Independent Commission on Referendums
The Constitution Unit has established an Independent Commission on Referendums, to review the role of referendums in British democracy and consider how the rules and practice could be improved.
The 12 distinguished Commission members include two former cabinet-level ministers, four other current and former parliamentarians, the former Chair of the Electoral Commission and a former head of political programming at the BBC. Others are leaders in the fields of political theory, media standards and public opinion. They represent a range of political opinions, with expertise extending across all major UK referendums of recent years.
The Commission will deliberate over 8 months, take evidence, and produce a report and detailed recommendations in summer 2018. See below for further details on the Commission’s remit, membership and work.
The Commission is keen to hear your thoughts on the questions within its remit. If you would like to express your views, please do so by filling in our public consultation form. The deadline for submissions is 15 February 2018.
If you would like to receive email updates about the Commission, please join our mailing list.
- Commission Members
Commission Chair: Sir Joseph Pilling KCB
Joe Pilling has previously served as both Director General of the Prison Service and Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office. Since leaving the civil service in 2005 he has been involved in several reviews covering, for example, the Civil Aviation Authority, the 30 Years Rule and the Independent Press Standards Organisation. He is a current or former trustee of several charities.
The Rt Rev. the Lord Eames OM
Robin Eames was Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland from 1986 to 2006. He is an active Crossbench peer and a member of the Privileges and Conduct Committee of the House of Lords. Along with the other church leaders, he had a key role in the peace process in Northern Ireland, where there was a referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP
Cheryl Gillan has been Conservative Member of Parliament for Chesham and Amersham since 1992. Born in Cardiff, she was Secretary of State for Wales from 2010 to 2012, during which time she oversaw the Welsh devolution referendum of March 2011. She is a former member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and the Procedure Committee, and represents the UK on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, where she is the Rapporteur on the rules governing referendums.
Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP
Dominic Grieve has been Conservative Member of Parliament for Beaconsfield since 1997. He was Attorney General for England and Advocate General for Northern Ireland from 2010 to 2014. He had a career in law before entering politics and was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 2008. He has been chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee since 2015, and also chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Rule of Law.
Sue Inglish was Head of Political Programmes, Analysis, and Research at the BBC between 2005 and 2015. Before joining the BBC, she worked for ITN between 1983 and 2001, where amongst other roles she was the deputy editor of Channel 4 News and editor of LBC radio.
Seema Malhotra MP
Seema Malhotra has been Labour Member of Parliament for Feltham and Heston since December 2011. She is a former management consultant who worked for Accenture and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. She served as a Shadow Home Office Minister 2014–15 and Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 2015–16. She is a member of the House of Commons Select Committee on Exiting the European Union.
Deborah Mattinson is a specialist and regular commentator on British public opinion, and is co-founder of the consultancy BritainThinks. Prior to this her roles included acting as pollster to Gordon Brown, both as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then as Prime Minister. She is the author of Talking to a Brick Wall (Biteback, 2010) – the story of the New Labour years through the eyes of the voter, and is Chair of the Young Women’s Trust.
Dr Martin Moore
Martin Moore is Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King's College London, where he is also Senior Research Fellow at the Policy Institute. He was previously founding director of the Media Standards Trust (2006–15) and has written extensively on the news media and public policy. His publications include The Origins of Modern Spin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
Professor David Runciman
David Runciman is Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge. A political theorist and historian of political thought, he has written widely on democracy and representation, including The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from the First World War to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2014). He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and presents the weekly politics podcast, Talking Politics.
Rt Hon Gisela Stuart
Gisela Stuart was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Edgbaston from 1997 to 2017. She served as one of the UK’s members of the Convention on the Future of Europe, which worked between 2001 and 2003 to draft a constitution for the European Union. She was Chair of the Vote Leave campaign for the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Jenny Watson CBE
Jenny Watson was Chair of the Electoral Commission from 2009 to 2016. In this capacity she was Chief Counting Officer for the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU in 2016, as well as the 2011 referendums on the UK's parliamentary voting system, and the law making powers of the Welsh Assembly. The Electoral Commission also reported on the conduct of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and regulated the campaign spending.
