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Guidance for members and officers in the pre-election period (purdah)

Last Updated 09/03/2021 5:42pm


Introduction

This guidance is designed to ensure that Council resources and facilities are not perceived by the public to have been used for election campaigning or for political purposes during a pre-election period and that the political impartiality of officers is maintained, with advice for officers about restrictions on political activities.

Further information on the arrangements for County Council elections, how to stand for election and information for candidates will be available on the Council’s website.

In the period leading up to an election

The general underlying presumption is that normal Council business has to continue over an election period, unless any particular action, initiative, proposal, consultation or publication in that period could be regarded as giving a candidate or their supporters or a political party an advantage in the election. In other words, it was seen as not being politically neutral.

However, a £1billion business cannot go into a period of stasis for up to three months and most routine business should continue unaffected, but if in doubt please ask.

Many of the messages set out below are repeated. This is deliberate so this helps them become embedded into day to day thinking and actions.

What is the pre-election period (purdah)?

The sensitive pre-election period, also known as purdah, is a classic of British political convention (unwritten) of uncertain status and like many things in life is often imprecise.  Applied on a case-by-case basis, but not enshrined in law, for most of us it is custom and practice, with a very healthy dose of common sense.

It needs to be understood by reference to the way public bodies behave in practice rather than the application of rigid rules.

The pre-election period is the time between the notice of the election and the date of the election itself (24 March to 6 May 2021) and is the time frame in the run-up to an election when the normal protocols and behaviours around a council’s (or a member’s or officer’s) activities in general, and more importantly around publicity and communications, become more restricted.

The Council recognises that the period between the notice of the election and polling day is a very sensitive time for all concerned and care must be taken not to be seen to be showing or giving the impression of bias, favour or support to any candidate for election or any political party.

Members and officers need to think carefully about the impact of any events or proposals being considered or launched during this period to avoid any impression of bias or support.  While the restrictions imposed on everyone connected with the Council by the pre-election period must be observed, it must also be understood that the business of local government and providing services must go on. So, there are several important things to remember.

When first used, the term pre-election period (purdah) related to national government refraining from making any new policy announcements, but it has come to have a much wider application about how a public sector body (members and officers alike) behaves and is/are seen to behave – during an election period.

What follows is therefore important – not just for appearances sake – but because of the enhanced scrutiny which potential claimants may give to decisions made during a pre-election period and the inherent tendency during such periods for councils to adopt a more restrained approach, often resulting in greater ‘conservatism’ in making those decisions that need to be made.

The pre-election period can of course be interpreted differently by councils, sometimes justifiably so because of local conditions, but the basic overarching principles universally apply.

What does this mean for councillors and officers?

There are clear protocols which the Council, members and officers must follow in this period. However as already stated, the business of local government and providing services must go on. It is business as normal, but with a number of following caveats as set out below.

From the start of pre-election (purdah) timeframe:

  • all proactive publicity involving any candidates and other politicians involved directly in the election must cease
  • the Council should avoid proactively publicising any controversial issues or report views, proposals or recommendations in a way that identifies them with individual politicians or parties
  • care should be taken with the use and content of any official websites and social media which will be scrutinised closely by the media and political parties during the election (see also guidance on social media below)
  • all responses to events and legitimate service enquiries should be factual and non-party political

and, generally:

  • Councillors holding key positions, such as Cabinet Members, continue to be accountable for relevant services and policy areas
  • public resources are not to be used for political purposes
  • no communications, activity or publicity campaigns should take place which could call into question the political impartiality of the Council or an officer
  • requests for advice and information from candidates or political parties should be treated with even handedness, be dealt with as soon as possible and any response should be purely factual

Over and above the areas referred to above, be very aware that:

All councillors, technically, remain in office until the fourth day after the election (that is, 10th May 2021) as therefore so do Cabinet Members. However, it is important to note that the last day on which a Cabinet Member could exercise his/her powers and make a decision would be (28 April 2021) in order that the five working day period could still be applied; thereafter and until after the Annual Meeting of the Council (27 May 2021), Chief Officers and Heads of Service may need to exercise their delegated powers in accordance with the Council’s Constitution, consulting as appropriate (Constitutionally, during this period, the only Member in whom any power is vested to make a decision is the outgoing Chair of the Council).

