Friday

18th Oct 2019

UK referendum rules could 'hobble' government

  • Plans to scrap the UK's 'purdah' rules ahead of the EU referendum could 'hobble' the government, according to civil service chief Sir Jeremy Hayward. (Photo: UK Parliament)

Preventing ministers from carrying out EU-related business in the weeks before the UK’s referendum on EU membership could "hobble" the UK government, the head of its civil service has warned.

Speaking at a hearing of the UK parliament’s constitutional affairs committee on Tuesday (21 July), Sir Jeremy Hayward warned that unless ministers were exempted from the so-called purdah period, the government could be prevented from negotiating with their EU counterparts on laws affecting the UK.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Purdah is a traditional practice observed in the last four weeks before national elections in the UK, during which ministers and the civil service are forbidden from issuing political statements.

"In the last 28 days of the referendum campaign, let's assume there are 10, 11, 12 of councils [of European ministers]. Some of those will be informal and private, others will be formal ministerial councils in which legislation is negotiated. British ministers and sometimes British civil servants ... will be sitting in those councils trying to secure the best outcome for Britain", Hayward said.

“We need to make sure ... that our ministers use whichever are the most potent arguments they can use to win points for Britain in those negotiations".

Plans by UK PM David Cameron’s government to scrap the purdah have already stoked controversy among eurosceptics in his Conservative party, who fear the government will rig the referendum in favour of a Yes vote to continue EU membership.

Twenty seven Conservative MPs, mostly from the party’s most eurosceptic wing, voted against the government’s plans when its EU reform bill went through its second reading in the House of Commons in June.

However, Hayward expressed concern that unless the rules were eased, ministers could put themselves at risk of legal action.

“Our legal advice is very worrying on this aspect, that unless ministers tread very carefully they may well end up using arguments in those internal EU discussions which could be construed by anyone who is litigious as bearing on those questions of the referendum", he said.

"The sharpest case would be where a minister is negotiating on a highly contentious issue which everybody in this committee would agree was vital to the UK national interest, and felt hobbled by being unable to make any points about the importance of this to the referendum and so on".

Debate in the UK parliament will resume in the autumn, when the government has promised to table amendments to the bill that would “put beyond any doubt that the campaign will be conducted throughout in a manner that all sides will see as fair”, according to Europe minister David Lidington.

Cameron set out his wishlist at an EU summit in June, demanding the removal of the phrase “ever-closer Union” from the treaty, curbs on welfare for EU migrants, and safeguards for the UK as a country outside the eurozone.

He has conceded that the referendum - which is likely to be held in autumn 2016 or early 2017 - will be held without a reform package having been ratified by other EU governments.

Britain's EU vote to ask 'remain or leave?'

The question UK voters will have to answer in the planned referendum on EU membership will probably indicate a clear "remain or leave" alternative, London has said.

News in Brief

  1. Catalan president blames clashes on 'infiltrators'
  2. US imposes €6.7bn new tariffs on European products
  3. G7: Libra should not operate until all risks addressed
  4. Kurds agree with US-Turkey ceasefire but not safe-zone
  5. US to host 2020 G7 summit at Trump golf club
  6. Turkey's pension fund buys stake in Finnish defence firm
  7. Turkey agrees to Syria ceasefire, says US
  8. EU leaders endorse revised Brexit deal

Crucial summit: last EU-28 format?

The EU summit will be crucial for the future of the EU, but especially for the UK. The next EU summit will not be the same since the UK's withdrawal will have consequences for the power relations within the council.

EU parliament quietly hoards visitors' wi-fi data

The European Parliament is retaining the data of everyone who uses their wi-fi network, including journalists and visitors, and providing access to national authorities in case of investigations.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  2. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  3. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  4. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  6. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  10. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  12. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us