EU referendum: Heads of Unilever, Airbus and GE accuse Leave campaign of using their names for ‘propaganda’

Exclusive: Chief executives of pro-Remain companies claim anti-EU camp is attempting to ‘deliberately mislead’ voters by using their logos on a taxpayer funded leaflet making the case for Brexit

Oliver Wright
Political Editor
Wednesday 15 June 2016 17:41 BST

Three of the country’s largest employers have accused the official Leave campaign of “deliberately” attempting to “mislead” voters by using their logos on a taxpayer funded leaflet making the case for Brexit.

In a furious letter to Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign and seen by The Independent, the heads of Unilever, Airbus and GE accuse the group of using their names for “propaganda purposes” to imply their support for exit from the European Union”.

The chief executives add that the leaflet, which has been sent to millions of homes up and down the country at taxpayers expense, is both “highly misleading to British voters” and an “act of bad faith towards our companies”.

They have warned Vote Leave that if any more of the leaflets are distributed they will consider taking legal action against the group and say they have raised their concerns with the Electoral Commission that is regulating the referendum.

Under the rules of the referendum both the Leave and Remain campaigns are entitled to one publically funded leaflet sent to every voter in the country.

The letter is the latest embarrassment for Vote Leave that has already been censored by the UK Statistics Authority for making misleading claims about the cost of Britain’s EU membership.

It has also been criticised for using the official NHS logo on its campaign material without permission implying that Brexit would be good for the Health Service.

The leaflet, which has been passed to The Independent, includes a section, which it describes as an “EU myth buster”. It then asks ‘would jobs be at risk?’. Under the logos of Unilever, Airbus, GE as well as the car manufacturers Toyota, Nissan and Vauxhall it states: “EU regulations make it harder for British firms to hire staff. Major employers like Toyota, Nissan and Vauhxall, Unilever, GE and Airbus have all said they’ll stay in the UK whatever the result of the referendum.”

But the chief executives of three of the companies say this deliberately distorts their position as all of them are in favour of Britain remaining in the EU.

Toyota and Nissan are understood to share similar sentiments but were unwilling to go public in their criticisms of Vote Leave.

Paul Kahn, President of Airbus Group UK, told The Independent he was “shocked and dismayed” to see his company’s name and logo being used as “propaganda” for the Leave campaign.

“We do not support leaving the EU, and our position is widely known,” he said.

“For Vote Leave to suggest anything else is deliberately misleading.”

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, added: “The use of our company name and trademark in this way is a clear attempt to mislead the British people. Unilever does not support Vote Leave and does not advocate leaving the European Union, and never has. We believe that for jobs and investment the United Kingdom is far better off remaining a member of the EU.”

Mark Elborne, President & CEO GE UK & Ireland, said: “We are very unhappy with the unauthorised use of our trademark by the Leave campaign. At no point was our permission sought, and it would not have been given had we been asked. Our position is clear - GE supports the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union.”

The letter to Vote Leave has been seized upon by the Remain campaign who accused them of using tax payer funds to “lie” to the British people.

The Vote Leave campaign has also come under fire for using the NHS logo without permission (Getty)

“This is disgraceful behaviour by the leave campaign,” said the Energy Secretary Amber Rudd.

“To misrepresent major companies for propaganda purposes as part of their official election address is nothing short of using taxpayers’ money to lie to the British people.

“Vote Leave have resorted to lying about British businesses because they know they cannot get their support honestly.

British employers – like every credible economist and institution – know that staying in the European Union is better for our economy, our businesses, our families, our jobs and the money in our pockets.”

No one from Vote Leave was available for comment at the time of publication.

The EU referendum debate has so far been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until 23 June we we’re running a series of question and answer features that explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision.

What is Brexit and why are we having an EU referendum?

Will we gain or lose rights by leaving the European Union?

What will happen to immigration if there's Brexit?

Will Brexit make the UK more or less safe?

Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

Will leaving the EU save taxpayers money and mean more money for the NHS?

What will Brexit do to UK trade?

How Brexit will affect British tourism

What will Brexit mean for British tourists booking holidays in the EU?

Will Brexit help or damage the environment?

Will Brexit mean that Europeans have to leave the UK?

What will Brexit mean for British expats?

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