A committee of MPs has criticised the government’s proposal to water down "purdah" rules for the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.
The government announced its intention not to apply section 125 of Political Parties and Referendum Act 2000 – which puts a four-week moratorium on government activity on matters relating to the vote – in the legislation paving the way for the EU referendum.
Ministers argued it would be “unworkable”, although they confirmed they would be bringing forward proposals in the autumn to provide reassurance that government machinery would not be used inappropriately.
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The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has been taking evidence into the issue. Its chairman, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, has been one of the most vocal critics of the proposal to ease purdah rules.
In his capacity as committee chairman, he has today written to David Lidington, the Europe minister, to warn against the government’s plan.
“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,” Jenkin writes.
“The proposal to disapply or to dilute Section 125 threatens, at the very least, the perception of impartiality and fairness, and the proper conduct of both ministers and civil servants during the course of the campaign.”
He adds: “While the members of my committee have different views on the EU, we are unanimously of the view that, in respect of any referendum, the government of the United Kingdom must be seen to conduct itself properly, fairly and impartially during the purdah period.
"The disapplication or dilution of Section 125 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.”
Ministers’ arguments that the purdah period would restrict the government’s ability to comment on a wide range of matters that could be discussed at an EU-level had “failed to convince” the majority of those who gave evidence to the committee, Jenkin said.
“None of our witnesses could think of a previous example where the government had faced the kind of restrictions which the government seems to fear,” he added.
Appearing before the committee yesterday, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood warned ministers could be "hobbled" in negotiations with EU counterparts unless the purdah rules were eased.