A petition calling on the government not to spend public money on “biased campaigning” intended to “keep Britain inside the European Union” (EU) was yesterday debated in Parliament.
The petition in question was hosted on the official government website, and having to date received nearly 220,000 signatures — more than double the 100,000 needed for it to be considered for debate in Parliament — it was yesterday debated by Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster Hall for three hours. The petition stated the following:
Prime Minister David Cameron plans to spend British taxpayers’ money on a pro-EU document to be sent to every household in the United Kingdom in the run up to the EU referendum. We believe voters deserve a fair referendum – without taxpayer-funded biased interceptions by the Government.
We, the petitioners, demand the Government STOPS spending our money on biased campaigning to keep Britain inside the European Union.
In spite of the the fact events have overtaken the petition, with the leaflet already having been sent to households across England between 11 and 13 April and to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this week, it nevertheless received full attention from an array of MPs.
Tory Eurosceptic MP Paul Scully introduced the debate, noting that the total cost of the leaflet, along with the accompanying website and other marketing, amounts to £9.3 million of taxpayers’ money. He said the sum does not take account of the fact “the Treasury is publishing documents and the Government continue to have propaganda at the top of every gov.uk web page.”
Anne Maine, another Tory MP, said she had asked the Government what the budget for the entire campaign is, only to be told it is “absorbed within other costs.”
John Redwood described the matter as “a terribly easy case”, summing up the whole argument in just two sentences:
“No previous Labour or Conservative Government have ever thought they should spend taxpayers’ money on promoting Government policies ahead of a general election in the hope of getting a better result. Is that not exactly what the leaflet is doing, and is it not therefore a scandal?”
Mr. Scully agreed, and added that the leaflet is probably self-defeating “because it is likely that the contents of the leaflet will be long forgotten by the start of the purdah period on 27 May, but the £9.3 million price tag will still resonate with voters.”
Dr. Liam Fox thought it “strange” that the leaflet failed to mention “the existential risk of war and genocide” which the Prime Minister had warned would result from Brexit earlier in the day. He asked Mr. Scully if that was “because a) the Government had not recognised that the risk existed, b) they recognised it but were unwilling to contemplate it, or c) it is a complete fabrication?”
Andrew Percy raised his concern that if Remain wins by a narrow margin, many voters “will feel that the result has been fiddled precisely because of this wasted document.” Dr. Fox warned such an outcome could “call into question the legitimacy of the result itself” and suggested “those who believe that they should win the referendum at any price might want to consider what ‘any price’ might look like.”
For Mr. Scully the important thing is that decision is reached “freely and fairly, with as much information—unbiased, impartial information—as possible” without the Government attempting “to stack the decks on a vital constitutional question that will have long-term consequences”.
Labour’s Kate Hoey expressed her “great confidence in the common sense of the British public” who will “already have seen through the leaflet and seen it for what it is — full propaganda.” She linked the leaflet to the daily “shock-horror dreadful scare story” put out by the Government, saying:
“The stories become more ridiculous every day, today’s one being just about the most ridiculous possible — that we are threatened with war. In fact, it is absolutely shameful, because there are some people in this country who believe Prime Ministers and who will be slightly worried about that. It is absolutely shameful that the level of debate from the leadership of this country is so trivial and ridiculous that they come up with scare stories such as that.”
She also noted the hyperbole behind President Obama’s recent pro-EU intervention in the referendum debate, saying she recently “met a lot of senior-level Democrats and Republicans who said to us quite publicly, behind the scenes, that the UK leaving the EU would really not make any difference whatever to the United States.”
Ms. Hoey concluded with an attack on David Cameron’s premiership, predicting: “When someone writes the history of this Administration and, particularly, of this Prime Minister, the way the Prime Minister has behaved on this matter will go down as very sad. It is eating into the kind of country the UK is. He should be ashamed of what he is doing.”
Dr. Julian Lewis picked up the wider question of Government propaganda beyond the leaflet. He brought attention to the video which was timed to back up the Prime Minister’s war warning, “showing four veterans of World War Two saying that they were fighting for a united Europe” and said he doubts that view is shared by “the vast majority of people who fought and died in that campaign.”
Bill Cash agreed, saying: “My father fought with American troops, and I am absolutely certain that the kind of undemocratic, dysfunctional, authoritarian, centralised system represented by the European Union, which does not work, is the antithesis of what they fought for.”
Pointing to the procedural irrelevance of the debate, Dr. Lewis said: “It ought to have been held in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, because then we would have been able to have a vote at the end of it and put to the test the sincerity or otherwise of those who say that the Government have behaved decently, fairly and honourably, rather than deeply unscrupulously, over the production of this expensive leaflet.”
Several MPs offered a forensic analysis of the leaflet’s claims, summed up in Anne-Marie Trevelyan’s description of it as something that is “deeply depressing, presented only one side of the argument and managed to skew information in a way that anyone sitting an A-level would be chastised for because they were not presenting the facts as they should.”
Lucy Allan said the leaflet was “clearly designed to masquerade as a Government information leaflet, yet from a cursory glance at its contents we can see that it is nothing of the sort.” She said it should have made the point that it was intended to promote the case for Remain “and not pretend to be factual public information from a neutral and unbiased perspective.”
A combination of frontbench European spokesmen from the Scottish Nationalist, Labour and Conservative Parties attempted to defend the leaflet towards the end of the debate, however it came across as more of a defence of continued membership of the EU than of the leaflet itself.
In fact the Labour Party’s Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs spokeswoman Pat Glass even questioned the motives of the general public who signed the petition, suggesting those attacking the leaflet were indulging “faux outrage” to “drown out the arguments made in the leaflet.”
In summing up the debate, Paul Scully concluded:
“The establishment are circling the wagons so, no matter where we shoot, we can hit something. We need a fair and free debate from this moment on.”