174. Giving evidence to this inquiry, Vote Leave’s Matthew Elliott claimed that the “extent to which the Government used the whole machinery of government to push the Remain campaign was, I think, unprecedented”.1 While this assertion by the Chief Executive of the designated Leave campaign may be rather unsurprising, it is instructive that the role of the Government has been the subject of significant criticism from impartial observers.
175. For example, as paragraphs 156 to 161 of this report demonstrate, the Government’s presentation of policy papers and its £9.3m leaflet have been the subject of fierce criticism by academic observers such as the UK in a Changing Europe project and Dr Alan Renwick. In his evidence to PACAC Dr Renwick also argued that while the principle of purdah “is to maintain equality and to ensure that the Government does not skew the debate”, the Government “did clearly try to skew the debate” during the referendum.2
176. Indeed, witnesses to our inquiry have suggested that the Government’s behaviour was noticed by the public, with polling evidence reportedly indicating “that people were unhappy with the role that the Government played”.3 According to Dr Renwick, is “certainly plausible to think that the Government’s interventions might well have been counterproductive from their point of view and people resented the fact that the Government was getting involved in that way”.4 Polling undertaken by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) indicated that the level of importance voters attached to the Government as a source of information fell from 10% to 8%, following the leaflet’s publication.5 According to the ERS, the fact that the Government’s influence essentially remained the same “despite a significant increase in government output on the referendum in the run-up” suggested a certain level of public distrust in the Government.6
177. While Sir Jeremy Heywood, in his evidence to PACAC, defended the role of the Civil Service during the referendum and denied that the Civil Service has been put under “unnecessary pressure” by the Government, he nonetheless conceded that a perception existed, described by Sir Jeremy Heywood as “unfortunate … inaccurate and unfair”, that the Civil Service had operated in a biased way during the referendum:
I do not think we behaved improperly, I do not think we behaved in a biased way, or an unfair way, or a constitutionally improper way. Yet the perception was out there that we were exceeded our brief in some way or were biased, and that was very unfortunate. I think that partly was because there was not sufficient understanding, even in Parliament, frankly, as to what our role is when the Government has a position and there is nothing in the Bill that stops the Government from using the Civil Service.7
178. While it is perfectly legitimate for the Prime Minister and government to take an official position during a referendum campaign, the fairness, and legitimacy, of a referendum rests on a careful and restrained use of the machinery of government. Unfortunately, many of the Government’s actions in the run-up to the referendum appear to have increased public distrust. As Sir Jeremy Heywood has acknowledged, the use of the machinery of government during the referendum contributed to a perception that the civil service were, in some way, biased. That any such perception exists is deeply regrettable and was entirely avoidable. We recommend that the Government heed the lessons from this referendum of the implications of the use of the machinery of government during referendums on public trust and confidence in the institutions of government.
5 Brett, W., It’s good to talk: Doing referendums differently after the EU vote, Electoral Reform Society, September 2016, pp.16–17.
6 Brett, W., It’s good to talk: Doing referendums differently after the EU vote, Electoral Reform Society, September 2016, pp.16–17.
11 April 2017