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Using the extension well - a one-year alternative time-table
14 Apr, 2019

What if we could obtain a longer extension?

Parliament and Government need to decide quickly how to have a well thought through referendum process and produce a high level time-table for achieving it. If there is a willingness amongst the EU27 to give us an extension to Spring 2020 if we for the first time produce a sensible plan for how to use the time then we could set up a model process and redeem our reputation - though even then time would be tight for any end-point that the EU would accept. London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg sets out the skeleton of a time-table. The article complements an earlier argument for what process to follow. It parallels an article that time-tables use of the extension we have been given.

 

Referendums

The key text on how long a referendum would take is the UCL Constitution Unit report “The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit”.

Parliament needs to pass a law. I suggest that in order to save time at the start and allow a more considered passage of the procedural law, there should be two laws. One would quickly set up the core elements of the process (citizens assemblies, two stage referendum) and the second with more time the rules for the referendum. Legislation could take about 11 weeks. The more that controversial matters could be left to a second bill the easier it would be to have the first bill pass quickly.

Opponents of a referendum would try to delay the process. It will be important to generate support from all quarters for the process. A two-stage referendum should reconcile Brexiters to the process because it will enable them to put their preferred Brexit to the people. The actual choice of question would be deferred until after the citizens’ assemblies had reported.

The Electoral Commission needs about 8-12 weeks to test questions for intelligibility and fairness. That can take place before Parliament has decided in principle what the questions  should be because there are only so many reasonably likely possible options.

Preparation for the poll on the part of the Electoral Commission and campaigners could take about six months from the passage of the legislation – but could also be safely compressed to 12 weeks or so.

A ten week campaign period of which the first six weeks are to allow lead campaign bodies to be designated and four weeks for the actual campaign – though the Electoral Commission has recommended that the four week campaign period be extended to ten weeks. There could be a separate designation process for Round 2 or a single designation process with the winning Brexit campaign from Round 1 being designated automatically for Round 2.

December to February are out for voting: everyone would rather think about Christmas and poor weather depresses turnout. August is also problematic (summer holidays).

 

Citizens’ Assemblies

The purpose of a Citizens’ Assembly would be to assist Parliament in determining the questions in the first round of the referendum. The assemblies would do that by defining and setting out an understanding of the different Brexit options and of Remain, deciding which Brexits were actually available, working out which Brexit options were materially different from each other, and trying to establish which have real support.

Citizens’ Assemblies need time to do their work. The Irish abortion referendum Citizens’ Assembly met over five weekends. Brexit is for sure more complicated. A citizens’ assembly on Brexit would confront many people with new information for the first time. Twelve weeks would be better but there is not the time. I therefore suggest one should allow two months, ie 8 weekends.

It takes several months to set up citizens’ assemblies (selecting speakers, preparing briefing material, choosing members).  That time will have to be compressed. The Constitution Unit’s small Citizen’s Assembly sent out questionnaires in July 2017 with a view to holding sessions in September and October. That means that an early task for Government and Parliament is to choose who will set up the citizens’ assemblies so that they can get going.

An alternative model for the use of citizens’ assemblies would be to have them on a much smaller scale and right at the start of [each round of] the referendum process. Their rôle would be to set out the key points that need to be addressed in the subsequent debates. This article by Involve, a charity which aims to improve public participation in democracy and which worked with the UCL Constitution Unit reflects on the different options for a citizens’ assembly.

 

Time-Table

Here is a first cut at an illustration of how that might come together - a lot more thought and consultation would be needed before one reached a definitely workable plan:

 

Month

Event

What is happening

April 2019

Resolution sets out key elements of process

 

May

Legislation to launch process completed

Electoral Commission consults on wording on range of possible options

 

European Parliament elections

 

A public body – who? - sets up Citizens’ assemblies

 

June

Separate legislation on details of process started.

 

Set up Citizens’ Assemblies

 

Electoral Commission consults on wording on range of possible options.

 

A public body – who? - sets up Citizens’ assemblies

 

July

Citizens’ Assemblies meet

Electoral Commission consults on wording on range of possible options

August

Citizens’ Assemblies meet and report

Electoral Commission recommends  wording for both rounds of the referendum

September

Parliament decides questions

 

Parliament completes all legislation.

Designation of lead campaigners for Round 1 (or for both Rounds)

 

Round 1 Referendum Campaign

October

 

Round 1 Referendum Campaign

November

Round 1 of Referendum identifies best available Brexit

Round 1 Referendum Campaign

December

 

 

January 2020

 

Designation of lead campaigners for Round 2

February

 

Referendum Campaign

March

Final Referendum: Brexit or Remain.

Referendum Campaign

April

Legislation. Revoke Article 50

 

April and Extra time

Brexit

If decision is for Brexit then we would need to go into extra time for final negotiations

 

 

What use is a time-table anyway?

No-one ever keeps to a time-table. The purpose is to help you to understand what corrective action is needed to get back on course. At this stage, the time-table shows the challenge that Parliament faces to fit everything in. It should create an incentive for MPs to get on with the decision to have the referendum.

If Parliament and Government could come up with a coherent plan to use the time well it would be worth their discussing with the EU27 a longer extension to allow us to put it into practice.

 

 

The blogs page of London4Europe is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.