Purdah – what charities need to know

With the general election approaching, you may have heard the term ‘purdah’ being bandied about. This post looks at what it means and specifically what it means for charities.

What is purdah?

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 the activity of civil servants are in place. The term ‘pre-election period’ is also used.

It’s a common misconception that during the purdah period all government communications activity has to shut down completely. Purdah basically means councils – and other government bodies – aren’t allowed to say anything politically controversial or publish anything which appears to support a political party or individuals. This is because civil servants have a duty to be politically impartial – similar to charities themselves. It is important that their conduct during the general election and at all times does not call this into question. 

The period of purdah will begin on Monday 30 March 2015 and end once a new government has been formed, which will be after the general election on Thursday 7 May 2015.

What does it mean for charities?

Purdah means that a range of public bodies are a whole lot quieter than usual. It’s a great time to catch up with colleagues in the civil service. Dare I say it, charities could make the most of the pre-election window and set up meetings with civil servants whose diaries may be clearer during purdah as it’s a great opportunity to gain insight and plan for the future (hat tip to PR Week).

Purdah may in some circumstances have a knock on effect onto charities – particularly around any joint work or work funded by public money. However it does not mean public bodies stop communicating entirely or that charities should not be active in terms of communications during an election period!

In practise the rules** mean that no publicity will be given to matters which are politically controversial. Often press releases from local government will drop the quotes from politicians and use the officers instead. In addition, greater caution will be exercised before undertaking any significant media exercises unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election period began.

One thing to bear in mind is that the looming deadline of purdah is often accompanied by a slightly undignified rush by government departments and others to get announcements out of the door. Those waiting for a particular announcement or report would be well advised to keep a keen eye out in the weeks building up to purdah.

My overall impression is that different public bodies interpret the rules differently, often for quite good reasons I’m sure, but this does lead to some confusion. The Care Quality Commission, for example, will continue to publish the results of judgements and reports where hospital inspections have already been carried out. In the case of the Charity Commission, however, it means that no announcements are made about the opening of statutory inquiries, and no statutory inquiry reports are published.

Life beyond purdah

Are you thinking about your post-election campaigning? We’d love you to join us at Evolve 2015 for our ‘influencing and campaigning post-election’ workshop.

Find out more about Evolve 2015

Further reading

If you’re particularly interested in what purdah means for local government, check out this blog post and guide from the Local Government Association.

The Charity Commission has produced guidance (PDF) for use by charities during the period between the announcement of an election, and the date on which an election is held. It applies to both national and local elections. In particular, charities must take greater care to be politically neutral and must never encourage their supporters to vote in a particular way.

**these are the rules from the 2010 election as Cabinet Office hasn’t published the 2015 guidance yet

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Avatar photo Chloe Stables, External Relations Manager, reflects on the latest political developments affecting the voluntary and community sector.

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