I would like to make a statement on the European Union referendum and public information. On Thursday 23 June, the British people will vote on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union or leave. As the Prime Minister told Parliament on 22 Feb 2016, the referendum is potentially the most important decision that the British people will make on any political issue in their lifetime.
This Government made the commitment to hold a referendum and delivered that commitment through the European Union Referendum Act 2015. The Government have made a clear recommendation to the British people that we judge it to be in our national interest for the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. It is important that this key decision by the British people should be made on the basis of the facts. Independent polling, carried out on behalf of the Cabinet Office, has suggested that 85% of voters want more information and, in particular, want the Government to set out more information on the basis of which electors could take an informed decision.
The European Union Referendum Act already obliges the Government to publish information for the public on the outcome of the renegotiation that the Government have conducted to secure our special status in the European Union, on alternatives to membership and on the rights and obligations that arise from EU membership. Papers on the first and second of those topics have already been published, and a paper on the third will be published shortly. Those are available on a section of the gov.uk website dedicated to the referendum, along with other related information. The reports have also been laid before Parliament.
The same is true of a separate Government report on the process of withdrawing from the European Union. Although that was not a specific obligation under the 2015 Act, it represents the delivery of an undertaking given from the Dispatch Box in the House of Lords by Baroness Anelay. The Treasury, as the Chancellor has announced, will publish a comprehensive analysis of UK membership of a reformed European Union and of the alternatives, including the long-term economic costs and benefits of EU membership and the risks associated with an exit.
Separately, every household in the country will receive a leaflet from the Government. The leaflet sets out the facts, explains why the Government believe that a vote to remain in the European Union is in the best interests of the British people and shows some of the choices that the country would face if the British people were to vote to leave. The leaflet encourages the public to register to vote by 7 June and directs electors to where and how they should do that.
Last week, the Government launched a stand-alone website that features the leaflet online and provides further information to the public. That will be advertised on social media and other digital channels. The leaflet follows precedent from previous referendums, including those on EU membership in 1975, on the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in 1997 and on the creation of the mayoral system in London in 1998; in addition, there were two Government leaflets during the Scottish referendum in 2014. Government publications of that kind, and the distribution of a Government leaflet, are entirely lawful. Special rules limiting all Government publications and communications will apply in the last 28 days of the referendum campaign under the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
The text of the leaflet is 16 pages in length. It will be delivered to households in England from 11 to 13 April, ahead of England’s local election purdah, and to households in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland throughout the week commencing 9 May, to avoid disrupting the pre-election period in those parts of the United Kingdom. The total cost will be £9.3 million, which is equivalent to 34p for each household in the country.
The Electoral Commission will shortly announce the designation of the two overall campaign groups, ahead of the 10-week official campaign period that leads up to polling day. Those two groups, in addition to having a higher spending limit of £7 million apiece, will each be entitled to the publicly funded delivery of a leaflet of its own, which will be sent to every household or to every elector, as the campaign group chooses. That benefit will be worth up to £15 million each for the designated leave and remain campaigns. The two campaigns will also be entitled to campaign broadcasts on television, the use of certain public rooms and a public grant of up to £600,000. That is in addition to the Electoral Commission’s own leaflet to every household, in which each campaign will be given a page.
Whether the United Kingdom should remain in or leave the European Union is a huge decision for this country. It is right that it should be a decision for the British people as a whole. Equally, it is right that people have the facts in front of them and understand the reasons for the Government’s recommendation before they go to the polls.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for giving me early sight of it.
It is perfectly reasonable for the Government of the day to set out their position and the facts about our membership of the EU, just as the Labour Government did in the 1975 referendum when they published their famous red, white and blue leaflet. Indeed, the Government have an obligation to explain their view, not least because this is the biggest political choice the British people have faced for more than 40 years and the public rightly expect an informed debate that is backed up by information. I have spent a lot of time over the past couple of months knocking on doors, and I am told by lots of people, “We need the facts.” This leaflet will, at least, set out the facts for them.
The leaflet is clear as to what it is about. The title page sets out clearly:
“Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK.”
That is also the view of the Opposition but sadly not of the Conservative party, which is split on the matter, as we will, no doubt, shortly be reminded. Does the Minister agree that some of the reaction to this publication has been more about trying to silence the arguments for remaining than about trying to counter them? He will be aware that members of the Conservative party have attacked the Government’s leaflet, claiming that it is inaccurate. Is he aware that the same people also allege, for example, that we have lost control of our borders, even though, as the Government’s leaflet helpfully explains:
“The UK is not part of the EU’s border-free zone—we control our own borders which gives us the right to check everyone, including EU nationals, arriving from continental Europe”—
in the way that I was checked this morning?
Will the Minister confirm that, if we left the EU, in order to retain full access to the single market, we would need to continue to make a contribution to the EU budget, allow free movement of workers and abide by rules made by the remaining member states, and that that is what Norway has to do to get access to the largest single market in the world? Can he further confirm to those who advocate a trade deal like that which Canada has with the EU that the negotiation of that deal took seven years, and that the agreement excludes important sectors from free trade?
The truth is that those who advocate Brexit cannot say what the UK leaving the EU would look like. Many Conservative Members have spent decades wanting Britain to break away from Europe, but still they cannot tell us what out looks like. Rather than spending their time attacking the Government’s booklet, perhaps they would do well to work out what out looks like and share that with the rest of us before 23 June.
