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Purdah: What is it, the pre-general election restrictions in place and how these affect public bodies

The period before a referendum or election can often see restrictions in place for public bodies and those working within them. This is referred to as the pre-election period, also known as purdah, heightened sensitivity or period of sensitivity. 

With the General Election being announced for the 4 July, we will start to see these restrictions being put in place. The focus is ‘business as usual’ unless those activities or actions are likely to impact on a political position or ‘interfere’ with the politics. 

How will this impact on public bodies carrying out their lawful functions and complying with their legal duties? We take a brief look at local authorities and schools in this context.

Purdah and local authorities 

The pre-election period doesn't specifically apply to councils to the same degree, but local authorities do follow similar guidance which is set out in their own internal procedures. 

One of the biggest areas of focus for local authorities during the pre-election period is in relation to publicity. Under the Local Government Act 1986 (amended 1988) local authorities need to refrain from producing any publicity which is designed to ‘affect public support for a political authority’. 

The Local Authority Association has published fresh guidance on this which states that the reasonable test for this is "could a reasonable person conclude that you are spending public money to influence the outcome of the election?" 

This is likely to include the use of any press, social media, as well as showing support/hosting any political visits.

Local authorities are also unlikely to take any action or decision-making steps for decisions which may be at risk of being challenged on the basis that they were made with a political agenda in mind. This would usually be in relation to new policies - particularly if it's something that an opposition party may have a different stance to - decisions with a major impact on resources and consultations. 


Schools and academy trusts will also take into account the pre-election period particularly those run by the local authority. 

Schools have a duty in any event to ensure that a balanced view is provided to pupils in relation to political views and parties and that their social media and IT systems aren't used for political publicity. 

The Government has produced some helpful guidance on this.  


With this in mind, although public bodies should attempt to operate ‘business as usual’, it's important to be aware that certain actions and decision making are likely to be approached cautiously or on hold during this pre-election period. 

Find out more about our work in supporting people affected by public bodies acting unlawfully at our dedicated protecting your rights judicial review section.