The UK government has tabled changes to the arrangements for the referendum on Britain’s EU membership, in a bid to allay MPs’ concerns about ensuring the vote is fair.
Amendments put down to the EU Referendum Bill will restore the “purdah” rule, which bars ministers from using public money to promote one side in the final weeks before the poll.
However a “business as usual” provision will allow ministers to continue comment on European business such as statements by the European Council or rulings by the European Court of Justice.
A further new clause will enable ministers to bring forward further modifications to the “purdah” rule subject to parliamentary approval.
Europe minister David Lidington said: “Today’s amendments deliver on the commitment I made in June to take into account concerns about activity in the final four weeks before the referendum while ensuring that we can continue to fight Britain’s corner in Brussels on ongoing EU business and make it is possible for ministers, subject to parliamentary approval, to communicate a position on the referendum in restrained and moderate terms.”
Ministers had argued the change was needed to allow the government to continue normal business with EU partners, but a parliamentary committee warned in July it risked casting “a shadow of doubt” over the propriety of the vote.
The new proposals are intended to reassure MPs that ministers are not seeking to wield the full weight of the government machine or spend large amounts of public money in support of the campaign to stay in the EU, if that is what the Prime Minister recommends.
Further amendments will change the referendum question in line with the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that voters be asked whether they want the UK to “remain in” or “leave” the EU, rather than ticking a Yes or No box.
The move comes after David Cameron survived a House of Commons revolt of 27 Tory MPs – including five former cabinet members – in June over the plan to drop the 28-day purdah rule.
Eurosceptics were furious because they feared that it would allow Whitehall to back the Yes camp.
In July, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee wrote to Mr Lidington to warn that plans to ditch the purdah period were “completely unacceptable”.
SNP international affairs spokesman Alex Salmond said the SNP would be pressing forward with its own amendment to ensure ministers could not ignore the purdah rule in the way he claimed they did in the independence referendum.
Labour was studying the detail of the proposed changes but a source warned they “may well” decide to vote against them.
Party officials expressed concern that the way the amendments were drafted meant that the purdah rules would not apply to issues such as immigration, fishing quotas and climate change.