Andrew Wilson is the co-founder of Charlotte Street Partners, a communications consultancy based in Edinburgh and London. Between 1999 and 2003 he was an SNP MSP and Shadow Minister for Finance and Economy. In 2016, he was appointed Chair of the SNP Growth Commission by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
- How the Commission will work
The legislative framework for referendums in the UK was devised in the late 1990s and enacted in 2000. Since then, there have been two UK-wide referendums – in 2011, on the electoral system, and 2016, on Britain’s EU membership. There have also been two referendums in the nations – in 2011, on Welsh devolution, and 2014, on Scottish independence – as well as a range of local ballots. These experiences suggest that it is now time for a careful review.
The Commission’s terms of reference are to consider:
- the place that referendums should play in the UK’s system of representative democracy
- the legal effect of referendums and whether any additional constitutional safeguards are needed
- the role of government during the campaign
- the regulation of the designated campaign groups
- the provision of public information and education, and promotion of informed debate.
The Commission is chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, former Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office. Its 12 members have diverse experiences of and perspectives on referendums in the UK. The Commission is consulting widely, and will meet regularly between autumn 2017 and summer 2018. At the end of the process a detailed report will be published. We hope that this will have a major impact, as did the Unit’s 1996 Commission on the Conduct of Referendums, which helped lead to the first statutory regulation of referendums in 2000.
The Commission is supported through detailed research conducted by the Constitution Unit, drawing on study of the conduct of referendums in other democracies. This includes the research being conducted for our separate project on Improving Discourse during Election and Referendum Campaigns.
Key personnel working on the project:
- Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit
- Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and Research Director for the Commission
- Jessica Sargeant, Research Assistant
- Michela Palese, Research Assistant
- Edd Rowe, Project Administrator
The Independent Commission on Referendums is funded by a group of donors to the Constitution Unit, to whom we are very grateful. It also benefits from research funded by the McDougall Trust.
Should you feel you have expertise that would assist the Commission in examining the issues raised in the terms of reference, please contact Jess Sargeant at email@example.com explaining your expertise and requesting a copy of the call for evidence.
- Blog posts
Blog posts from the Independent Commission on Referendums will be published here when available.
Friday, 19 January 2018
On 17 January, Jess Sargeant attended a Constitution Unit seminar entitled The Independent Commission on Referendums: who, what, why, and how. The aim of the event was to discuss the work of the Commission, which has no affiliation to any political party or campaign groups, but which does receive research support from the Constitution Unit. The session sought […]
Tuesday, 09 January 2018
Earlier this year, the Constitution Unit established an Independent Commission on Referendums to review the role of referendums in British democracy – whose work will be discussed at a public seminar next week. In this blogpost, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant examine some of the difficult questions the commission will have to consider. Their focus is on the […]
Tuesday, 28 November 2017
The Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit to review the role of referendums in UK democracy, has now met twice. One of the issues they are considering is rules for how referendums should work in practice. The Commission’s Research Assistant, Jess Sargeant, summarises the issues for consideration. In a previous blog post I […]
- In the media
In the media
- Good Morning Wales - Dr Alan Renwick discusses the launch of the Commission from 1.19.35. First aired 16 August 2017.
- Good Morning Scotland - Dr Alan Renwick discusses the launch of the Commission from 2.47.55. First aired 16 August 2017.
- Today Programme - Sir Joe Pilling discusses the launch of the Commission from 49.25. First aired 16 August 2017.
- Good Morning Ulster - Sir Joe Pilling discusses the launch of the Commission from 48.35. First aired 16 August 2017.
- The Telegraph (£) - "Referendums are now an integral part of UK politics, but the rules are in desperate need of reform" by Dr Alan Renwick published 16 August 2017.
- BBC World Update - Dr Alan Renwick discusses the use of referendums in the UK. First aired 17 August 2017.
- Brexit Watch: How to Make the Best Use of a Referendum - Extended version of Dr Alan Renwick's interview for BBC World Update from 13.05. First aired 17 August 2017.