PACAC: Civil service's reputation damaged by EU referendum

Committee calls for purdah rules to be revised for the digital age and extended for referendum campaign periods

By Suzannah.Brecknell

12 Apr 2017

The reputation of the civil and diplomatic services was damaged during the EU referendum campaign due to the “many occasions when it appeared to many that civil servants were being drawn into referendum controversy”, MPs have said today.

In a report published today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said Whitehall's reputation for impartiality was also hit by the “manner of the presentation of government reports, particularly those from the Treasury” and the decision to spend £9.3m sending a pro-Remain leaflet to all households, which MPs said was “inappropriate and counterproductive for the government”.

The committee was also critical of the government’s decision to proscribe Whitehall from preparing for a Leave vote.

“While the government did not support a Leave vote, they nonetheless had a constitutional and public obligation to prepare for both outcomes from the referendum,” says the report.

In an evidence session last July, MPs heard from cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood that some planning did in fact take place, including at an away day which took place during the purdah period.

Of this planning, the report says: “Though we were relieved to learn that work was undertaken within the civil service on the potential implications of a Leave vote, civil servants should never have been asked to operate in a climate where contingency planning was formally proscribed by the government.”

In future referendums, the committee concluded, civil servants should be tasked with preparing for both possible outcomes and it should be assumed that the sitting prime minister will remain in place and “take responsibility for the referendum result in either eventuality”

The report also called for the purdah period for referendums, during which officials and special advisers are prohibited from publishing any material related to the debate, to be extended for the full ten weeks of the official campaign to prevent improper government interference in future campaigns, according to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

“The absence of a longer purdah period enables the government and other relevant public bodies to produce promotional material during most of the referendum campaign period, a situation that is far from satisfactory,” MPs say in a report published today.

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The report noted that the Electoral Commission has repeatedly argued that the restrictions on the publication of promotional, referendum-related, material by the government should be extended to cover the full referendum period.

“Nothing but the government’s political intentions are served by maintaining the 28-day purdah period,” it stated.

The report also called for purdah rules to be “clarified and modernised to reflect the digital age” and says breaches of purdah should result in sanctions, policed by the Electoral Commission.

MPs also note that, although they have no direct evidence, they cannot rule out the possibility that “foreign interference” caused the electoral registration website to crash on the deadline for registrations for the referendum.

They do not believe this had any material effect on the outcome of the referendum, but point out government plans to protect against possible foreign interference in IT systems for future elections should extend beyond technical considerations.

“The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based, while Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals,” said the report.

“The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.”

The committee calls on government to create a “permanent machinery for monitoring cyber activity in respect of elections and referendums” as well as putting plans in place to respond to such attacks if they occur. 

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