There have been fresh calls for government to ensure its purdah rules are well publicised and understood to ensure heavy-handed application of the guidelines does not censor independent research, after MPs approved an election on 12 December.
Preparation for a pre-Christmas general election has now begun after MPs backed the prime minister’s latest bid for a national poll in the Commons yesterday. The election is set to go ahead provided the House of Lords also backs the proposal today.
The move has prompted a renewed call for the government to ensure people understand the scope of the purdah rules, which prevent officials from announcing policies or initiatives during a campaign.
There was controversy in the run up to the 2017 general election as the rules were interpreted by some academics to mean that they could not publish or comment on research during the purdah period. This meant researchers were unable to comment publicly on government-funded but independent work covering topics that were the subject of political debate, including recorded weekend deaths in hospitals and climate change.
Purdah guidance was updated the following year, following campaigning by several bodies including the Royal Statistical Society and the Science Media Centre, to clarify that the rules were “not about restricting commentary from independent sources, for example academics”.
However, critics have said the update has not been sufficiently well publicised, and that government must ensure the same problems do not arise again.
Hetan Shah, executive director of the RSS, told CSW that “most people are not aware” of the 2018 clarification. He said it was down to UK Research and Innovation – the national research funding agency sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – to ensure researchers knew about it.
“It would be helpful if UKRI were to make a statement about this so that the research community is clear that there are no restrictions on their ability to speak publicly in the run up to the election,” Shah said.
Science Media Centre head Fiona Fox said the organisation would be writing to its members, which include both scientists and the heads and staff of UKRI’s constituent research councils, to alert them to the update.
“Our priority now is to make sure that all the scientists we work with are aware of that change – and very critically, that press officers are aware of that change – because you find often that [in 2017] there was an over-interpretation of the Cabinet Office guidance by press officers inside government and also within universities and research councils,” she told CSW.
Fox said she would also write to the Cabinet Office, UKRI and the government’s chief scientific advisers to remind them of the issue.
The 2018 guidance change was made by Sue Gray, then ethics chief at the Cabinet Office, in response to the SMC's campaign during and after the last general election.
In 2017 the SMC wrote to then-cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood calling for "urgent clarification around the application of ‘purdah’ to scientists".
"Many senior scientists and science communication officers believe that the guidance on purdah is confusing and is being applied in an ad hoc and arbitrary way which is not in the public interest," the letter, which was co-signed by 12 organisations including the RSS, the Association of Medical Research Charities and Full Fact, said.
The Labour Party dropped its opposition to a December election yesterday, following the agreement of an extension to the UK's deadline for leaving the EU to 31 January. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would back the poll since the extension had taken the possibility of a no-deal Brexit "off the table".
MPs backed the parliamentary general election bill by 438 votes to 20, lining up the first national vote in December for nearly a century. However, they voted down Corbyn's attempt to shift the vote to 9 December.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the department would publish purdah guidance for the 2019 general election "in due course".
"Ministers and civil servants continue to be bound at all times by their obligations under the ministerial and Civil Service Codes respectively," they added,