Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to open this very topical debate. I am disappointed only that for obvious reasons the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, is not able to respond, since I know from long personal knowledge that he would have been fully acquainted with the issues to which I will refer. However, I was delighted to note his comment just now about referendums. I will take that away and think about it again. In the meantime, it seems that he and the Cabinet Office have been able to brief the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, the Minister who is to respond, which is just as well since the subject of this debate has relatively little to do with his department.
Incidentally, I was interested to see a Written Answer yesterday from the Minister in which he announced,
“we will be leaving the European Union on 20 March 2019”.
He may be leaving on that date but the rest of us have to wait nine more days, or possibly nine more weeks—or not at all.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for the opportunity to correct that. It was an administrative error. It did not correspond to the draft of the Parliamentary Question that I signed off. I have spoken to the Permanent Secretary in my department, who is instituting an inquiry into how that happened. I have also written to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, to apologise for the error and correct the record.
I am delighted that the Minister has had that opportunity. I suspect that it was handwriting; if his is anything like mine, “0” and “9” occasionally look much alike.
The subject on the Order Paper does not directly argue the merits or demerits of a further referendum on our relationship with our present partners in the EU. I note in passing, however, that the unprecedentedly large majorities in both Houses defeating the Government’s current preferred deal, to which the noble Lord, Lord Young, referred just now, together with the ever-increasing insistence that a crash-out no deal is unacceptable, means that the Cabinet and Parliament may together move in the direction of a new referendum. That is certainly the view of all serious commentators since those votes, while of course the vote last night removes the alternative of a snap election. I should say that next month I will celebrate the 45th anniversary of my first election to the other place. I have never experienced anything quite like the irresponsible prevarication of kicking the can down the road, which is of course evident again in the other place this very afternoon with the Business Statement. It is quite extraordinary.
However, that is not the subject of this debate: I am sure that the Minister and other speakers will not wish to spend precious time on it. Rather, we are concerned here with the practicalities of electoral law. I am extraordinarily grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for still being here—I suspect that he has missed his lunch. He and I anticipated, way back in September 2018, that the circumstances could arise if and when the Government or Parliament, or both, had to examine the need for new legislation. We were anxious that the pressure of time in such circumstances might mean that a consensus on the necessity of dealing with acknowledged defects in the 2015 Act was ignored or that both Houses were forced to rush through inadequately scrutinised proposals. In our experience, nothing results in imperfect law more than claims of expediency or lack of time. We were reinforced in our determination that such a process could not and should not be cobbled together at the last minute when an authoritative report from the Constitution Unit at UCL was published in October—it has been referred to in the excellent Library brief for this debate.
With the expert advice of Dr Alan Renwick from the unit, the professional assistance of the experienced legislative draftsman, Daniel Greenberg, and supervision by a cross-party/non-party reference group comprising also the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, we produced the draft Bills before Christmas.
Significantly, we concluded that a very short “paving Bill” would be necessary to authorise the Electoral Commission to start preparations before Royal Assent for the main Bill because there is clearly a tight timetable ahead. By this means, we calculate that polling day could be any time before the beginning of May 2019 or even earlier. That would be very helpful in terms of the European parliamentary elections that follow at the end of May.
Of course, individual members of this team have differing views on the desirability of a further referendum and do not necessarily endorse every word of the drafts. However, we all agree that Parliament must consider and approve properly prepared, effective and updated legislation for this purpose.
On Monday this week, just before the votes in the two Houses, a formidable cross-party group of MPs, led by my right honourable friend Vince Cable and including Dominic Grieve and Chuka Umunna, published our draft Bills and endorsed this approach. Subsequent events have clearly justified their and our commitment to concentrate on relevant preparation rather than wasting millions of pounds and millions of hours on the no-deal distractions. As noble Lords may be aware, yesterday Mr Grieve formally presented our cross-party draft legislation in the other place.
No doubt other Members of Your Lordships’ House participating this afternoon will have examined these draft Bills, which are included in the Library brief together with all the other relevant discussion that has taken place in both Houses in recent weeks and months, so I do not need to take them through every aspect of our proposals but simply highlight the crucial features.
