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Civil Service

This blog post was published under the 2010-2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

What ‘purdah’ means for civil servants

Sir Jeremy at the Civil Service Board meeting, January 2015The General Election is now only 38 days away. Although it is the first under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, in every other respect - not least what is expected of civil servants in the lead-up to, during and immediately after the election - it’s business as usual.

The term ‘purdah’ is often used, unofficially, to describe the period immediately before an election or referendum when there are restrictions on the activity of civil servants. More literally, it is also called the 'pre-election period'.

For this election, purdah begins today. Of course, the country – and the public services that we deliver - can’t just stop for the election. The UK Government retains the responsibility to govern and Ministers remain in charge of their departments. Civil servants will keep delivering government business, and if any crisis needed urgent action then we would tackle it in the normal way. But from now until 7 May, the key principle to keep in mind is that we should do everything possible to avoid any activity that could call our political impartiality into question and to ensure that public resources are not used for party-political purposes.

Advice and guidance

Detailed advice and guidance on what this means in practice has just been published. In addition, there is specific advice for government communicators, including on the use of social media by departments and individuals, and it is always worth refreshing yourself on the Civil Service Code.

As usual, government communications should be objective and explanatory and not open to being represented as party-politically biased. Any comments on government achievements should be neutrally worded. In dealing with enquiries, government departments and staff should provide consistent factual information on request to candidates of all parties, as well as to organisations and members of the public.

There will inevitably be areas of uncertainty. If you are at all unsure of what you can and can’t do, you should consult your departmental permanent secretary’s office or, for communicators, your Head of Communications, who should be able to advise you, or may refer you to the Propriety and Ethics Team at the Cabinet Office.

Integrity and commitment

The Civil Service serves more than one administration. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales are not being elected and will carry on their business more or less as normal. However, because their activities could have a bearing on the General Election campaign, they issue their own guidelines, underlining the need for civil servants to maintain political impartiality.

Over the last five years, the Civil Service has become more efficient, more skilled, more digital, more open to new ways of working and to learning from best practice in other sectors, so that we are delivering more for taxpayers and for less of their money. There’s more to be done before we achieve the goals set out in the Civil Service Reform Plan. But one thing about which there’s never really been any doubt is the integrity and commitment to public service of UK civil servants. According to a recent Ipsos MORI survey, public trust in civil servants is at its highest level ever and more than double what it was when the organisation began polling on trust in key professions more than three decades ago.

The restrictions on what we can do during purdah are really an extension of the core values we adhere to - integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. There is perhaps no more important time than purdah for us to demonstrate - once again - that we are living up to those values, by doing what we always do: carrying on the work of government, and making sure we are ready to serve the incoming administration as we did the last.

Fully prepared

If the election produces a clear majority, then we would quickly move back into business as usual. But if it is not immediately clear who will seek to form a government that can command the confidence of the newly-elected House of Commons, and there are political discussions in the days following the election as in 2010, then there may be some continuing restrictions around how we operate. I have written in more detail about the conventions that guide the process of forming a government and the role of the Civil Service in a previous blog.

Everything I have learned from previous general elections tells me that I can rely on civil servants to conduct themselves over the coming weeks with the professionalism and high standards of propriety that we have always prided ourselves on - and to be fully prepared so that the next administration can hit the ground running.

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  1. Comment by Chris Bowen posted on

    Is this meant for Crown Servants or Civil Servants? I have always thought Crown Servant referred to members of the Armed Forces, Ministers of the Crown and the judiciaries of the United Kingdom. It appears that Civil Servant and Crown servant are now interchangeable. If so, I’m off to tell my insurance company I’m now a Civil Servant and can I have reduction in my premiums.

    Also, why should I be proud of my work and efforts over the past five years? Should I be ashamed of the preceding 15 years?

  2. Comment by Colin Souter posted on

    I struggle to understand the relevance of what you have written here, against the backdrop of self-confessed impropriety at the Treasury, during the Scottish Independence referendum and more recently, the shocking display in writing a Memo with inaccurate information and opinion dressed up as fact.....and then leaking it via the Scotland Office, to the Telegraph, for party political aims. It certainly does not do much to portray an image of a civil service that can be trusted to follow its own rules....!! I think the standing of civil servants in general will be badly affected, as a result....

