Referendums in the United Kingdom - Constitution Committee Contents

CHAPTER 7: Summary of Recommendations

Referendums—Arguments for and against

209.  The balance of the evidence that we have heard leads us to the conclusion that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums. In particular, we regret the ad hoc manner in which referendums have been used, often as a tactical device, by the government of the day. Referendums may become a part of the UK's political and constitutional practice. Where possible, cross-party agreement should be sought as to the circumstances in which it is appropriate for referendums to be used. (Para 62)

Referendums on constitutional issues

210.  Notwithstanding our view that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums, we acknowledge arguments that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues. We do not believe that it is possible to provide a precise definition of what constitutes a "fundamental constitutional issue". Nonetheless, we would consider to fall within this definition any proposals:

·  To abolish the Monarchy;

·  To leave the European Union;

·  For any of the nations of the UK to secede from the Union;

·  To abolish either House of Parliament;

·  To change the electoral system for the House of Commons;

·  To adopt a written constitution; and

·  To change the UK's system of currency.

This is not a definitive list of fundamental constitutional issues, nor is it intended to be. (Para 94)

211.  A written constitution could provide a more precise definition of a "constitutional issue", and define which issues required a referendum before any change. The arguments for and against introducing a written constitution are outwith the scope of this inquiry. (Para 102)

212.  It is possible to set out in legislation specific issues which should be subject to a referendum, as has been done in the past. Although one Parliament cannot bind another, Parliament might not lightly repeal such legislation. But, since it is impossible precisely to define what constitutes a "fundamental constitutional issue", it follows that it is impossible to set out in legislation an all-encompassing list of such issues that should be subject to a referendum. (Para 111)

213.  Parliament should judge what issues will be the subject of referendums. In its first report, this Committee stated that it would "focus on issues of constitutional significance" determined by whether an issue raises "an important question of principle about a principal part of the constitution".[28] We believe that this provides a useful test, first, of whether an issue is of fundamental constitutional significance, and second, of whether a referendum is therefore appropriate. (Para 118)

Other uses of referendums

214.  Given our concerns about the use of referendums, we are not convinced by the arguments in favour of citizens' initiatives. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that there is a need to encourage greater citizen engagement in the democratic process. The use of such tools as citizens' assemblies and citizens' juries may be worthy of consideration in this regard. (Para 130)

215.  We do not believe that local referendums are the most effective way of increasing citizen engagement with the local democratic process. (Para 140)

216.  We recommend that referendums should not be held on the same day as General Elections. For other elections we recommend there should be a presumption against holding referendums on the same day as elections but that this should be judged on a case-by-case basis by the Electoral Commission. (Para 145)

217.  Notwithstanding the Electoral Commission's assessment that it was extremely unlikely that a Secretary of State would ignore its advice on the wording of the referendum question we recommend that, rather than the Government making the final decision, the Electoral Commission should be given a statutory responsibility to formulate referendum questions which should then be presented to Parliament for approval. (Para 154)

218.  We recommend that the presumption should be in favour of questions posing only two options for voters but recognise that there may be occasions when multi-option questions are preferable. We look to the Electoral Commission to assess the merits of multi-option questions in their referendum question assessment exercise. (Para 159)

219.  We are concerned about the effectiveness of the regulation of information provision in UK referendums. We commend the model provided by the 1992-3 electoral reform referendums in New Zealand when an independent body provided information and ran the public education process. (Para 167)

220.  Current regulation governing funding and campaigning in a referendum has not yet been tested in a national referendum. We note the concerns about the possible loopholes in the provisions of the PPERA relating to the funding of referendum campaigns. We welcome the Electoral Commission's decision to make its decision-making relating to designating lead campaign groups more transparent. (Para 175)

221.  Current regulation regarding the role of government and political parties in a referendum has not yet been tested in a national referendum. Whatever role government and political parties play, it is necessary to ensure that the referendum process is seen by all to be fair. (Para 179)

222.  We recommend that there should be a general presumption against the use of voter turnout thresholds and supermajorities. We recognise however that there may be exceptional circumstances in which they may be deemed appropriate. (Para 189)

223.  We recognise that because of the sovereignty of Parliament, referendums cannot be legally binding in the UK, and are therefore advisory. However, it would be difficult for Parliament to ignore a decisive expression of public opinion. (Para 197)

224.  Any assessment of the overall regulatory framework relating to referendums and the role of the Electoral Commission are theoretical as neither has been tested in a UK-wide referendum. We therefore recommend that after the next UK-wide referendum:

·  The Electoral Commission should analyse its experience (as it did for the 2004 North East referendum) and make recommendations for change to the regulatory framework and its role; and

·  There should be thorough post-legislative scrutiny of the PPERA at an early date. (Para 202)

225.  We are sympathetic to the changes to the legislative framework suggested by the Electoral Commission following its analysis of the 2004 North East referendum. We recommend that the Government take steps to ensure that they are implemented. (Para 203)


226.  Referendums are not a panacea. We note the arguments for their use as a way of strengthening the democratic process. The drawbacks and difficulties of their use are serious. (Para 204)

227.  Referendums may become a part of the UK's democratic and constitutional framework. There has been little consistency in their use. They have taken place on an ad hoc basis, frequently as a tactical device rather than on the basis of constitutional principle. (Para 205)

228.  Notwithstanding this, we acknowledge arguments that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues. There are difficulties in defining what constitutes a "fundamental constitutional issue". Although some constitutional issues clearly are of fundamental importance,[29] and others not, there is a grey area where the importance of issues is a matter of political judgment. (Para 206)

229.  To leave such judgments entirely in the hands of the government of the day is in our view inappropriate. Parliament should decide whether or not a referendum is appropriate in a given circumstance. (Para 207)

230.  We note the recent commitments by the main parties to use referendums in specific circumstances and the proposals for further referendums in Scotland and Wales in the near future. The question of referendums will arise in the forthcoming General Election campaign. We have set out in this report some considerations which we hope will inform future debate. (Para 208)

28   ibid., para 27. Back

29   See para 94. Back

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