During election periods, questions about ‘purdah’ in local government always come up. These reveal the sometimes contradictory advice given by some councils and regular misinterpretations.
What do we mean by purdah? Quite simply it is the period during election campaigns when central and local government must restrict activity to prevent public resources being used for or to support political campaigning. For councils, the restrictions are laid out in the Local Government Act 1986.
This year purdah for the local government elections started on 27 March (England and Wales) and 13 March (Scotland). Purdah for the general election started at midnight on 21st April.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR LOCAL COUNCILLORS
In practice what does it mean for our local councillors? To start with, purdah applies to all councillors whether they are standing for election or not. A code of practice was issued by the DCLG in 2011 and the LGA has produced a guide. In terms of publicity, the restrictions refer to any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public.
The Act says that a council 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which seeks to influence voters and that publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published unless expressly authorised by statute.
This includes anything that may be controversial or be an issue identified with a particular councillor or group of councillors. It also includes the supply of photographs or involvement in the arrangements for a political visit (this does not mean that such visits cannot take place to council property, just that no cost to the council can be involved).
This does not mean that no material can be released at all. Factual statements are fine.
For councillors there are obvious restrictions on what they can do on council premises and using council resources. However, doing normal casework using your council email is OK. While the council cannot issue press releases for you or arrange media appearances you can, of course, do so yourself using private or party resources and email addresses.
ISSUES THAT ARISE
Many councils will have their annual meetings during the general election period and will have to ensure that controversial political items are not on the agenda and do not arise, perhaps by not allowing verbal questions.
Parish magazines (published by town, parish or community councils rather than churches) can be controversial because many allow their county and/or district councillors to write columns. This may not happen during purdah.
One council suggested that councillors should cease using the title ‘councillor’. This is not correct and you can use the title whether you are up for election or not. Unlike MPs, councillors remain in office until four days after the declaration of the result.
I sent this letter to the i. It was not published:
You refer to election "purdah" (page 5). Purdah refers to hiding women's faces behind a veil. Surely it is time we abandoned this arcahlc language?