THE Prime Minister has dismissed a letter signed by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish First Ministers spelling out their objection to a June EU referendum.
In the House of Commons, David Cameron was challenged on the letter, which calls for the EU vote to be held later in the year so that it does not clash with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections on May 5.
Nicola Sturgeon, Carwyn Jones of Wales and Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness of Northern Ireland claimed a June referendum risked “confusing issues”, because it did not allow enough time for arguments to be considered.
But Mr Cameron responded by dropping another hint that the referendum would be held on June 23 when he said a six week gap between the elections and the EU poll would be enough.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, the First Ministers’ letter was drawn to Mr Cameron’s attention by the SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson who asked him why he did not respect the electorate and governments of the devolved nations.
Mr Cameron said he respected Alex Salmond when the former SNP leader said a six week gap was sufficient.
The Prime Minister said: “I also respect the electorates of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the basis that I think people are perfectly capable of making up their minds in a local election or in a Scottish Parliamentary election or in a Welsh Assembly election and then a period of some weeks afterwards making up their mind all over again on the vital question of the European Union. So no date has been fixed. There must be a six week gap. But frankly I think he is looking for things to complain about. This house has voted for a referendum. It would be pretty odd if having voted for a referendum we then spend ages debating about not having one.”
The letter sent by Ms Sturgeon, Mr Jones, Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness said: “We think it essential that those casting their votes are fully informed of the arguments on EU membership. As you know, elections take place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on May 5.
“We believe that holding a referendum as early as June will mean that a significant part of the referendum campaign will necessarily run in parallel with those elections and risks confusing issues at a moment when clarity is required.
“Furthermore, it will be virtually impossible for the political parties in our respective territories to plan effectively for, and, where appropriate work together on, the referendum campaign while our own elections are in progress.”
They added: “We believe that the European Referendum is of vital importance to the future of the whole United Kingdom and the debate leading up to it should, therefore be free of other campaigning distraction. We believe it would be better for you to commit to deferring the EU referendum at least until later in the year.”