Three Parliamentary petitions will be debated under the same motion in Westminster Hall on Monday 23 March 2020 at 4.30pm. The motion will read:

“That this House has considered e-petitions 241848, 250178, 300412 relating to the UK’s departure from the EU”

The first two petitions were launched in the 2017-2019 Parliament and called for a public inquiry to take place into the process of the 2016 referendum on EU membership. The first of these also called for Brexit to be halted pending the public inquiry.

The third petition calls for the post-Brexit transition period to be extended until after the coronavirus outbreak.

The petitions

Petition 241848 ran for six months between March 2019 and September 2019 and received 111,918 signatures. It stated:

“The UK’s departure from the EU looms but questions remain about the legitimacy of the Referendum. The Electoral Commission said illegal overspending occurred during the Referendum. Were the vote/any subsequent political acts affected? Article 50 was triggered. Was the overspend known about then?

A transparent Public Inquiry is required, now.

This Inquiry must determine urgently whether any decision-maker knew about the EU Referendum irregularities before Article 50 was triggered.

What assessment (before Article 50 was triggered or subsequently) was made, and by whom, of any impacts illegal spending had on the outcome of the EU Referendum?

These are matters vital to the democratic process and public confidence in British politics. Until they are resolved Brexit must be deferred.”

Petition 250178 ran for six months between April 2019 and October 2019 and received 109,430 signatures. It stated:

“There is now strong evidence of serious misconduct during the 2016 EU Referendum, including intereference by foreign actors and governments. This must be investigated under the Inquiries Act (2005).”

Petition 300412 ran for six months and received 107,436 signatures. It stated:

“The government should consider delaying negotiations so they can concentrate on the coronavirus situation and reduce travel of both EU and UK negotiators. This would necessitate extending the transition period; as there can only be a one off extension, this should be for two years.

The coronavirus situation will inevitably require effort from the government and they should not be dealing with EU negotiations at the same time. A two year extension will ensure that we have the time and energy to properly negotiate a deal. The country will be hit financially and socially by the impacts of this virus. We cannot risk a ‘no deal’ impact on top of this.

Additionally, government and EU negotiators should be limiting travel at this time”.


The Government responses

The Government issued a response to the first two petitions on 15 April 2019 and 24 April 2019 respectively. These can be read on the respective petition pages. In brief, however, the Government maintained in both responses:

  • that the independent Electoral Commission should decide what if any investigations to carry out with regard to the conduct of parties during the referendum;
  • that the Government “had no plans” to commence a public inquiry; and
  • that the Government “has not seen evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes.”

The Government issued a response to the third petition on 9 April 2020. This can be read on the petition page. It emphasised that:

  • the transition period, as provided for in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement (WA), ends on 31 December 2020.
  • Although there was a provision to extend this in the WA (if the UK and EU agreed to do so), the Government had no intention of agreeing an extension. It had passed legislation to prohibit Ministers from agreeing an extension.
  • The Government was committed to the negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship. Following the coronavirus outbreak talks were continuing remotely.


Events since the petitions received Government responses

Since the Government responses, and the closure of the petitions after six months each, the UK has left the EU (effective from 11pm GMT on 31 January 2020) and has started the transition period under the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). Therefore, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union cannot be postponed or cancelled for the purposes of conducting a public inquiry, as extension or revocation of the Article 50 withdrawal process is no longer legally possible. If the UK is to rejoin the EU then it must, in accordance with the EU Treaties, reapply to join the EU under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union.

Negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship began in March 2020. Although face-to -face negotiations were suspended in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak, the UK and EU remained in contact. Negotiations resumed by videoconference in April. Following the easing of lockdown measures, face-to-face talks resumed in late June. Negotiations have been ongoing since.

The WA set a deadline of 1 July 2020, by which a decision to extend the transition period would need to be taken. The UK and EU would have had to agree on an extension, and the extension could have been for up to two years. Although the EU indicated that it would be willing to consider an extension, the UK Government continued to restate its position prior to the 1 July 2020 deadline that it would not seek or agree to an extension. The deadline passed on 1 July. The WA no longer provides a legal basis for an extension of the transition period. Some commentators however have suggested that the transition period could still be extended if the UK and EU decide later in the year that more time is needed to complete the negotiations or to implement a new agreement. This could involve a new transition or implementation period being agreed as part of a new UK-EU agreement rather than through the WA. This might prove difficult to agree and to ratify ahead of 31 December. The EU would also need to find a legal basis to conclude such an agreement, which would also pose difficulties.

The EU has indicated that an agreement would need to be reached in October in order to provide time for its internal ratification processes for external agreements. It is possible that talks could continue into November, but time would be needed for the European Parliament to scrutinise and give consent to an agreement before the end of December. The latest negotiating round finished on 2 October. Following this round, the EU said that there continued to be serious divergences between the two sides. Without a new agreement in place at the end of the year, UK-EU trade will revert to World Trade Organization rules and co-operation arrangements in other sectors will cease. 

Further reading on alleged irregularities in the EU referendum

The Library produced a briefing paper for an Emergency Debate into the EU referendum and allegations of breaches of electoral law in March 2018. See:

In addition to the brief summaries that the Electoral Commission publishes on recent investigations and enforcement proceedings, it has published two detailed reports on its website directly connected to the EU referendum, following investigations into campaign conduct:

Vote leave subsequently appealed against the Commission’s findings but withdrew the appeal, citing lack of funds to pursue the appeal in the courts. It paid its fines in full.

Darren Grimes successfully appealed against his fine from the Electoral Commission. The judge agreed with Grimes’ counsel that the campaigner had not intended to mislead and had been confused by the Electoral Commission’s registration form.

The Commission also shared evidence on Darren Grimes and Vote Leave with the Metropolitan Police so the police could investigate whether any related offences outside the Commisison’s remit had been committed. The Metrpolitan police took no further action against Mr Grimes or Vote Leave. 

Leave.EU also appealed against its fines but the appeal. The Court substantively refused the appeal and confirmed all offences, but allowed parts of the appeal.  It upheld three of the penalties imposed, totalling £50,000, but reduced one of the penalties from £20,000 to £16,000. Leave.EU was therefore fined £66,000, which it paid in full. The Electoral Commission had also referred Leave.EU, Aaron Banks and Elizabeth Bilney to the National Crime Agency to investigate potential offences under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and potential failings under company law. The NCA found no evidence that any criminal offences had been committed.

Further reading on the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement and future relationship negotiations

The following Library briefing paper discussed the calls to extend the transition period, the procedure for doing so in the Withdrawal Agreement, and the possible ways mooted for extending the transition period once the 1 July 2020 deadline had passed:

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the negotiations, and the calls for extension of transition were also covered in the following debate pack, for an opposition day debate on 15 July 2020:

The following Library Insight provided an overview of the state of play in the negotiations and the likely timeline for negotiating and approving an agreement:

Other Library briefing papers on the UK-EU future relationship negotiations include the following:

You can find out more about the Withdrawal Agreement and the legislation that implemented it in the following Library briefing papers:


Further reading on public inquiries

The Library has existing resources on public inquiries and how they are set up and run. See:

The Cabinet Office has supplementary guidance on the setting up and running of public inquiries, with a particular focus on those set up under the Inquiries Act 2005.


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