The draft paving Bill, the preparatory legislation, is limited to authorising the Electoral Commission to consult on the choice of the ballot paper question, which will also affect the choice of lead campaign organisations, before Royal Assent for the main Bill. This could be taken through both Houses in a matter of a few days or even hours. We were guided by a wide range of expert opinion and took careful note of the views of the Electoral Commission in opting for a simple binary choice, just as in 2016, between two very firm, detailed and easily intelligible options—indeed, much firmer and more intelligible than in that case.
Our initial proposal is that the choice should be between the leave conditions negotiated and recommended by the Government and remaining within the existing, well-understood conditions of EU membership. Much as electoral reform anoraks like me might enjoy a three-way, AV or two-question poll, we agree with all the expert evidence that we have received that this would be both confusing and likely to result in variable and unclear results.
The other area of potential variation on the 2015-16 legislation that concerned us was the franchise. Since I successfully supported the inclusion of 16 and 17 year-olds at one stage of the 2015 Bill in your Lordships’ House, and lost that only when support fell away at ping-pong, I am only too aware of the case for them to vote on such an important decision for their future. That case will be made again, I know, together with that for all EU citizens permanently resident in the UK and all UK citizens resident abroad.
However, we were persuaded by the Constitution Unit and others that to include in this first draft a change in the franchise compared with 2015-16 position would be seen to be moving the goalposts. Therefore, we have not done so at this stage.
This did not preclude us from examining carefully the generally agreed case for removing defects in the 2015 Act where the subsequent experience of the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the DCMS Select Committee had identified the need for greater transparency relating to spending returns on the one hand and the authorship and payment for online messaging on the other. Our schedule to the main Bill, especially items 3 to 6, deals with those matters.
In my usual constructive and positive way, always helpful to Ministers, I am both posing the Question and providing the Answer today. This is practical contingency planning, compared with the nonsensical preparations for the crash-out no deal that the noble Lord, Lord Young, referred to earlier as now really removed from our consideration. I am sure that other Members of your Lordships’ House will be equally concerned to ensure that Parliament, if now faced with this challenge, is well prepared—in a former life, I was a Boy Scout, as no doubt were other Members of your Lordships’ House: be prepared.
I can confirm that my right honourable friend Vince Cable and other colleagues have raised these practical issues with the Prime Minister and her senior Ministers in response to her invitation following the vote last night. This debate could not be more topical and I am delighted to introduce it.
My Lords, I must declare that I was never a Boy Scout.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I have some questions for my noble friend the Minister, not because I wish to express an opinion on whether there will be a referendum as a result of the Brexit negotiations but, since it is being discussed in Parliament and contingency planning is important, because my main concern is about matters that have been raised by the Electoral Commission since the previous referendum. I say that as a former member of the House of Commons committee which oversaw the Electoral Commission and as a former electoral commissioner myself.
In 2016, the Electoral Commission produced two reports. I would like my noble friend the Minister to take note of some of the recommendations that came out of them. If he is not able to answer today on some of the specific issues, I would be happy for him to write to me at a later date, because some of them are rather techie points.
One of the recommendations refers to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act—a long title for an Act. Its acronym is equally difficult, so I shall refer to it as just “the Act”. It was passed in 2000, but has subsequently been amended by Parliament.
As we have approached any election, it seems that the Act has had to be amended in some way at short notice because somebody has come up with the idea that there is a flaw in it or because matters have moved on. The Electoral Commission made some specific recommendations in its 2016 report following the referendum that we are discussing. The first related to loan controls and stated:
“The absence of loan controls in the … rules is a significant gap in the regulation of referendums. The … Government should bring forward the relevant secondary legislation to introduce loan controls”.
In the last couple of years I have unfortunately had some periods of absence due to ill-health, so if I have missed this, if this has gone through and everything has been ticked and is in place, forgive me—my noble friend will no doubt tell me.
I shall not go through all 13 recommendations in the Electoral Commission report, but just focus on some that it will be important to have in place before another referendum, whenever and of whatever nature. Another is that:
“The Government and Parliament should revisit the permissibility controls on companies … permissibility controls on companies do not fully reflect the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the implications of the current company permissibility test highlighted by our investigations, the Government and, in due course, Parliament should revisit the issue … to ensure that they meet the underlying policy intention of preventing donations and loans from foreign companies”.
