At the general election this year the decades-old practice of purdah again came into effect. As readers of this magazine will know, this aims to prevent civil servants from acting in a way that could undermine their political impartiality during an election or referendum campaign. It also stops departments and non-departmental public bodies from competing with the election campaign for public attention. In practice, however, the purdah guidelines were interpreted in a way that reduced the provision of independent information for the public good, leading to a series of calls for reform particularly from the scientific community.
The UK has a rich set of independent public information organisations including the Office for National Statistics and the House of Commons Library, as well as scientists funded by the research councils. These are bodies that should be giving the public the facts and figures they need to be informed during the election period. Even if it’s not intended, the culture of purdah has a restrictive effect, leading to people censoring themselves just to make sure they are not breaching the guidelines.
Scientists in particular found they were being advised by their funders and government departments not to share their expertise during the 2017 election. There were many examples of this. Three independent academics on a government scientific advisory committee were told they could not comment on the publication of the government’s Draft Air Quality Plan. Scientists were told not to publicise new findings so that they would not breach purdah, even when the research was very far from the politics of the day. Looking at albatrosses from space, for example.
Purdah guidance needs to be reformed. It should set out a new, overriding principle that purdah is not about preventing voters from accessing statistics and research. The guidance might also make it clearer that the UK Statistics Authority is able to assert itself and to pick up on any misuses of statistics during an election campaign. UKSA has shown itself willing to comment publicly and firmly on the use of statistics during the 2015 and 2017 election campaigns, and, most notably, during the 2016 EU referendum campaign. It is important that our independent statistical regulator continues to function in this way during campaign periods, when the use of statistics to communicate to the public can be at its most intense.
The guidance should enshrine a further golden rule – that it is not about restricting commentary from independent academics – something which Sir Jeremy Heywood has confirmed in a letter to the scientific community. The guidance must make it clear that this applies to scientists working in universities, in research council institutes and academics who sit on government scientific advisory committees.
The current plethora of guidelines is also confusing. The Cabinet Office guidance is often reinterpreted by research councils or departments in a more restrictive way than is intended. When presented with a morass of overlapping and slightly confusing guidance, it is little wonder that most scientists and statisticians will decide it is just easier to keep their heads below the parapet and stay silent. Some case studies would be welcome to show positive examples where it is right and proper to speak to the media, share data and publish research.
Purdah has a noble set of aims, but over the years its practice has become overly restrictive. Many researchers, scientists and statisticians found it had a chilling effect on their ability to provide the public with information during the 2017 election. There is a real opportunity to reformulate the guidance so that it goes beyond stating what cannot be done to making it clear that the UK public should be able to access the information it needs. There is some urgency to the matter, given purdah applies in such a wide set of situations including referendum campaigns, local elections, and those of devolved administrations. After all, who knows when the next general election might be called?