MPs will debate two petitions from the last Parliament on Monday 23 March 2020 in Westminster Hall at 4:30pm. Both petitions called for the postponement of the UK's withdrawal from the European Union to allow a public inquiry to take place into the referendum process.

Two 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 250178 and 241848 relating to the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.”

Both petitions were launched in 2019 and called for the Brexit process to be postponed in order to allow a public inquiry to take place into the process of the referendum itself.

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).”

The Government responses

The Government issued a response to each petition, 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.”

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 treaty. 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.

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:

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

You can find out more about the Withdrawal Agreement, the legislation that implemented it, and the next steps for Brexit 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.