That is another very important point and something that could easily slip through if there is a referendum at short notice in a small timeframe.
All these recommendations are important but, because of time, I shall focus on just some. The report says that:
“The Government and Parliament should take into account the evidence from the EU referendum when considering whether the PPERA referendum spending limits remain appropriate. The Commission does not have a specific statutory role in advising on spending limits at UK-wide referendums held under PPERA. It is nevertheless important that the Government and Parliament take into account the evidence from the EU referendum when considering whether the PPERA referendum spending limits, including the registration threshold, remain appropriate.”
There is obviously more detail in the report as to why the commission thinks that is important. It also states that:
“Joint spending controls should be incorporated into PPERA. To help ensure the integrity and effectiveness of the referendum spending rules, appropriate controls should be incorporated into PPERA to regulate campaigners that engage in joint spending so that they apply for all future referendums.”
Many people will be concerned about pre-poll reporting:
“Pre-poll reporting requirements should be incorporated into PPERA so they apply for all future referendums. To increase transparency during the months before the referendum poll”—
I do not know whether we are talking “months” here, if such a referendum were to take place, but again the Electoral Commission thought that this was an important area. It recommended that, to help encourage campaigners to accept donations only from permissible sources,
“pre-poll reporting requirements should be incorporated into PPERA”.
Given the legislation load that we are dealing with in both Houses at present, some of this would apply to secondary legislation, but quite clearly an amendment is required to the Act itself for many of these recommendations. I am concerned about how the Government would find the time if they were minded to make these changes in order to improve the referendum, whatever referendum, when it comes. There is also a recommendation that:
“The Commission’s current fine limit should be reviewed and increased. To ensure that our sanctioning regime provides a strong deterrent to non-compliance, our sanction limit of £20,000 should be reviewed and increased to a level that would act as a suitable deterrent reflecting the level of fines available to other commensurate statutory regulators and financial regulation regimes”.
This is techie stuff but has come from actual experience of the very referendum that we all discuss and talk about. It is not unusual, I suppose, that one learns as one goes along and that certain flaws come to light. The difficulty would be if those flaws and those recommendations were ignored and we just carried on in the same way, so I say to my noble friend that this is a challenge to the Government in terms of workload and compliance but I hope that they will none the less find time to examine the report and the recommendations of the Electoral Commission again and see how they might incorporate them into their work schedule.
My Lords, the noble Baroness says that the issues she has raised are technical, but they are important. They go to the heart of the conduct of a future referendum and are very far from technical. I hope that the Government and the House—because it is quite clear that Parliament is going to take charge of this process—will take very serious account of what she has said about spending limits, the legitimate sources of funds and the sanctions available either to the Electoral Commission or to whichever commission conducts a referendum. Her points were extremely important and I hope people will pay close attention to what she said.
I commend the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for raising the issue in the House and for the work that he and his colleagues have done in preparing the Bill. The two Bills are fine as far as they go, but as we move increasingly surely in the direction of the referendum—partly because of the vote of the House of Commons on Tuesday, but also not least because of my party’s movement towards a referendum, which has been significantly accelerated by Jeremy Corbyn’s speech and remarks in Hastings today—it is very important that Parliament should start paying early attention to the rules and principles under which a referendum will be conducted. In the brief time available to me, I want to raise, in telegraphese, 10 issues that need to be considered.
First, it is my view that the vote in any referendum should be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said that we should not be moving the goalposts. The goalposts are very uncertain in respect of votes for 16 and 17 year-olds. In the Scottish referendum they had the vote. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have extended the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds for their domestic elections. There is legislation already in the other place for extending the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds in all UK elections. I can tell your Lordships that there is very strong support for the vote among 16 and 17 year-olds, shown both by polls and when you meet them—I do lots of meetings in schools and colleges at the moment—particularly in respect of Brexit, because there is no group whose future is more at stake. It is my view that we should extend the vote to them.
