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In the period immediately before an election or referendum there are restrictions on the use of public resources and activities of civil servants. This pre-election period is also known as the ‘period of sensitivity’ and has often been referred to in the past as ‘purdah’.

During a general election Ministers remain in office and in charge of their departments but it is customary for them to observe discretion in announcing initiatives that are new or of a long-term character in their capacity as a minister. It does not prevent ministers from campaigning on their party manifesto in their role as politicians seeking election.  

The general principle for ministers, as outlined in the Ministerial Code of Conduct, is that departmental resources and facilities are provided at Government expense to enable them to carry out their official duties. These facilities should not generally be used for party or constituency activities.

General elections

The pre-election period before general elections is not regulated by statute but governed by conventions based largely on the Civil Service Code. The Cabinet Office issues guidance for civil servants in UK government departments, and the staff and members of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) and other arm’s length bodies (ALBs) on their role and conduct during election and referendum campaigns.

Guidance for civil servants for the 2019 General Election was issued by the Cabinet Office on 4 November 2019. The pre-election period for the 12 December General Election ran from 00:01 on Wednesday 6 November 2019 until the end of polling day.

Civil service guidance for local elections

The period of sensitivity for UK Government civil servants preceding scheduled local and mayoral elections each May is not fixed to any particular date, but the general convention is that particular care should be taken in the three weeks preceding the elections.

Local elections in England are scheduled for 6 May 2021. This will include the elections that had been due in May 2020 but that were postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. Elections will therefore be taking place for county councils, some unitary authorities, over 110 borough and district councils, directly elected mayors, including the Mayor of London, and all members of the Greater London Authority. Elections for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, also delayed from 2020, will also be taking place.

Guidance for the previous local elections is available on the Gov.UK website.

Civil service guidance for devolved administration elections

The guidance for civil servants on their role and conduct during the election campaign period before the elections on 5 May 2016 (which included the Scottish Parliament, the then National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections) was published on 24 March 2016. 

Guidance for local government

There is statutory guidance for local authorities about publicity. The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity issued under section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986, prohibits councils from publishing any material which appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party.

These obligations apply year-round but are particularly sensitive during a pre-election period. The pre-election period starts with the publication of the notice of the election.

The Local Government Association has published Purdah: a short guide to publicity during the pre-election period which gives further information.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Civil servants working for devolved administrations also, by convention, observe pre-election periods.

Elections for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments/Senedd Cymru are due in May 2021. Updated guidance will be published by the Scottish and Welsh Governments in due course.  Archived guidance for Welsh Government civil servants in advance of the last elections to the then National Assembly for Wales and for civil servants in the Scottish Government civil servants in advance the last Scottish Parliament elections, both held in 2016.

The Northern Ireland Executive published guidance on conduct for civil servants and special advisers during the Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign in 2017.

During UK General elections the devolved administrations and their civil servants carry out their functions in the usual way and civil servants will continue to support devolved Ministers in their work. However, civil servants should be aware of the need to avoid any action which is, or could be construed as being, party political or otherwise controversial in the context of the UK general election.

Referendums

The period before referendums is regulated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. During the pre-referendum period before the EU referendum, central and local government were prohibited from publishing material relating to the referendum although some exemptions applied.

The pre-referendum period for the EU referendum began on 27 May 2016, which was 4 weeks before the poll on 23 June 2016. Guidance was issued for UK Government departments.

In April 2017, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC) Select Committee published a report on the lessons to be learned from the EU referendum. As part of that inquiry it considered the operation of the period of sensitivity restrictions on referendums included in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.


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