Has the Minister seen a leaflet entitled “The UK and the European Union: The Facts”, which has been posted to many households? It claims to be a neutral document shedding light on the complex issue of the EU referendum, but only when we get to the very small print on the back do we discover that it has, in fact, been produced by Vote Leave. Does he agree that there should be greater transparency, and a much bigger typeface, in such publications so that the public can discover just who is behind all this?
Labour is campaigning for Britain to remain in Europe because of the jobs, growth, investment and protection for British workers and consumers that depend on our continued EU membership. Leaving would put all that at risk and diminish Britain’s influence in the world. We are clear: Britain is better off in Europe.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her words of support. On the specific questions she posed, I can certainly confirm that, since we are outside the Schengen no borders area, we can and do apply border checks to people seeking to enter this country, including EU nationals and, as she said, UK nationals as well.
It is indeed the case that, where other countries—the hon. Lady cited Norway—have sought and obtained access to the European Union’s free trade single market, that has come at a price. That price has included acceptance of the principle of freedom of movement for workers, an obligation to pay into the European Union’s budget and, critically, an acceptance that the country concerned will implement European Union rules, including on product standards, without being present at the table, having a say or having a vote on how those rules should be made. Part of the Government’s case is indeed that the interests of British business and the interests of jobs and growth in the United Kingdom are served by our having a role in leading and shaping the direction of the single market, not by simply accepting rules that have been worked out by other countries in our absence. She is also right that, in the case of Canada, we are looking at seven years so far and still no final agreement. It is a mistake to underestimate the complexity involved in a free trade agreement negotiation, particularly if it has to be conducted in the circumstances of the UK having decided to withdraw from the European Union.
No one could be in any doubt that the leaflet being distributed this week represents the views of the Government. As I said earlier, the Government are not neutral on this issue. We accept that this is an issue on which there are long-standing differences of opinion honourably held by people of different political parties and of none. I have always respected the views of those who differ from my own on this matter, but I believe that the Government have not only the right, but a duty to explain to the electorate, when faced with a decision of this gravity, the reasons why the Government have come to the recommendation that we have come to.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an absurd proposition to argue that the Government of the day are not entitled to form an opinion or a policy on the role of the Government in the modern world, or are not allowed to communicate the reasons for having such a policy to the electorate? As the general public appear to be demanding more calm factual statements about the issue, rather than less, does he agree that those who disagree should come out with a calm description of the factual basis on which they believe they can negotiate some alternative role for this country, not just resort to blustering about fear-mongering or claiming that we are bending the rules of some sporting jape, which they seem to think the referendum represents?
The Government would be abrogating our responsibility to the electorate were we to decline to communicate our views and the reasons for our views. There is an equal obligation on those championing a British exit from the European Union to spell out both the arguments to which my right hon. and learned Friend refers, and, critically, the future relationship they are seeking with the European Union. Having taken part in many debates and exchanges on the subject of the European Union in the past few years, I have found that there are almost as many visions for the future relationship of the United Kingdom with the European Union when outside it as there are advocates of a British exit.
The Minister will be aware that the Prime Minister has said the debate has become “abrasive” and “difficult”—and that is just around his own Cabinet table. The Minister will also be aware of a so-called unity reshuffle that looks set to deliver the least unity in a Government in recent times. What is more—this is quite worrying—the Prime Minister has said that the work of Government could suffer. Will the Minister set out which areas might suffer?
If Members on the SNP Benches can offer a bit of advice, it is that trust will be important—after all, the Scottish Government enjoy the highest trust levels in Europe, and they are significantly higher than those of the UK Government—so does the Minister agree that there is a need to follow the gold standard set by the Scottish independence referendum and to avoid “Project Fear”?
What the leaflet we are dealing with this afternoon does is explain the Government’s case in plain English. It can readily be understood by people who have not studied every detail of European Union treaties for the past several years. It explains that in clear language, but it is not over-egging the pudding. It is phrased and the argument is expressed in an extremely sober manner, and I hope people will find that argument persuasive.
Does the Minister accept that this leaflet is not so much “Project Fear” as “Project Slightly Worrying”, because it has been dumbed down, but is it not an abuse of public money and an insult to the electors, and does he not realise that it will drive many more people to vote to leave?
I return to what I said earlier: there is clear evidence from the independent polling research— its methodology has been published by the company concerned on its website—that more information is wanted by the British public. That research finding bears out what I and, I suspect, many other hon. Members on both sides of the House are finding anecdotally in conversations with constituents. I now spend time virtually every day signing replies to Members of Parliament, who have enclosed letters from constituents saying they feel they do not yet have enough information on which to make an informed decision and would like to have some more.
I hope that people will look carefully at what the Government are arguing, that they will look at the arguments put forward by the two campaign groups, once they have been designated, and that they will come to a decision about what they believe to be in the best interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. That is how the Government are approaching this matter.
The Minister will try as hard as he can to bluster, but the reality is that the public will see through it and realise that this leaflet is deeply unfair. On one fact—
“Over 3 million UK jobs are linked to exports to the EU”—
the Government have deliberately conflated trade with countries in the EU with EU membership. He knows very well that it is not necessary to be a member of the EU to trade with the EU. With this leaflet, the public know that the Government—the Prime Minister, in particular—now realise they are on the wrong side of the argument and will lose on 23 June.
I think the hon. Lady really wishes that the Government should be neutral in this debate. The Government are not neutral. We are advocating that the British people should vote in favour of continued membership of the European Union. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor, other Ministers and I consistently said that, when the time came for the referendum to be held, the Government would express our view clearly and make our recommendation known, so we are delivering on what we have said to the British people.
