The Cabinet Office has published new guidance about maintaining the impartiality of the civil service and public bodies in the period leading up to the 2017 election – often known as purdah.
The new Guidance takes effect from midnight on Friday 21 April 2017, at which point the ‘election period’ begins. This differs from the guidance for the 2015 election, which ran from the dissolution of Parliament. Therefore this guidance takes effect sooner than you may have been expecting.
The guidance can be found here.
The guidance applies to all UK civil servants, and the board members and staff of Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) and other arms’ length bodies including NHS England and NHS Improvement whilst NHS bodies (CCGs, trusts, foundation trusts and special health authorities) are expected to follow it.
The purpose of the guidance is to maintain the impartiality of the civil service, departments and public bodies.
The election period does not prevent day to day decisions being taken as normal. The basic position for all government bodies is that essential matters of governance continue as normal. However, it is customary for major decision on matters which may be controversial to be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.
The guidance provides that public consultations that are already ongoing should continue as normal, but avoid seeking to compete with the public’s attention on the election. This may be detrimental to the effectiveness of a consultation, and so steps may be needed to extend or re-publicise the consultation after the election.
Where consultations have not yet commenced, these should wait until after the election period. Whilst there can be exceptions to this rule for health matters, these exemptions would be quite limited. Advice should be sought before commencing new consultations.
Visits to NHS property
The NHS receives a specific mention in the guidance concerning visits to hospitals by candidates, and the holding of election meetings. NHS bodies should be aware that the guidance provides that:
In the case of NHS property, decisions are for the relevant NHS Trust but should visits be permitted to, for example, hospitals, the Department of Health advise that there should be no disruption to services and the same facilities should be offered to other candidates. In any case, it is advised that election meetings should not be permitted on NHS premises.
Freedom of Information Requests
The guidance confirms that requests for information to departments and agencies should be handled in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000. However, the guidance further provides that requests for information by candidates should be dealt with as quickly as possible.
The circumstances of a general election demand the greatest speed in dealing with enquiries. In particular, the aim should be to answer enquiries from parliamentary candidates or from any of the political parties’ headquarters within 24 hours. All candidates should be treated equally.
NHS bodies may wish to consider whether it is appropriate to fast track requests for information made during the election period by candidates and political parties. NHS bodies should consider how to ensure all candidates are treated equally and this may include sending the response to other candidates in their local area at the same time as the requester.
Sensitive public appointments requiring either Ministerial or Prime Ministerial approval can be are generally frozen during the election period. Whilst this would be unlikely to impact on the decisions of trusts, foundation trusts or clinical commissioning groups, it may impact on some national NHS bodies.
The guidance contains extensive commentary on civil service media handling. In summary:
…communications staff may properly continue to discharge their normal function during the election period, to the extent of providing factual explanation of current government policy, statements and decisions. They must be particularly careful not to become involved in a partisan way in election issues.
We would recommend that your communications staff are notified of the guidance and consider this during the election period.
For any questions about purdah and the Cabinet Office guidance, please contact either Christian Dingwall (email@example.com) or Michael Rourke (firstname.lastname@example.org) in our corporate commercial team.
Footnote. Purdah is the practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain. The word has been borrowed in the UK to describe the period leading up to an election.