Following the announcement that a General Election will take place on 4 July 2024, the UK Government has issued pre-election guidance outlining restrictions on activities which may influence the General Election. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland have also issued guidance. This post briefly summarises some of the key aspects of the pre-election period restrictions.

The pre-election period advice

The pre-election period, sometimes known as purdah, runs from 25 May 2024 until 4 July 2024. The UK Government published guidance to civil servants on this pre-election period on 23 May 2024. Scottish Government guidance and Northern Ireland Executive guidance were published on 24 May and it appears that the Welsh Government has not yet published any specific guidance.

The advice to civil servants in the various guidance documents is that particular care should be taken over official support, and the use of public resources, including publicity, for Ministerial or official announcements which could have a bearing on matters relevant to the UK General Election. In some cases, it may be better to defer an announcement until after the Election, but this would need to be balanced carefully against any implication that deferral could itself influence the political outcome and the need to continue essential business. Each case should be considered on its individual merits. The various guidance documents reiterate that civil servants are not to undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality or that could give rise to criticism that public resources are being used for party political purposes.

Impact on government business

The advice means that during the pre-election period, many new decisions or decisions with long term effect will be deferred. The ministers in the relevant governments throughout the UK (and the civil servants support them) will have to consider whether any new action is of a continuing or long-term character and whether action may impact on the General Election.

The pre-election restrictions can impact on many areas of government business:

  • those who are awaiting the outcome of grant applications or the awarding of contracts may suffer delay as civil servants will have to consider whether awarding grants or contracts may influence the General Election;
  • large and/or contentious commercial contracts, on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government, should be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money;
  • any government announcements, consultations or communications activity should also be deferred until after the General Election if any of those activities may influence the General Election. Any new consultations should not be launched during the pre-election period (in the case of the devolved administrations, such consultation restrictions relate to contentious or consultations concerning cross-border matters)

However, matters already in progress (such as consultations) will usually continue as will routine statistical work by the UK's Statistics Authority. Civil servants and ministers must consider each new or proposed action on a case by case basis in line with the relevant guidance documents.

For some practical examples, some of the strategic activities that have been specifically deferred by the Scottish Government include:

  • the planned publication of the Programme for Government and the associated legislative programme (the Programme for Government is the Scottish Parliament's equivalent to the King's Speech in Westminster);
  • the planned publication of the Medium-Term Financial Strategy and associated documents;
  • the remaining papers scheduled in the Building a New Scotland series (this is the series of papers published by the Scottish Government as a prospectus for an independent Scotland);
  • the Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan and Oil and Gas Policy publications.

Overall

In summary, civil servants and ministers must observe the pre-election guidance and avoid activity which could influence the outcome of the General Election. This may lead to many aspects of government work being deferred until after the election on 4 July 2024.

However, civil servants and ministers will continue to carry out their functions and business as usual unless the pre-election guidance prevents this from happening.

Contributors

Lewis Newlands

Associate

Christine O'Neill KC

Chair & Partner