An independent commission on referendums has joined calls for changes to the rules governing what civil servants can do in the run up to a referendum.
The panel, which included former Conservative ministers Dominic Grive and Cheryl Gillan as well as former Labour minister Gisela Stuart, called for “wholesale” reform of referendum laws, including extending the period during which officials and special advisers cannot publish any information related to the referendum debate, and a revision of the Civil Service Code to clarify what is expected of officials during a campaign.
In a report published today, the commission also called for the Electoral Commission to be given powers to hand out injunctions if the rules are breached.
University College London's Independent Commission on Referendum is the first major review of referendums since the Committee of Standards in Public Life undertook a 1998 examination that led to the current legislation which governs campaigns – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. CSW understands that UCL's commission has already briefed Cabinet Office officials and members of the Scottish and Welsh government on their findings.
Sir Joseph Pilling, former permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Office and chair of the commission, said: “It is clear that referendums have become a key part of the democratic process – but a lot has changed over the past 20 years. The rules governing the role and conduct of referendums are outdated, not least because of the rise of the internet and social media.
"Our recommendations stem from three core points: first, that referendums are best seen as co-existing alongside, rather than replacing, representative institutions; second, that they should be conducted in a way that is fair between the competing sides and effective in giving voters the information they want; and third, that the rules should keep up with rapid changes in online campaigning.”
The commission, which also included senior media figures, and electoral and polling experts, called for changes to laws around digital political advertising, and said that referendums should only be held after proper preparations have been made for their outcome.
“A referendum should always be seen as part of a wider process of decision-making rather than as a ‘quick x’ solution,” the report said. “In the UK, referendums that were preceded by significant preparation and consideration have proved more likely to settle an issue. The failure to undertake the necessary preparation for a referendum risks significant problems later in the policy process.”
Dr Alan Renwick, research director for the commission and deputy director UCL’s Constitution Unit said: “We need to extend the opportunities people have to participate in democratic decision-making, but referendums on their own are not always the best way to achieve that.
"Democracy requires listening, discussing, arguing, and compromising, as well as voting. If we want policy-making really to respond to the public’s needs and wishes, we should help people participate in every stage of the discussion. Innovative democratic processes such as citizens’ assemblies could be used ahead of future referendums to consider the issues and work out what the options should be – as was done successfully before Ireland’s recent referendum on abortion. This could also pave the way for referendum campaigns based on evidence and reasoned argument.”
The commission also called for greater transparency and accountability around referendum campaigns, including applying a ‘fit and proper’ person test to board members of groups applying to be lead campaigners.
The commission recommended that restrictions on government activity during a referendum should be extended to cover the whole campaign period – rather than just the last four weeks – but restricted specifically to campaigning for one or other side so that this extended period does not hamper government's day-to-day work
It also suggested there could be specific exemptions from the pre-referendum restrictions for certain bodies who may receive public funding but also have a role in communicating necessary information during the course of the referendum and recommended that “there should be a new paragraph of the Civil Service Code which claries the appropriate role and conduct of civil servants during referendum campaigns.”
These recommendations echo recommendations made by Public Administration and Select Committee in April 2017. In a report calling for an extension to the pre-referendum restrictions, the committee said: “The absence of a longer purdah period enables the government and other relevant public bodies to produce promotional material during most of the referendum campaign period, a situation that is far from satisfactory.
“Nothing but the government’s political intentions are served by maintaining the 28-day purdah period."