EU Referendum: Government actions led to public distrust

12 April 2017

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report says any future referendum in the UK should take note of the lessons learned from the execution of the Brexit referendum, including the damage to the reputation of the Civil Service and the lack of preparation for either of the possible outcomes.

Scottish Government must learn from Brexit referendum mistakes

The Select Committee report makes recommendations which would improve the legislation and regulatory framework for referendums, as well as for the government, civil service and Electoral Commission in the effective conduct and delivery of any future referendums. These recommendations include protecting and strengthening the 'purdah' provisions for referendums and support for the Law Commissions' proposals for the consolidation of referendum and electoral law.

The report notes that while the Government did not support a Leave vote, they nonetheless had a constitutional and public obligation to prepare for both outcomes from the referendum.

Unfortunately, many of the Government's actions in the run-up to the referendum, which were easily avoidable, appear to have increased public distrust.

Machinery of Government

The use of the machinery of government during the referendum contributed to a perception that the civil service were, in some way, biased.

In addition, the presentation of government reports, particularly those from the Treasury, and the decision to spend £9.3m on sending a leaflet, advocating a Remain vote, to all UK households, were inappropriate and counterproductive for the Government.

The Committee recommends that in the event of future referendums civil servants should be tasked with preparing for both possible outcomes.

Confusion as to the possible consequences of a referendum result serves only to heighten the potential tensions between referendums and representative democracy and risks increasing the public's disenchantment with politics.

Chair's Comments

Chairman of the Committee, Bernard Jenkin, says:

"The use of the machinery of government during referendums has a significant effect on public trust and confidence. Referendums, therefore, need to be designed in such a way as to provide the utmost clarity for parliamentarians, campaigners and, above all, the electorate. It is of the highest importance that the referendum process is seen to be fair, by both sides, and that the result is agreed to, even if not with, by both sides."

Further information

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