As regards the hon. Lady’s question about one particular element in the leaflet, the footnotes that support each of the statements have themselves been published online by the Government, and she and other hon. Members are welcome to check the source material.
The weakness in my right hon. Friend’s case is that this “Dodgy Dossier: the Sequel” does not actually contain facts; it contains opinions, assertions and suppositions. Not only is it a waste of public money, but in effectively doubling the remain campaign’s budget, the Government have betrayed any sense of fairness in the process of the referendum and, with the content of the leaflet, have abdicated their responsibility to tell the truth on the issues. It is bad enough getting junk mail, but to have Juncker mail sent to us with our own taxes is the final straw.
As I said in response to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), the source materials for the various facts and arguments presented in the Government’s leaflet have themselves been published. We are being completely transparent about the basis on which we are making those arguments to the British people.
As I said earlier, we are following the precedent set in many other referendum campaigns in this country. We are doing nothing that will stop the two campaign organisations putting their case to the British people, in due course, with as much vigour as they choose. In the final 28 days of the campaign, the Government’s ability to communicate or publish at all on these matters will be severely limited not just by purdah guidance but by statute law itself. I reject the notion that this leaflet is somehow unfair. The Government are taking responsibility for presenting their case and recommendation to the British people on a decision that will have enormous consequences not just for those voting this year but for future generations.
Ten years of uncertainty; economic security at an end; household prices will go up; and world peace and stability questioned—does the Minister agree that these so-called facts are the very ones that are disputed, and for that reason this document should come with a very significant and heavy health warning? The British people believe in fairness and fair play. It is the fundamental unfairness of this document that, in the words of Lord Lawson, is “a scandal”, and the Minister should resile from it.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the detailed notes on the various statements made in the leaflet. He quoted Lord Lawson at me; he and others representing Northern Ireland might ponder Lord Lawson’s view, expressed over the weekend, that in the event of a British departure from the European Union, border controls would need to be established on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The hon. Gentleman might also wish to consider the serious adverse impact on Northern Ireland businesses of a British departure from the European Union.
My right hon. Friend must accept not only that any reasonable person would regard this leaflet as propaganda—as is already being said in all the national newspapers and in blogs right the way across the land—but that it is unfair to the British taxpayer, who is having to bear the burden of the leaflet’s cost. Will he please explain to me personally why he has broken the undertaking that he gave to me on the Floor of the House when debating the 2015 Act? I had put forward an amendment calling for accuracy and impartiality, and when I said I would withdraw my amendment if he was prepared to say that that would be the case, he said that information would “certainly” be accurate and impartial. This leaflet is not. Will he explain to the House why he has broken that undertaking?
I reject that assertion. My hon. Friend’s intervention on 8 December last year was specifically about information brought forward under the terms of the Lords amendments that have subsequently been incorporated into the 2015 Act, and, as I said earlier, this leaflet is outwith the scope of the obligations under that Act. I also refer him, as I have referred other hon. Members, to the fact that the Government have published the factual and statistical evidence upon which each of the statements made in the leaflet is based. Now, if my hon. Friend wants to go away and challenge some of those findings—the statistical surveys or the independent reports that we cite in those footnotes—he is free to do so, but I believe that the Government have acted reasonably and responsibly in presenting their case clearly to the British people.
I am very pleasantly surprised that the Government have decided to issue an EU leaflet. Does the Minister agree that, in publishing the leaflet, they are simply responding to the huge public appetite for more information, which will enable the comprehensive demolition of many Euromyths—for example, that the European Union stops the recycling of teabags or prevents children under the age of eight from blowing up balloons—that are peddled by some of the Brexiters?
I hope that when people have read both the information that the Government have published and other available information they will judge, as Ministers have on behalf of the Government, that membership of the European Union makes the United Kingdom stronger, safer and better off than it would be outside it.
This really is a crass move by the Government. It will hugely galvanise those who want to leave the European Union and will do nothing to bring people onside for the remain campaign. It is also in total breach of the guidelines set out by the Venice Commission, which make it very clear that if there is to be a balanced presentation, the view of the opposing side should be expressed. Will the Minister make £9 million available to the leave campaign?
As I said earlier, we judge that the benefit to the leave campaign—and, for that matter, to the remain campaign, once both are designated—of a publicly funded leaflet distribution will be of the order of £15 million, which is significantly more than the sums we are talking about this afternoon. Those two campaign bodies will be free to campaign and communicate right up until polling day, including during the final 28 days, during which time the Government’s freedom to do so will be severely constrained. I will also just say to my right hon. Friend that I have never felt that those who support a British exit needed much galvanising.
EU membership is very valuable for Wales and Plaid Cymru is very much in favour both of reform and of remaining within the EU; we believe another Europe is possible, and will be campaigning for that. I am, however, dismayed by the negativity of the Government’s campaign, effected in much of the leaflet, which even the BBC managed to label this morning as “snappily titled”. Will the Minister concede the possibility that he may be repeating the mistakes of “Project Fear”? I add, if I may, that the online version of the leaflet, which is available now irrespective of the Welsh Assembly and Scottish elections, does not appear to be available in Welsh—although, exceptionally in this case, possibly thankfully so.
I do not agree that this is negative. When people are considering how to vote on 23 June, they will want to weigh up both the arguments about the benefits that the United Kingdom gains from membership of the European Union and the potential risks of departure and of trying to forge some other kind of relationship with the EU from the outside.
