David Cameron has defended spending £9m on a taxpayer-funded pro-EU publicity blitz, saying it was legal, necessary and right.
Following outrage from Brexit campaigners, the prime minister justified the mail-out by saying no one should be in any doubt that the government has a strong view in favour of staying in the EU.
He said he would make no apology for the leaflet that will go to every British household after he was challenged by a pro-EU student about whether it was “undemocratic and counter-productive”.
Cameron replied: “We are not neutral in this. We think it would be a bad decision to leave. We think it would be bad for our economy, bad for jobs, bad for investment, bad for families’ finances.
“We think it would be bad for universities. We are not neutral so we have made a clear stance in this leaflet which everyone will get a copy of.
“I don’t want anyone to go to the polls not knowing what the government thinks, and I think that is money well spent. It is not, in my view, just legal – I think it is necessary and right.”
Vote Leave, the leading out campaign, has accused Downing Street of releasing news of the leaflet to deflect attention from the prime minister’s financial affairs.
Amid a furore about the offshore wealth of Cameron’s late father, Ian, Downing Street announced it would spend 34p per household on 14-page booklets to be sent to every home in England before the EU referendum on 23 June.
Cameron did not take media questions after the Q&A session with students on Thursday, but the young people gave him a tough grilling on what he was doing to tackle tax avoidance, the imposition of higher tuition fees, why he was not bailing out the steel industry and the fallout from the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, as well as the taxpayer-funded leaflets.
Vote Leave also questioned Downing Street’s claim that the leaflets were comparable to anything they would be able to produce, without the support of taxpayers’ cash.Gove said: “I want a fair campaign, I want people to hear from both sides but what I think is wrong is spending £9m of taxpayers’ money on one particular piece of one-sided propaganda. I think it is wrong that money that should be spent on priorities like the NHS is being spent on Euro-propaganda.”
Both sides will receive funding for one mailshot to every household in the country; but Vote Leave pointed out that this would only cover postage, not the printing or production of a booklet.
They added that Electoral Commission restrictions on the weight of paper that can be used in the official mailing, once the short referendum campaign is under way, will mean Vote Leave will be unable to produce anything comparable.
Former defence secretary Liam Fox said the booklet’s publication, and the decision to send it out just before the campaign begins, “if it’s not against the letter of the law, it’s certainly against the spirit of the referendum in giving the voters a balanced view”.
Boris Johnson, the London mayor, also condemned the government mail-out as a “complete waste of money”.
The Labour MP Graham Stringer, who supports the leave campaign, claimed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday that news of the leaflet’s publication was an attempt to “divert attention from the prime minister’s immediate problems about his income”.
But Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, denied it was a political ploy.He said: “He is failing to answer questions. He hasn’t answered the questions about his historical income and whether that has come from tax havens or not. He needs to answer that question and it’s clearly very uncomfortable for him, and this diverts attention.”
“How could it be a diversion?” he asked. “This is a leaflet that’s been weeks in preparation. It’s well beneath Graham Stringer to try to suggest we’re doing this to divert from anything else.”
The prime minister and his office have provided four statements in relation to his father’s offshore fund, but critics say Cameron has still not fully explained whether or not he benefited in the past from his later father’s fund, Blairmore.
Fallon said: “He’s answered the questions put to him and I don’t think there’s anything that can be added to that … These questions were honestly answered from the beginning, he made it very clear that he’s not benefiting from any offshore trust of this kind. He’s already answered these questions. These questions have been answered and there’s nothing more to add to them.”
Voters in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland will also receive the booklet, but not until after elections to the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and the Scottish parliament.
Stamped with the HM Government logo, the leaflet says in large type: “Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK.”
It includes sections on the economy, immigration control and overseas travel, and warns that “a vote to leave could mean a decade or more of uncertainty”.
A spokesperson for Cameron said the diversion claim was “absolute nonsense” and the government had always intended to announce the leaflet campaign on Wednesday.