There has been widespread coverage of David Cameron’s defeat over the EU Referendum ‘purdah’ rules. During the yesterday’s debate on the EU Referendum Bill, Bill Cash made the following speech and interventions:
The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I beg to move, That the clause (New Clause 10) be read a Second time.(…) In Committee, I promised to reflect on the concerns that were raised about the Government’s proposal to disapply, for the purposes of the EU referendum, section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Government accept completely the importance of the referendum being conducted in a way that is both fair and seen to be fair by the partisans on both sides of the debate. In particular, that means that the conduct of both Ministers and civil servants must be beyond reproach. We are therefore bringing to the House today proposals that we believe provide the rigorous safeguards wanted by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I reiterate what the Foreign Secretary and I have both said before, namely that the Government will not undertake activities during the final 28 days of the campaign that would be seen as the province of the lead campaign organisations. In particular, there should be no question of the Government undertaking any paid advertising or promotion, such as billboards, door drops, leafleting, or newspaper or digital advertising during that period.
Sir William Cash: Of course my right hon. Friend has received legal advice, but legal advice can cut both ways. Indeed, Speaker’s Counsel has made it clear that he does not think there is much of a problem in respect of the issues the Minister has just been describing. Not only have the Electoral Commission and Speaker’s Counsel been clear on these points, but if regulations are introduced, they will come in by way of the affirmative procedure after the Bill has been enacted and there will be no opportunity to amend them, because regulations, being statutory instruments, can only be accepted or rejected in their entirety. Does my right hon. Friend not agree?
Mr Lidington: In answer to my hon. Friend’s last point, if the House is dissatisfied with any regulation that the Government put before Parliament, it can reject the statutory instrument. In that case, the default position under the package that I am proposing to the House would be to revert to section 125 without the exemptions being made by regulation. There is, therefore, the safeguard that Parliament will have the final say.
I hope that my hon. Friend will listen when I address the concerns in more detail, but I say to him first that I have been present at a number of debates in the House when he has said that a legal opinion that he has received is of weight and importance. I think that the Government are entitled to take seriously the arguments that Treasury counsel have put to them.
Sir William Cash: If the vote on amendment 53 is successful and it is knocked out, there will be a vote on amendment 4. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the consequence of that would be to go back to the full purdah arrangements without any let or hindrance?
Mr McFadden: That would be the case if we did not have new clause 10; yes, amendment 4 would reinstate the full purdah regime, but new clause 10 allows the Government to come forward with regulations dealing with the points the Minister has made about the need for exceptions to this. In that regard, new clause 10 has a lot in common with Opposition new clause 6.
Sir William Cash: The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) made a very sensible point on the differences between my amendment 78 and amendment 4, because mine takes account of this issue, as the right hon. Gentleman conceded by saying it could be dealt with subsequently with regulations in relation to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. I cannot understand why the Opposition cannot take that on board.
Sir William Cash: Does my hon. Friend accept that, while we may end up voting for amendment 4, amendment 78 is better, simply because it deals with the problems of the devolved territories? As I put it to the Opposition’s Front-Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), even if we end up with amendment 4, the consequence will be that we will still be thrown back by new clause 10, which will leave it all to regulations. As far as I am concerned, that is highly unsatisfactory.
Mr Jenkin: Most of my Committee would certainly agree that this is making the best of a bad job. We will, however, make some progress today if we succeed in restoring section 125 under amendment 4, which the Opposition have pledged to put to a vote should amendment 53 be defeated. I therefore advise my colleagues, very reluctantly, to vote against amendment 53, because while I think the Government have conceded the principle that there should be purdah, they have not accepted the fact of how it will apply. If they want to amend the Bill again in the other place, it would be worth while having that discussion, rather than accepting amendment 53.
Sir William Cash: Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the EU dimension of the Scottish referendum was pretty hot? I seem to remember President Barroso and others making statements about the single currency, for example. I speak now as the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the arguments about the EU business that have been put forward by the Government are rather specious, given that the EU dimension of the Scottish referendum was really very volatile?
