The Government is to spend nearly £10 million of taxpayers' money sending leaflets to every household in the country to make the case for Britain to stay in the European Union.
In a move described by leave campaigners as "disgraceful", Downing Street signed off on plans to spend £9.2m printing and distributing the 16 page glossy leaflet outlining the benefits of Britain’s continued EU membership.
The publication, which will start arriving on doorsteps next week, makes the case for why the Government believes that "voting to remain in the EU is the best decision for the UK".
But in a move that will be attacked by critics as an escalation of Downing Street’s "Project Fear" tactics, the leaflet also warns that leaving the EU would cause an "economic shock" and increase the prices of household goods.
It goes on to say that British voters would lose access to cheap flights and face higher mobile roaming charges when travelling if they back a Brexit, and that "over three million UK jobs are linked to exports to the EU".
The pamphlet recalls a tactic used by Harold Wilson ahead of the 1975 referendum when an "independent" government analysis of his renegotiation was sent by voters alongside the pro- and anti- campaign literature.
It is being sent out now because the Government is able to spend an unlimited amount of money on its campaign to keep Britain in the EU ahead of the "purdah" period, which comes into force 28 days ahead of the June 23 referendum.
Critics say this gives the Government an unfair advantage over the campaigns attempting to take Britain out of the EU.
“This is an outrageous way to spend hard-working taxpayers money,” said the Tory MP Peter Bone, who is a leading voice in one of the main leave campaigns.
"This is a major error of judgement given the lack of funding for vital public services. I urge the Prime Minister to rethink wasting such an astonishing amount of British taxpayers money. What is being done is immoral, undemocratic and against what the Government has promised.”
However Environment Secretary Liz Truss has defended the spend.
“This referendum will be a huge decision for our country, perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes and it is crucial that the public have clear and accessible information,” she said.
“Independent polling carried out on behalf of the Government made clear that 85 per cent of people want more information to help make an informed decision.”
Meanwhile the claim and counter-claim between pro and anti EU campaigners sunk to new depths yesterday after the leading group vying to pull Britain out of Europe was reported to the Electoral Commission for allegedly making misleading claims in their own voter leaflet.
Chris Bryant, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the Commons, made the complaint over literature delivered to thousands of households over the last few weeks.
While the leaflet was produced by the Vote Leave campaign it contained none of the group’s branding – and directed people to a website which Mr Bryant suggested seemed “deliberately designed to appear impartial”.
Pro EU campaigners claimed the leaflet made “at least” eight misleading claims despite suggesting it was presenting “the facts” about Britain’s membership.
At the same time Downing Street released details of an official Government leaflet to be sent out to every household in the UK making the case for Britain to stay in the European Union.
At a cost to the taxpayer of £9.3 million ministers claim that the leaflet will meet a demand from the public for the “facts” about the implications of leaving the EU.
However anti EU campaigners said it was scandalous that ministers had authorised such spending on what they described as “propaganda”.
"The Government promised that it would not take on the lead role in the referendum, so it’s disgraceful that they’re spending taxpayers’ money which could go to the NHS on EU propaganda instead,” said a spokesman for Vote Leave. "We should Vote Leave on 23 June to stop Brussels taking £350 million of our money every week and spend our money on our priorities like the NHS."
Among the disputed assertions in the leaflet were claims that the EU had "taken control" over Britain’s "borders and public services".
The main pro-EU campaign said this assertion was wrong as the UK remained control of its borders as a result of the country’s opt out from Schengen Agreement. They added that the EU had “absolutely no say” over how Britain ran its public services.
Britain Stronger in Europe also rejected Vote Leave’s assertion that the EU "costs Britain £350 million a week".
In fact, they said, Britain’s contribution was around £7.1 bn a year - or £136 million a week – equivalent to £263 per household per year.
Independent think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies said yesterday that the UK’s overall net contribution would be a little over £8 billion a year in future. They added that in past it had fluctuated from year to year and was £7.5 billion in 2012, £9.1 billion in 2013 and £5.7 billion in 2014.
James McGrory, Chief Campaign Spokesman for Britain Stronger in Europe, claimed Vote Leave were trying to pull "a grand deception on the British people” and were using a ‘fact’ sheet that was “remarkably short on facts to do so".
"This leaflet is nothing short of Project Fantasy," he said. "It fails to address the real concerns that many people will have about the economic costs to Britain of leaving Europe’s free-trade single market."
Addressing the lack of branding on the leaflet a source in Vote Leave pointed out that Britain’s Stronger in Europe had also produced literature with deliberately obscure branding on it.
A spokesman added: “People want to know the facts on the EU such as the fact that we send £350 million every week to Brussels that could go to the NHS if we vote leave and we are experimenting with different formats to see what is most effective."
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