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Publication - Advice and Guidance

UK General Election 2017: guidance for civil servants

Published: 20 Apr 2017

The principles underlying the conduct of civil servants during any election campaign are an extension of those which apply all the time and are set out in the Civil Service Code and the Scottish Ministerial Code.

Civil servants should not undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality or give rise to the criticism that public resources are being used for party political purposes. Application of this principle needs to be considered particularly carefully during pre-election periods.

1. A UK general election will take place on 8 June 2017. This note contains guidance for Scottish Government civil servants working in the Scottish Government and its agencies, and for staff and members of national devolved public bodies, on their role and conduct during the UK general election campaign.

2. The guidance provided in this note is consistent with guidance given to staff in UK Departments during Scottish Parliament pre-election periods.

3. This guidance takes effect on 22 April 2017.

4. The UK general election raises different issues from those which arise at elections to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government will remain in office whatever the outcome. Scottish Ministers will continue to carry out their functions in the usual way. Civil servants will continue to support Ministers in their work.

5. However, it needs to be borne in mind that the activities of the Scottish Government could have a bearing on the UK general election campaign. Particular care will need to be taken during the pre-election period to ensure that civil servants conduct themselves in accordance with the Civil Service Code.

6. Particular care also needs to be taken in relation to Ministerial activity and the announcement of Scottish Government decisions which could have a bearing on the UK general election. In particular, civil servants are under an obligation:

  • To ensure that public resources are not used for party political purposes
  • Not to undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality

General Principles

7. The guiding presumption for all staff should be that, wherever possible, Scottish Government business should continue as normal during the pre-election period.

8. The following general principles should be observed by all civil servants (including special advisers, who are temporary civil servants):

  • 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 – each case should be considered on its individual merits
  • Similar care and consideration should also be applied in relation to proposed visits
  • Special care should be taken in respect of paid publicity campaigns and to ensure that publicity is not open to criticism that it is being undertaken for party political purposes
  • There should be even-handedness in meeting information requests from the different political parties and campaigning groups
  • Officials should not be asked to provide new arguments for use in election campaign debates
  • In case of doubt about the application of these guidelines, staff should seek immediate advice from the Cabinet Secretariat (see paragraph 31 below for contact details), who will refer to the Permanent Secretary as required

9. Scottish Ministers will continue to carry out their functions, and civil servants should continue to support them. In doing so, civil servants need to be aware of the need to avoid any action which is, or could be construed as being, party political or otherwise controversial in the context of the UK general election.

10. All discussions between the Scottish Government and the UK Government during the pre-election period should be conducted in accordance with the principles laid down in this guidance.

Handling Requests for Information

11. There should be even-handedness in meeting information requests from candidates from the different political parties. The aim should be to respond to requests from candidates and campaigners for factual information within 24 hours if the information is readily to hand.

12. Where it is clear that a candidate's request is an FOI request, it must be handled in accordance with the procedures in place for responding to requests under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) and other relevant statutes and provisions, including the requirement to respond to requests promptly and in any event not later than 20 working days after the date of receipt. Where it is clear that it will not be possible to provide a quick response, the candidate should be given the opportunity to refine the request if they wish so that it may be responded to more quickly.

13. Enquiries from the media should be handled by Scottish Government Communications staff (see paragraphs 18 to 20 below).

Ministerial Visits

14. In this period, particular care should be taken in respect of proposed visits. Official support must not be given to visits, speeches or events with a party political purpose or of which the purpose is related to the UK general election campaign. In cases of doubt, further guidance should be sought from Cabinet Secretariat, who will refer to the Permanent Secretary as required.

Announcements

15. Similarly, announcements by the Scottish Government may have a particular impact on UK general election issues, for example, the publication of policy statements which have a specific reserved or cross-border dimension. Ministers will wish to be aware of the particular sensitivities in this regard and might decide, on advice, to postpone making certain speeches or announcements until after the general election. Obviously, this needs to be balanced carefully against any implication that deferral itself could influence the political outcome. Each case should be considered on its individual merits. Again, in cases of doubt, further advice should be sought from Cabinet Secretariat, who will refer to the Permanent Secretary as required.

