Eurosceptics MPs say they are unwilling to back down over their threat to introduce a “purdah” period for officials and ministers before the forthcoming EU referendum.
Parliament will later today vote on an amendment to the European Union Referendum Bill tabled by veteran euro rebel Sir Bill Cash along with 21 others which would ban government from expressing an opinion in the run-up to the planned plebiscite.
Downing Street has said that the government, which had been seeking to remove the requirement, will “seek to address” concerns over purdah to avoid a vote on the amendment, which could take place this evening.
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However, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin – recently nominated unopposed as chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which scrutinises the civil service – said eurosceptics would not “back down” on their insistence on a four-week purdah period.
He said: “It’s not about pushing propaganda through people’s letterboxes. It’s about journalists ringing up the civil servants and saying ‘what does the Government mean by this?’ and instead of saying, as during a general election, ‘I’m sorry, that’s a matter for the No campaign or the Yes campaign’, the government uses its entire publicity machine to brief the media, to skew the battlefield in favour of their particular side of the debate.”
He said that the principle of a purdah period for referendums was well-established.
“All the referendums we’ve had, the No to AV referendum, the North East referendum on the regional assembly, the Scottish referendum, the recent Welsh referendum, have all been held with these purdah rules in place so civil servants have to be impartial, the press office, the government cars and helicopters can’t be used by ministers to go campaigning.”
Section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets out a 28-day period ahead of a referendum, during which ministers, government departments and local authorities are banned from publishing material relating to the issue in question.
However, the bill coming before a committee of the whole of the House of Commons today proposes to remove this provision.
Ministers had expressed worries that they would be prevented from speaking about European court decisions and the EU budget.
Prime minister David Cameron has also stated that the government will not be neutral on the in/out vote.
But Jenkin said the government had been badly advised on the issue.
“The government thinks that they should be able to use their civil servants and their press officers and their special advisers,” he said.
On Sunday, former environment secretary Owen Paterson said it would be “unacceptable” for the government to promote a vote to stay in the EU.