Pre-election guidance issued as restrictions on officials come into force

Written by Beckie Smith on 5 November 2019 in News
News

This year's guidance clarifies rules for civil servants who are not 'politically restricted'

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Pre-election restrictions on civil servants will come into force at midnight, the Cabinet Office has confirmed.

The guidance prevents government officials from announcing policies or initiatives that might influence an election during a campaign. All UK government civil servants and the board members and staff of arm’s-length and non-departmental public bodies must follow the guidance, which are sometimes referred to informally as the purdah rules.

As in the run-up to the 2017 general election, the latest document, published yesterday, instructs officials “not to undertake any activity that could call into question their political impartiality or that could give rise to criticism that public resources are being used for party political purposes”.


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The rules instruct civil servants to turn down invitations to events at which they might be asked to answer questions about future government policy or public controversy and to refrain from getting involved in party-political matters, but say that officials can issue factual information about policies already in effect.

The rules also prevent “politically restricted” civil servants – all senior civil servants, those at Grade 6 and 7 or equivalent, and fast streamers – from taking part in national political activities.

However, other civil servants, such as those working at lower grades, are allowed to participate in political activities with the permission of their department.

The latest document includes updated guidance clarifying that those civil servants given permission from their department to participate in political activities “must still act in accordance with the requirements of the Civil Service Code”.

They must continue to serve the government in a politically impartial way and “act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of ministers” and ensures they could establish a good working relationship with incoming ministers, the guidance added.

The document has also built on previous guidance on the use of publicly-owned property for campaigning and political purposes, which says that those responsible for public buildings can make decisions on the use of those buildings as long as they treat all parties “in an even-handed way” and ensure services are not disrupted”,

The guidance added that those legally responsible for spending public funds or the use of public property must “ensure that there is no misuse, or the perception of misuse, for party political purposes”. They must also observe the Nolan Principles when considering the use of public funds or property during the election period, which mean decisions must be taken “impartially, fairly and on merit and maintain their accountability to the public for their decisions and actions”, it said.

The Department for Education will provide advice to schools on the use of their premises and resources, it added

Elsewhere in the document, the updated guidance says that cabinet committees are “not expected to meet” during the pre-election period, although meetings may be required in “exceptional circumstances”. This is a tweak from the 2017 guidance, which said that “cabinet committees can continue to meet and consider correspondence if necessary, although in practice this may not be practical”.

The latest document does not repeat a line inserted in 2018 guidance for local elections, which specified that the rules were “not about restricting commentary from independent sources, for example academics”.

Groups representing independent researchers, including the Royal Statistical Society and the Science Media Centre, had welcomed the 2018 clarification. The groups had lobbied for the change during and after the 2017 general election, saying that a lack of clarity had led to government-funded academics refusing to comment on their independent research in the run-up to the election, effectively censoring themselves, as they mistakenly believed the guidance applied to them.

Both the RSS and the SMC have written to the arm’s-length body responsible for awarding government research grants, UK Research and Innovation, urging it to issue a statement saying academics are not subject to pre-election restrictions. The SMC has also written to the Cabinet Office to remind officials of the issue.

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets @Beckie__Smith.

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