30 June 2015
Article by Aled McKenzie, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
After receiving its Second Reading on 9 June, the EU referendum Bill was scrutinised by a Committee of the Whole House of Commons on 16 and 18 June. This is a stage where “detailed examination of the Bill takes place” after the main points of the Bill are discussed during the Second Reading. Both Government and Opposition MPs raised a wide range of issues related to the Bill during this stage.
The issue of “quad lock”, otherwise known as a double majority came up during the General Election campaign. This would essentially mean that all four constituent nations of the UK would have to back a No vote for the UK to leave the European Union as a result of the referendum. During the debate, the SNP and Plaid Cymru were in favour of the amendment to introduce the double majority. Both the Conservatives and Labour opposed the proposal arguing that the UK is a single state, therefore the decision should be made by the UK as a whole. The Shadow Minister for Europe, Pat McFadden MP, said that “we remain one member state, and that we should make this decision as one member state.” DUP MP Sammy Wilson suggested that just two percent of Northern Ireland’s population (the smallest of the constituent nations) “could hold the rest of the UK to ransom” if a “quad lock” system was adopted for the referendum.
The SNP pointed out that in a number of countries double majorities are required in referendums for constitutional changes to pass. An example of which includes Australia, where more than half of the population and a majority of states must support a change for a referendum to be passed.
The pre-election period, alternatively known as “purdah” is a time when special rules apply to political campaigning. This would require the UK Government to be neutral during the period, which the UK Government claim would be impractical.
Due to this development the UK Government has been accused of planning to use the civil service to try and skew the outcome in their favour. Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox MP voted against the Government, and he was joined by 26 fellow Conservative rebels. Alex Salmond MP claimed the UK Government could try to “stack the deck” in favour of a Yes vote without a mechanism to ensure the usual rules of purdah apply during the pre-referendum period.
Concerns were also raised as to whether the European Commission will remain neutral during the campaign, Angus MacNeil MP claimed they did not remain neutral in the Scottish referendum and Sir William Cash MP pointed out that there were concerns it could happen in this referendum as well.
The concept of collective responsibility means that all members of the Cabinet would remain united in their support of one of the referendum campaigns, rather than giving them a choice of which side to support. Collective responsibility is the convention during ordinary periods of Government that would require any Government Minister who disagrees publicly with Government position to resign. During the 1975 referendum Collective Responsibility was suspended. Allegations have been made in recent weeks that the UK Government was intending to enforce collective responsibility during the campaign period. However, the UK Government has denied these claims. During the debate, Ken Clarke MP said “the Prime Minister has announced that he will suspend the rules of collective responsibility and that members of the Government will be able to campaign on whichever side they choose.”