The EU Commission could “drop a bombshell” just days before Britain goes to the polls in the EU referendum by making announcements that sway the vote, MPs have been told. They heard that the Commission will be banned from donating money to the ‘in’ campaign or promoting the EU, but there is little that can be done to stop it publishing material on its website.
The revelation came during an evidence session of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) which has been tasked with scrutinising the decision to omit purdah regulations for the referendum, due to be held in 2017.
Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission’s director of party and election finance, said:
“What I couldn’t say with clarity is how our enforceability would work outside the UK,” the BBC has reported.
The Committee’s chairman, Bernard Jenkin, said that that meant there was nothing to stop the Commission from “dropping a bombshell” with just days to go before the vote. Another member of the committee suggested that the Commission, which has a press office in Westminster, may also be able to make “vows” to the electorate, in much the same way as Gordon Brown had done to the people of Scotland before the Scottish referendum on independence last year.
In a break from convention, the Conservative government earlier this year unveiled plans to scrap the 28-day purdah period, in which ministers and civil servants are banned from any activity which could sway the vote.
Concerns were quickly raised by Eurosceptics, fearful that the government was attempting to tilt the scales in favour of a vote to remain within the EU. UKIP’s Chairman Steve Crowther said:
“With no guarantee from the Government that they will set and enforce fair and equal spending limits, this omission [of a purdah period] leaves the door open for the government or indeed the European Union’s agencies to make ever more appealing announcements, right up to polling day, to ‘nudge’ people towards a vote to stay in.”
Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary turned Tory backbencher commented: “The purdah rule was brought in for a very good reason: to allow a fair choice on the basis of a fair distribution of material. You cannot have unlimited local government, national government or European government material distributed right up to polling day. It’s quite clearly wrong.”
Fellow Eurosceptic backbencher Bill Cash tabled an amendment to see the purdah period reinstated but it was defeated, despite being backed by 27 Conservative MPs, by Labour abstaining, allowing the government a clearer run.
The government has argued that holding a purdah period would prevent ministers from doing their jobs within the EU, but that claim is also being scrutinised by PACAC, as are concerns over the government’s plans to explain the outcome of the government’s renegotiation of EU treaties ahead of the referendum.
Lord Bew, chairman of the committee on standards in public life has said that the word “explain is open to a number of different meanings,” and that his committee would investigate whether the proposed plan breaks impartiality rules.
Mr Jenkin said: “I am advised that in no other country could the government use the machinery of government to explain the outcome of the negotiations in that fashion during the purdah period.”
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