Scottish Parliament Election - 6 May 2021: guidance for the Scottish Government, its agencies and National Devolved Public Bodies

Sets out guidance for the Scottish Government, its Agencies and National Devolved Public Bodies ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary Elections.


1. The election to the Scottish Parliament takes place on 6 May 2021. It has significant implications for the work of the Scottish Government, its agencies and national devolved public bodies.

2. These arise from the special character of Government business during an election campaign, and from the need to maintain the impartiality of the Civil Service and to avoid any criticism of an inappropriate use of official resources.

3. Special arrangements apply to the handling of Government business during the election period (also known as the 'pre-election period').

4. The 'election period' means the period of six weeks prior to polling day on 6 May. It is expected to begin on 25 March 2021.

Application of this guidance

5. This guidance applies to people working during the election period in the Scottish Government, its agencies and national devolved public bodies. It also applies to staff from the Scottish Government and its agencies who are on secondment to other bodies.

6. The guidance covers the handling of business up to and during the election period. Further guidance will be provided as necessary about handling business in the immediate post‐election period once the outcome of the election is known.

7. It is business as usual until the election period begins on 25 March 2021. Ministers expect, and are entitled to, our continued commitment to deliver the Scottish Government's priorities in the run‐up to the election period.

8. This means that you should continue to support and advise Ministers in the normal way, including the provision of support for Ministerial engagements and other official events. In most cases, you should follow usual practice.

9. The closer we get to the start of the election period, the greater scrutiny there will be of the conduct of Government business, particularly in relation to any significant new initiatives. Cabinet Secretariat can provide advice on particular issues that arise in the run‐up to the election period.

During the election period

10. During the election period, the Scottish Government retains its responsibility to govern, and Ministers remain Ministers and in charge of their portfolios. Essential business, including responding to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, must be carried on (see Note 1 below for a definition of 'essential business'). However, you can expect Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long‐term character.

11. Decisions on matters of policy on which the next administration might wish to take a different view from the current administration are expected to be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to Scotland's interest or wasteful of public resources. You can also expect Ministers to be largely engaged in the election campaign and therefore not want to be asked to make decisions on issues during the election period unless it is essential that they should do so.

12. There are three basic principles to remember and apply during the election period. You should:

  • Remain politically impartial;
  • Ensure that public resources are not used for party political purposes; and
  • Avoid anything that could distract attention from or compete with the campaign.

13. The first two of these principles apply at all times. They are set out in the Civil Service Code and the Scottish Ministerial Code. The third is a reminder that application of these principles needs particular care during the election period. The provisions of the Civil Service Code relating to political impartiality are as follows:

You must:

  • Serve the Government, whatever its political composition, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of the Civil Service Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are;
  • Act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government; and
  • Comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities.

You must not:

  • Act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, or use official resources for party political purposes; or
  • Allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.

14. The following guidance notes deal with a range of particular issues likely to arise during the election period. They build upon and are consistent with the guidance notes issued in advance of the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

1 - Supporting Ministers during the election period
2 - Freedom of Information
3 - Relations with the UK Government
4 - Special Advisers
5 - The Scottish Parliament and its Committees
6 - Political Activities of Staff
7 - Cabinet and Official Documents
8 - Communications Activity
9 - Consultations
10 - Statistics, Surveys, Social Research and Economics Analysis
11 - Use of Government and other public sector property
12 - Public Appointments
13 - Public Bodies

COVID-19 Pandemic

15. Activity aimed at responding to the four harms caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (the direct impact of COVID-19, other health impacts, societal impacts, and economic impacts) constitutes essential business. During the election period, there will continue to be a need for the Scottish Government to keep the public informed about the progress of the pandemic and to ensure that they are aware of the latest restrictions and developments. Further guidance in relation to pandemic-related communications activity can be found in Note 8.

16. Essential business, including in relation to the pandemic, must be carried out in a way that is consistent with the principles set out in this guidance. Further advice on the application of this guidance in relation to the pandemic can be sought from Cabinet Secretariat (see paragraphs 20 and 21 below).

Scottish Parliament

17. Under normal circumstances, Parliament would have been expected to dissolve on 25 March. However, in order to ensure that the Scottish Parliamentary election can take place fairly and safely, the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Act 2021 provides for the dissolution of Session 5 of the Parliament on 5 May 2021. This will allow the Parliament to be recalled in order to debate and pass emergency legislation if required.

18. The Parliament is however expected to move into a 'pre-election recess' period on 25 March, and the pre-election restrictions set out in this guidance will apply as normal from that point onwards.

19. Further information about the business of the Parliament can be found in Note 5.

Advice on the application of this guidance

20. If you have any queries about the application of this guidance in relation to your work, you should in the first instance seek guidance from your Deputy Director and/or Director.

21. Advice is also available from Robin Benn or Duncan Beamish in Cabinet Secretariat or from the people identified at the end of each of the 13 guidance notes.

Scottish Government
February 2021



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