Where officers are employed in politically restricted posts (such as Chief Officers, their direct reports, Heads of Service and certain other senior officers including those who may advise the Council’s Cabinet or Committees or speak on regular basis on behalf of the Council to the media) this will also constrain their ability to engage in any political activity; if any officer is unsure as to whether they are in such as post or what the constraints mean then they should contact one of the contacts shown above for advice.

As indicated, the normal business of the Council must continue and where the Council, as a corporate body, is considering or promoting a decision or launching a service then it is OK to proceed, but again consideration needs to be given to who may be invited to such events in line with the above. Such events should wherever possible be all-party and preferably exclude any candidates for election – no matter how keen they may be to attend! Sometimes however an event may have been fixed for many months and is overtaken by the electoral timetable – in which case (if the event cannot be postponed) – invitations must be sent to all candidates/political parties and that should also be made clear in any publicity.

The County Council may not take part, promote or support any party political activity: in line with that principle and the above, County Council premises may not be used for political or public meetings organised by any political party or candidate during the period of the election (It is axiomatic that any request by a political party to use County Council premises should be politely declined) and strict application of this rule will avoid any possible confusion or misunderstanding and the maintenance of a level playing field for all concerned.

In a similar vein, the Council’s facilities and resources may not be used for political purposes; for example, while it would not be possible to prevent members of the public or others from sending an email to an existing Councillor who may also be a candidate in the election, and for that councillor to reply, it would not be appropriate for any such candidate to publish their County Council email address on any election material, or to use official County Council headed paper in furtherance of their campaign.

The period running up to an election can also see an increase in the number of requests from politicians to visit Council establishments, particularly schools, care centres and recycling facilities: the Council’s Constitution (Part 10) contains clear and detailed guidance about visits to County Council establishments which must be adhered to: it cannot be stressed too highly that in responding to such requests Headteachers or Officers-in-Charge must give careful consideration to any such requests and must not be seen to be favouring one or more candidate to the detriment of others. The relevant Chief Officer and Chief Executive must be kept informed of all such requests and the decision of the Officer-in-charge, in line with the guidance. There is no obligation upon a Head/Officer-in-Charge to agree to such requests and take part in the election circus. If they decide that such visits would interfere with the smooth running of their establishment or disrupt service provision, then they are at liberty to say no and they will receive the full support of the County Council.

In the case of schools, Governing Bodies (GB) have responsibility for letting of premises and should have a clear policy on their use of premises for meetings, political or otherwise; again GBs must be seen to be even handed and be it a County Council establishment or property or a school and were, for example, consent given to a sitting MP or candidate (or a Minister) to visit then similar requests from other candidates to visit – whatever their party or political leanings – would be harder to refuse. Fact finding tours may be fine, but publicity stunts are to be avoided.  All requests must be given equal consideration and agreeing to a visit by one candidate and not others would undoubtedly give a perception of bias: the Council, its officers, headteachers or officers-in-charge must be seen to be even handed.

What does this mean specificially for officers?

Officers should always act fairly and impartially towards all candidates.

Officers must not take part – in any professional capacity – in any publicity which could link them with any political party. When carrying out their duties or using council funded resources and facilities, officers must (whether they are in a politically restricted post or not) avoid any action or behaviour that is not politically neutral. That would include canvassing, giving interviews, speaking at public meetings and writing/publishing articles that appear intended to affect support for a political party (see also guidance on use of council resources).

Where employees hold posts identified as ‘politically restricted’ they cannot in law hold office in a political party, act as an election agent or canvass on behalf of a political party or a candidate for election; speak in public, give interviews or publish any written work with the intention of affecting public support for a political party, but they can (if they or their families wish to do so) display an election poster in a window of their home.

Where employees do not hold posts identified as ‘politically restricted’ they may support a candidate or political party in the elections in their own time subject to normal arrangements, for example, leave.

However, taking into account the other instances referred to above, officers must not bring the Council into disrepute by anything they do.

Use of Council resources

Once an election is called, candidates are legally entitled to use publicly funded schools and other public meeting rooms for public election meetings, free of hire charge.

The Representation of the People Act 1983 requires local authorities to make premises available to candidates in elections and that the meeting must be open to the public. However, they can be asked to meet the cost of, for example, caretaking and the room must be used at reasonable times, not causing any disruption to the activities it is normally used for, and the candidate must give reasonable notice of wishing to use it.

