The pre-election period is about to begin. DevComms director Maria Allaway explains what this means.
The 2023 local elections are being held on May 4 – the largest local elections in the electoral cycle.
A total of 230 of the 333 councils across England are having elections of either the whole council or by thirds and reflect the latest local government restructuring that will come into force from April.
The weeks running up to elections or referendums when specific restrictions on communications activity are in place is known as the pre-election period. The term ‘heightened sensitivity’ is also used, although it is also informally referred to as ‘purdah’, a Persian word for screen or veil.
The pre-election period begins with the publication of the notice of an election of referendum and runs until the election or referendum has taken place. This year, the latest date that the pre-election period can start is Monday, March 27. However, for many councils, this period starts on Monday, March 20.
There is a legal basis for restrictions on local authorities during the pre-election period which are governed by Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986, as amended in 1988. In short, local authorities should ‘not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party’.
Advice on what authorities should not do includes:
- Producing publicity on matters which are politically controversial
- Making references to individual candidates or parties in press releases
- Arranging proactive media or events involving candidates
- Helping with national political visits (that would involve using public money to support a particular candidate or party)
Authorities should also think carefully about launching any new consultations unless it is a statutory duty or considered normal council business, such as budget consultations.
Councils should consider carefully before starting any new consultations or publish report findings from consultation exercises, which could be politically sensitive.
Importantly, however, authorities are allowed to continue to discharge normal council business. This includes determining planning applications, even if they are controversial.
In essence, authorities should work on the basis of fairness and what would be seen by the public as reasonable and impartial.
For further information, the Local Government Association guidance can be found at https://www.local.gov.uk/our-support/guidance-and-resources/pre-election-period
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