Secondly, there should be automatic registration of all young people in their place of study and not the individual registration that applies at the moment. The Electoral Commission has established that one-quarter of 18 to 24 year-olds are not on the electoral register at the moment, because of the individual registration process. That is democratically unacceptable.
Coming to my third point, the right course is that not only should 16 and 17 year-olds be automatically enrolled, there should be a polling station in all places of study and places where students reside in large numbers. Those three measures between them will significantly extend and boost voter turnout among young people.
My fourth point, which is related, is that whatever polling day is selected—I know that the Bill mentions May but it may not be possible to hold a referendum that quickly—the polling day for a second European referendum should be in term time, to facilitate young people voting. That means, in practice, that it needs to be in either May or October.
Fifthly, there should be only one campaign allowed on each side. We should not go into another referendum with two campaigns on one side, as happened last time. That was an open invitation to breaches of the law and to dodgy practice, because one was a mainstream campaign supported by the Conservative Party and one was supported by all kinds of fringe organisations.
Sixthly, there should be a special commission for the referendum, on the Irish model. We should not be tied to the very cumbersome processes of the existing Electoral Commission. The concept of a special commission chaired by a very senior judge—in this case, it should be a judge of the Supreme Court—works extremely well in that context and we should apply it here.
Seventhly, there was a big problem in the last referendum about social media and electronic campaigning, which was essentially above the law and played a good part in the disinformation and illegality that took place. I suggest two amendments that would deal with this issue. There should be an imprint on all social media and electronic communications, as applies to printed communications at the moment. The second important reform is that there should be a right of appeal by those who identify social media and electronic communications—a lot of which is very rapidly moving— that they believe are inaccurate or breach the law. People should have a right of appeal to the commission that is established and that commission should have, as the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, so correctly said, much stronger powers of enforcement, including significantly greater powers to fine. It must also have the power to move quickly. With great respect to the noble Baroness, one of the criticisms people have of the Electoral Commission is that it has been far too slow-moving in this process. The fact that the massive illegality that took place in the leave campaign during the last referendum has only just come to the attention of the necessary police authorities is a serious criticism of the Electoral Commission. It cannot be allowed to occur in the next referendum.
My final point relates to the question. The Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggests to a straight choice between the Government’s negotiated settlement and the status quo—remaining in the European Union. That may be the appropriate question to put on the ballot paper, but your Lordships are aware that there is a lot of debate over whether there should be a third option of no-deal, or WTO terms. I am open-minded on this issue. There is no technical reason why it cannot be done; preferential voting would make it perfectly possible. After all, people can express a second preference in mayoral elections at the moment—I see no reason why it could not work perfectly legitimately in a referendum.
The issue is not technical. Rather, there are two issues of principle which Parliament will need to consider at the appropriate time. The first is whether a no-deal WTO option is in fact credible, in the sense of whether it could actually be implemented. That is a significant issue, because the proposals put forward by Nigel Farage and others simply could not be implemented. They are not technically possible, and key proposals—particularly with respect to the border in Northern Ireland—would breach the Good Friday agreement and primary legislation.
The second issue that needs to considered is the concern that Parliament will have for the wider social buy-in to the referendum, and the legitimacy it holds. A big issue is whether it will be possible to have a referendum without an option clearly supported by a considerable body of leave opinion, which is true in the case of a hard WTO Brexit. I have not reached a conclusion myself on that issue, but it is clearly technically possible to have a three-option referendum.
The two issues that Parliament will need to consider are whether there is a credible option that it could implement in respect of a hard WTO Brexit, and what it would then do to ensure wide social buy-in. These are very significant issues. They are clearly going to preoccupy Parliament over the coming weeks, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on having brought them to the attention of the House.
My Lords, I can be extremely brief, as perhaps I should be since noble Lords have heard quite enough from me this afternoon. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for his expertise and leadership on these issues.
It was Emerson who said:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.
I plead guilty to consistency, foolish or otherwise. Noble Lords may recall—indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, referred to it in his winding up speech in the previous debate—that almost exactly a year ago, at Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, I asked your Lordships to consider the case of my three elderly and extremely nervous aunts. I wished to give them a treat and asked them to decide democratically what they would like to do. They chose to go to the cinema, but I discovered in the local paper that the only films on offer were “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”. My conundrum was: do I say, “You must stick with your democratic decision”, or, “Now you know what’s on offer, what do you think”?