Councils have no discretion to refuse a candidate a room provided the conditions mentioned above are met and a fair and consistent approach must be taken.

Except for the use of public premises as outlined above, candidates, including sitting councillors, have no additional rights to any other member of the public. Reasonable use of facilities and information available to the general public should be available to them, and at the rates chargeable to the general public if applicable.

No political posters or similar election material should be displayed in any council office or establishment or on vehicles used by officers for official business or which are parked in Council car parks.

Any such political/election material may not be displayed by any contractor working on behalf of the Council; Officers should make this clear in any relevant contracts with the council.

Council premises should not be used in any way to promote or signify any favour or support for any individual candidate or political party (such as, as a background to election material).

Publicity

Publicity not only means media/press releases issued to print, broadcast and social media but also includes printed materials sent to a wider audience; newsletters; information on websites; posters and leaflets; badges, t-shirts and other ‘giveaways’; advertising; exhibitions; conferences and consultations.

Publicity should not be given to any matters which are deemed to be politically controversial. The Council’s Communications Protocol will apply and will advise on issues such as referring to individual politicians in news releases.

In addition (and generally):

  • caution should be exercised before undertaking any significant media exercise unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in a published programme of events, published well before the election was called
  • photographs of persons, as candidates in the election, will not normally be issued/included in County Council publications
  • prior to any request for Council photographs and other materials being considered, enquiries will be made as to the use to which they are to be put, and appropriate restrictions on use may be imposed if supplied
  • Council events arranged in this period should not involve current councillors standing for election

A separate media pack will be produced relating to the County Council’s elections, nearer the date of election – but by way of example:

  • the Council’s Communications Team will assist in all dealings with the media and will, on request, advise on briefing journalists, arranging interviews and escorting press and camera crews on tours of buildings
  • individual candidates should not be invited as speakers or guests at any school or other function which may be organised for or on behalf of the Council unless all other relevant candidates have been offered a similar opportunity
  • any public or private debate/talk organised through a school or other council premises as part of the curriculum should only be held if all political parties fielding candidates in the relevant area are given the opportunity to take part; such events should be structured on an all-party basis

(See also the LGAs ‘A short guide to publicity during the pre-election period’) which also states the information should be read in conjunction with any guidance produced by your own Returning Officer and/or Monitoring Officer, which provides specific advice about your local circumstances.

Social media

Members and officers who ‘officially’ blog, tweet, use Facebook, Instagram or other social networking sites in connection with their work should take extra care during this period.

Social media guidance for members

Even if a member is not standing again, they technically remain a member until their retirement four days after the election (Monday 10 May 2021) so the use of social media should be in accordance with Devon County Council’s social media protocol and the code of conduct.

Members’ use of social media can be considered a form of Council communication if reporting on Council business or meetings so members must ensure their account and posts clearly state their position as a councillor and refrain from including pictures or names of officers in their posts.

If a member is standing for re-election and is using social media to promote their candidacy, the Electoral Commission’s guidance states candidates’ social media account(s) should contain an imprint:

[Candidates] should display your full imprint details prominently on your profile. You can include a shortened link to your imprint in your tweet or post. If it is impractical to place a full imprint onto an image, you should include the text of a link, or a hyperlinked logo or emblem that leads to your full imprint. We also suggest that if you use online discussion forums you make your identity as a candidate clear where possible.

The imprint shows who is responsible for the production of the material. Imprints must include the ‘Printed By’ and ‘Published By’ details. This could be included in your bio, as part of a profile picture or header or as a pinned post during the pre-election period.

Social media guidance for officers

Officers who blog, tweet, use Facebook, Instagram or other social networking sites in connection with their work should take extra care during this period.

They should make it clear what the account is for and explain that as this is one of the Council’s channels of communication, they are governed by the pre-election rules in the period before an election. It may be helpful to tweet or post a link to this guide for ease.

The simplest and most elegant solution is to be exceptionally careful about social media posts, especially sharing and/or retweeting. If you wish to continue using social media during this time, please do not:

  • post, like or share updates from political parties, politicians or political opinion
  • post, like or share opinions on topics that are politically controversial
  • post, like or share images of political parties, politicians or subjects that are politically controversial
  • stage a significant online campaign unless it can be demonstrated that this is both necessary and non-political

Officers should of course monitor their pages and delete any content which is politically controversial with an explanation that this has been done because of the rules that govern the pre-election period, linking such statements to this advice.

