As a rule of thumb, it isn’t a good sign when a Government announcement is released late on in the day. At best it suggests things being done on the hoof; at worst it suggests a hope that the news will land sufficiently late that journalists won’t have time to scrutinise it fully before their evening deadlines.
So when the proposed compromise amendments on the EU referendum purdah weren’t published until nigh-on 5 o’clock yesterday evening, it’s fair to say I was somewhat concerned. As I argued on Tuesday, ConservativeHome supports the full reinstatement of purdah in order to guarantee the referendum is fair.
All we knew in advance of the decision to reintroduce purdah to the Bill was that it would likely include some ‘exceptions’. The last minute flurry of amendments which have eventually been released appear to contain two important points.
The first is Amendment 1, which establishes powers over the purdah and promises new regulations on its use. Essentially, the amendment gives the Government the power to alter or indeed abolish purdah entirely at a later point in the process. Furthermore, the regulations which it promises won’t be written until after the Bill has passed.
This is less than reassuring. The Government’s view on the value of purdah was made quite clear when it initially tried to scrap it outright for this referendum. At that stage, Ministers asked MPs to rely on their assurances that they would never unfairly exploit the lack of a purdah period. This amendment, which has only come about because of the risk of a new rebellion and potential defeat, essentially asks exactly the same thing – that MPs should accept promises rather than a full purdah guaranteed in law. Various backbench MPs are understandably sceptical.
The second is Amendment 32, which reduces the scope of purdah. Here is the relevant text, tweeted by Paul Waugh:
The crucial words are “directly addresses the question”. The existing law defining purdah (Section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000) says that the rule applies to any material which “deals with any of the issues raised by any question on which such a referendum is being held”.
This amendment is clearly proposing a watered-down purdah when compared to the old text. Crucially it is also far from clearly defined, opening the matter to wriggling and weaseling with the words.
The 2000 Act is explicit in forbidding all Government spending on any of the issues at hand, allowing no fudging. By contrast, this amendment would be eminently vulnerable to fudge. It’s easy to foresee glowing Government TV adverts about, say, trade (which might happen to feature a lot of positive commentary on trade with EU member states), or heavily-publicised Home Office announcements about catching criminals (who might happen to have been retrieved through the European Arrest Warrant) being excused as only incidentally related to the matter at hand rather than “directly addressing the question”. Under this amendment such sleight of hand could well be allowed, even though it would clearly be a taxpayer-funded intervention in the referendum campaign.
There is a serious question for Ministers to answer: If this new definition of purdah posed no risk of allowing the spending of taxpayers’ money in a way that would be illegal under the old definition, then why is it necessary to introduce it at all? Why not stick with the old, tried and tested definition?
The answer we have heard so far is that purdah would make it difficult for large chunks of Government to publish news about their day-to-day business. This is quite telling in itself – even the Government admits the huge range of British policy areas that the EU now influences or directly controls. This is precisely why we need to be able to have a free and fair debate on our membership, without the legalisation of unfair Government spending tilting the scales.
In short, this is not good enough. Tuesday’s decision to change the referendum question was the right call, carried out in the right way: openly, cleanly and clearly. These half-way house amendments on purdah are the very opposite: slippery, ill-defined and wide open to abuse.
We already have a constitutional principle designed to protect a referendum from undue intervention: Section 125 of the 2000 Act. The Government should apply it in full for the EU referendum, with none of this last minute editing or misguided fiddling. True purdah should be reintroduced.