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Explainer

Restrictions on government activity during an election campaign

During an election campaign, there are restrictions in place on what the government can do – both in initiating policy and in use of official resource

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Because an election could lead to a change of government and parliament has been dissolved, there are a number of restrictions in place on what government can do.

Why do restrictions exist?

During general or local election campaign there are restrictions in place on what the government can do – both in initiating policy and in using official resources. This is to avoid “inappropriate use of official resources” and to ensure the impartiality of the civil service, so that public money is not used to support the campaign of the ruling party.

In the UK, this has historically been called ‘purdah’. Government guidance now refers to it as a ‘period of sensitivity’.

What are the restrictions for general elections?

During a general election campaign the government continues to govern and ministers remain in post. However, because the election could lead to a change of government and parliament has been dissolved, there are a number of restrictions in place on what government can do. The main ones are:

  • Ministers are supposed to “observe discretion” in initiating new policy or action of “a continuing or long-term character”. Such decisions are supposed to be delayed until after the election, unless they are unavoidable, or delaying them will be detrimental to the national interest or waste public money.
  • Government activity – including the activities of public bodies – should not compete with the election campaign. This means that announcements and government communications are also restricted.
  • Government resources are not allowed to be used for party political purposes.
  • Ministers need to ensure that the political impartiality of the civil service is maintained.

When do they apply?

The restrictions apply throughout a general election campaign, formally taking effect with the dissolution of parliament. It runs up to and including the day of the election.

The Cabinet Manual states that the restrictions continue if the election does not lead to a clear result and there are negotiations as to who is best placed to form a government.

Who do they apply to?

These restrictions apply to all ministers and civil servants. Restrictions are set out in guidance issued to all UK civil servants, and the board members and staff of public bodies. 13 Cabinet Office, ‘Election guidance for civil servants’, Gov.uk, last updated 6 March 2023, www.gov.uk/government/publications/election-guidance-for-civil-servants The restrictions for ministers cover the same ground but are issued separately.

Restrictions on special advisers mean that they must resign if they wish to take part in the election campaign. The prime minister can give permission for them to continue in government but they cannot then take part in campaign activity.

What is the basis of these restrictions?

Guidance for general elections states that the restrictions are ‘customary‘. The restrictions on ministers are based on convention. The prime minister enforces the code and decides on whether it has been breached.

The guidance for civil servants is based on their duties under the Civil Service Code, which is reinforced by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

Who decides how they are applied?

Ministers are reminded of these restrictions and the principles laid out in the Ministerial Code by the prime minister as soon as an election campaign begins.

The restrictions apply to civil servants for their own activity, but also what they may be asked to do by ministers. In the first instance, permanent secretaries will advise officials in their department and consult the Cabinet Office and cabinet secretary for any particularly complex or controversial decisions. Departments are asked to keep the Cabinet Office informed of any activity that “raises issues”.

What happens if they are broken?

Breaches of the restrictions by civil servants are dealt with as a personnel matter. Breaches by ministers are a matter for the prime minister. If civil servants are required to act in a way that conflicts with the Civil Service Code they can make a complaint to the Civil Service Commission. The commission can then make recommendations about how the matter should be resolved. However, the prime minister, as minister for the civil service, has legal power over the management of the civil service.

There are no explicit consequences for the government if they breach the general principles, though there could be political consequences and a constitutional row with the opposition or with parliament.

In 2017, there were a series of complaints about whether the restrictions were too heavily applied to routine statistical releases and to academics who had received government funding. The 2019 pre-election guidance 14 Cabinet Office and Civil Service, General election guidance 2019: guidance for civil servants, GOV.UK, updated 26 November 2019, www.gov.uk/government/publications/election-guidance-for-civil-servants/general-election-guidance-2019-guidance-for-civil-servants#statistical-activi… made clear that routine statistical releases should continue, but other ad hoc releases should only be made public in exceptional circumstances.

What happens during leadership contests?

No formal restrictions on government activity apply when a prime minister resigns as leader of their party, triggering a leadership contest. This was tested in 2022, when Boris Johnson resigned as Conservative leader in July but was not replaced as prime minister until September. During this period, the government acted without formal restriction but was reluctant to pursue expensive policies such as the energy price cap.

What happens in local elections?

During local election campaigns there are restrictions on both local and central government. Central government business continues as normal, but there is an obligation to ensure that public resources are not used for party political purposes or ‘undertake any activity that could call into question their political impartiality.’ 15 Cabinet Office, ‘May 2023 Elections: guidance on conduct for civil servants’, Gov.uk, last updated 6 March 2023, www.gov.uk/government/publications/election-guidance-for-civil-servants/may-2023-elections-guidance-on-conduct-for-civil-servants    Ahead of the May 2023 local elections in England, the pre-election period for central government began on Thursday 13 April.

Local government business also continues during the pre-election period, but there are greater restrictions on communications and other activity. Local authorities should not ‘produce publicity on matters which are politically controversial’ or ‘help with national political visits’, among other restrictions. 16 Local Government Association, A short guide to publicity during the pre-election period, 26 January 2021, www.local.gov.uk/publications/short-guide-publicity-during-pre-election-period For the 2023 local elections, the restrictions on local government had to begin by 27 March at the latest. Unlike for central government, restrictions on local government are set out in statutory guidance.

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Institute for Government

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