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The European Union Referendum Bill is a government Bill which received first reading in the House of Commons on 28 May 2015. It received second reading in the Commons on 9 June 2015. The Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons on 7 September 2015. It makes provisions for a referendum on whether the UK should remain a member of the EU, a commitment included in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto. The Bill provides for a referendum to be held on a date prior to the end of 2017. The electorate for the referendum would be the same as that for a general election—including Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland resident in the UK—with the addition of Members of the House of Lords and citizens of Gibraltar. The Bill also provides that elements of the regulatory framework set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 would apply to this referendum. A summary of the Bill, as introduced at first reading, has been published by the House of Commons Library, entitled European Union Referendum Bill 2015–16.

During the passage of the Bill through the House of Commons, a number of amendments were debated during committee of the whole House on 16 and 18 June. These included: to apply ‘purdah’ restrictions on the civil service during the campaign; to extend the voting age to include 16 and 17 year olds; to extend the franchise to include all resident EU citizens in the UK; and that the date chosen for the referendum should not be the same day as other elections.

At report stage in the House of Commons on 7 September 2015, the Bill was changed with the Commons accepting a government amendment that the referendum would not be held on the same date as May elections in either 2016 or 2017. A government amendment to change the wording of the referendum question, following the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, was also passed. On the issue of the role of the civil service during the campaign, the Government passed an amendment that re-applied section 125 of the 2000 Act—the ‘purdah’ restrictions—while allowing the Secretary of State the power to introduce regulations to modify it. The Bill as originally drafted excluded the application of section 125 altogether. The Government was defeated on an amendment that sought to define which government publications would be prohibited under section 125 during the campaign. A summary of all the Commons stages of the Bill has been published by the House of Commons Library, entitled European Union Referendum Bill 2015–16: Progress of the Bill.

This Library Note provides background reading to the Bill and is published in advance of second reading in the House of Lords on 13 October 2015. It provides summaries of previous debates in Parliament on some of the issues raised to date including: the role of the Electoral Commission; extending the voting age for the referendum to 16 and 17 year olds; and the role of government bodies and other organisations during referendum campaigns.

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