It must be for the elected House, not your Lordships’ House, to take any decision on whether there is a second referendum, in the light of knowledge of what is on offer—which at the moment, of course, is not yet clear. Were there to be a second referendum, much would need to be settled, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has given us a preview of some of the things that might enter into discussion. Those things would need to be settled very quickly. There would be no shortage of those who say that there is no time and it is all too difficult. The Bills presented in the House of Commons yesterday seek to demonstrate that, should the political will exist, that will can be implemented.
My Lords, I also am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for having raised this issue. As he said, it is highly topical. Although the speeches today have been confined to the technical issues of a referendum, the reason why it is so topical is that the demands for a second referendum are growing. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said at the end of his speech that, in the discussions taking place between the Liberal leaders and the Prime Minister, the issue of a referendum is being talked about. Although he said that he did not want to raise the pros and cons of a second referendum himself, I certainly do.
Sometimes one’s predictions are completely wrong. Soon after the last referendum, when we saw how divisive the campaign had been—how toxic its effects and how complicated its repercussions—I thought that nobody of sound mind would ever again call for a second national referendum on anything. How wrong I was. The air is now thick with those demands. I very much hope the other place will not call for a second referendum, and I shall explain why in just two points.
My first point is that one of the fantastic things about this country is how we conduct general elections. Once every four or five years, all voters—whatever their background, employment, educational qualifications or income—can go to a polling station. Everybody is equal. On a Thursday they go to their local library, school or village hall, pick up a pencil stub on the end of a piece of string and simply put a cross on a piece of paper and shove it into a tin box. If the people have voted against the governing party, on the Friday the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Government all leave office without a drop of blood shed and without a scuffle in the street. The reason why it is done in that way and the reason why everybody accepts the result, even though more than half the voters may have voted against the new governing party, is that they know that the rules of the game have been observed. That is how you gain consent and acceptance for the result.
When we had the referendum in 2017—
Thank you. When we had the referendum in 2016, everybody knew the result would be accepted. I have here just one example of what the late Lord Ashdown said on the eve of referendum day:
“I will forgive no one who does not respect the sovereign voice of the British people once it has spoken. Whether it is a majority of 1% or 20%”.
For all of us—in or out—when the British people have spoken, we do what they suggest. As Lord Ashdown said, “they command”.
If we have a second referendum, we will be invalidating the result of the first—we will be saying that it did not really count. In fact, by definition, we will also be invalidating the second and beginning to remove a cornerstone of confidence in our democratic system.
My second point is that, in a general election, the electorate delegate to politicians the responsibility for taking complicated decisions. In this referendum we have learned the problems that occur when politicians delegate to the public responsibility for taking a complicated decision. We ought to have realised that this is a very difficult thing to do. The people decided that they wanted to leave the European Union. If the public are now told by the politicians that they are so hopeless, so incompetent, so utterly useless that they have to ask the people to do the job that they should be doing, they will further undermine public confidence in them. We know what happens when that chasm widens. We see it today in many countries in Europe, and we saw it in pre-war Europe in the 1930s. I fear that if the politicians are yet again seen to be useless, saying to the public, “We were no good—we’ll have to hand it over to you again”, the chasm between politicians and the public will become ever wider.
I point out to the noble Lord that his two arguments are mutually contradictory. On the one hand he says that we should not respect the results of referenda, for reasons he has just given, and on the other he says that we have to respect that of the 2016 referendum.
No; I said that we should accept the result of the referendum but that public confidence in the acceptance would be eroded. If we have a second referendum and the public believe that the politicians have said, “We don’t think you made the right decision; therefore, it’s invalid”, they will think, “Why is the second referendum more valid than the first?”
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Question and his speech, and thank other noble Lords for their contributions and expertise, in particular on procedural and technical aspects of the possibility of a second referendum. This is certainly a pertinent Question for Short Debate following the massive defeat in the Commons of the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement. Although I think that this Question is premature at this stage, noble Lords are right to ask questions now in case the logjam is such that a second referendum becomes the only answer.
