David Lidington is Minister for Europe and MP for Aylesbury.
We promised the British people a say on the UK’s relationship with the EU and we are delivering on that promise.
Later today, we will take the EU Referendum Bill back to the Commons, taking us one step closer to an In/Out referendum before the end of 2017 on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union. As promised in our manifesto, following a renegotiation of our relationship with Europe, it will be for the British people to decide whether to stay or leave.
We’re absolutely determined to make sure that this referendum is fair, and crucially, is seen to be fair. When the referendum is over, whatever the outcome, we will want to move forward as a party and as a country, and the best way to do that is to have a free and fair referendum.
During the passage of the Bill, the role of Government in the campaign period has been the subject of the most intense debate. We have said all along that we would listen to the concerns that have been raised and move to address those concerns with clear rules about what taxpayer-funded resources can and cannot do.
There is a long tradition in Britain that guidance (often referred to as ‘purdah rules’) is issued to Ministers and civil servants to govern what they should and shouldn’t do during the last few weeks of an election campaign. The rules aren’t legally binding, but the convention is that the government machine doesn’t take sides in the election campaign, leaving that to the political parties. At the same time, the guidance is sufficiently flexible to enable Ministers and officials to continue to deal with and speak (with appropriate restraint) about their official duties during those weeks.
The rules for referendums are not based on guidance but on statute. Section 125 (S 125) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) restricts what the Government (and other bodies like local or devolved governments) can do during the final 28 day “purdah” period. Left unchanged, S 125 would impose a very wide-ranging statutory prohibition on Government activity, banning all public bodies from publishing material that deals with any of the issues raised by the referendum question.
As well as covering a wide range of content, the Act defines ‘publish’ in very broad terms, stating that it covers making available to the public at large, or any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means. It would therefore cover printed material and some electronic communications. The definition of public bodies is also very broad and S 125 applies to anyone “wholly or mainly” funded by the public purse. As well as central and local government, the legal advice we have received suggests that this could extend to individual elected representatives and other public sector employees.
Because S 125 is a matter of law, not (as with the case with elections) guidance, there is much less scope for the flexibility needed for Government to carry on with its normal business during the last four weeks of the campaign.
During Britain’s referendum campaign, European Union business will continue as normal. British Ministers will need to be active to promote our national interests and that will almost certainly involve things that would be caught by S 125’s definition of publishing. I and other Ministers frequently need to issue statements at EU Councils to assert our position on how a Treaty should be interpreted. We circulate papers to other EU countries and the institutions pressing for the EU to act in a particular way or to change some directive that’s going through the legislative process. We send papers to MEPs to urge them to back particular amendments. We publish guidance to British business on the implications of a new EU law or Court judgement. All of these activities could be barred by an unamended S 125.
When the Bill was published, we proposed disapplying S 125 completely and relying, as in election campaigns, on guidance alone. However, given the strong concern expressed in Parliament about this, we are instead now tabling amendments to reinstate S125 and the general ban on ‘publication’ and to seek agreement to some narrow and limited exceptions from it.
One Government amendment in effect carves out the conduct of EU business as usual from the general prohibition on ‘publication’. We have also written into our amendment a provision that explicitly bars Ministers from using this exemption to make the case for leaving or staying in the EU.
Without such an exemption, the last four weeks of our referendum campaign would see every other Member State government free to fight its corner in negotiations, but British Ministers prevented from doing so by our domestic law. The Government is not attempting to use its machinery to load the dice or have undue influence, simply to defend our national interest in Brussels.
Second, a proposed Government new clause provides a power to set out in regulations ways that the Government and others caught by S 125 would be able to communicate on the subject of the referendum in the final four weeks preceding the poll.
Philip Hammond and I have been clear that the government should not and will not use public resources to pay for ‘campaigning’ activities in those final few weeks. That four week campaign should be a matter for campaign groups, with no Government advertising campaigns, glossy mailshots, door-drops, target letters or mass emails.
But Ministers will want to be able to explain the outcome of the renegotiation, set out our recommendation and explain our reasons. Indeed, I think that the British public will expect the Prime Minister, who initiated and led the renegotiation, to set out his stall to them.
The Government New Clause gives Parliament a veto on any proposals for flexibility to permit the Government to communicate its case. Without a positive vote in Parliament, the full rigour of S 125 would stay in place.
In addition to the Government amendments that we are now proposing, we have also announced that permitted Government communications activity during the referendum campaign will also be subject to guidance from the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that the independence of the civil service is not compromised.
I hope that our decision to reinstate Section 125, the narrow scope of the exemptions that we are proposing, the power of Parliament to veto any relaxation of the restrictions on communications and the provision of ‘purdah’-style guidance will provide the reassurance that many ConservativeHome readers have been seeking.
The main debate before the referendum will of course take place between the designated lead campaigns, and the Government is intent on giving them, and the country the space to have a real debate.
This vote goes to the heart of the UK governance and its future. The Prime Minister is carrying out a renegotiation in the national interest, to get a result that will be in the national interest. Since the General Election, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary and I have continued our programme of engagement across Europe to explain our plans for reform. The Prime Minster set out our agenda at the European Council in June. And the subsequent technical talks with officials are proceeding well. EU leaders will meet to discuss the issue again in December following this work and the date of the referendum will be set once negotiations have been completed.
It is right that we conduct this renegotiation so that we address the concerns that the British people have about Europe. The Prime Minister has set out the four areas where we want change: sovereignty, fairness, competitiveness and immigration. We need to deal with the concept of Ever-Closer Union – which may be right for others but is not right for Britain; protect Britain’s interests outside the euro; increase economic competitiveness to create jobs and growth, and reform welfare to reduce the incentives which have led to mass immigration from other Member States.
Ultimately, this is about the EU’s effectiveness as a whole. We want a dynamic, competitive, outwardly focused Europe, delivering prosperity and security for all of the people in the EU, not just for those in Britain.
We have been returned to office with a very clear mandate to improve Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe and to put this deal to the British people. On Monday, we will be one step closer to delivering a fair, open and democratic referendum and giving the British people a say on our EU membership for the first time in 40 years.