I make no secret of the fact that the judgment about whether we should remain members of the European Union is a pragmatic one, both for the Government and, I think, for most British voters. We accept that not everything about the European Union is perfect—one cannot be Europe Minister for six years and believe that it is perfect—but we believe that the clear balance of the argument lies in continued membership that will help to keep us more secure and prosperous, and we have tried to express that in this publication.
I have received many inquiries from constituents who are eager to know more about the Government’s position, and I warmly welcome this decision. Outside the incestuous hothouse called the Palace of Westminster, and under the baleful influence of much of our dismal press, almost all grown-up sane opinion will want to know what the Government’s position is and how they intend to present their case.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend.
Many of my constituents are concerned about the impact of loosening or cutting our ties with our biggest market and closest allies, and they want more information, especially at a time when the media will be dominated by a Murdoch-driven, anti-EU press, and the BBC has been dumbed down to give equal weight to propaganda from the flat-earthers, rather than a rational evaluation of the merits of continued EU membership. Will the Minister undertake not just to publish a leaflet, but to do much more with posters, TV and other media, to ensure that Britain can make a rational judgment?
I cannot make the commitment that the hon. Gentleman asks for, but the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers will, on behalf of the Government, continue to press as strongly and persuasively as they can the case for Britain’s prosperity and security to be served by continued membership of a reformed European Union.
I remind my right hon. Friend of what he said when replying to the Second Reading debate on the European Union Referendum Act 2015:
“The question I take from the debate is this: how do we provide the credible assurances that give effect to what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said—that the Government will be restrained in their use of public money and have no wish to compete with the umbrella campaign organisations whose job it will be to lead the yes and no campaigns?”—[Official Report, 9 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1151.]
What does he regret more—the fact that this public money is likely to be entirely wasted and achieve the opposite of his intention, or the damage to the Government’s reputation for straight dealing on this issue?
If my hon. Friend would like to check Hansard, he will find that the comments by the Foreign Secretary to which I was referring were about whether the Government might be thinking of spending public money to deliver doorstep mailshots in the last four weeks of the campaign, and I assure him that they have no such intention. I reiterated that when replying to the debate and referring to the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, and I said more or less the same thing on Report on 7 September last year.
The turnout for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 was 85%. What target are the Government setting themselves for voter turnout, and what measures are they taking to replicate the huge successes of democratic engagement in Scotland?
I will not set an arbitrary target, but for a decision of this importance we want registration and turnout to be as high as can be achieved. I hope that everybody—young or old; English, Scottish, Northern Irish or Welsh—will take part in this key democratic decision. As I said, the Government’s leaflet and website contain links to the procedures that electors should use to ensure that they are properly registered before the deadline. In addition to what the Government are doing, the Electoral Commission is conducting its own awareness campaign, with a view to trying to maximise registration and voter turnout.
My right hon. Friend has made much of the precedent set by the Government in sending out leaflets in other referendums, but I am afraid that people will see this as double standards. In the Welsh referendum on further powers, the Government decided to remain strictly neutral, believing that people were more likely to trust the outcome of that referendum if they did so. Will the Minister take it from me that this is a matter of trust? How will people trust the Government now when they are so blatantly trying to load the dice?
There is a key difference, which my right hon. Friend alluded to when she said that the Government decided to remain strictly neutral during the Welsh referendum. The Government are not neutral in this referendum; they are advocating and recommending a particular outcome, and our decision about the publication of information flows from that principle.
I congratulate the Minister on the informative and well-written booklet that dropped through my door this morning, but may I suggest a little more balance on red tape? For example, north Staffordshire’s biggest private sector employer, bet365 and the owner of Stoke City, can only dream of having one set of regulations in a fully fledged single market in future, rather than 28—or more—at the moment. Indeed, that simplification makes EU membership very attractive to many businesses, so perhaps in May the Government should issue a follow-up booklet to expand in more depth on those tangible benefits to the UK.
The hon. Gentleman hits on an important point. Although the single market is successful when it comes to trade in goods, it is insufficiently developed for trade in services. We must do more—indeed, we are leading the debate in Europe on the liberalisation of services and the simplification of product standards and regulations. Particularly for an economy such as ours, in which roughly 80% of GDP derives from the services sector, it would be a major risk to turn ourselves from being the shapers of new rules on services trade to the takers of rules set by other European countries, with us absent from the table.
This House passed legislation that specifically allowed the Government to produce this leaflet as long as it was not in the last 28 days of the referendum campaign, so it is possible that some of the indignation is a touch overdone. Does the Minister agree that it is a strange strategy when, instead of arguing the case, as soon as anyone—whether the Governor the Bank of England, the President of the United States, the CBI or even, ludicrously, the British Government— says anything that the leave campaigners disagree with, they prefer to say that those things should not be said at all? Is that a completely nonsensical strategy?
My right hon. Friend puts his point well, and I am still waiting to hear from the leave campaigners a consistent and coherent view of the alternative to European Union membership.
I am sure the Minister will agree that the leaflet distributed by the leave campaign, “The UK and the European Union: The Facts” is thoroughly misleading and reprehensible. Does he also share my concern that in large parts of Wales, that leaflet was distributed by post inside a good leaflet from the Electoral Commission that explains the voting system for the Welsh Assembly and police and crime commissioner elections? We are trying to get to the root of how that happened, but if Royal Mail was responsible, will the Minister join me in condemning that?
