House of Commons Library

'Purdah' before elections and referendums

Published Friday, April 21, 2017

Specific restrictions on the use of public resources are in place during the 'purdah' period before elections and referendums. The Cabinet Office issues guidance for civil servants on their conduct during this period.

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The term ‘purdah’ is in use across central and local government to describe the period of time immediately before elections or referendums when specific restrictions on the activity of civil servants are in place. The terms ‘pre-election period’ and ‘period of sensitivity’ are also used.

The pre-election ‘purdah’ 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. This is available on the Cabinet Office website.[1]  

Guidance for civil servants for the 2017 General Election was issued by the Cabinet Office on 20 April 2017. The pre-election period for the 8 June General Election will start on midnight on Friday 21 April 2017.

Guidance for civil servants for the local elections on 4 May 2017 was published on 10 April 2017.

There is statutory guidance for local authorities about publicity during the period just before local elections. The pre-election period is defined as beginning with the publication of notice of the election. In 2017, the latest date for the publication of the notice of election in England and Wales was 27 March 2017. In Scotland, returning officers were directed to publish notice of elections on the earliest day possible, which was 13 March 2017.

The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity is issued under section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986. The Local Government Association has published Purdah: a short guide to publicity during the pre-election period which gives further information.

The guidance for civil servants on their role and conduct during the election campaign period before the elections (including the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections) on 5 May 2016 was published on 24 March 2016. A ministerial statement gave details of the different ‘purdah’ periods for the different elections on 5 May 2016:

  1. The period of sensitivity preceding the local, mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections starts on 14 April, and in relation to the devolved administrations from 24 March for the elections to the Scottish Parliament; 30 March for the Northern Ireland Assembly; and 6 April for the National Assembly for Wales.[2]

Separate guidance was issued by the Scottish Government for civil servants in Scotland before the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections and the Welsh Government has also published guidance for its staff before the National Assembly elections. The Northern Ireland Executive published guidance on 7 March 2016.

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.

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 ‘purdah’ restrictions on referendums included in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.

[1]     Election and referendum guidance for civil servants, GOV.UK

[2]    HC Deb 24 March 2016 c72WS

Commons Briefing papers SN05262

Authors: Isobel White; Neil Johnston

Topics: Civil Service, Elections, General elections

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