On Monday the Commons resumed consideration of the Referendum Bill. Many of us had in mind three big issues to ensure a fair referendum. The first was the rules controlling the conduct of government in the referendum campaign. The second was the role of the broadcasters. The third was the question of how much money each side can spend. Labour only had sympathy for our concerns on the first of these, so where we disagreed with the government we only had the votes to make changes in that area.
The government understood our concerns about the so called purdah rules. Following a very unfair Welsh referendum Mr Blair’s government had put in the 2000 Act to regulate the activities of government during referendum campaigns. Conservatives had broadly agreed with their actions on this legislation, and the Coalition continued with it for the referendums on the AV voting system and Scotland. The rules limit what Ministers and civil servants can do during the short campaign period for a referendum close to voting day, to avoid the use of impartial civil service staff time, government money, powers and information in ways that could directly affect the votes and which had a bearing on the issues in dispute in the referendum.
The government’s Bill on the EU referendum had sought to remove these protections from the 2000 Act for this referendum. Seeing the force of opinion when we last debated it, the government moved amendments to its original Bill to restore much of the framework of the 2000 Act. They explained that the intention behind amending the 2000 Act was to allow Ministers in the four week campaign period to attend Ministerial meetings in the EU and if necessary to make statements and defend the UK’s position on issues which come up, without wishing Ministers to stray into the question of whether we should remain or leave. Ministers said they had legal advice which they could not publish suggesting problems for them if they did not amend the 2000 Act and went about their normal business in Brussels. Ministers sought a provision in the Bill that would allow them to exempt various Ministerial activities from the restrictions of the 2000 Act.
The Commons decided to back the cross party Public Administration Committee’s proposal to strengthen the government’s protections, by disallowing any changes to the rules governing Ministerial conduct for the last four months before the vote. The Commons after a good debate went further and decided not to accept the government’s proposed compromise limiting government conduct, and to opt instead for the restoration of the full protections of the 2000 Act, subject to the opportunity for the government more than 4 months before the vote to seek a further exemption from the House. Should the government come forward with wide ranging exemptions the House is likely to decline them. I will deal with the other two issues in later posts.