As I am sure readers will be aware, a general election is to be held on 12th December. As part of this, we are entering a period known as ‘purdah’.
Political parties are preparing their campaign strategies after MPs backed a bill to hold a general election in December.
Amid the campaigning, civil servants working for the current Government need to be particularly sensitive about impartiality.
Purdah means that certain restrictions are placed on their activities during the pre-election period.
The pre-general election “purdah” period starts on 6th November. Parliament will dissolve just after midnight on 6th November, allowing the required 25 working days before a general election on 12th December.
So we will have a period of “purdah” from 6th November to 12th December. What does that mean in practice?
Cabinet Office guidance published before the last election stated:
“During the election period, the Government retains its responsibility to govern, and Ministers remain in charge of their departments. Essential business must be carried on. However, it is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character. 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.”
So how does this period of purdah affect local government activity? For the purposes of the Government’s code of recommended practice on local government publicity this is a period of “heightened sensitivity”.
“Local authorities should pay particular regard to the legislation governing publicity during the period of heightened sensitivity before elections and referendums […]. It may be necessary to suspend the hosting of material produced by third parties, or to close public forums during this period to avoid breaching any legal restrictions.
During the period between the notice of an election and the election itself, local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any individual members or groups of members. Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published by local authorities during this period unless expressly authorised by or under statute. It is permissible for local authorities to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.
In general, local authorities should not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters…”
However, it is important to note that, as set out in the Local Government Association’s 2017 guidance Purdah: A short guide to publicity during the pre-election period, the election is not an excuse not to determine planning applications:
“Local government sometimes views this period as a time when communications has to shut down completely. This is not the case, and the ordinary functions of councils should continue, but some restrictions do apply, by law, to all councillors and officers.”
During the purdah period, we do not expect the Planning Inspectorate to be issuing any decisions or reports in relation to controversial proposals which may be used for electoral advantage by any party.