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UK's EU vote campaign rules 'rethink'
« on: September 02, 2015, 07:04:54 PM »



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UK's EU vote campaign rules 'rethink'

EU referendum: 'Significant' changes to campaigning rules


    2 September 2015

  • From the section UK



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The government is to change its planned rules on campaigning in the UK's in-out EU referendum after criticism from Eurosceptic Conservative MPs.

It had been proposed that - unlike during elections - there would not be restrictions on the way ministers could campaign in the run-up to the vote.

Critics argued this meant the pro-EU campaign could benefit from the "machinery of government".

The rethink will be for campaign restrictions "with exceptions".

Details of the changes - including what the exceptions are - will be outlined in amendments being tabled to the EU Referendum Bill later on Wednesday.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets out a 28-day "purdah" period ahead of any referendum, during which ministers, government departments and local authorities are banned from publishing material relating to the issue in question.

Prime Minister David Cameron claimed suspending these rules was necessary to allow the government to continue dealing with EU matters during the referendum period.

Ministers also said the purdah rules would stop them being able to defend the national interest in Brussels.

What is purdah?


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Purdah is a longstanding convention whereby governments refrain from making any major announcements in the run-up to general elections or other polls to avoid influencing their outcome.

The existing rules were set out in legislation passed in 2000. They prevent ministers, departments and local authorities from publishing any "promotional material" arguing for or against any particular outcome or referring to any of the issues involved in the referendum.

The rules, which apply to the 28 days up to polling day, do not preclude ministers from issuing press notices or responding to specific requests for information from members of the public.

Special allowance is also made for bodies or individuals designated under section 108 of the law, giving them greater flexibility.

Sir Bill Cash, the veteran Tory MP and chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, welcomed the suggestion the purdah rules would be in force for the EU referendum but said he would wait to see the exact details of the amendments.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The real issue here is one of fairness and that's the case that we've made and also this is yes versus no. It's not a party political issue as between the political parties.

"We know there are many people in the Labour party and the SNP who very much agree with us."

Sir Bill tabled an amendment to reinstate the purdah period for the referendum but was defeated in June.  Twenty seven Tory MPs rebelled against the government plans, which avoided defeat only because Labour chose to abstain.

Sir Bill said there were "quite a lot of people in the House of Commons" who were "absolutely clear that it is not in the national interest to use the machinery of government for the purposes of what could turn out to be support for the yes vote". 

He added: "We're saying this is a matter of principle and it would apply whether there was to be a yes or no vote, if the government, for example, did change its mind."

In July a report from the Public Administration Committee said it was also unconvinced by ministers' arguments.

Analysis by political correspondent Robin Brant


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Standby for climbdown number two.

Yesterday the government was forced to agree a change to the EU referendum question. Today it's expected to accept that "purdah" - the period where government activity is put on hold before an election or vote - should remain in place.

It looks like there will be exemptions though when the amendment to the EU Referendum Bill comes later.

That means Downing Street can stick by its desire to make sure the UK isn't left out of any big European decision making in the final weeks of the campaign but - and this is the important bit for campaigners who want to see Britain leave the EU - there will be no public money spent on ads, e-mails or mailshots to try to sway public opinion in the final days.

It may be enough to persuade some of the 27 Tory MPs who rebelled in June to come round (they were mostly the "usual suspects", with none of the 2015 intake going against the prime minister) but the granddaddy of sceptics is still holding out.

Sir Bill Cash has pointed out a complete purdah on government departments and ministers has been in place for four previous referendums up to now.

In a critical report, it said such a move would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave.

One Whitehall 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."

The amendments have to be published on Wednesday so there is time for MPs to consider them before debating and voting on them next Monday.

Mr Cameron has pledged to hold an EU referendum by the end of 2017 but the BBC understands some allies are contemplating staging it as early as next April.


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