I will take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. Clearly I would want to understand what exactly has gone on and whether what he has observed is the result of a policy decision or something that has been done by an individual deliverer, but I will certainly draw the attention of the Electoral Commission to what he has described.
Those who are mounting an objection to the public provision of information at the taxpayer’s expense appear not to have noticed that getting on for double that sum will be made available by the taxpayer for the officially designated leave campaign. If they have a principled objection to such provision of taxpayer funding, they will presumably refuse to accept that funding—or does my right hon. Friend think that they are simply making Juncker points?
I tend towards my right hon. Friend’s second interpretation. The basic problem is that those who perfectly properly and honourably advocate a British departure from the EU wish that the Government were neutral and silent, but they are not. The Government believe that there is a compelling case for continued British membership of the European Union and that that is in the economic and political interests of the United Kingdom.
Can the Minister remind us how many of those sitting behind him who are criticising this decision voted for the legislation that has allowed it to happen? How many of them were as angry as this when the Government funded a booklet encouraging people to vote no to Scottish independence? How many of them were angry when the Government had to admit that they had used false case studies in a Department for Work and Pensions leaflet about tax credits? Is it not the case that this is not anger based on principle but anger from people who are happy to see taxpayers’ money spent on misleading propaganda that supports their views but not on an information campaign that they happen to disagree with?
As I have said, I believe that the Government’s leaflet is phrased in language that is both reasonable and accessible and that I hope presents the case persuasively while using a moderate tone throughout.
In the interests of fairness and balance, would it not be better for more funds to be made available or for an increase in the leave campaign’s spending limits to be commensurate with the cost of this publication? My right hon. Friend is a bright man with a quite unenviable task at the moment. Surely he will agree with the fundamental fairness and reasonableness of this argument.
The two designated campaign organisations will have four weeks in the run-up to polling day in which they will be completely free to publish and deliver to the electorate whatever messages they wish, during which time the Government will be very severely constrained in what they are able to do. What we have done on this occasion is in line with the precedent set by Conservative and Labour Governments in the past and I see absolutely nothing wrong or inappropriate in what we have done.
The Minister will know that the Social Democratic and Labour party will campaign strongly to remain in the EU. He must also know, however, that few of my constituents will find this leaflet from the UK Government particularly authoritative or persuasive on these issues. Do not the Government also face the problem that many people reading the leaflet will see that it is premised on the so-called special status that the Government say they have secured, even though the Government were going to campaign to leave the EU if they did not secure it? How would the Government have addressed the risks that they are now talking about if they had adopted that position?
The Government’s position was announced after the February European Council this year, at which we secured important reforms to the European Union, in particular those that carve us out of the notion of ever closer political union and ensure no discrimination by eurozone countries against those that have chosen not to join the euro. I believe that the leaflet presents arguments that even people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency might find persuasive once they have aimed off from the fact that it comes from the United Kingdom Government. I know that he and his party colleagues will be campaigning strongly for continued British membership and I very much welcome that fact.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Patience rewarded. I was rather worried about the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and I would not want him to be perturbed in any way.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I sometimes get worried about myself.
May I inform my right hon. Friend that the Public Administration Committee is receiving evidence to suggest that this is going to be a less fair referendum even than the one held in 1975 before there were any proper rules on referendums? At least in that referendum, the grants given out to the two campaigns were worth twice the amount of the present grants. Also, when the then Government distributed their own leaflet in 1975, they provided information on a no vote as well as on a yes vote. We are not getting that now. It has been suggested that today’s leaflet simply has facts in it, but who believes that we now live in a “reformed EU” except for the fantasists in the Foreign Office? Who believes that
“we will keep our own border controls”
when we have to admit almost any person who says that they are an EU citizen? Who believes that
“the UK will not be part of further political integration”?
Does not this compare to the claim in Harold Wilson’s leaflet that
“decisions can be taken only if all the members of the Council agree”?
Remember that one? Does it not also compare to John Major’s claim that Maastricht “addressed and corrected” the “centralising tendency” that many were so worried about? We have heard all the stories before, but they are not facts.
I do not think anything that I say or that the Government might publish could persuade my hon. Friend on this matter, given his track record in this debate. He has been absolutely consistent in his views and I respect that, even though I disagree vehemently with him. He made a serious point about the timing of the distribution and the fact that the Government’s leaflet was not going out at the same time as the leaflets from the remain and leave campaigns. We would have preferred to circulate the Government’s leaflet later in the campaign. The statutory rules under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which prohibit us from making such communications in the final 28 days of the campaign, did not apply during the 1975 referendum period. We accepted the advice of the Electoral Commission that it would be wrong for us to distribute the Government leaflet in a way that interfered with the national elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is why we have aimed to have the distribution earlier than we might have chosen to do in an ideal world.
The Minister is quite possibly the first and only Conservative that I have ever felt sorry for. Yet again, he has been sent out by the Government to be the sacrificial lamb for the howling Brexiteers on the Benches behind him. As someone who supports remaining in the EU, I am concerned the Government are alienating voters rather than informing them. Is the Minister planning any follow-up communications before the referendum? If so, may I suggest that, as in the line from the Scottish national anthem, he is sent “homeward to think again”?
We have no plans for any further leaflets to go to every household. In my statement, I described the further publications that we have already committed ourselves to providing.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government—indeed, Governments of all colours—are rarely shy when it comes to explaining their views to the electorate in public information campaigns. It is perfectly proper and acceptable for Her Majesty’s Government to do that, and to use taxpayers’ money to do it. Given the fact that the Government are not neutral in this campaign but take the view that we should remain in the EU, does the Minister find the arguments against this leaflet rather false and synthetic, or does he think the Brexiteers are suggesting that they should have had editorial control?
