Brexit campaigners cry foul over 'stay in Europe' mailshot sent out by British government

Cameron addresses students at Exeter University in Exeter, Britain, April 7, 2016.
Cameron addresses students at Exeter University in Exeter, Britain, April 7, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron was accused on Thursday of using state funds for propaganda after his government sent leaflets out to millions of voters urging them to vote to stay in the EU at the upcoming referendum.

Cameron said he made "no apologies" for throwing the weight of the government behind the "Remain" camp, but campaigners for Britain to leave the European Union on June 23 responded with outrage.

"It is wrong that at a time of austerity, £9 million of taxpayers' money is being spent on a one-sided piece of propaganda," said Justice Secretary Michael Gove, one of four Cabinet ministers backing a so-called Brexit. The amount is equivalent to about S$18 million.

The glossy 15-page booklet is being sent to more than 27 million homes and will be accompanied by a new website, produced at a total cost of £9.3 million.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), said it was "outrageous" to use taxpayers money "to tell us how we should think and what we should do", adding that the leaflet was "full of lies".

Cameron insisted the government was not neutral in the referendum, which opinion polls indicate will be close, and it was important that voters knew this.

"I want everyone to have all the information at their fingertips but I absolutely make no apology for the fact that the government has a strong view and wants everyone to know that strong view," he said.

The Electoral Commission, the watchdog which had called for tighter rules on government activity during the campaign but was rebuffed, expressed its disapproval.

"We don't think the government should have done it, but it's not illegal," a spokeswoman was quoted as saying in the Financial Times.

The launch of the campaign comes just a week before the official referendum period begins on April 15, which brings with it strict spending limits.

In the 10 weeks before the vote, both the "Remain" and "Leave" campaigns will each be able to spend no more than £7 million.

"What the government are effectively doing is doubling the funding for one side, i.e. the Remain campaign," said former defence secretary Liam Fox, who is backing a Brexit.

An online petition demanding the government stop using taxpayers money on the "Remain" campaign had attracted more than 72,000 signatures by Thursday evening.