EU Referendum

Government's £9m pro-EU leaflets 'will boost Out vote'

John Redwood
Image caption Mr Redwood was one of a number of Tory Eurosceptics to take a swipe at the government

Government leaflets promoting EU membership are an "insult" to voters and will persuade more people to vote to leave, say pro-exit Tory MPs.

Ex-Tory ministers John Redwood and Owen Paterson accused ministers of misusing £9m in public money to fund booklets.

But Europe minister David Lidington said the government had a duty to set out its position and give voters the "facts" ahead of the vote on 23 June.

The government's leaflets are being sent to every home in the UK.

The first batches began arriving at homes in England on Monday with the remainder going to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after the 5 May devolved elections.

'Reasonable expression'

Out campaigners have reacted furiously to the leaflets - which come before strict spending limits kick-in ahead of the 23 June referendum - and more than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for the leaflets to be scrapped.

Former defence secretary Liam Fox has written to David Cameron to demand that both sides of the EU referendum debate be reflected in the pamphlets,

Fielding questions from MPs in the Commons, Mr Lidington said the leaflets, which work out at "34p per household", were a "reasonable expression" of the government's case for staying in the EU.

He said the government "has not only the right, but a duty to explain to the electorate that when faced with a decision of this gravity the reasons why the government has come to the recommendation that it has done".

He said the pamphlets were "entirely lawful", and added : "Special rules limiting all government publications and communications will apply in the last 28 days of the referendum campaign."

'Final straw'

But he was rounded on and heckled by many on his own side, who attacked the government over its decision to spent £9m on the campaign booklets.

Former Welsh Secretary John Redwood said it was "an abuse of public money, an insult to electors and... it's going to drive many more people to vote to leave", while former environment secretary Owen Paterson denounced it as a "crass move" that would "hugely galvanise people who want to leave the EU".

Ex-cabinet minister Liam Fox called it another "dodgy dossier" full of "opinions, assertions and suppositions" and in a reference to European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker added: "It's bad enough that we get junk mail but to have Juncker mail sent to us with our own taxes is the final straw."

Image caption Mr Lidington was heckled by many Tory MPs during his statement

Meanwhile, Nigel Evans accused the government of "Robert Mugabe-style antics" in the campaign - which provoked an angry response from the minister who told the MP it was "not his finest moment".

Long-standing Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, chairman of the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, had spearheaded a move to block the progress of the Budget in protest at the plans, but it failed after his amendment was not selected for debate.

'Perfectly reasonable'

Criticism of the leaflets and its contents were not confined to the Conservative benches, with Labour MP Kate Hoey - chair of the Vote Leave campaign - saying it was "deeply, deeply unfair" and warning the government that the "public will see through" it.

DUP MP Ian Paisley, meanwhile, said the pamphlets should come with a "very significant health warning", as he contested a number of assertions in the leaflet which he said the government had portrayed as "facts".

Defending the government, Conservative MP Nicholas Soames said: "Outside this incestuous hothouse 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 it intends to present its case."

Labour also gave the government its support, with shadow Europe minister Pat Glass saying the document was "perfectly reasonable" as the government had an "obligation to explain its view".

She claimed Eurosceptic MPs' criticism of the leaflet was an attempt to "silence the arguments for remaining than trying to counter them".

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Media caption'No apology' from Cameron for EU leaflets

Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would make "no apology" for the leaflets and that there was "nothing to stop the government from setting out its views in advance of the campaign".

Challenged on the plans by students in Exeter last week, he said he wanted every voter to have "all the information at their fingertips" when they go to vote: "I think that is money well spent. It is not... just legal, it is necessary and right."

In his letter to Mr Cameron, Mr Fox said: "The current proposal effectively doubles the budget for the Remain campaign and will offend the natural spirit of fair play that is so much a part of the character of the British people.

"If the government intends to go ahead with this publication, then I suggest you consider correcting the imbalance by allowing the opposite side to include the alternative view."

Downing Street said the campaign followed polling which suggested 85% of people wanted more information from the government to help them make an informed choice.

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