Alex Salmond: Yes, indeed it was, but we are discussing the 28-day purdah period at the moment. It has been suggested to me by a knowledgeable European that President Barroso, as he then was, harboured ambitions to be the Secretary-General of NATO and was hoping for support from Ministers—perhaps not those in the Chamber tonight, but those who are none the less not too far from us. Who knows why President Barroso made those interventions, but they were not made during the 28-day purdah period. (…)
Sir William Cash: In the light of the interesting argument and the factual information that the right hon. Gentleman is giving the House, I wondered whether he had had an opportunity to discuss these matters with the Opposition and what the outcome of those discussions might be as to whether they would support the kind of enforcement arrangements he has in mind.
Alex Salmond: I have had some chats through informal channels, but I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman’s warm reception to my point might convince those in all parts of the House that there was something sensible in not just talking about purdah but actually having an organised enforcement mechanism and putting in place my amendment’s suggestion of
“measures to determine breaches of purdah and penalties for such a breach”.
As I say, I am open to the suggestion from the hon. Member for North Down about involving the Electoral Commission or about its involving a committee of Privy Counsellors—just so long as there is an enforcement mechanism. The evidence from last year, when there was no statutory basis or enforcement mechanism, was that there are people who will drive a coach and horses through a purdah period.
I am pro-European to my fingertips. I am more pro-European than I suspect most Conservative Members will ever be and certainly more than the Prime Minister will ever be, but I want to see this referendum conducted on a fair and proper basis. That includes a purdah period and, when it has been agreed, everybody sticking by the rules and there being an enforcement mechanism to make sure that they do so.
Sir William Cash: I would just like to take up the point that the right hon. Gentleman ended on. For all the reasons that I gave in Committee, when I put the case for going back to section 125 in its complete integrity, in order to have fairness it is essential that we have something by which people abide. A lot of this debate tends, from time to time, to move between what the Conservative party says or what Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National party say. First, it was decided that we were going to have a European Union referendum Bill, and now the Electoral Commission has changed the nature of the question, with the consent of the Government. The question now is, “Do you, the voters of this country, want to remain in or do you want to leave?” This has cut completely across all political parties. Therefore, although this debate is taking place in this Chamber, the nature of this debate involving the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP must not be allowed to distort the fact that this is a vote about the real future of the individual people of this country. It is about the voters deciding for the first time since 1975 whether they are going to stay in what I regard now as a dysfunctional European Union—the immigration issue has recently made that even more obvious—or whether we are going to continue to argue that we should leave, because we can make that case. That is to come and the bottom line is that this Bill is not about “Conservative versus Labour”; it should be about the positions adopted across the Floor of the House. I know for a fact that many Labour Back Benchers agree with those who share my view on the Conservative Back Benches—and there are some on the Front Benches, too. It may well turn out that we will need to address the question later of whether or not Ministers should be allowed to participate on either side of the debate in the national interest.
I was particularly taken by and interested in the recent article the Minister wrote on “ConservativeHome”, in which he rather gave the game away. He and I have been discussing this since 1990, when he was special adviser to no less than the Foreign Secretary and other people in No. 10 were desk officers for the Government position at that time under John Major. Let me read what he said right at the end of his article, because I want to concentrate on the reasons for purdah. We have heard so many arguments in relation to the process. I have made my position quite clear, which is that amendment 78 is more comprehensive than amendment 4. Let me bypass that argument for the moment in the interests of trying to achieve the best result, but without prejudice to coming back to the matter at a later date.
In the final paragraph, the Europe Minister said:
“Ultimately, this is about the EU’s effectiveness as a whole. We want”—
whoever we may be—
“a dynamic, competitive, outwardly focused Europe, delivering prosperity and security for all of the people in the EU, not just for those in Britain.”
Actually, that is not what this debate on the referendum will be about. Elements of the argument will demonstrate that there are certain advantages in having a degree of alliance and co-operation in Europe, which I am in favour of, but not on the basis of the status quo of the treaties, or of the tweaking of negotiations that do not make any substantial difference to the basis on which those treaties are conducted. That is why I have firmly concluded that we must leave the European Union. I have just come back from Luxembourg—[Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary can ask me any question from the Dispatch Box. I have just come back from Luxembourg where the national chairmen of a whole raft of EU committees were debating questions relating to migration. I can only say that the trend of the arguments was not at all in line with many of the things that we in this House would have expected had those arguments been put forward by our own Ministers.
