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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 and ministers. 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.

Governments will usually observe discretion in initiating any new action or policy of a continuing or long‐term character in the pre-election period. In the current pandemic the guidance issued by the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments, has said that some communication in relation to public health may be considered essential.

The general principle for UK Government 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.

The pre-election period does not prevent ministers from campaigning on their party manifesto in their role as politicians seeking election, but they should ensure they do not use public resources for party political activity.

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

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 the local, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections is not fixed to any particular date, but the general convention is that particular care should be taken in the three weeks before polling day.

The UK Government published guidance for civil servants for the May 2021 elections on 18 March 2021. Special care should be taken in the three weeks preceding the elections – in this case from 15 April 2021.

Civil service guidance for devolved administration elections

The UK Government also issues advice for its civil servants on their role and conduct during the election campaigns for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru will take place in May 2021. The guidance published on 18 March 2021 also covers the devolved elections. The period of sensitivity for UK civil servants starts on 25 March 2021.

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 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 and its agencies also, by convention, observe pre-election periods.

The Scottish Government published guidance for the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections in February 2021. The pre-election period for is expected to begin on 25 March 2021.

Welsh Government advice in advance of the Senedd Cymru elections in May 2021 was published on 9 March 2021. The pre-election period will begin on 25th March 2021.

The Northern Ireland Executive published guidance on conduct for civil servants and special advisers during the last 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 pre-referendum period for the EU referendum began on 27 May 2016, which was 4 weeks before the poll on 23 June 2016. 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. For example, councils could still encourage people to register to vote.

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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