That point is probably best answered by others rather than by me.
During the Scottish independence referendum, the UK Government spent around £750,000 on sending out a similar booklet urging people to stay in the UK. One of the promises made in that booklet was that Scots would retain an influential voice in the EU. Why are the Government now refusing to uphold that promise in the event of Scotland voting to remain in the EU and the rest of the UK voting to leave?
Scotland indeed does have a much more powerful voice in the EU as part of the United Kingdom than she would on her own, as we can see, for example, from the priority that British Ministers have given to the Scotch whisky industry during the negotiation of EU free trade agreements with other countries around the world—something that has brought real benefits, in terms of jobs and growth, to the people of Scotland. The hon. Lady invited me in the latter part of her question to revisit territory that the House debated and voted on at the time of the referendum Bill. It is the United Kingdom that is the member state whose name is written in the treaties and therefore it is right that this is a decision for the United Kingdom as a whole.
I believe the Minister is a fair man and this should have been a fair campaign, but the spending of taxpayers’ money on this propaganda is clearly unfair. Does he not recognise the anger in my constituency, where there is pressure on public spending, at this level of taxpayers’ money being used on electioneering? Furthermore, I was fortunate enough to get my copy of the leaflet this morning. I was slightly disappointed that it was printed on shiny, glossy paper. Had it been printed on something a bit more absorbent, then at least my constituents would have been able to put it to good use.
The facts are that 85% of the public have been telling us that they want more information, in particular from the Government. The cost of the leaflet is roughly 34p per household. Given the gravity of the decision that people are being asked to take, I really do not think that that should be seen as in any way disproportionate.
When the Scottish Government White Paper on independence was published, it had a catalytic effect on the independence referendum campaign. Although we did not win that campaign, it helped to double the level of support for independence from the standing start that we came from. It was downloaded or ordered in hard copy more than 100,000 times. People even proactively paid for a copy of it, irrespective of what side of the referendum campaign they were on. Do the Minister’s ambitions for the Government’s document go anywhere near approaching the success of the Scottish Government’s White Paper?
I am not expecting it to appear in the Amazon best seller lists, but I hope that every household when they receive it will consider seriously the arguments the Government are making. If people wish to explore in greater detail any particular aspect of our European Union membership covered in the leaflet, they can follow up the source material from which the various statements are derived—those have all been published—or look at the lengthier Government publications that we have placed online, in response to our duty under the European Union Referendum Act 2015, and find that information there, too.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who represents the SDLP, is not alone in taking a principled stand of being in favour of remain, but against the spending of public money on this leaflet. The leader of the Green party in England and Wales, Natalie Bennett, said on Radio 4 on Friday evening that
“it isn’t acceptable for the Government to be putting out propaganda in this way.”
Can the Minister tell us which of the two lines he has been putting forward today he really subscribes to? Does he really subscribe to the line that this is information that the public want, or does he commit himself to the line that this is actually the Government arguing for one side of the debate because that is what the Government’s position is? He cannot have it both ways. Either it is an impartial, factual document or it is a partisan argument for one side in the debate. Which is it?
It will be for the two designated campaign organisations to promote their own messages to the public as they choose, without the Government interfering. What the opinion research we commissioned told us was that people wanted more information, and that included a clearer explanation from the Government as to why we were arguing the case and making the recommendation that we were. What we are doing in this leaflet is providing that factual information in an accessible form, but also showing why the Government have made the recommendation they have.
It is the case that constituents have been asking for more information, but I wonder whether the Minister or anybody in No. 10 even has given a second’s consideration to how our constituents who have been impacted by austerity cuts would feel about £9 million being spent on a glossy leaflet that amounts to nothing more than a booklet of pictures. If people are asking for more information, they are obviously asking for information on both sides of the argument. They are not asking for propaganda, they are not asking for facts that are not facts and they are not asking for a glossy booklet. They want unbiased information on both sides of the argument, so will the Minister spend another £9 million putting over the other side of the argument?
The two campaign groups will have the publicly funded distribution of whatever leaflet they produce, which will be worth up to £15 million apiece to them. In addition to that benefit of free delivery, they will each have a £7 million spending limit—higher than any other permitted participant in the referendum campaign —and they will each be entitled to a television broadcast and to a Government grant, from taxpayers’ funds, of £600,000, which is something this House approved during our recent debates. I would say to my hon. Friend that her views on the subject of Europe are consistent and well known and are held perfectly honourably, but given the seriousness of what is at stake in this referendum vote, for the Government to be spending 34p per household on presenting their views in an accessible form seems to me to be utterly reasonable.
Perhaps we should be reasonably relaxed about this. Most of these leaflets will end up in the waste paper bin straight away, because people do not like receiving propaganda, particularly if they are being asked to pay for it, but may I ask this direct question? If my right hon. Friend does not mind me saying so, I think his answer to the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs was frankly weasel words. We got a firm commitment that there would be broad equality of spending as far as the Government were concerned. That was our understanding and it was weasel words to say, “We’ll do that in the last four weeks, but not now.” Why is it fair that the taxpayer will give £7 million to the leave campaign for leaflets, but £16 million to the remain campaign—£7 million in the Electoral Commission campaign and £9 million now? Why is that fair? Does he not realise that this will leave a lasting taste of bitterness and unfairness?
