EU referendum: 'Significant' changes to rules for vote

EU referendum: ‘Significant’ changes to rules for vote

3 hours ago

The government is set to announce “significant” changes to its planned rules on an in-out EU referendum.

The changes will focus on the so-called purdah rules, which stop ministers using public money to campaign for one side, from 28 days before such a vote.

The government had wanted to suspend these laws so ministers could continue to discuss European matters in public.
Some Tories argued this would favour the pro-EU camp and now restrictions are likely to stay but with exceptions.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets out a 28-day period ahead of any referendum, during which ministers, government departments and local authorities are banned from publishing material relating to the issue in question.

‘Shadow of doubt’

Prime Minister David Cameron claimed suspending these rules was necessary to allow the government to continue dealing with EU matters during the referendum period.

Ministers also said the purdah rules would stop them being able to defend the national interest in Brussels.

In June, 27 Tory MPs rebelled against the government plans for suspension of the rules, which avoided defeat only because Labour chose to abstain.

Then in July a report from the Public Administration Committee said it was also unconvinced by ministers’ arguments.

In a critical report, it said such a move would “cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety” of the referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave.

‘Seen to be fair’

BBC deputy political editor James Landale said the changes – set to be tabled later – were “designed to reassure the government’s critics”.

He added: “The changes are expected to restore the restrictions on ministers, with some exceptions.”

One Whitehall source told the BBC: “There will be a pretty significant shift in the government position.

“There is no wish within the government to be in a position where doubt is cast on the fairness of the referendum.
“It has got to be fair. And it has got to be seen to be fair.”

The amendments have to be published on Wednesday so there is time for MPs to consider them before debating and voting on them next Monday.

Early April referendum

Meanwhile, allies of Mr Cameron, who has pledged to hold an EU referendum by 2017, are contemplating staging it as early as next April, BBC Newsnight understands.

Senior Tories would like to get the referendum staged earlier in Mr Cameron’s second term, to allow him to capitalise on what Conservatives think could be Labour Party infighting over the potential election of leadership hopeful, Jeremy Corbyn, the programme reported.

A government source said a referendum in April was “possible” but pointed out that the referendum legislation was still likely to be held up in the House of Lords, as peers tried to amend it.

The SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond told Newsnight that there was no way the government would get parliamentary approval – the support not just of Tories but of opposition parties too – for a referendum as early as April 2016.

On Tuesday, the government accepted the Electoral Commission’s recommendations to scrap plans for a Yes/No vote and instead ask voters if they want to “remain in” or “leave the EU”.

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