Purdah ain’t what it used to be?

“Purdah” is in the news as the Government tries to use it to avoid publishing its air-quality plans before the Election.

So what is “purdah”?

The word originates in Hindu and Persian and means something like “to hide away”. In British politics it has come to mean the period before an election or referendum when Ministers have to refrain from using their public offices for political gain and civil servants have to do nothing that could be interrupted as partisan.

The first and most important thing to understand about this is that the purdah rules – usually a document called “General Election Guidance” issued by the Cabinet Office – are entirely a Government convention. They have no basis in law. They are just an administrative device issued by the Government.

In the good old days, before the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) of 2011, the ‘Guidance’ was usually issued the day the prime Minister went to see Her Majesty to request an Election and came into effect immediately.

After that the only ‘new’ business Government could undertake was to do what’s known as “wash up” in Parliament – getting whatever legislation and regulations though before Parliament dissolves as part of the Election process.

There was always a get-out clause though – Governments can do things that are “urgent” in some way (which quite a bit of wriggle room).

The first General Election since FTPA – 2015 – saw an important change – the ‘purdah rules came into force only when Parliament dissolved (see quote from 2015 Guidance). This was different from previous practice.

This could have been a precedent for the future, but in fact the Government has started ‘purdah’ neither when the Election was called – when Parliament voted it through on 19th April (under the terms of FTPA).

Parliament however is not dissolving until 3rd May.

So the Government could have gone for implementing purdah from the 19th April (old school) or from 3rd May (FTPA-style). Instead they decided “This guidance takes effect from midnight on Friday 21 April 2017, at which point the ‘election period’ begins.” So now we have a third “start by” date for purdah – somewhere between calling of the election and the dissolution of Parliament.

The new 2017 Guidance contains the usual ‘get out’ clauses.

So to sum up: the Government is using rules it makes up, that have no legal force, no fixed date on which they must come into force and a strong “get out” clause to say they cannot obey a Court Order. 

It will probably work though, because even if they lose in Court they will appeal and by the time its heard the Election will be over.

One further point: in the run up to the EU referendum David Cameron’s government tried to say they would not apply the usual purdah rules to the pre-referendum period. After sustained pressure from the Brexiteers in his own Party Cameron did what he always did – he gave into them and implemented purdah rules for the referendum.

[BTW I appeared on BBC Breakfast TV this morning to explain this (at 6.22). I’ll post a link later.

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