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What is it?

The pre-election period of sensitivity occurs in the weeks leading up to an election or referendum. The period is also called the period of ‘heightened sensitivity’ and in the past was often known by the term ‘purdah’.

It is a time when governments, ministers and civil servants will exercise caution in making announcements or decisions that might have an effect on the election campaign. The exact period depends on the type of election.

The pre-election period for the UK and devolved governments and their civil servants is not set out in law but is governed by conventions.

Backbench and Opposition MPs are not constrained by the pre-election period of sensitivity. However, all MPs, elected politicians and candidates will need to ensure they abide by campaign finance and election law during an election period.

Local authorities have their own set of rules that are set out in statutory guidance (see below).

When is it?

On 5 May 2022, local elections are taking place in across Scotland and Wales, in London, and some English authorities.

For UK and devolved government departments the pre-election period for local elections is not fixed to any particular date. The general convention is that special care should be taken in the three weeks preceding the elections. In 2022, that will be 14 April to 5 May.

During elections to the UK Parliament or to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments the pre-election period usually starts 25 working days before polling day.

Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly will take place on 5 May 2022. The elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly this year operate in slightly different circumstances, as there is currently no First or Deputy First Minister. The pre-election period will start 25 working days before polling day, 28 March 2022.

What is the guidance?

Ministers

Ministers, whether in the UK Government or in the devolved administrations, 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.

The general principle for UK Government ministers, as outlined in the Ministerial Code of Conduct, is that ministers may campaign during elections, but public money and departmental resources should not be used for party political purposes. Similar codes exist for ministers in the devolved governments: Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and Northern Ireland Ministers.

Civil servants

The UK Government issues guidance for its civil servants to follow during pre-election periods. Devolved government issue their own guidance. These are based on the Civil Service Code, which outlines the values and standards of behaviour that civil servants are expected to follow. Each government has its own code: UK Government, Scottish Government, Welsh Government, Northern Ireland Executive.

Local government

During elections local councils also observe the period of ‘heightened sensitivity’.

Local authorities are required to follow statutory guidance about publicity all year round. The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity (England) requires that, among other things, local council communications should not use public funds to mount publicity campaigns that seek to influence voters at any time of year. Similar codes operate in Scotland and Wales.

The Code says council publicity should be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity. During this time use of council resources, holding events or launching consultations should also be considered. There is no blanket ban, the ordinary functions of councils can continue, but councils should assess whether it could be perceived that they are spending public money to influence the outcome of the election.

The Local Government Association produces guidance for local authorities, A short guide to publicity during the pre-election period.

Referendums

The period before national referendums is regulated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Central and local government are prohibited from publishing material that aims to influence voters to vote one way or another in the 28 calendar days before polling day.


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