MP reluctant to change wording of EU Referendum Bill, despite claims voters will not understand it (From Darlington and Stockton Times)
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MP reluctant to change wording of EU Referendum Bill, despite claims voters will not understand it
A NORTH-East MP is under pressure to change the question in his EU Referendum Bill – because voters may not understand it.
The Electoral Commission warned some people did not know whether Britain is currently a member of the EU, despite membership dating back to 1973.
And that meant they would be confused by the proposed question, which is: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
The watchdog urged a rethink, suggesting this alternative: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”
But James Wharton, the Stockton South MP, who is sponsoring the Bill, immediately said he was reluctant to accept the switch.
The Conservative MP said he would “reflect”, but warned: “Anything that draws out debate and costs time - such as a debate on an amendment - risks the Bill.
“So, unless there is a very compelling reason, I would be reluctant to change the question.
“My initial reading of the Electoral Commission advice is that it appears not to raise any strong concerns.”
Mr Wharton’s Bill – which returns to the Commons next week – is designed to set in law David Cameron’s commitment to a poll on EU membership, before the end of 2017.
It already faces an uphill struggle to reach the statute book, because it has been denied Government time – making it easier for opponents to ‘talk out’.
Parliamentary officials have also disputed Conservative claims that it would be legally binding on a future Labour, or Coalition, Government, after 2015.
The Commission said it tested Mr Wharton’s proposed question with voters, using what it described as a “well-established process”.
Jenny Watson, its chairwoman, said: “We found that a few people did not understand whether or not the UK was a member of the EU.
“Parliament will now need to discuss our advice and decide which approach the Bill should take”
The Commission acknowledged that its alternative “creates a risk of a perception of bias”, by making clear the UK is currently an EU member.
Therefore, it also suggested that Parliament consider abandoning any attempt to pose a question with simple ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ options.
It said the question should then read: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Voters would then be given the choice of these two responses: “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union”.
The Commission included: “Research participants found this the most neutral of all the versions tested.”
Any change would be agreed in talks between Mr Wharton and Downing Street, after Mr Cameron threw his weight behind the legislation and imposed a three-line whip.
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