The UCL Constitution Unit’s October report is enormously useful to today’s debate, and I too commend the excellent Library briefing on this. UCL rightly points out that many of the questions are ultimately for politicians to decide, and I shall direct most of my questions to the Minister for that reason.
I hope that in response the Minister will address the actual issues and questions raised by noble Lords rather than just resort to the usual government rhetoric of dismissing the issue as an affront to democracy or a betrayal of the people. As the Minister knows, there is growing support for the need for a second referendum in the face of the chaos we are facing. Today’s letter in the Times from more than 170 significant business leaders supporting a further referendum underlines this and adds to the support from across communities, not just from former remainers. The Labour Party view remains that which we agreed at our party conference last year:
“If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”.
The clear priority at this point must be to find a way through the impasse.
As noble Lords have said, it is clear from the Constitution Unit’s report that any referendum would take around 22 weeks, or five months. Do the Government agree with this timetable? Given that timescale, the report is also clear that any such referendum would require the extension of Article 50. Can the Minister say what preparations the Government have made for the possible extension of Article 50 and whether any discussions have taken place with the EU at any level regarding an Article 50 extension? I hope that the answer to these questions is not “None”. After the billions of pounds spent preparing for a no-deal Brexit, it would seem ludicrous that no preparations or discussions had taken place for what seems increasingly inevitable.
I also ask the Minister: in the event of the House of Commons voting for a second referendum, will the Government respect that decision and give time for a Bill, such as that tabled by his colleague, Dominic Grieve MP, if the House of Commons wanted it? I would also like reassurance about the process for determining the questions put in any second referendum, taking on board the concerns in the Constitution Unit report that a binary question may not give a clear answer. I also ask for reassurance that the Government will not seek to put no deal on any such ballot paper.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for so excellently introducing this important subject and giving us an opportunity to debate it today, and I thank all other noble Lords who contributed.
I will first address the remarks made by my noble friend Lady Browning, who made a number of excellent points, which were amplified by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. She asked a number of questions about the technical conduct of referenda, and some of her points were also reflected in the report of the DCMS Select Committee and others. The Government are currently considering this matter, but it is not within the purview of my departmental responsibilities—it is a matter for the Cabinet Office—so perhaps it would be best for me to write to my noble friend, and copy other noble Lords, with the detailed responses to her questions.
The referendum held in the summer of 2016 was indeed a historic event for the United Kingdom, a vote for which there was the highest ever turnout for a UK-wide referendum and, moreover, the highest turnout in any election or referendum since 1992. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, but it is our firm view that there can be no second-guessing of the outcome of such a vote—not when more than 17.4 million people voted to express, in the clearest of terms, an instruction to the Government, as Parliament had asked them to do, to withdraw from the European Union.
The Prime Minister addressed this in the Commons on Tuesday evening. Despite the vote against the deal, the Government still stand by their commitment to the British people to respect the clear result from the 2016 referendum. In 2016 we committed to respect that vote, and we remain committed now. We continue to work to deliver our exit from the European Union on 29 March—not 20 March. We will not hold a second referendum, and to do so would be to disrespect the result of the 2016 vote.
I am sure the Minister appreciates that it is difficult still to say that it is the will of the people that this particular situation should be resolved on the basis of the discussion and decision in 2016 when the latest public opinion poll, published today, shows that 56% of the population—presumably, both leavers and remainers from 2016—are in favour of a new referendum, and only 44% are against. Contrast that with the support for the Government’s current deal, and that looks to be a pretty popular way in which the will of the people is being expressed.
I understand the firm view of the Liberal Democrats on this; they have been dogged in pursuing it. I do not know whether the noble Lord was in the House yesterday, when I addressed the subject in a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on opinion polling and whether public opinion has moved. There are clearly lots of different opinion polls around, but yesterday I quoted an analysis of the opinion polling that has been produced—I do not have it in front of me at the moment—which suggests that in fact, if you look at all the polls in the round, there has been no significant change in public opinion on the issue. The public remain deeply divided on the subject—which of course is why we held the referendum in the first place.
I can tell the noble Lord that it is firm government policy that we will not be holding a further referendum.
