Downing Street has announced that the government will table an amendment to the EU referendum bill to reflect the new wording.
The move by No 10 means that voters will be asked whether Britain should remain a member of the EU or whether the UK should leave the EU. The government had intended to ask voters simply whether the UK should remain a member of the EU, prompting the Electoral Commission to warn that this could favour the status quo in the referendum.
The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “We will follow the recommendation of the Electoral Commission by tabling an amendment to the bill. The government’s approach has been to follow the Electoral Commission’s advice.”
The move means that, unlike the Scottish referendum, there will not be a yes and a no campaign. Instead, there will be a campaign to remain in the EU and a campaign to leave.
The question currently in the bill that was tested by the watchdog was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”
The responses would have been yes or no.
Following its assessment process, the commission has recommended that the question should be amended to: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
The responses would be: “Remain a member of the European Union” or: “Leave the European Union”.
The commission has written to the government and issued a briefing to all MPs recommending that this change should be made at report stage of the bill on 7 September.
Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “Any referendum question must be as clear as possible so that voters understand the important choice they are being asked to make. We have tested the proposed question with voters and received views from potential campaigners, academics and plain language experts.
“Whilst voters understood the question in the bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias. The alternative question we have recommended addresses this. It is now for parliament to discuss our advice and decide which question wording should be used.”
The choice of the question’s wording has been at the heart of the debate surrounding the upcoming referendum, the date of which has yet to be announced.
Ukip has campaigned for a change in the government’s preferred question as the choice of terms parliament does adopt could potentially make a difference in a close vote.
Responding to Number 10’s decision to give way, Ukip’s Nigel Farage said: “I’m in no doubt that the Yes/No offering was leading to great confusion and that remain or leave is much clearer. That combined with a more explicit question is the right direction of travel.”
Douglas Carswell, Ukip’s sole MP, speaking before No 10 acquiesced with the recommendation, said: “The government needs to listen to the Electoral Commission. They have been trying to rig things, by changing the purdah rules on spending and by asking a slanted question.
“The referendum needs to be fair and seen to be fair, rather than a Downing Street fix,” he said.
The commission has recommended a change in the wording because of concerns that the original question could be used to discredit the referendum by those campaigning to leave.
“There were two main reasons why consultation respondents and research participants viewed the question as biased – it only sets out the ‘remain’ option in the question, and the ‘yes’ response is for the status quo,” the statement said.
“Consequently, while the question is not significantly leading, we have concerns about the perception that this question will encourage voters to consider one response more favourably than another.
“These views raise concerns about the potential legitimacy, in the eyes of those campaigning to leave and some members of the public, of the referendum result – particularly if there was a vote to remain a member of the European Union.
“The views of campaigners in particular provided an extra dimension that had not been available in our previous assessment,” it said.
The commission tested alternative questions before settling on its recommendation, it said.
“It is possible to ask a question which would not cause comparable concerns about neutrality, whilst also being easily understood. The commission’s research indicates that the alternative question it has proposed addresses the concerns about potential bias that were expressed,” the commission’s statement added.
The government has never overturned a recommendation from the Electoral Commission regarding a referendum, a spokesperson for the watchdog said. This is the 11th assessment of a referendum question carried out by the commission since 2001.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt and Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 1st September 2015 11.18 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010