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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Poll is all a question of wording
Ballot box
We voted to stay in the 'common market' in a 1975 referendum
Few people will have a clear memory of the last UK-wide referendum.

While a number of referendums have been held around the UK since then, it's nearly 30 years since Britain voted in this way.

So as the public prepares for the prospect of voting on the EU constitution many will be wondering how it is all going to work.

One major concern for commentators is what question will be put to the public and how exactly will it be asked?

It has been suggested that the government may opt for a broader question on the UK's continued membership in Europe, rather than a simple 'yes' or 'no' vote on the constitution itself.

It's important to get the question right so the voters are aware of the issue they are being asked to make a decision on
Douglas Stewart

The content of the question is likely to be debated fiercely, and the final decision lies with parliament.

But once the initial wording is proposed by the government within a parliamentary Bill, it must first be considered by the Electoral Commission - an independent body set up by parliament in 2000.

Head of referendums at the commission, Douglas Stewart, said six commissioners make their initial assessment of the question as soon as the Bill is introduced to parliament.

Preamble

MPs can consider their comments - which technically they could ignore - while the Bill passes through the system.

"It is our role to make sure the question presents the options clearly, simply and neutrally.

"It's important to get the question right so the voters are aware of the issue they are being asked to make a decision on," said Mr Stewart.

He said people should not be left wondering what the question means, or be led into voting a certain way.

PREVIOUS REFERENDUMS
1973: Northern Ireland votes on remaining part of the UK
1975: UK-wide vote on staying in the EC
1979: Scottish and Welsh vote on devolution
1997: Scots and Welsh polled on devolution again
1998: London votes on setting up Greater London Authority
1998: Northern Ireland ballot on Good Friday Agreement
2004: Three areas vote on regional assemblies

If the issue is complex, a preamble to the question should deal with any explanations required, he added.

Their views are sent to the relevant secretary of state, and are published for the public to see.

What the Electoral Commission does not do is comment on the question that is being asked, but rather whether it is being asked fairly.

The legal framework for the conduct of any UK-wide, national or regional referendum - and the Electoral Commission's role within it - is set down by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Having only been established in 2000, the commission is still in the midst of its first referendum 'dry run'.

Referendums will be held the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber later this year, over setting up regional governments.

"The government has tabled amendments to reflect our comments, which we were encouraged by," said Mr Stewart.

They may find the dust has barely settled on those before work starts on the UK's second national referendum on Europe.




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