Basically, I am cynical, to say the least, about the outcome of this debate. The trouble is that we are being invited to cut across the fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) has said, that there have been four referendums without any legal problems. Furthermore, the Electoral Commission has backed amendment 78—it did not mention amendment 4 because it knows that my amendment deals with the devolved territories as well—and we have Speaker’s Counsel on our side. We are told by the Minister that, as far as he is concerned, there are a number of legal opinions, including from two leading counsels, that have indicated that there could be legal problems. Well, that is not what the Speaker’s Counsel says. His advice relating to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is on the website for anyone to see. He has reinforced his view in the light of the remarks made by the Europe Minister on “ConservativeHome”. I expressly sent the Speaker’s Counsel a copy of that article and asked him whether he would revise his legal view. He is very distinguished and was the legal adviser to the European Scrutiny Committee for many years. He has also been involved in the legal service of the European Commission. He knows what he is talking about, and I take these other legal opinions that we are being offered with a pinch of salt.
Finally, I say to the Foreign Secretary, who is chuntering quite a lot—I say that with great respect because I rather like him—that if those opinions are so important, let us see them. Let us see the basis on which the advice was given, and we will hear the same old arguments that we heard about the Iraq opinion. At the end of the day, however, we did get the Iraq opinion. This issue may not be quite so momentous, but none the less falling back on the old canard that we should not publish opinions is not actually an answer to the questions that we are asking. We want to know the basis on which the advice was given.
I just do not believe that the Government’s arguments add up. A lack of trust has been generated, which goes deep into the past—right the way back to the White Paper of 1971 when we were promised that we would have a veto, which has now been overridden. We have not been given a referendum since 1975, and it is essential that we have a fair referendum that people can trust. I fear that the outcome of the vote this evening will be that new clause 10 goes through, perhaps with an amendment that might make a marginal difference. A vote against amendment 53 will simply allow a vote on amendment 4, which takes us back to a kind of purdah, but not the complete purdah that I and I think the British people want under amendment 78. We are the representatives of the people, which is why I wish to speak so candidly on this matter.
At the end of this debate, we will be left with a concession on section 125, but we will not have real purdah. I have already spelled out the reasons why real purdah is necessary. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) also indicated that the purdah in the Scottish referendum had been vitiated by the activities of the Government. That makes the point in its entirety. He has called for an enforcement arrangement, but we do not know what the Labour party will do about that. Will it go through the Lobby with the right hon. Gentleman? I do not know. Perhaps he does not know either.
I have argued consistently and as hard as I can for real purdah because I want the people of this country to have a fair referendum. I want them to know that when they have made their decision, it has not been unfairly or unduly influenced by statements made through the civil service or its agencies, or through the European Union or by the provision of its money, which we will come on to later. As I have set out in amendment 78, I want complete purdah. I may find that, because of circumstances, I have to vote for amendment 4, but I want purdah with no ifs and no buts. Ultimately, when the regulations come out after the Bill is enacted, we will come to regret the arrangements that come from new clause 10, amended slightly, and amendment 4. We will face a kind of qualified purdah, which will not satisfy the test of fairness that I really believe this country deserves.
Sir William Cash: Does my right hon. Friend have some sympathy with the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) on the enforcement of purdah, because we are getting into a bit of a mess on this, as my right hon. Friend has said? If there was some means of enforcing the purdah that is left, we might have at least some leverage over what happens later.
Mr Paterson: That is certainly worth looking at, but what we really need is a return to proper purdah and we want section 125, so we would like the House to support amendment 78, which covers the devolved parts of the United Kingdom. That is the best solution. I think that what we are looking at is a botch. I think that it will end up looking like new clause 10, and possibly like amendment 4, but that is better than where we were last time.
I thank the Minister for the respectful way in which he has listened to the debate, but I would be grateful if he answered the points I have made. I repeat them again. What are the instances in previous referendums when purdah stopped normal Government functioning? Where are we with clarity regarding the Venice Commission? Please can these horrific legal statements, which have put such a spook under the Government, be placed in the Library? For myself, I will seek a return to pure purdah.