It will come as news only to those living under a rock that 23 June 2016 has been set as the date for the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU, when voters will be asked:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
This follows an agreement with other Member States on certain changes to the UK’s membership terms. However, while the arguments have started to take shape, the official campaign has not yet started. In particular, the campaign expenditure limits have not yet kicked in and the Electoral Commission has not yet designated the official campaign organisation for either side (the rivalry for leadership of the ‘Leave’ side now appears to have come down to Vote Leave and GO Movement, an umbrella group recently established to encompass the Grassroots Out campaign and leave.eu, among others).
The timetable for the campaign nevertheless started to take shape last month, when the Electoral Commission published its proposal. The Government accepted the Commission’s recommendations and last week made regulations confirming the relevant dates.
The key stages of the timetable are:
- 4 March – The application period for those groups seeking to be designated as the official campaign organisation for each side began today. This will be an important decision, as the official campaign organisations will not only receive £600,000 each in public funding but will also have a much larger expenditure limit of £7m. Unofficial campaign groups who have registered with the Electoral Commission as ‘permitted participants’ can individually only spend up to £700,000. Unregistered campaigns, organisations or individuals may spend no more than £10,000. Political parties which are registered as ‘permitted participants’ have a sliding limit on their expenditure dependent on their share of the vote at the last UK general election.
- 31 March – Today is the deadline for bodies to apply to be designated as an official campaign organisation.
- 14 April – The Electoral Commission publishes its decision today on the designation of official campaign organisations.
- 15 April – The official referendum period starts today. This is the statutory period leading up to a referendum when the majority of the regulatory controls on campaigners apply. For example, the campaign spending limits (see above, and here for more information) apply from today.
- 27 May – Restrictions kick in today, 28 days prior to the vote, on what public bodies can do in respect of the referendum under Chapter III of Part VII of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (as amended by paragraph 38 of Schedule 1 to the European Union Referendum Act 2015). The restrictions apply to central government (including devolved administrations and the Government of Gibraltar) and local government, and to most other publicly funded bodies. The Electoral Commission’s guidance on these restrictions is available here.
- 23 June – Referendum polling day. The polls will close at 10pm and votes will be counted and announced in the course of the night.
The Regulations also set out a timetable for the financial reporting requirements applying to campaign participants. Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted that the regulated referendum period will overlap with the campaign for elections to the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly, all of which will take place on 5 May. The overlap will last almost 3 weeks, from 15 April to 5 May. Campaign spending for the elections is regulated differently from spending on the referendum, and it may be challenging for campaigners (especially the political parties) to record and report their spending correctly. The Commission has advised that it will be publishing guidance on this issue, which will appear here in due course.