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EU Referendum shows ‘clear legal framework’ needed in future

The EU Referendum shows the need for a clear legal framework for future referendums, the Electoral Commission has said.

The commission’s report into how the referendum, which led to the UK voting to leave the European Union, was run concluded that it was successful overall. A survey of members of the public found that 77% said they were very or fairly confident that the referendum was well-run.

However, the report said: “To provide additional clarity the UK government should establish a clear standard legal framework for the conduct and regulation of future referendums.”

It recommended incorporating recent amendments to the legislation covering referendums into the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act now, instead of at the time of a future referendum.

These cover areas including the role of regional counting officers, the rules for campaigners working together and a requirement for referendum campaigners to report donations during the pre-poll period.

In addition, it said that primary legislation governing electoral registers, entitlement to absent voting, core polling rules and electoral offences should be explicitly expanded to cover referendums.

Any proposals from the government to give additional grants to electoral registration officers for campaigns promoting voter registration should be announced at least six months in advance, in order to ensure the campaigns are as successful and cost-efficient as possible, the commission added.

The Electoral Reform Society has called the conduct of the EU referendum “dire”, arguing the public were ill-informed about the arguments on both side. It said all referendums should be subject to three-month legislative scrutiny, followed by a campaign period of at least six months.

The commission said it would be “inappropriate” for it to comment on criticisms of the accuracy of both sides’ arguments, but it would be “happy to contribute” to any consultation about this area before a future referendum.

Overall, the report praised the government for “mak[ing] use of each and every available communications channel… to drive voter registration”, and said similar high-profile registration campaigns should be standard practice in future elections.

Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission and chief counting officer for the EU Referendum, said: “The successful delivery of the referendum was thanks to the over 100,000 members of staff who were working in around 41,000 polling stations across the UK and Gibraltar. Voters would not have seen the scale and complexity of the efforts that went into planning the poll from months before the date but I am grateful for all their work which makes democracy a reality for all of us.

“Looking ahead to future referendums, it is evident that the restrictions on publicly funded promotional activity could usefully be clarified ahead to make clear which activities are restricted, and when the restrictions apply, as well as who is responsible for enforcing the restrictions, and what the penalties would be for any breach of the restrictions.

“Lessons are learned from each referendum to further improve planning and delivery. The UK government should ensure these lessons are incorporated into the standard rules for referendums now to remove ambiguity, as was the case for the EU Referendum.”

(Image c. Daniel Leal-Olivas from PA Wire and Press Association Images)

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