During an election campaign there are restrictions in place on what the Government can do – both in initiating policy and in use of official resources. This is to avoid “inappropriate use of official resources” and to ensure the impartiality of the civil service.
In the UK, this has historically been called ‘purdah’. In other countries it is known as a caretaker period.
During the election the Government continues to govern and ministers remain in post. However, there are a number of restrictions in place. 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 arm’s-length bodies and other 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.
The restrictions apply throughout an 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.
These restrictions apply to all UK civil servants, and the board members and staff of arm’s-length bodies. They also apply to ministers 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 then cannot take part in campaign activity.
Ministers are reminded of these restrictions and the principles laid out in the Ministerial Code by the PM as soon as an election campaign begins.
The restrictions apply to civil servants for their own activity, but also what they are 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”.
The guidance 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.
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 for 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 was a series of complaints about whether the restriction were too heavily applied to routine statistical releases and to academics who had received government funding. The civil service reviewed the guidance but any changes will only be known when guidance is issued for a new election campaign.