A Committee of MPs has chastised the Cameron government for attempting to unfairly influence the outcome of the British referendum on EU membership, calling attempts to remove the purdah period before the ballot “completely unacceptable.”
The purdah period, which normally runs for 28 days before a ballot, prevents ministers from making announcements that might sway the electorate. It was ditched by the government when it drafted the European Union Bill currently being processed through Parliament. The government claimed that it would prevent ministers from carrying out their duties in Brussels.
But the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has been scrutinising the Bill, has criticised the government for its actions, and has called on David Lidington, the Minister for Europe, to reinstate the period.
In a letter to Mr Lidington written last Tuesday, Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the PACAC said:
“The PACAC is committed to the proper conduct of any referendum and to the required standards of fairness, transparency and balance, which are crucial in order to ensure confidence in the process and legitimacy of the outcome. We were therefore concerned by the Government’s proposals to dis-apply or to dilute […] the statutory rules which apply to the 28 day purdah period […] in respect of the EU Referendum.”
Failure to implement the purdah period, Mr Jenkin said, would: “make it appear that the Government is seeking to circumvent proper processes to enable it to use the machinery of Government for campaigning activity as well as legitimate Government activity in the run up to the EU Referendum.”
He confirmed that ministers would still be able to campaign for the Yes or No campaigns in the run up to polling day, even if a purdah period were enacted. And he refuted the government’s claims that the purdah period would result in a “very wide-ranging ban on what the Government can do,” responding: “It would be fair to say that this interpretation has failed to convince most of those who gave evidence for the Committee.”
Finally he chastised Mr Lidington in strong terms for an official parliamentary document, writing:
“The Government’s proposal has cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety of the process, even at this early stage. We regard this as completely unacceptable. This must be remedied.”
Speaking on the BBC’s Today Program, Mr Jenkin admitted that the referendum is likely to already be stacked in the government’s favour as “It’s likely that the Yes vote will vastly outspend the No campaigns anyway.
This just tilts the playing field even more in favour of the Government’s view,” he added.
The letter comes less than a week after the PACAC warned that the EU Commission could still drop a bombshell on the referendum by releasing pro-EU material on its website just days before the British people go to the polls.
Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission’s director of party and election finance told the Committee that, even if the purdah rules are in place, they may not be enforceable outside of Britain.