Labour has criticised the government’s plan not to impose a period of purdah before the European Union referendum.
Elections and referenda typically have a four-week period when the machinery of government is not permitted to back any of the campaigns, but the EU Referendum Bill would waive the requirement in this case.
The decision not to include a purdah period was criticised by Conservative backbenchers yesterday, but apparently backed by Labour frontbencher Hilary Benn, who said it was “reasonable”.
Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, said at this afternoon’s prime minister’s questions that it was “essential” that the election was both “fair and seen as fair”.
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“Why are they changing the law to exempt the government from the rules that make sure the government doesn't use public funds or the government machine in the short campaign?" she asked.
“The problem is it's a blanket exemption and we must have a legal framework on the face of the bill, we can't be left just to rely on ministerial restraint.”
David Cameron explained why he did not believe a purdah period was appropriate: “I don't want us to be in a situation where in the four weeks before the referendum minsters aren't able to talk about the European budget...and all the rest of it.
“The second issue...is that when the negotiation is complete and the Government has a clear view, I don't want us to be neutral on this issue, I want us to speak clearly and frankly on this issue.”
Benn, who was responding to the government for Labour in the Commons yesterday, appeared to support the absence of purdah.
“It would not be sensible for any government to find themselves constrained from explaining to the people the government’s view, because the people are entitled to hear from the government of the day,” he said.
“...I agree with the foreign secretary in this respect: once the government eventually reach a view, they are entitled to explain it to the British people. Indeed, they will have to explain their view to some of the members of the cabinet. Therefore, it is reasonable to ensure that the hovernment are able to do that.”
Government guidance to civil servants issued before last year's vote on Scottish independence stipulated that ministers had a "clear policy position" on maintaining the United Kingdom.
But under a deal agreed with the Scottish government, an extra 28-day restricted period was imposed, barring both the Scottish and UK government from publishing information or embarking on ministerial visits that might have "a bearing on the referendum campaign".
Several Conservative backbenchers have already raised concerns about the EU vote plan.
Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, said the government could not afford to be seen to “load the dice” in favour of either campaign.
Former cabinet minister Owen Paterson warned that allowing government departments to campaign would lead to complaints that the result of the referendum was not valid.