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General election 2024: When should public bodies speak to opposition parties?

Guidance for public bodies can be less clear than for government departments, but the same principles apply.

Ofcom's website on a tablet
During the 2019 general election campaign Ofcom briefly 'became the story' when it released a statement on a Channel 4 TV debate.

Opposition parties may want to engage with public bodies in the run up to a general election. But the guidance on when and how they can do this is often not as clear or comprehensive as that available to civil servants in central departments. Below we set out what contact civil servants and public bodies can have with the political opposition in ‘normal’ times, and how this changes ahead of an election.

What contact can civil servants have with opposition parties outside an election period?

Senior civil servants and leading members of opposition parties 28 “Opposition parties” refers to both the official opposition and also to smaller parties outside government.  can meet to discuss factual questions about the organisation of departments, but should not discuss government policy or opposition plans for government. 29 Cabinet Office, Directory of civil service guidance, gov.uk, 21 September 2010, www.gov.uk/government/publications/directory-of-civil-service-guidance , vol. 1 p.18  The relevant minister must approve contact beforehand and is entitled to be informed of the content of their conversation.

In practice, civil servants rarely meet with opposition MPs. This is partly because questions from MPs tend to relate to government policy and so are handled by ministers. Additionally, civil servants may be cautious about unnecessary contact with the opposition as under the civil service code they should not engage in activities that are likely to call into question their impartiality or undermine the confidence of ministers. 30 Cabinet Office, ‘The civil service code’, gov.uk, 16 March 2015, www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-service-code/the-civil-service-code  

What is different for public bodies?

This guidance also applies to public bodies staffed by civil servants. These include executive agencies (such as Companies House) and non-ministerial departments (Ofsted). 

Non-departmental public bodies (such as the Environment Agency) and public corporations (the Civil Aviation Authority) employ public servants rather than civil servants. 33 There are exceptions – for example, the employees of ‘Crown NDPBs’ like the Health and Safety Executive are civil servants: Department for Work and Pensions, Public bodies review of the Health and Safety Executive, gov.uk, 25 May 2023, www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-and-safety-executive-public-bodies-review.  These bodies are not explicitly mentioned in the guidance, but in practice they would be expected to take a cautious approach and to discuss only factual matters with opposition parties. 

There is also separate guidance specific to public bodies which prevents lobbying activity, restricts the scope of advertising, public relations and marketing, and limits official attendance at party conferences. 34 Cabinet Office, ‘Rules on lobbying for non-departmental public bodies’, gov.uk, retrieved 23 May 2024, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/62130/ndpbs-lobbying.pdf

What changes in the run up to an election?

These restrictions change in the run up to an election, both during access talks and during the pre-election period of sensitivity.

Access talks

Access talks are meetings held between the civil service and the opposition in the months preceding a general election, during which some of the constraints on contact with the opposition parties are temporarily loosened. As the intended purpose of these talks is to inform senior civil servants of any organisational changes which would result from the opposition’s policies, civil servants are permitted to ask questions about the implications of their policy statements – although without offering policy advice. 42 Cabinet Office, The cabinet manual, gov.uk, October 2011, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a79d5d7e5274a18ba50f2b6/cabinet-manual.pdf , p.16 Riddell P and Haddon C, Transitions: lessons learned: Reflections on the 2010 UK general election – and looking ahead to 2015, Institute for Government, October 2011, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Transitions%20Lessons%20Learned.pdf, p. 34.  Unlike conversations prior to the election, they are highly confidential.

Civil service guidance on access talks does not specifically mention public bodies. These can be included in access talks by the relevant permanent secretary, but the limited scope of the talks means that representatives of all but the largest public bodies are unlikely to be involved directly.

Historically some bodies have held discussions with opposition parties independently of their sponsoring departments, causing friction with senior civil servants. For example, Sir Mervyn King, then governor of the Bank of England, was criticised by Treasury officials for meeting regularly with shadow chancellor George Osborne ahead of the 2010 general election. 43 Riddell P and Haddon C, Transitions: lessons learned: Reflections on the 2010 UK general election – and looking ahead to 2015, Institute for Government, October 2011, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Transitions%20Lessons%20Learned.pdf, p. 34.  

