Watchdog MPs are set to consider whether the Cameron government was right to ban the vast majority of the civil service from preparing for the Brexit vote delivered in the EU referendum.
The question will form part of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee’s wide-ranging probe on the vote, announced this month as new prime minister Theresa May unveiled her new cabinet.
Unlike general elections, where civil servants engage in detailed contingency planning in order to hit the ground running once voting results emerge, most of the civil service was expressly forbidden from conducting such work for June’s referendum.
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The only exceptions were HM Treasury and the Bank of England, which carried out limited planning for the immediate financial aftermath of the vote.
Among the questions PACAC is seeking to answer is whether the civil service’s role in referendums should more closely mirror the general election model.
PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin told Civil Service World that the EU referendum had exposed clear lessons to be learned, not least what constituted a legitimate referendum question and how results should be prepared for.
“No prime minister should be permitted to call the bluff of the electorate unless they’re prepared to lose,” he said.
“The civil service has to be free to make whatever preparations it considers necessary and it should not be constrained by instructions from the government.”
Jenkin said he was also keen for the inquiry to look at the role of the Electoral Commission.
“We don’t have a clear legislative framework for it,” he said. “Some of the time it just seems to accept what government policy is, but what is it meant to do?”
Jenkin added that purdah periods for referendums — limiting the use of government resources by either side of a debate — would also be probed, with a particular focus on the availability of digital information and desirable lengths for the purdah window.
“Everyone seems to agree that purdah should be 10-16 weeks rather than just four weeks,” he said. “It seems to me that’s an area we need to clear up.”
The inquiry, which is taking written submissions of evidence until September 5, will also explore the effectiveness of existing legislation regulating the conduct of referendums, and the role the “machinery of government” should play during campaigns. A full list of questions is available on PACAC’s section of Parliament’s website.