The paradox of purdah

Navigating purdah is increasingly tricky in a devolved system; but the less you hear about it, the better.

Today, as Mr Cameron went to Buckingham Palace for the last time before the country votes on May 7th, the machinery of government descended into the pre-election period known as ‘purdah’.

For the first time ever, the start date for purdah has long been known, thanks to the Coalition government’s ‘Fixed-term Parliaments Act’, which enshrined the date of General Elections into law.  Purdah is the five and a half week period running up to the General Election, and marks the dissolution of Parliament and beginning of the campaign ‘proper’.

The main underlying principle of the rules governing what is allowed and what is not during purdah is that Ministers, their Departments, and other public bodies cannot make policy announcements or undertake new policy initiatives that could influence the outcome of the election or prejudice the position of a new Government. Furthermore, the civil service is instructed to refrain from any communications or activity that could help incumbent Ministers in their electioneering. This means that communication about existing policies often goes on ice.

So with the date for purdah firmly in sight, Ministers have been making the most of their last days in power to issue ‘feel-good’ announcements before the curtain falls. Announcements like yesterday’s news from Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that he had struck a deal with GSK to ensure access to a vaccine for meningitis B.

Purdah is the logical interpretation of the core principle that the civil service must be apolitical.  Purdah rules, published by the Cabinet Office, guide civil servants on how to stay out of the messy political business of the election campaign.  The advice to public bodies is, ‘to do everything possible to avoid competition with Parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public,’ during the campaign.

However, in an increasingly devolved political system, the actions of public bodies are under increasing scrutiny.  Walking the line can be tricky for organisations such as NHS England, with its huge policy remit and involvement in healthcare decisions across the country, extending right down to the local level. In October, the public body was criticised by Board members of a local Hospital Trust for being ‘’overzealous” in their interpretation of the purdah guidelines by postponing a consultation.  Yet last week it faced criticism for the opposite reason; for launching a public consultation ‘too close’ to purdah.

Purdah doesn’t only apply to national government, local government must take equal pains to avoid becoming embroiled in the political fight, as guidance published by the Local Government Association illustrates.

Meanwhile, Members of Parliament also face increasing scrutiny.  Extra caution is needed in relation to inappropriate use of parliamentary stationery and other resources paid for by tax-payers.  The only people left smiling are the broader slate of parliamentary candidates. During purdah, parliamentary candidates from all the parties benefit from being ‘super-serviced’ by civil servants.  As the Cabinet Office guidance acknowledges, during the General Election speed is of the essence, and so in response to candidates’ enquiries, “the aim should be to answer enquiries from Parliamentary candidates or from any of the political parties’ headquarters within twenty-four hours. All candidates should be treated equally.”  No matter if they face impossible odds to win.

If, like us, you work regularly with government, then you will have been reminded of the pending purdah period by a slew of emails to your inbox advising you how to contact special advisers and Members of Parliament during the pre-election period. Any conflation of campaigning or party activity with government business is dimly regarded, as this is not only forbidden, it risks giving ammunition to political opponents during the campaign. As purdah casts its net across the country then, the paradox is that the less you hear about it, the better you know it is working.