Pre-election period of sensitivity

During general or local election campaigns, additional restrictions are imposed on how government operates, to safeguard the impartiality of the civil service and prevent the misuse of public resources. 

This period was previously referred to as ‘purdah’, but is now called a ‘period of sensitivity’ or simply the ‘pre-election period’. During this period civil servants are expected to avoid any activity that could, or could be seen to, influence the outcome of the election. Guidance for each general and local election varies slightly (publications for all elections and referendums between 2011 to 2024 are compiled on Gov.uk)  but typically includes:

  • avoiding official support for public announcements which might influence the outcome of the election
  • taking care that only official, and not party political or campaigning, visits are supported
  • not using public resources to provide publicity for party political purposes
  • approaching information requests from different political parties or campaign groups even-handedly
  • refraining from providing ministers with new arguments for use in campaign material or political debates.

Routine business necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of government and public services is allowed to continue as usual. Guidance is usually published at the start of the pre-election period, but until that point guidance issued for previous elections is helpful. 44 Cabinet Office and Civil Service, ‘Election guidance for civil servants’, gov.uk, www.gov.uk/government/publications/election-guidance-for-civil-servants  

These principles apply to public bodies as well as departments. 45 Cabinet Office and Civil Service, General election guidance 2024, gov.uk, 23 May 2024, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/664f56b74f29e1d07fadcdd3/GENERAL_ELECTION_GUIDANCE_2024.pdf, p. 44  Many bodies have their own media and public affairs staff so must make their own judgements about communications. In some cases it may be best to defer new announcements until after the election, although this should be weighed against the costs associated with the delay, and bodies should also consider whether deferring a planned announcement could itself be seen to influence the outcome of the election. For this reason, many routine pre-announced statistical releases continue as planned. 46 Cabinet Office and Civil Service, General election guidance 2024, gov.uk, 23 May 2024, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/664f56b74f29e1d07fadcdd3/GENERAL_ELECTION_GUIDANCE_2024.pdf, pp. 33-34   

These judgements become especially difficult if a public body itself ‘becomes the story’ in the run up to an election. In these circumstances it is often unavoidable for a body to comment on events, although they should still say as little as possible until after the election. For example during the 2019 general election campaign, Ofcom published a brief statement explaining its decision not to launch a full investigation into Channel 4 News, following accusations that their ‘climate debate’ had breached rules on impartiality. 47 Ofcom, ‘Ofcom election committee’s decision on the Channel 4 news climate debate’, Ofcom, 3 December 2019, https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20200102132828/https:/www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2019/election-committ…  

Public bodies’ interactions with the governing party change more during this period than their engagement with the opposition. Normally ministers and public bodies can discuss policy, but during this period, it would not be unusual for a body to cancel or postpone meetings with ministers to avoid being seen as supplying them with arguments or policy ideas for use in the election campaign. Overall, public bodies should not do anything that could, or could be seen to, influence an election outcome.

Who makes judgements if it is unclear?

Public bodies will inevitably encounter difficult judgements in the run up to an election, which must be navigated with care. In case of doubt, public bodies should consult their sponsor department, which will in turn liaise with the Cabinet Office’s Propriety and Ethics team. On questions of the propriety of statistical activities such as releasing data or conducting surveys, they should seek advice from the head of profession in their sponsor department, who may consult the National Statistician. 48 Cabinet Office and Civil Service, General election guidance 2024, gov.uk, 23 May 2024, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/664f56b74f29e1d07fadcdd3/GENERAL_ELECTION_GUIDANCE_2024.pdf, pp.4, 36  

It is impractical for sponsor departments or the Cabinet Office to manage every decision that each body will encounter throughout this period. Public bodies are expected to exercise judgement based on the published guidance, escalating decisions only where necessary. In doing so, bodies may consider whether they would feel comfortable justifying their decision not to consult their sponsor department if this were later called into question.

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