Union chief sounds alarm over reports that government would scrap purdah rules in snap election

Prospect urges Cabinet Office to clarify that usual rules would apply in an October election

Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

03 Sep 2019

The Prospect trade union has said reported plans to not apply the usual purdah rules for the work of government in the event of a snap election would amount to an effort to “abuse the work of civil servants during this highly sensitive time”.

Politico has today reported that the government would not follow usual pre-election rules in an October election. Purdah rules require the government to use discretion in initiating any new actions of a continuing or long-term character, while policy decisions on which a newly-elected government might be expected to diverge should be postponed, as long as a delay does not damage the national interest or waste public money.

The comments come after Labour MP Mary Creagh wrote to cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill calling on the government to halt its Get Ready for Brexit communications campaign, which she said had already been politicised. Downing Street has briefed that a general election could be held on 14 October if MPs pass legislation today requiring the government to seek a Brexit extension if it has not reached a deal with the EU before the 31 October deadline.


According to the Politico website, a No.10 Downing Street source said that the prime minister, Boris Johnson, “has already made clear to senior officials that if he is forced into an election by rebels purdah rules will have no application to no-deal planning”.

“People have forgotten that purdah is a convention, not law, and the law is we are leaving on October 31,” according to the source. “Those Remainers clinging to the hope that purdah will save them are clinging to yet another delusion.”

Responding to the comments, Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said it was “alarming that government sources are threatening to tear up purdah rules if an election is called and seeking to abuse the work of civil servants during this highly sensitive time”.

He added: “Rules on purdah are designed to protect civil servants, politicians and the public from claims that the legitimate work of government is being abused to support one party over another.

“Clearly, civil servants will continue to work behind the scenes on whatever priorities the government sets, including to mitigate a no-deal situation, but we need urgent clarification that ministers will respect the professionalism and impartiality of public servants.”

Not applying the pre-election rules would mean dragging civil servants into what could be “the nastiest election in living memory”, Clancy added.

“Cabinet Office needs to now urgently clarify that government will stand by purdah rules if an election is called.”

CSW has asked the Cabinet Office to respond to the reports. The prime minister’s official spokesman has said that “governments always abide by purdah rules”.

In her letter to Sedwill, Creagh said the Conservative Party will use the government’s newly-launched Brexit comms drive “during any general election to support their party position that it has prepared for a no-deal Brexit with the minimum of consequences [and] all other opposition parties will argue this is not true”.

Continuing the campaign in that context would be “a breach of public law which states that the government may only spend public money for public purposes,” she said.

“As the ultimate custodian of civil service conventions, I therefore request that you take all steps to pause this government-funded propaganda so that any allegations of civil service impropriety and improper purpose by you and your officials in this matter can be avoided in any future court or inquiry proceedings.

“Please be aware I have consulted legal counsel on this issue and reserve my right to take further action should a satisfactory reply not be forthcoming within 48 hours.”

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