The following is an official transcript of a speech given by the Rt. Hon. David Jones M.P. in the House of Commons on 9 May 2016.
It is a great pleasure to be called to speak, albeit late, in this well attended, though I must say one-sided debate. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to spare a thought for my right hon. Friend the Minister. He reminds me of one of those renaissance pictures of St Sebastian, who stands tethered to a tree, his body pierced by a multitude of arrows shot by myriad archers. He has been called on many times to defend the Government’s handling of the referendum process. Today he seeks to defend the frankly shabby piece of disinformation posing as an informative leaflet, which has been comprehensively shredded, metaphorically, by the participants in the debate, just as it has no doubt been physically shredded by many of the people who had the unfortunate experience of finding it dropping through their letter box.
The arguments have been advanced, and I do not want to repeat them, but there is one point that I want to touch on as a Welsh Member of Parliament, which is the timing of the leaflet. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) pointed out, the leaflets have not yet been delivered in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, because the Government wanted to avoid a clash with the elections that took place last Thursday. In England, of course, they were distributed between 11 April and 13 April, which was before the regulated period of the referendum campaign began. In Wales, they will be distributed this week, as they will in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
I have to tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that the timing had no effect whatever on the Welsh Assembly election campaign, because I had exactly the same experience as the hon. Member for East Antrim. Everywhere I went when I was canvassing in that campaign, I found that very few people wanted to talk about the Assembly election, but everyone wanted to talk about the referendum. In particular they were incensed at the fact that the Government had spent £9.3 million of their money—taxpayers’ money—on a piece of propaganda.
The practical effect is that the leaflets will be delivered in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales squarely during the regulated period, which I suggest will give the remain campaign an unfair advantage. During that time, expenditure is carefully regulated and limited. The Government are not affected by those limitations, of course, but in any event the remain campaign’s expenditure will be augmented by the delivery of the leaflet through people’s letter boxes. That is deeply regrettable, and the Electoral Commission has pointed out that after the Scottish referendum it recommended that Governments should not conduct any taxpayer-funded advertising during the regulated period. That is what has happened in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I suggest that the Government should have had regard to the Venice Commission’s code of good practice on referendums, which provides:
“The use of public funds…for campaigning purposes must be prohibited”
and states that any explanatory report produced by the authorities should
“give a balanced presentation not only of the viewpoint of the executive and legislative authorities or persons sharing their viewpoint but also of the opposing one.”
The Government’s document is completely silent in that regard. The leaflet clearly contravenes those recommendations. It is utterly one-sided.
As a Conservative Member of Parliament I am bound to say that I find it highly regrettable that my party’s Government has conducted itself in that way. I would go so far as to say that I am deeply ashamed. The fact that so many people have signed the e-petition, which no doubt is at somewhere around the 220,000 signature mark by now, is a clear sign that my concern, and the concern of so many other hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon, is shared widely by the British people. It has been an unfortunate episode in an unfortunate campaign, and I hope that on reflection my right hon. Friend the Minister will find it in his heart to apologise for what the Government have done.