Managing purdah

Parliament was dissolved yesterday and we are thus in the period known as purdah.  There are no MPs.  However, as I have pointed out in response to a question from Carl.H, ministers continue as ministers.  Parliament has been dissolved but Her Majesty’s Government has not.  However, as there is an election, ministers have to distinguish clearly between ministerial and partisan activity.  Civil servants can assist with the former but not the latter. 

This creates some delicate issues for civil servants.  They can provide factual information to the governing party, and indeed other politicians, but have to be careful not to undertake activity that may appear to assist a particular party.   Ministers have to be wary of taking policy decisions on which an incoming government may wish to take a view, possibly a contrary one.  There is also the issue of how to respond to constituency correspondence forwarded by MPs once the period of purdah has commenced. 

Given the scale and delicacy of the issue, the Cabinet Office provides guidance to civil servants.  Its General Election Guidance 2010 runs to 49 pages.  It covers not only the position of ministers but also the relationship of officials with the press and other bodies, including devolved administrations.  The principles and conventions contained in it apply not only to Government Departments but to all non-departmental public bodies.

I appreciate that members of the public may not be rushing out to read copies of the guidance, but I thought it may be of interest to the informed readers of this blog.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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7 Responses to Managing purdah

  1. ladytizzy says:

    I noticed that the current PM has agreed at least twice to allow the current Leader of the Opposition to discuss government stuff with the civil service.

    Presumably, any new Leader of the Opposition would need to be given a ‘tour’ but the second time was dated January 2009. Would you care to offer an explantion, including how long this book-checking exercise lasted?

  2. Lord Norton says:

    ladytizzy: Under what are known as the ‘Douglas-Home rules’, contact between Permanent Secretaries and members of the Opposition front bench (Shadow Secretaries of State) is permitted in advance of a general election. The officials are there to listen, not to advise, and to hear about Opposition plans, not least in respect of machinery of government issues.

    Between 1964 and 1992, such contact was authorised to take place six months before the end of a five-year Parliament. If there was a four-year Parliament, then there was no contact. Since 1997, it has been sixteen-months before the end of a five-year Parliament. This means that when there is only a four-year Parliament (such as 1997-2001 and 2001-05) the period is condensed to a few months.

  3. Olly says:

    As I understand it, MPs are no longer allowed to call themselves MPs. Which is easy enough to grasp. What I’m trying to determine is what, if any is the punishment for an MP who continues to call themself an MP during dissolution? I’ve notified them but no action has ben taken. This is with reference to their website.


    • Lord Norton says:

      Olly: You are quite correct. As of Monday, there are no MPs and those who sat in the last Parliament are no longer entitled to style themselves as MPs. What were previously MPs’ websites should be disabled or indicate that the person is no longer an MP. Who did you notify? The person(s) concerned or the House authorities?

  4. This is invaluable – thank you!

  5. Olly says:

    I sent an email to them. Would it be more effective reporting them to the House authorities do you think? <<< Actually dumb question 🙂

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