Where an officer holds a politically restricted post the bar on ‘publishing any written work with the intention of affecting public support for a political party’ is much higher and includes writing, sharing, retweeting or liking such content on any social media platform, even if the item is published in a restricted or closed group.

Good practice would be to include a statement in the account’s bio highlighting what the account is for and having a ‘pinned post’ during this time to explain the rules covering the pre-election period.

Similarly, any Council employees who may update third party social media profiles as part of their job are governed by this guidance; including business partnership profiles which the council supports. In those cases, officers would be best avoiding posting altogether for the period in question. It is much better to be safe than sorry.

Notwithstanding the above, the simplest approach is not to post on social media during this time.

In addition, outside of the pre-election period, accounts could highlight that any views expressed are personal views and not those of Devon County Council.

To sum up

The period between the notice of an election and the election itself should preclude proactive publicity of candidates and other politicians involved directly in the election.

Any communications – including the Council’s website – should not proactively publicise controversial issues or report views, proposals or recommendations in a way that may identify them with individual politicians or parties.

It is perfectly acceptable for the County Council to respond in appropriate circumstances to events and legitimate service enquiries provided that responses are factual and not party political.

The business of local government goes on in an election period and councillors holding key political positions, such as Cabinet Members, continue to be accountable for relevant services and policy areas. They should be able to comment in an emergency or where there is a genuine need for a political response to an important development outside the County Council’s control.

However, it is sensible to avoid proactive events during the pre-election period and if any are held, they should not involve councillors or candidates likely to be standing for election. If that is problematic – say because an event has been fixed for many months and is ‘overtaken’ by the election timetable – then it would be prudent to invite relevant councillors from all political parties – and ensure their attendance/involvement is acknowledged in any Council publicity.

Locality/IID budgets

It is especially important to recognise the potential impact – both perceived and real – of any use of locality/IID budgets in the run-up to an election and for that reason separate guidance is issued by the County Council.

County councillors must be particularly vigilant in the use of any locally determined budgets in the period leading up to the elections on 6 May 2021, therefore the Council has agreed that:

  • in recognising the need for members to exercise caution in the use of their locality budgets in the period leading up to the County Council elections on the 6 May 2021, members be authorised to initiate the allocation of any monies from 2020/21 by no later than 5 March 2021
  • members should not give any undertaking as to the allocation of funds in the period between 5 March 2020 and the elections and the County Solicitor would advise members accordingly at the appropriate time
  • thereafter, the use of any unspent funds from 2020/2021 be ring-fenced pending a discussion on how best to use those monies for a specific project and/or worthy cause, noting that this relates to unspent funds rather than allocated funds
  • any locality budget allocations start afresh from 2021/2022 with no carry forward from 2020/2021

Any photo calls or events solely used for the purpose of promoting what an individual member has agreed/recommended/allocated from their funds – particularly if they are a candidate – should be avoided at all costs as they would easily be capable of misinterpretation!

If there is all-party representation at such an event and members are just quietly observing in the background then that is less of a problem, but also less likely.

What about the pre-election period at Parliamentary, Police and Crime Commissioner or district council elections?

There are clear protocols (set out above) which the Council, members and officers, must follow in such periods for County Council elections, for example:

  • to ensure that proactive publicity involving any candidates/politicians involved directly in the election does not take place
  • that the Council does not proactively publicise controversial issues or report views, proposals or recommendations in a way that identifies them with individual politicians or parties
  • that candidates do not take part in any proactive events and that responses to events and legitimate service enquiries should be factual and non party political

While these rules do not apply to the County Council/county councillors during any Parliamentary, PCC or district council election, and it is a case of business as normal, there is a need nonetheless for members to exercise caution even if they are not standing in one or other of these elections.

If they are candidates, then there will of course be specific guidance from the Returning Officer for that specific election.

So, in the case of other elections (Parliamentary, PCC or district council) the position and advice is similar. While strict pre-election rules cannot apply to the Council,  members and officers in the same way as it would for County Council elections, there may well be current county councillors who are either candidates for election, or who may be heavily involved in those elections in another capacity (for example, as an Agent), where they and the Council will need to be cautious during the period of those elections. The more detailed guidance issued for the County Council quadrennial elections contained herein is a useful guide to be followed at the time of any of the above elections.