Consultations

16. Public consultations with a particular emphasis on reserved or cross-border issues should generally not be launched during the period between 22 April and 8 June inclusive. If there are exceptional circumstances where launching such a consultation is considered essential (for example, for safeguarding public health), advice should be sought in the first instance from Cabinet Secretariat.

17. If a consultation with a particular emphasis on reserved or cross-border issues has commenced before 22 April, it should continue as normal. However, Directorates should avoid taking action which will compete with candidates for the attention of the public. This effectively means not undertaking publicity or consultation events for any such consultations that are still in progress. During this period, Directorates may continue to receive and analyse responses.

Communications Activities

18. Scottish Government Communications staff should apply the principles set out above when planning and delivering communications activities which will take place during the pre-election period. Additional care should therefore be taken around communications and marketing activity concerning cross-border or reserved issues.

19. It is also important to take care with official websites and use of social media which will be scrutinised closely by the news media and the political parties during the pre-election period. General guidance on the use of social media (on the Scottish Government Intranet site) will continue to apply.

20. In cases of doubt, guidance should be sought from John Booth, Head of Communications or Aileen Easton, Deputy Head of News.

Use of Government Property

21. Government property should not be used by Ministers or candidates for electioneering purposes.

22. In the case of NHS property, decisions are for the relevant NHS Board, but should visits be permitted, it should be on the basis that there is no disruption to services and that the same facilities are available to all candidates. Care should also be taken to avoid any intrusion into the lives of individuals using the services. The decisions on the use of schools and other local authority properties should be for those legally responsible for the premises. Where it is decided to agree to such visits, the key principle is that the same facilities should be available to all candidates, and that there is no disruption to services.

Statistical and Social Research Activities

23. During the pre-election period, statistical activities should continue to be conducted in accordance with the UK Statistics Authority's Code of Practice for Official Statistics and the relevant Pre-Release Access to Official Statistics Orders which should be read as though they are part of that Code. Social research activities should be in accordance with Scottish Government Social Research guidance. Requests for information should be handled in accordance with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (see paragraphs 11 to 13 above) and with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics.

24. In cases of doubt, advice should be sought from the relevant Chief Professional Officer (the Chief Statistician, the Office of the Chief Researcher, the Chief Economic Adviser, or the Registrar General, as appropriate).

Political Activities

25. Political activity connected with the UK general election falls within the definition of national political activity.

26. Detailed guidance on the restrictions on civil servants' involvement in political activities is set out in the Political Activity section of the Conduct pages published on the Scottish Government Intranet site, and in Section 4.4 of the Civil Service Management Code.

27. If you are in any doubt, speak to your line manager in the first instance and then HR Help on 0131 24 48500.

Special Advisers

28. Detailed guidance on the restrictions on Special Advisers' involvement in political activities is set out in the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers working in the Scottish Government.

National Devolved Public Bodies

29. National devolved public bodies spend public money, make public announcements and may employ civil servants. This guidance therefore also applies to their activities. Sponsor teams should ensure that staff and members of the public bodies for which they are responsible are aware of this guidance.

30. In cases of doubt, public bodies should always seek advice from their Scottish Government sponsor team who will refer to Cabinet Secretariat, Public Bodies Unit and the Permanent Secretary, as necessary.

Further Advice

31. In cases of doubt, or if you have any queries about the application of this guidance, further guidance should be sought from Cabinet Secretariat on (0131 24) 46933 or 43579, or email Cabinet Secretariat. Cabinet Secretariat will seek the advice of the Permanent Secretary, as required.

32. This guidance is being made public by being placed in the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) and on the Scottish Government website.

Published:
20 Apr 2017
UK General Election 2017: guidance for civil servants