Row over civil service neutrality ahead of EU referendum

Philip Hammond says campaigning to stay in a reformed Europe is "clear" government position

By matt.foster

08 Jun 2015

The civil service will not be expected to abide by "purdah" limitations in the run-up to the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, the foreign secretary has suggested, as Conservative backbenchers warned against the potential politicisation of officials.

In the build-up to both the referendum on Scottish independence last year and the 2011 vote on whether to switch to the alternative vote system, Whitehall was bound by rules curbing any government activity which would be seen to favour a particular outcome.

However, Conservative eurosceptics lashed out this weekend after it emerged that ministers had decided extra neutrality measures would not apply ahead of the EU referendum, due to take place before 2017.

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Former environment secretary Owen Paterson accused the government of planning to "abolish" purdah, writing in the Mail on Sunday that the move would see "government White Papers warning of the calamitous effect a ‘No’ vote would have on the economy and how it would imperil the country".

He added: "The British state, in cahoots with the Brussels machine, will be able to fix the vote in its favour. This is unacceptable. There are absolutely no grounds to get rid of purdah, especially for a referendum of such fundamental importance."

Responding to the criticism, foreign secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC that seeking a reformed EU through David Cameron's renegotiation of membership terms was a fixed policy of the UK government.

“The government machine will continue running, Europe will continue running and we will have to engage with it," he said.

"But the government is clear. It doesn’t want to be neutral on this. We hope to be able to achieve a package that we can recommend to the British people. This is a core manifesto commitment and ministers will want to speak out on the referendum."

That view was later echoed by Cameron, with the prime minister telling reporters at the G7 summit: "The government isn't neutral in this. We have a clear view: renegotiate, get a deal that's in Britain's interest and then recommend Britain stays in it."

Government guidance to civil servants issued before last year's vote on Scottish independence similarly 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".

In spite of the restrictions, MPs on the public administration select committee (PASC) used a report earlier this year to criticise the way both the UK and Scottish governments had used their respective officials during the referendum campaign.

The Treasury came under fire from PASC for making public a letter by permanent secretary Nicholas Macpherson on the perils of a currency union, while the Scottish government was admonished for its use of official resources in drawing up its White Paper on independence .

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