I would advise my hon. Friend to look back at the Hansard reports of the Committee proceedings and the debates that he cites. He will see absolutely clearly, in black and white, that the Government have always drawn a distinction between the last 28 days of the campaign period and the rest of the campaign. Indeed, amendments were tabled to the referendum Bill in Committee and on Report that would have made the period of restrictions under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 much longer, but Parliament decided not to extend that period.
The remain pamphlet suggests that our security could be damaged by us leaving the European Union. How can that be, when there is increasing factual evidence from European security agencies that terrorists are travelling on EU travel documents, which in future, as now, will require us to allow them entry to the United Kingdom?
That is not an argument for leaving the European Union. It is an argument for more effective co-operation between police forces and intelligence agencies. One reason why our security would be at hazard if we were to withdraw is that leaving the EU would mean leaving the various arrangements for police and judicial co-operation that have enabled us to detect and disrupt the work of terrorists and other criminals and to bring to justice people who had fled to other countries to seek refuge from justice there. Because we are in the EU, it means that we are able more quickly and more cheaply to remove to other jurisdictions people who had come to the United Kingdom than we could possibly do outside the EU.
Can my right hon. Friend explain why there is no reference in this document to the massive trade deficit that the UK has with the rest of the European Union? A reference to various percentages is made, but my constituent Alan from Ferndown emailed me this afternoon to point out that those figures are at best meaningless and at worst totally misleading. What are the actual figures, in terms of millions of pounds, for our deficit? Does my right hon. Friend agree with my response to Alan and many others who are angry about this that rather than just be angry, they must get even?
My advice to Alan would be that we export roughly 44% of everything exported from the UK to the European Union and I would not want to see that put at risk, particularly when only 8% of the EU 27’s exports go to the United Kingdom. That suggests that in the event of a British departure, the negotiating weight over any future trade deal would lie with the other 27 rather than with us.
My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Government’s leaflets were being sent out this week, but then acknowledged that that was not the case in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where they will not be distributed until after the elections on 5 May, which falls squarely within the referendum period. The Minister will know that the Electoral Commission has expressed grave concern about that. Does he accept that, given the highly partisan nature of the document, the late distribution of the leaflets in those parts of the country will give an unfair advantage to the remain campaign?
No, I do not. The fact that the remain and leave campaigns will both be able to circulate their material and communicate as they think fit in the last 28 days of the campaign, when the Government are restricted in what they can say, will enable both sides of the argument to be put to the electorate fairly.
We held the referendum on the AV voting system in 2011. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether £9 million was spent at that time? That was a referendum that could have changed the political make-up of our country for generations to come by changing the whole voting system.
There is a crucial difference between the two. In 2011, we were part of a coalition Government. The two coalition parties took opposite views on the preferred outcome of that referendum, so there was no agreement on what the Government’s collective message should be. This time around, the Government have a very clear collective view, which is that we should remain in a reformed European Union, and the way that we communicate in the literature that we are distributing reflects that fact.
Several times in this debate the Minister has made the point that the Government came to a balanced view that the UK should remain within the EU. If it was a balanced view, it would be fair to assume that the Government saw pros and cons on both sides of the argument. Will the Minister tell us what benefits the Government recognise would apply to the UK if we voted to leave, and why was that information not contained in the leaflet?
We have to come to a judgment about the costs and benefits of European Union membership. The Government considered that at considerable length, went through the negotiations that culminated in the February European Council and reached the view that we would be better off, stronger and more secure by remaining in the European Union. One of the challenges for my hon. Friend and those who share his view is that in the absence of a clear and coherent view about the desired future relationship of the United Kingdom with the EU if we were to leave it, it is quite hard to form a judgment about the difficulties that might stem from that. We can estimate the risks—we certainly will do that—but it is incumbent on those who are championing the cause of leaving to spell out with much greater clarity than they have hitherto exactly what they see as that future relationship.
Thank you for calling me now, Mr Speaker, because what I have to say follows on very well from the previous remarks. The one title that is missing from this book concerns what things will be like if we remain. There is no indication of what Turkey is going to do. I was just fobbed off with “France is going to veto that”, and we are told that vetoing more powers will provide a safer path to the future, yet the latest data from the Library show that 60% of all our laws are made in the EU. In case the Minister has not noticed, I can tell him that he is part of the remain campaign. What is in this booklet is opinion; it is partial, and it is certainly not fact. As we have seen throughout the turmoil of this week, partial facts are very dangerous things to have in a leaflet.
What my hon. Friend is effectively saying is that she disagrees with the Government about Britain’s membership of the European Union. That does not come as a great surprise to me. Let me just correct her on the point about the proportion of our legislation that is attributable to the European Union. The House of Commons study showed that of our Acts of Parliament and statutory instruments, roughly 14% of the total have something to do with EU membership.
The £9 million leaflets express the view of part of the Government. I do not know whether the Minister has noticed, but half a dozen Cabinet Ministers are campaigning to leave alongside a number of other Ministers, so when are the other side of the Government going to get their leaflet? Speaking as a Member of the Council of Europe, part of my responsibility is observing elections. I go around different countries and have a look at the conduct of the campaign before polling day. If in any of the countries I visit I witnessed the sort of spiv Robert Mugabe antics that I have seen carried out by this Government, I would condemn the conduct of that election as not fair.
