Following a Conservative victory at the General Election, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the Government would carry forward its manifesto promise and hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017.


Through the European Union Referendum Act 2015, the referendum is now legislated for, though there are further legal provisions that need to be made through secondary legislation.


Cameron made the promise to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in a speech at Bloomberg in 2013, following a renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s membership. He was unable to legislate for the referendum in the last Parliament, due to opposition from junior coalition partners. Renegotiation began in earnest in June 2015, with the EU Referendum Bill first read in the House of Commons on 28 May 2015. The Bill was fast tracked through Parliament, with proper time allocated for it to complete all its stages by the end of 2015.

During debate on the Bill, an amendment was made to enable 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum by Liberal Democrat and Labour Peers. The amendment was overturned during ‘Ping Pong’ (when a Bill moves between the Houses of Commons and Lords to ensure there is agreement on the final provisions in the Bill), clearing the way for it to become an Act of Parliament.

Key changes

The Act legislates for the referendum to take place, but makes changes to some of the standard referendum or election conditions, this includes:

  • A change in the voting franchise so that the following groups can vote:
    • Members of the House or Lords who can vote at local or European Parliamentary elections in the UK.
    • Commonwealth and Irish citizens who can vote at European Parliamentary elections in Gibraltar.
  • The Government must publish a report on the outcome of the Government’s negotiations on the UK’s membership of the European Union as well as on important rights and obligations resulting from UK’s membership. This must be published 10 weeks before the referendum date.

Act contents

The Act contains:

Question: The Act contains the question and two possible answers that will be asked of voters at the referendum:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

“Remain a member of the European Union

“Leave the European Union”.

Campaign spending: The Act sets out campaign spending limits above those under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). Official designated campaigns will have access to public funds, higher spending limits, campaign broadcasts, and free mailshots. The Act sets campaign spending limits for these campaign groups at £7 million, above the £5 million limit in PPERA. Political parties can spend on the basis of voting proportions, set out below:

  • 30% of the vote: £7m (Conservatives)
  • 20-30% share of the vote: £5.5m (Labour)
  • 10-20% share of the vote: £4m (N/A)
  • 5-10% share of the vote: £3m (Liberal Democrats)
  • <5% share of the vote: £700k (SNP, UKIP)

Non-designated participants will be allowed to run their own campaigns, with a limit of £10,000 in expenses. To exceed this threshold, individuals or organisation would need to register with the Electoral Commission.

Purdah: Public bodies will be unable to publish material relating to the referendum question or likely to influence voting during the last 28 days of the campaign ending with the poll, in the period known as ‘purdah’.

State of play

Following the completion of the UK’s renegotiations of its membership of the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron announced in February 2016 that the Referendum would be held on 23 June 2016.

The Government subsequently laid down a number of pieces of secondary legislation called Statutory Instruments (SIs) which set the date of the Referendum, the designation process for the lead campaigners, time periods for pre-poll reporting of loans and donations, and detailed rules about the administration of the Referendum. These SIs will take around 40 days to pass.

The official Referendum campaign will begin on 15 April 2016, and the Government’s purdah, the period of time when specific restrictions on the activity of civil servants are in place, will begin on 27 May 2016.

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