Government "readying u-turn" on EU vote civil service rules

Reports suggest ministers set to announce climb-down over EU vote "purdah" rules, after warnings of "rigged" vote from backbench MPs

Ministers are reportedly set to announce “significant” changes to the rules surrounding civil service activity in the run-up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

The BBC reports that the alterations will focus on the so-called purdah rules, which place a 28-day moratorium on government activity on matters relating to the vote.

The government originally planned to suspend these rules in the legislation accounting for the referendum, a move that attracted criticism from some MPs who argued that the move could cast doubt on the impartiality of the civil service and allow the use of official resources to sway the vote.

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A government source told the BBC: "There will be a pretty significant shift in the government position.

"There is no wish within the government to be in a position where doubt is cast on the fairness of the referendum.

"It has got to be fair. And it has got to be seen to be fair."               

As part of an inquiry into the implications of the EU vote for the civil service, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) took evidence from cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood. Heywood told MPs the existing rules could “hobble” ministers seeking to represent Britain in EU talks ahead of the vote.

"In a normal referendum, in a non-EU referendum, if I can call them that, the government has some control over the agenda," he said. "Not much will happen during the 28-day period, we can make sure there are no policy initiatives that bear on the referendum itself, we can make sure the issue doesn’t arise. 

"But on European business, the Europeans control the agenda so those meetings will happen, despite the fact we have got our referendum going on, [and] we will have to have representation there."

PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin, a vocal Tory critic of the plan to suspend purdah, told Civil Service World recently that he believed the government risked creating the impression of a "rigged" referendum by not explicitly ruling out the use of official resources to campaign for either side.
Yesterday prime minister David Cameron accepted the ruling of the Electoral Commission to change the wording of the EU referendum question.

The question put to voters will now offer a Remain/Leave choice, rather than Yes/No.

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