Purdah should not mean government goes into shutdown

For many in politics, purdah is an excuse to close down any public facing or vaguely innovative government activity, writes former home secretary Jacqui Smith

By Jacqui Smith

18 Apr 2016

I was recently reminded about the time I was "disciplined" by the cabinet secretary. 

In April 2008, as home secretary, I spoke at an excellent conference about the role of neighbourhood policing in counter terror work. I announced funding for further local police officers to strengthen counter terror policing at a neighbourhood level. I was reminded of this when I heard the prime minister’s recent announcement about additional armed officers to help counter a Paris-style attack on the streets of London. 

Like mine, it was a good announcement – but I found my eyes turning to the calendar to check the date. Despite being well received, my announcement landed me in hot water. I had made it during the official pre-election purdah period and received a civil service "telling off" for breaching purdah.

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I’d like you to imagine this as me knocking nervously on the door of the cabinet secretary/headmaster with exercise books down my trousers in anticipation of the punishment I was to receive. It was rather more a "disappointed" word passed on from the cabinet secretary via my permanent secretary to me and my special advisers. Why the fuss?

Outside the political world the word "purdah" is associated with the idea of women being screened or veiled from the eyes of men. In government it requires civil servants and politicians to coyly draw a gauzy veil over the business of party politics in the run up to elections or referendums.

The various pieces of legislation and codes which provide guidance on purdah are pretty clear that the restriction is about not using public resources to promote a particular party or candidate. This means being careful about announcements and communication using official resources. It does not – and should not – mean the closing down of government. 

Despite the obvious sensitivities, I still believe that purdah can be far too broadly interpreted

I accept I was wrong to make that announcement. Purdah has an important function. However, my transgression doesn’t change my view that for many civil servants – and even for many others with very little relationship to elected government – local or national – purdah is an excuse to close down any public facing or vaguely innovative government activity.

This year we face two purdah periods – the one we’re now in for the local, London and PCC elections, and the pre-EU referendum period. 

There was a parliamentary row last year when the Government tried to remove purdah provisions from the EU Referendum Bill. They tried to argue that the normal business of government (in relation to EU Councils and legislation) wouldn’t be able to continue if Section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum act 2000 applied to the EU referendum. This argument was widely debunked by the Electoral Commission, former ministers, and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee) and the government was defeated. 

One interpretation of the government’s attempts was that they wanted the ability to be able to put the case for remain in the referendum campaign. The recent £9m leaflet and website exercise suggests that purdah requirements haven’t been a bar to this happening, although it would have been much more difficult if renegotiation had continued until much nearer the date of the referendum.

Despite these obvious sensitivities, I still believe that purdah can be far too broadly interpreted. For example, NHS Providers have given advice to NHS Trusts that their board meetings shouldn’t discuss issues relating to future strategy or resources during the purdah period. As the chair of a Trust, I think this is nonsense and would make a board meeting meaningless. The NHS is notoriously bad at acting sensibly in situations like this. A hospital reconfiguration near to my home was put on hold for up to a year before the general election last year and, on occasion, this was justified due to "purdah". 

In fact, this was a case of the NHS deciding not to make a controversial decision which could be the subject of election campaigning. In one way, this is a justifiable position, but it certainly isn’t required by purdah conditions except for a very tight time period before the election.

In another case, I know of a private company which has been told by government officials not to showcase one of their projects for journalists during purdah because it has previously received ministerial support and government money. Frankly, I think this is an over-interpretation of the restrictions.

Like "data protection" and "health and safety", purdah requirements are often interpreted in the most restrictive way – and there is a suspicion that some use the magic purdah word to get a quiet April every year. If you’re confronted by the excuse of purdah to stop something happening, at the very least it may be worth questioning whether it really falls fouls of the rules. 

I hold up my hands to going too far in the past, but there’s a very big grey area which falls short of my bad behaviour!

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