HC Deb 03 April 1996 vol 275 cc250-1W
Mr. Simon Coombs

To ask the Prime Minister what advice has been furnished to Government Departments on the conduct of Government business during the period prior to local and European elections. [24545]

The Prime Minister

The Cabinet Office is circulating to Departments today the normal guidance to civil servants on the principles which they should observe in relation to the conduct of Government business during the period prior to local and European elections. It is as follows:

Local and European elections 1. Local and European Election campaigns differ from general elections in that there is no prospect of a change of government consequent upon the elections, and the business of government continues as usual. However, there is an increasing tendency by all political parties to approach local and European elections from a national point of view, with nationally produced material. Officials of all departments should therefore take especial care during the period of local or European election campaigns not to undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality, or could give rise to the criticism that public resources are being used for party political purposes. Particular care should be exercised in relation to the announcement of sensitive decisions with a local or European dimension, and in relation to paid publicity campaigns. 2. The following general principles should be observed: (a) there should be even-handedness in meeting information requests from candidates from different political parties. Such requests and responses should be channelled through the appropriate Minister's private office and handled in accordance with the principles laid down in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information; (b) special advisers should if necessary be reminded of the rules against circulating material on party paper within departments; (c) particular care should be taken over official action and the use of public resources, including publicity, surrounding and supporting Ministerial announcements which have a bearing on local or European matters; (d) similar care should be taken over announcements of decisions made at official level. 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 merits; and (e) special care should be taken in respect of paid publicity campaigns, particularly new campaigns, which should not be open to the criticism that they are being undertaken for party political purposes. 3. The period of sensitivity preceding local or European elections is not fixed in relation to any particular date, but for the purposes of this guidance, the general convention is that particular care should be taken in the three weeks prior to polling day.