocate resources as they saw fit, provided that sums spent were necessary for the efficient and effective conduct of the referendum. This calculation of the overall MRA by the Cabinet Office was based on the amount actually spent for the last relevant national poll, adjusted for factors such as inflation and other increased costs.

The European Union Referendum (Counting Officers’ and Regional Counting Officers’ Charges) Regulations 2016, which were made on 22 March 2016, set out how the MRAs RCOs and COs could recover for their costs in running the referendum.  This included both their personal services in delivering those roles and the expenses they incurred in administering the poll.

In addition, with the consent of the Treasury, we were able to authorise the payment of more than the MRA if we were satisfied that it was necessary to incur the expense for the efficient and effective conduct of the referendum and the charge for it was reasonable.

Legislative requirements, along with directions issued by the CCO, determined some of the costs that needed to be incurred. These included the need to provide staff and venues, and the number that should be provided. COs were able to control other costs incurred by decisions taken locally. For example, some local authorities were able to negotiate costs for the hire of polling stations.

We were given responsibility for administering the process by which RCOs and COs were paid their fees and reimbursed for their costs in running the referendum. We were also given powers to make regulations setting out the detailed procedures for that process.  We did this in The Counting Officers’, Regional Counting Officers’ and Chief Counting Officer’s Accounts (European Union Referendum) Regulations 2016.

In March 2016 we published comprehensive guidance for RCOs and COs on how they should account for their expenditure, and to support them with the process of submitting their claims.

In line with the UK Government’s previous practice, once we had the statutory authority to do so, we paid COs an advance of 75% of their MRA from April 2016. The purpose of this was to allow COs to meet any immediate pre-poll costs and pay for staff, venues, equipment and other services immediately after the poll.

That left the remaining 25% of the MRA for each CO to be reimbursed as soon as their claim was submitted and settled. Also in line with previous practice, we allowed COs who thought their 75% advance would be insufficient to meet their immediate costs to apply for an increased advance (up to 90% of the MRA in total). No CO took advantage of this facility.

Processing of claims

As had been the case in 2011, we engaged the Elections Claims Unit (ECU), part of the Cabinet Office, as subject matter experts to receive and process claims from COs for reimbursement of their costs. The cost for ECU’s services, which included staffing, accommodation and associated administrative costs, was £0.331m.

COs were asked to submit referendum claims to the ECU within 6 months of the date of the poll. This made the deadline 23 December 2016. The ECU was then responsible for checking that:

  • costs had been accounted for correctly
  • the necessary supporting evidence had been supplied
  • the items claimed were reimbursable in line with the guidance we had provided

As part of this process the ECU was able to request additional information or evidence from COs and query items of expenditure.

The ECU followed the model of three levels of scrutiny introduced by the Cabinet Office in 2014. The three levels were: plain accounts, light touch and full scrutiny. Each level of scrutiny had different requirements for supporting evidence. While in every category a Counting Officer was required to account for their expenditure, those in the Plain Accounts scrutiny category only needed to supply invoices etc. for IT services and payments to staff in excess of £2,500. Those in the Light Touch category had to supply the same information but additionally had to supply invoices/receipts, etc. for the costs of printing and postage. Counting Officers in the Full Scrutiny category were required to supply receipts/invoices, etc. for all their expenditure associated with the referendum. A risk based approach was adopted to selecting which category a CO would be placed in. This was supplemented by a system of random selection. View a full list of the category of scrutiny allocated to each voting area.  Any CO exceeding the MRA was automatically subjected to a full scrutiny review.

Once the ECU had scrutinised a claim and all queries were resolved, we were responsible for approving the final settlement and raising the payment of the remaining balance to the CO, or requesting any reimbursement of funds that might be due.  Where the final amount agreed was greater than the MRA, final payment was subject to approval by the Treasury.

Breakdown of our total costs

Referendum costs

Our total expenditure for the EU Referendum was £129.090m.

£m 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18 Total
Lead campaigner grants 0.000 1.2000 0.000 1.2000
EC public awareness
(a credit is shown for public awareness in 2017-18 due to the receipt of a credit note from the advertiser)
0.802 5.252 -0.029 6.025
EC staffing and operational costs 0.287 1.463 0.223 1.973
RCO and CO fees and charges 0.000 94.541 0.000 94.541
Royal Mail costs 0.000 25.389 0.000 25.398
Total 1.089 127.845 0.94 129.128

The Electoral Commission is not VAT registered therefore all costs shown are inclusive of VAT where applicable.

Further details of our activity, performance and use of financial resources (including detailed financial statements) can be found in our Annual Report, which is published yearly.

Details of Royal Mail costs

We used the services of Royal Mail Ltd as the universal service provider to deliver the designated lead campaigners’ mailings. Funding was provided from the Consolidated Fund for both the Leave and Remain designated organisations to exercise their statutory entitlement to send a referendum address to every household or elector.

Final day sweeps and International Business Response Licences also incurred costs. Final day sweeps take place on polling day, when Royal Mail check their sorting offices for postal vote packs that have been posted very close to, or on, polling day. The sweeps ensure that those votes are delivered to the relevant CO before the close of the poll, so that they can be included in the count. The costs incurred in relation to the International Business Response Licence were to enable overseas electors to be able to return their votes on a “reply-paid” basis.

The total cost amounted to £25.389m. The table below shows a detailed breakdown of this cost:

Description Cost (£m)
(All costs are inclusive of VAT at 20%)
Campaign mailings 24.681
Administration fee 0.444
Final day sweeps 0.202
International Business Response Licence (overseas voters) 0.063
Total 25.389