Every household in England will receive a glossy 14-page booklet through their letterbox next week making the case for Britain to remain in the European Union, as the government kicks off a £9m taxpayer-funded publicity blitz.
As David Cameron steps up his efforts to persuade voters to vote to remain in the EU at the 23 June referendum, No 10 announced it would spend 34p per household on the booklets, which bear the government crest.
Voters in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland will also receive the booklet, but not until after the elections to the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and the Scottish parliament.
Stamped with the logo “HM Government”, 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”.
The environment secretary, Liz Truss, said: “The document makes clear why EU membership brings economic security, peace and stability. It also sets out that, if the UK voted to leave, the resulting economic shock would put pressure on the value of the pound, which would risk higher prices of some household goods.”
The announcement sparked fury among Brexit campaigners, with the London mayor, Boris Johnson, calling it “crazy” to spend public money on the leaflet campaign.
“Given that I think it’s very likely that it will be very biased and hysterical and warning unnecessarily about the risks of leaving the EU, I think it’s a complete waste of money,” he said.
“It’s crazy to use quite so much taxpayers’ money on stuff that is basically intended to scare people and to stampede people in one direction.
A spokesman for Vote Leave, in which justice secretary Michael Gove plays a senior role, even accused No 10 of trying to steer the focus away from Cameron’s tax affairs.
“No 10 is trying to distract the media’s attention from the issue of whether the prime minister’s family money is kept in offshore trusts,” he said. “The government promised that it would not take on the lead role in the referendum, so it’s disgraceful that they’re spending taxpayers’ money which could go to the NHS on EU propaganda instead.”
A spokesperson for Cameron insisted the claim was “absolute nonsense”and the government had always intended to announce the leaflet campaign on Wednesday.
A No 10 spokeswoman said the booklet had been commissioned in response to a survey showing that 85% of people wanted more facts about the referendum. “We think it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “We think this is a good way of putting the facts at people’s fingertips. It’s what was done in 1975.”
Producing, printing and delivering leaflets would cost £6.4m, No 10 said, while digital promotion and an accompanying website would cost almost £2.9m.
Separately, Vote Leave has been reported to the Electoral Commission over its campaign leaflet, which purports to present neutral facts about the EU and claims that £350m a week is sent by the UK to Brussels.
The leaflet was reported for a failure to properly declare its source, although there is little the watchdog can do outside the official referendum period.
The leaflet is designed to look official and declares that it contains “information about the referendum on June 23” but only reveals its author is Vote Leave in tiny font on the back page.
Britain Stronger in Europe, the leading Remain campaign, claimed there were at least eight misleading claims in the leaflet, describing it as a “grand deception on the British people”.
James McGrory, its chief campaign spokesman, said: “This leaflet is nothing short of Project Fantasy. It fails to address the real concerns that many people will have about the economic costs to Britain of leaving Europe’s free-trade single market.”
Chris Bryant, the shadow leader of the House of Commons, reported his concerns about the leaflet’s misleading presentation to the Electoral Commission and asked it to investigate any potential wrongdoing.
The Guardian has received a number of emails from readers complaining about the leaflet, which was mailed to households this week.
The Remain campaign said the leaflet sought to “hide the fact it comes from a referendum campaign group”, pointing out it was completely devoid of Vote Leave branding and linked to a website seemingly designed to appear impartial.
The Remain camp argued that the claim that £350m a week was sent to Brussels had been “blown apart” by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The thinktank released a report on Wednesday judging that the UK’s net contribution was £5.7bn a year. This amounts to £110m a week.
However, a Vote Leave spokesman dismissed criticism of the leaflet and repeated its claim about the £350m. That figure is derived from the UK’s gross contribution of £19.1bn in 2014 and does not take into account Britain’s rebate or other receipts from the EU.
“People want to know the facts on the EU such as the fact that we send £350m every week to Brussels that could go to the NHS if we vote leave and we are experimenting with different formats to see what is most effective,” the spokesman said.
Critics of the Remain camp also pointed to a leaflet issued by Britain Stronger in Europe that had no campaign branding and warned that Brexit was a “leap in the dark for you and your family”.
That leaflet appeared only to refer to Britain Stronger in Europe by its initials BSIE on the return address.
A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said no law had been broken by Vote Leave as material did not have to have an imprint declaring its origin until the formal referendum period begins on 15 April.
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