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'Purdah' before elections and referendums

Published Monday, April 25, 2016

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 purdah period for the EU referendum will begin on 27 May 2016, which is 4 weeks before the poll on 23 June 2016. The purdah period before referendums is regulated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. During the purdah period before the forthcoming EU referendum central and local government are prohibited from publishing material relating to the referendum although some exemptions apply.

The 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 departments on their role and conduct during election and referendum campaigns. This is available on the Cabinet Office website.[1] 

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:

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.

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 2016 the latest date for the publication of the notice of election was 30 March 2016. 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.




[1]     Election guidance for civil servants, GOV.UK, accessed on 4 April 2016

[2]    HC Deb 24 March 2016 c72WS

Commons Briefing papers SN05262

Author: Isobel White

Topics: Civil Service, Elections, General elections

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