Purdah: A short guide to publicity during the pre-election period
In response to requests from council communications teams to produce simple guidance to communicating during the pre- election period (also known as ‘purdah’), we are publishing this short, updated guide.
This document provides advice on the publicity restrictions that should be observed during the purdah period. It should be read in conjunction with any guidance produced by your own Returning Officer or Monitoring Officer, which provides specific advice depending on your local circumstances.
The term ‘purdah’ has come into popular use across central and local government to describe the period of time immediately before elections or referendums when specific restrictions on communications activity are in place. The term ‘pre-election period’ is also used.
2016 Local Elections
Many authorities will have elections on 5 May 2016, including parish and town councils, borough or district and unitary, and police and crime commissioner elections.
The latest date that purdah can start is 30 March 2016. Local government sometimes views this period as a time when communications has to shut down completely. This is not the case, and the ordinary functions of councils should continue, but some restrictions do apply, by law, to all councillors and officers.
The Government published a new Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity in 2011. The Code is based around seven principles to ensure that all communications activity:
• is lawful
• is cost effective
• is objective
• is even-handed
• is appropriate
• has regard to equality and diversity
• is issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity.
This last principle, to ensure special care is taken during periods of heighted sensitivity is of particular relevance during the pre- election period.
Legal basis and official guidance
The pre-election restrictions are governed by Section 2 of the Local Government Act 19861, as amended in 19882. Essentially councils should “not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party.”
Section 43 of the Act makes clear that councils need to have regard for the code of recommended practice that supports the Act. A new code of practice was published in 20114 which replaced all previous guidance. The essential points from the code are:
• In general you should not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters (an exception being situations covered by legislation or regulations directing publication of information about referendums for explanatory purposes, for example promoting the existence of the referendum and explaining how to take part).
• Particular care should be taken during the pre-election period to abide by the Act.
• Consider suspending hosting third party material or closing public forums if these are likely to breach the codes of practice.
• Do not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views on proposals in a way which identifies them with individual councillors or groups of councillors.
• Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published unless expressly authorised by statute.
• You are allowed to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.
Although this new code supersedes the previous versions and may seem less specific, in practice your conduct should be similar to previous elections.
What this means in practice
Publicity is defined as “any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public.”
The first question to ask is ‘could a reasonable person conclude that you were spending public money to influence the outcome of the election?’ In other words it must pass the ‘is it reasonable’ test. When making your decision, you should consider the following:
You should not:
• produce publicity on matters which are politically controversial
• make references to individual politicians or groups in press releases
• arrange proactive media or events involving candidates
• issue photographs which include candidates
• supply council photographs or other materials to councillors or political group staff unless you have verified that they will not be used for campaigning purposes
• continue hosting third party blogs or e-communications
• help with national political visits (as this would involve using public money to support a particular candidate or party). These should be organised by political parties with no cost or resource implications for the council.
You should also think carefully before you:
• Continue to run campaign material to support your own local campaigns. If the campaign is already running and is non-controversial (for example, on issues like recycling or foster care) and would be a waste of public money to cancel or postpone them, then continue. However, you should always think carefully if a campaign could be deemed likely to influence the outcome of the election and you should not use councillors in press releases and events in pre-election periods. In such cases you should stop or defer them. An example might be a campaign on an issue which has been subject of local political debate and/or disagreement.
• Launch any new consultations. Unless it is a statutory duty, don’t start any new consultations or publish report findings from consultation exercises, which could be politically sensitive.
You are allowed to:
• Continue to discharge normal council business (including determining planning applications, even if they are controversial).
• Publish factual information to counteract misleading, controversial or extreme (for example, racist/sexist information). An example might be a media story which is critical of the council, such as a media enquiry claiming that the salaries of all the council’s senior managers have increased by five per cent. If this is not true, a response such as ‘none of the council’s senior management team have received any increase in salary in the last 12 months’ is acceptable. It is perfectly right and proper that the council responds, as long as it is factual.
• Use relevant lead officers rather than members for reactive media releases.
• Use a politician who is involved in an election when the council is required to respond in particular circumstances, such as in an emergency situation or where there is a genuine need for a member-level response to an important event beyond the council’s control. Normally this would be the civic mayor (as opposed to the elected mayor in those areas with elected mayors) or chairman (that is, someone holding a politically neutral role). If the issue is so serious, it is worth considering asking the council’s group leaders to agree to a response which would involve all of them.
• If you are in any doubt, seek advice from your Returning Officer and/or Monitoring Officer, legal or communications colleagues.
Ultimately, you must always be guided by the principle of fairness. It is crucial that any decision you take would be seen as fair and reasonable by the public and those standing for office.
You can find more information from the following:
• referring to advice published by your Returning Officer or Monitoring Officer
• the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity
• the LGcommunications leaflet, Cracking the Code
• annex A – template letter to councillors.
The LGA would like to thank LGcommunications, Coventry City Council, Warwickshire County Council and Eastleigh Borough Council in the creation of this document.
Annex A : Template letter for sending to councillors
Guidelines and restrictions on decision making and publicity during the pre-election period
As you will be aware, the local elections are due to take place on 5 May 2016, so I thought it would be useful to remind you about the guidelines and restrictions on publicity during the pre- election period that starts on XXXX date. These restrictions apply to all elections happening during this period.
From the start of the pre-election period (‘purdah’), the council must comply with restrictions outlined in Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986. In addition a Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity published in 2011 makes clear that particular care should be taken in periods of heightened sensitivity, such as in the run up to an election. The Act defines publicity as “any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public.”
Generally, the Act says that we should “not publish any material which, in whole, or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party.” The Code of Practice recommends that authorities should generally not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters and that publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published unless expressly authorised by statute.
In relation to decision making within the council, the position remains that it is ‘business as usual’ unless there are very good reasons why this should not be the case. In the vast majority of cases, the pre-election period will have no impact on normal council business, including the approval of planning decisions.
What this means
• The primary restriction is on proactive publicity by the council which particularly relates to candidates and other politicians involved directly in the election.
• The council can still issue media releases on factual matters provided that these do not identify individual councillors or groups of councillors.
• Individual councillors can issue their own statements, write letters to the local newspaper(s) for publication, contact the media directly or say what they like in a personal capacity, but must not use council resources to do so.
It is still possible for the council to issue statements on behalf of a councillor holding a key political or civic position provided it relates to important events which are outside the council’s control and can be shown to justify a member response. These occasions are likely to be rare and to be the exception, rather than the rule.
I hope this letter provides you with the general information you need for the pre-election period, but if you have specific concerns or queries, please feel free to contact xxxx.