Purdah rules apply for civil servants in England from today until local elections take place on 3 May.
As per convention, civil servants are subject to guidance restricting their activity in the three weeks preceding an election, which in this case is from today (12 April). The rules do not apply to civil servants in areas where there are no elections this May, including those working for the Scottish and Welsh governments.
Departments should take extra care not to do anything that might appear party political, or that might draw attention away from campaigning, ahead of the elections taking place in more than 150 district councils and London boroughs next month.
According to the guidance, civil servants are under an obligation “to ensure that public resources are not used for party political purposes”, and not to do anything – including online or on social media – that might “call into question their political impartiality”. They should not be asked to provide new information to be used in election campaign debates.
They should take particular care in relation to ministerial visits, paid publicity campaigns, and public consultations and government announcements that “could have a bearing on matters related to the elections”, particularly when they have an emphasis or impact on local areas.
Some ongoing public consultations should continue as normal, but the rules prohibit departments from “taking action that will compete with candidates for the attention of the public” – as such, extending a consultation period after an election may be appropriate.
The guidance also covers handling of requests for information, where civil servants should display “even-handedness” in meeting requests from different political parties; use of government property, which is banned to ministers for electioneering purposes; and special advisors, who may take part in local election campaigning but in their own time.
The rules do not ban regular statistical activities or updates, but there were some concerns during the 2017 general election, including from Royal Statistical Society executive director Hetan Shah, that some civil servants were advised by their departments to censor themselves just to make sure they were not in breach of guidance.
In an article for Civil Service World last year he called for the guidelines to be reformed to “set out a new, overriding principle that purdah is not about preventing voters from accessing statistics and research”.
Shah welcomed the addition of the statement: "The principles set out here are not about restricting commentary from independent sources, for example academics. It is for individual public bodies to apply this pre-election guidance within their own organisations, but in doing so they should not go beyond the principles set out in this document."
Very pleased to see the addition of this 'The principles set out here are not about restricting commentary from
— Hetan Shah (@HetanShah) April 13, 2018
independent sources, for example academics.' as recommended by @RoyalStatSoc and others https://t.co/IaMj1XYwgJ (cc @UKRI_News @SMC_London @senseaboutsci @FullFact) https://t.co/S7qMd52jX6
The Cabinet Office said that in cases of doubt, officials should speak to their permanent secretary’s office or the Propriety and Ethics Team. Government communications professionals should contact the Cabinet Office’s Government Communications Service if they have any questions about press and marketing activity.