When my hon. Friend reflects on what he has just said and on the fact that election campaigns in Zimbabwe have in the recent past involved the murder, maiming and intimidation of voters, I think he might recognise that what he said was not his finest moment in the House. I think that what the Government are doing at the cost of 34p per household is a reasonable expression of the Government’s case for staying in the European Union, and it is a collective Government position. Quite exceptionally, the Prime Minister has agreed that individual Ministers who dissent may do so publicly in a personal capacity, but that does not alter the fact that the collective Government view, agreed by the Cabinet, is that we are better off remaining.
The Electoral Commission has said that the distribution of the leaflets gives an unfair advantage to the stay campaign. Were the Government aware of the Electoral Commission’s views before they authorised distribution? Did they consult the commission, and if not, why not?
The Electoral Commission is entitled to its view. We do not agree with it on this point of principle, although, as I said earlier, we did change our plans in relation to the timing of the leaflet’s distribution to take account of the commission’s concern about the impact that it might have on elections in the three devolved areas.
The independent, highly respected Electoral Commission says that the Government are wrong, but what is far worse—and I must word this carefully—is what happened at the time of the purdah debates. We have heard what was said at the Dispatch Box, but what we have not heard is what certain Conservative Members were told. We were told that the Government would not issue a leaflet. [Interruption.] We have not heard that, sir. Clearly the Minister would not have deliberately misled us—in fact, a number of Ministers would not have deliberately misled us—so when did Government policy change? Can the Minister confirm that when those assurances were given, there was no intention of issuing the leaflet? When did the policy change?
The Government have always said that we would take, and express, a clear view. As long ago as 10 June last year, the Prime Minister said:
“I do not want us to be neutral on this issue; I want us to speak clearly and frankly.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1179.]
The Foreign Secretary and I have repeated that point in the House on several occasions.
If my hon. Friend looks at Hansard and at reports of Select Committee evidence, he will see that Ministers consistently referred to and discussed the absence of any intention of publishing leaflets, carrying out door drops or advertising in the context of debates and questions about the final 28 days of the campaign, and whether or not the preparation arrangements ought to be amended.
The British public recognise a democratic deficit when they see one, and they see this £9 million propaganda leaflet as unfair, biased, and just un-British. Since the moment it was announced, I have been inundated with communications from people who now wish to campaign for us to leave. Will the Government be releasing figures for the number of their propaganda leaflets that are returned in the post, and has that been budgeted for?
As I said earlier, the cost of 34p per household is reasonable. I think that the public would be astonished if, having reached a clear view about this important decision, the Government neglected to express that view clearly by all means legally available to them. The truth is, I think, that what my hon. Friend yearns for is silence and neutrality on the Government’s part, but that is not what he is going to get.
I take my hat off to my right hon. Friend for keeping a straight face while saying that this was a factual document. If that is the case, there must have been a few pages missing from my copy, because I did not see any facts in it. If my right hon. Friend is so keen for the facts to be communicated to the British public, will he tell us what the trade deficit between the United Kingdom and the European Union was last year, and what our net contribution to the EU budget is each year? For some reason, those facts seem to be missing from my copy of the document. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would like to put the record straight and apologise for the omission.
I think that when the Treasury analysis is published, my hon. Friend will find that it contains a full account of the net contribution in the way that he would expect. As he will know, the calculation of the net contribution is published every year by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Who would have thought, this week or any week, that the Labour party would join my own party’s Government in supporting the plutocratic elite, the EU bureaucrats, the investment banks and big business against the people? And we wonder why politics is held in such low regard.
As the Minister will know, the Vice-President of the European Parliament, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, today told the German magazine EurActiv that the Government had gone too far in their Brexit concessions, and that the Prime Minister’s so-called negotiation was legally unenforceable and would, in time, be overturned by the European Parliament. Is it purely coincidental that there is little or any reference to the Prime Minister’s renegotiation in this propaganda document?
When I have looked at the way in which the February European Council meeting has been reported in the media around Europe, I have seen comments aplenty about this being a big win for United Kingdom diplomacy, and, in some cases, outrage at what people in those countries have seen as a betrayal of federalist ideals. I simply say to my hon. Friend that the President of the European Parliament has made it clear that he wants the deal that was agreed in February to go through and will work to that end, and that the head of the Council Legal Service in the EU has made it clear that the agreement reached in February is legally binding on every member state.
The Prime Minister promised this country, and the people of this country, a treaty change by 23 June. We have no treaty change, so the propaganda that the Government have pushed out cannot guarantee 100% that any of the reforms that we have—pathetic though they are—will exist in law. The moment we are consumed by the EU, if we vote to stay in, MEPs and the European Court will have the power to change what we have tried to do.
What was agreed in February, including the aspects of the agreement that require amendment to the European Union treaties, takes the form of an international law decision which is legally binding on every one of the 28 EU member states, and which cannot be changed unless there is unanimous agreement from all those 28, including the United Kingdom. That is why I am very confident that this will go through.
Will the Minister tell us whether any EU funds were involved in the production of the leaflets, and what procurement processes were involved in both the website and the leaflets? I ask because whoever agreed to a £3 million contract for a website and spent that money was ripped off—and that is a fact.
The money is coming out of the Cabinet Office’s departmental spending, and, to the best of my knowledge, no EU funds are involved. The President of the European Commission has made it very clear on more than one occasion that he thinks it would be wrong for the Commission to participate, as an institution, in the British referendum campaign.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
We will come to points of order, but I wish first to deal with the next matter on my agenda. If Members are patient, they will be heard ere long. In a moment, I shall call the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter which she believes should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Lady has up to three minutes in which to make such an application.