Labour questions David Cameron's move to suspend the civil service impartiality rules for the EU referendum

The Government says purdah would be unworkable

Jon Stone
Wednesday 10 June 2015 13:58 BST
Eurosceptic Conservatives have made clear they will campaign for an exit from the EU unless the prime minster secures reform
Eurosceptic Conservatives have made clear they will campaign for an exit from the EU unless the prime minster secures reform

Labour has raised concerns about David Cameron’s plans to suspend a rule guaranteeing civil service impartiality at election time for the EU referendum.

The Government does not want there to be a “purdah” period for the vote, a rule which usually prevents civil servants from making partial interventions that could affect results.

“Why are they changing the law to exempt the Government from the rules that make sure the Government doesn't use public funds or the government machine in the short campaign?” acting leader Harriet Harman said in parliament.

“The problem is it's a blanket exemption and we must have a legal framework on the face of the bill, we can't be left just to rely on ministerial restraint.”

Labour says it will campaign to stay in the EU but is critical of the plan to exempt the civil service from the usual rules that stop it interfering with elections.

The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond however yesterday said it would be “unworkable and inappropriate” to have purdah for an EU referendum.

“The Government will want to be able to explain what has been agreed and how the British peoples' concerns have been addressed,” he said. “We want to make a recommendation on where the national interest lies.”

He added that the Government had “no intention” of spending “large amounts of public money” on either campaign.

The Government is expected to back the campaign to stay in the EU after a series of renegotiations are completely, though in theory David Cameron has kept open the possibility of supporting a campaign to leave if he does not achieve concessions.

Former Conservative Cabinet minister and eurosceptic Owen Paterson told the Foreign Secretary he believed the vote "could be seen as illegitimate” were purdah not applied.

The attempted intervention is not the first time the Government has raised eyebrows over the use of Britain’s supposedly impartial civil service during a referendum.

After the Scottish independence vote an inquiry found that Treasury officials had acted inappropriately during the campaign in making statements which could have influenced people to vote ‘No’.

The purdah rules are in place to prevent taxpayers’ money being spent on elections and giving incumbent governments unfair and undemocratic advantages.

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