The question of how we would hold a second referendum on this matter is therefore entirely hypothetical. However, I have been asked the Question by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, so I will answer it and elaborate on the process by which we hold referendums. But I reiterate that it is not government policy, and for a good reason.
The practice of holding a referendum is not uncommon in the United Kingdom. Since 1973, there have been 11. In response to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I will set out the process. In the UK, referendums require primary legislation to provide their legal basis: they require an Act of Parliament. The legislation would need to specify details such as the referendum question, the franchise, any amendments to the regulatory framework, conduct rules for the poll, and the date on which the referendum will be held. It would also require a number of other steps, such as question testing, where the Electoral Commission, according to its statutory duty, assesses the intelligibility of the referendum question. There would need to be appropriate poll preparation—the period in which the Electoral Commission and local officials prepare for administering the poll and regulating campaigners—and a regulated referendum period during which regulated campaigning occurs.
This is not a simple process. When considering the practicality of holding a second referendum before March 2019, as both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have explained in recent weeks, we cannot have a referendum now in the time available to us before exit.
A number of noble Lords have referred to the UCL report, which I have looked at and discussed with officials, but it remains our view that that timetable is extremely optimistic, given the current state of the numbers in Parliament. For comparison, the previous referendum Act took seven months to pass through Parliament. I remind noble Lords that that was from a Government with a majority in the House of Commons acting on a manifesto commitment, neither of which are the position now. This does not include the time needed adequately to take the other steps; for example, the Electoral Commission recommends that referendum legislation should be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with.
We obviously therefore cannot hold a second referendum by March 2019 without a further step, to which noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, referred: extending Article 50. I remind noble Lords that that, too, is not government policy. Aside from prolonging uncertainty for citizens and businesses, such an extension would need the unanimous agreement of the European Council. It is my view, after talking to many officials and other Ministers in Europe, that many commentators in this country are far too blasé about how easily that proposed extension might happen. As I say, it is not government policy and we will not apply for it, but the people who easily assume that it would be granted may be being extremely optimistic.
These calls for a second referendum nearly three years since the clear referendum result are, as the Prime Minister has said—to be fair to the Liberal Democrats, at least they are clear about it—in order to stop Brexit, to move against the clearly expressed will of the people to leave the European Union. Although the Commons voted against the deal on Tuesday, this result tells us nothing about what it does support—nothing about how, or even if, it intends to honour the decision the British people took in a referendum in which the House of Commons invited them to do so.
A second referendum would be a process, not an outcome—a complex and potentially very harmful process at that. I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lord Sherbourne. Seeking a second referendum, and thus second-guessing the clear result of the previous referendum, would be a dangerous precedent to set for our democracy, as he made clear. If we cannot uphold and respect the result of one referendum, what guarantees are there that we can respect and uphold the result of a second? If we were to have a second referendum, and the result of that was also close, why not make it the best of three? By definition, the people who are calling for a rerun of the original referendum do not respect the results of referendums. It is a recipe for years of political and constitutional chaos and fuel for distrust in government, politics and all of us as politicians.
I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I take a moment to set out the process before and after the 2016 referendum. As I said, Parliament overwhelmingly voted to put the question of the UK’s membership of the EU to the British electorate, allowing them to express a clear view. The simple and clear question was put, and we all know the result. Almost three-quarters of the electorate took part, and Parliament overwhelmingly confirmed the result by voting with a clear majority in both Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act to empower the Government to begin the process of withdrawing from the European Union.
Let us not forget that at the most recent general election, more than 80% of people voted for parties committed in their manifestos to respecting the leave result. Again, I forgive the Liberal Democrats on this, because at least they were clear in the election what their policy was, and they gained 7% of the vote for their trouble. Parliament subsequently passed the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
The outcome of the referendum was, therefore, a clear answer to the question, expressing to the Government that a majority of the British public believed that the UK should withdraw from the EU, and we remain committed to respecting the will of the British people and the democratic process which delivered that result. We believe that we cannot compromise the British people’s ability to trust in politics and the Government. We will therefore continue to work to find consensus and deliver a deal and an exit which deliver on the instructions of the British people—whether they voted to leave or to remain.