  3. Comment by Jack Beck/Scotus posted on

    I trust that your investigation of the leaked email from The Scotland Office to The Telegraph will result in more than a 'knuckle rap' to an anonymous minion!

  4. Comment by Ann Elk posted on

    Jolly good show!

  5. Comment by Andy Martin posted on

    So , anyone remember when Thatcher died ? Bob Kerslake and was it GO'D that eulogised about her influence and greatness.Where was the impartiality then concerning the most divisive and detested political figure in post-war British politics ? Total hypocrisy !

    • Replies to Andy Martin>

      Comment by John MacDonald posted on

      I think you will find that it wasn't GO'D - it was Sir Jeremy Heywood.

  6. Comment by Paul Farr posted on

    Can I re-inforce the concerns expressed about the use of the word "purdah". The definition of the word makes it clear why it has - or should - have fallen out of favour when referring to the pre election period.It is disappointing that the very top of the office seems to be ignoring the distasteful nature of purdah and insist on using it, especially when there are far more sensible and accurate ways of describing this period. More junior civil servants are expected to demonstrate senisitivity about how they carry out their duties and it would be really good if the top of the office could try practicing what they preach for a change.

  7. Comment by Anthony posted on

    While it is very kind of the PM to thank us for our service over the past 5 years, perhaps he could thank us properly by giving us all a pay rise.

  8. Comment by A Cook posted on

    Thank you Sir Jeremy. Your words are very much appreciated. It has been a privilege to serve our Coalition government; and it will be equally so to support its successor.

  9. Comment by Marc Wallace posted on

    I'm not sure we should still be referring to the phrase 'purdah' in this respect Sir Jeremy. A quick Google search on the origin of the word may help, and therefore we should use the term 'pre-election period'.

    • Replies to Marc Wallace>

      Comment by Anil Khullar posted on

      I agree with the comment made by Marc Wallace as I am wondering what is the real meaning of diversity in the workplace ? The "word" is deemed as offensive to certain religious groups across our workforce and should be banned. Further research according to Google states it is banned in Wales.

  10. Comment by Marc Wallace posted on

    I'm not sure we should still be referring to the phrase 'purdah' in this respect Sir Jeremy. A quick google search on the origin of the word may help, and therefore we should use the term 'pre-election peiod'.

  11. Comment by Anthony posted on

    While it is nice of the PM to thank us all for our service during the last 5 years, can he now rewards us where it matters most - in our pay packets. His thanks do not pay the mortgage or utility bill.

  12. Comment by Simon posted on

    Or simply a thanks for what we have endured and the un qestionable results they are there in black and white okay statistics can be manipulated i agree but there has to be facts and figures
    I for one am proud of how we have done i wil not comment on the whys but we HAVE delivered what has been asked of us .

  13. Comment by Terry posted on

    Is this the same 'purdah' applied by the government to every budget during its term in office?

  14. Comment by Peter McCarney posted on

    I want to say a big thank you to everyone in the civil service for the fantastic support that you have given to me over the last five years as Prime Minister.

    A noble sentiment that does not seem to have been shared by Francis Maude....and we remember his behaviour - and of the Press - to Christine Blowers of the NUT and yet her assertion that the burden of pensions would fall owing to changes made by the previous administration was correct...

  15. Comment by Sam posted on

    You expect civil servants to respect impartiality but then publish a disgusting piece of party politicial propoganda to a Prime Minister dressed up as a thank you immediately before a general election. Attrocious behaviour which if done by a junior civil servant would almost certainly have been deservedly sacked. A perfect example of do as I say not as I do!

    • Replies to Sam>

      Comment by Jon posted on

      I utterly agree with Sam. By all means, the PM is perfectly entitled to express his thanks to civil servants at the end of his term, but his message also looks pretty much like party political puffery to me.

    • Replies to Sam>

      Comment by Pinza posted on

      Well said that undervalued, underpaid civil servant, roll on May 9