This Insight outlines what the pre-election period is and how it affects those in government, the devolved administrations and local councils.
What is the pre-election period?
Before a general election, there is a period in which there are restrictions on the use of public resources and the activities of civil servants. It begins at the dissolution of Parliament and ends when the polls close on election day.
It is not regulated by law – it is a convention based largely on the Civil Service Code. The Cabinet Office issues guidance for civil servants in UK government departments and other public bodies. The Ministerial Code still applies to government ministers during this period.
What does the Government have to do?
It is customary for government departments and ministers to ‘observe discretion’ on policy announcements or new consultations. It doesn’t mean departments shut down: essential business carries on. Government retains its responsibility to govern, and Ministers remain in charge of their departments.
The 2017 guidance said:
- Decisions on matters of policy on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government should be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.
What about ministers – aren’t they campaigning?
The pre-election period does not prevent ministers from campaigning.
As politicians seeking election, people would expect to see them campaigning, promoting their party manifesto or writing letters to local papers.
Departmental resources and facilities are provided at Government expense to enable ministers to carry out their official duties. These facilities should not generally be used for party or constituency activities, particularly during an election period.
What about devolved administrations?
In general, it will be business as usual in Scotland and Wales. Civil servants will continue with impartial support to devolved ministers in their work. The pre-election period of sensitivity also applies to civils servants in Northern Ireland.
Departments and ministers will usually avoid action that could be construed as being party-political or likely to have a direct bearing on the UK Parliamentary Election. Joint consultations or statements with Government departments in Westminster will be delayed until after the election.
Devolved government premises shouldn’t be used for campaigning.
How does the pre-election period affect local councils?
Councils are already required not to “publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party,” under the Code of recommended practice for local authority publicity.
During the pre-election period councils will be in a period of heightened sensitivity. They won’t publish material on controversial issues or proposals, or that might be seen as being undertaken for party political purposes.
Councillors are likely to be out campaigning for their party colleagues. Their role as a ward councillor will continue but they must avoid using council resources to campaign and they must respect the code of practice on council publicity.
- Pre-election period of sensitivity, House of Commons Library.
About the author: Neil Johnston is an election specialist at the House of Commons Library.