Again, while these ‘other’ elections may not directly affect the County Council or county councillors, there are many county councillors who are currently ‘twin-hatted’ and who may be prospective candidates (in one or more elections), all of whom need to be cautious regarding actions taken during this period.

This does not mean that the work of a councillor in his/her community role cannot carry on or that the normal business of the Council or councillors should cease, but, if in doubt, it would probably be best to seek advice.

The protocols which apply to the County Council, members and officers in the pre-election period  for County Council elections (to ensure that proactive publicity involving any candidates and other politicians involved directly in the election does not take place, that the Council does not proactively publicise controversial issues or report views, proposals or recommendations in a way that identifies them with individual politicians, candidates or parties or might imply the support of the Council) do not apply to the County Council during elections for any of the above.

There may be constraints on MPs and ministers at that time, but not us, and separate specific guidance is usually issued for each election to which candidates need to adhere! If a county councillor is a candidate in any of the above ‘other’ elections then more stringent rules will apply.

So, it is a case of business as normal, but recognising that the period between the notice of any election and polling day is a sensitive time for all concerned, the Council must take care not to be seen to be showing or giving the impression of showing any bias, favour or support to any candidate for election.

Members and officers should think very carefully about the impact of any County Council events or proposals being considered or launched during this period so as to avoid any impression of bias or support to someone stands in another election.

For instance, careful consideration should be given in organising any event to those invited, lest the impression is given of supporting or providing a platform for a candidate in an election, no matter how keen they may be to attend.  Similarly, any photo calls or events solely used for the purpose of promoting an allocation of funds from a member’s locality budget must be carefully handled to avoid giving the wrong impression or direct support.

Locality budgets/IID members’ funds

It is particularly important to be aware of the use of any locally determined budgets at the time of any election. In the run up to County Council election such allocations are suspended, usually from early March.

That is not the case for ‘other’ elections where allocations may continue to be made. However, sitting county councillors should exercise caution in their use of locality budgets in the period leading up to any of the above elections.

Even if they are not seeking election or re-election to one of the above, their use of such budgets may perhaps be perceived as supporting a candidate/colleague within their party, and therefore be open to question and misinterpretation.

This does not mean that no work can carry on in relation to these budgets, but it would probably be best to ask for advice.

Any photocalls or publicity events promoting a scheme to which a councillor may have contributed, at which candidates in an election are present, should be avoided at all costs, as they would easily be capable of misinterpretation.

Moreover, if a sitting county councillor is a candidate in one or more of these ‘other’ elections then more stringent rules will apply and they may be stopped from agreeing allocations during the election period as a matter of course, if only for their own sake.

County council protocol for visits by ministers, MPs, MEPs and parliamentary candidates

When Who What Action
At the time of an election MPs and MEPs Visiting any establishment in any constituency Consent of the Head or Officer in charge required.

The Head or Officer in charge should inform the appropriate Chief Officer (and Chair of Governors) who will in turn advise the Chief Executive who will then advise the Chair of the relevant Committee or Cabinet Member and Group spokespersons.

The Chief Executive in consultation with the Chief Officer will advise on those persons who should be invited to accompany the visitor and who should invite them.

Government minister or shadow spokesman Visiting any establishment Consent of the head or officer in charge required.

The Head or Officer in charge should inform the appropriate Chief Officer (and Chair of Governors) who will in turn advise the Chief Executive who will then advise the Party Group Leaders and the Chair of the relevant Committee or Cabinet Member and Group spokespersons.

The Chief Executive in consultation with the Chief Officer will advise on those persons who should be invited to accompany the visitor and who should invite them.

Parliamentary candidate Visiting an establishment in the constituency they are contesting Consent of the Head or Officer in charge required.

The Head or Officer in charge should inform the appropriate Chief Officer (and Chair of Governors) who will in turn advise the Chief Executive who will then advise the relevant Cabinet Member or Committee Chair and Group spokespersons.

The Chief Executive in consultation with the Chief Officer will advise on those persons who should be invited to accompany the visitor and who should invite them.

Other useful resources

Contact

If you need any advice or clarification, then please do not hesitate to contact:


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