Philip Hammond has refused to rule out the EU referendum taking place within six weeks of Scottish, Welsh and other elections in May.
The Foreign Secretary said the law outlining the referendum on the United Kingdom’s future membership of the EU does not prevent a vote taking place within a six-week period near the May 5 elections – which also take place in England and Northern Ireland.
Alex Salmond, the SNP’s international affairs and Europe spokesman, warned it would be “disrespectful” for such a situation to emerge.
Mr Hammond reiterated MPs will decide the date of the referendum as they will vote on legislation outlining this detail.
Prime Minister David Cameron hopes a deal will be reached on Britain’s negotiation demands by February and signalled earlier this month that a referendum will take place at least three months after this agreement.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Salmond told Mr Hammond: “As I understand it, the Prime Minister has called for a united, harmonious and mutually respectful debate within the Conservative Party on the issue of Europe.
“So in a united, harmonious and mutually respectful way, can I ask you to confirm that a referendum could not be held within six weeks of the date of the Scottish, Northern Irish, London and Welsh elections?
“To do so would both be disrespectful to the decision of this House and also disrespectful of the people engaging in these elections.”
Mr Hammond replied: “As you know, that is not what the Bill provides for.
“But given the timescales involved and given the fact we now expect that the conclusion will be reached at the February European Council, I think you can be confident that it will not be possible to hold a referendum before the date of the Scottish elections that you refer to.”
Mr Salmond continued to the Conservative frontbencher: “Can I put it to you that if the referendum was held within six weeks after the date of the elections then the two campaign period would intersect, with all the complications that would arise.
“Therefore can I ask you, again, will the date of the referendum be at least six weeks after the date of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections?”
Mr Hammond replied: “Well, what I’ve tried to convey to you is that is not what the Bill provides for – the Bill does not place any prohibition on a referendum being held in that period.
“But ultimately it will be a decision of this House because the date will be decided by (a statutory instrument) brought before this House.”