- 5 Nov 2019
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 election periods.
A UK general election will take place on 12 December 2019.
This note contains guidance for civil servants working in the Scottish Government and its agencies and non-ministerial offices and for staff and members of national devolved public bodies on their role and conduct during the UK general election campaign. It is for individual public bodies to apply this pre-election guidance within their own organisations, but in doing so they should not go beyond the principles set out in this guidance.
The guidance provided in this note is consistent with guidance given to staff in UK Government Departments during Scottish Parliament pre-election periods.
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. Ministers will continue to carry out their functions in the usual way. Civil servants will continue to support Ministers in their work, including in relation to EU issues.
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 election period to ensure that civil servants conduct themselves in accordance with the Civil Service Code.
Particular care also needs to be taken in relation to 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. It is important to remember that this applies to online communications such as social media, in the same way as other activity
In all cases, essential business, which includes routine business necessary to ensure the continued smooth functioning of government and public services, must be allowed to continue. Activity which must be carried out during this period in order to deliver the Scottish Government’s objectives in relation to EU issues constitutes essential business.
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 elections, but this would need to be balanced carefully against any implication that deferral could itself influence the political outcome and the need to continue essential business. 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
- staff should familiarise themselves with advice on personal conduct during pre-election periods and general guidance on the use of social media [both of which are published on the Scottish Government Intranet and are available to staff]
- in case of doubt about the application of these guidelines, staff should seek immediate advice from the Cabinet Secretariat
Handling of requests for information
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 as soon as possible.
Where it is clear that a candidate’s request is a Freedom of Information (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 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.
General enquiries from the media should be handled by Scottish Government Communications staff (see 'Communications activities' below).
In this period, particular care should be taken in respect of proposed visits. Official support must not be given to visits 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.
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 announcements until after the UK general election.
Obviously, this needs to be balanced carefully against any implication that deferral itself could influence the political outcome and the need to continue essential business.
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.
Public consultations with a particular emphasis on reserved or cross-border issues should generally not be launched during this period.
If there are exceptional circumstances where launching a consultation is considered essential (for example, where it concerns EU issues, or safeguarding public health), advice should be sought in the first instance from Cabinet Secretariat.
If a consultation is ongoing during this period, 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 those consultations that are still in progress and which have a particular emphasis on reserved or cross-border issues.
During this period, Directorates may continue to receive and analyse responses. Directorates should also consider extending consultation periods after the elections to allow all parties sufficient time to respond.
Scottish Government Communications staff should apply the principles set out above when planning and delivering communications activities that will take place during this period. Additional care should therefore be taken around press and marketing activity concerning reserved or cross-border issues. This does not, however, necessarily prevent the continuation of existing campaigns and messaging where these have already begun.
It is also important to take care with official websites, including gov.scot and scotland.org, and use of social media that will be scrutinised closely by the news media and the political parties during the election period. In cases of doubt, guidance should be sought from Aileen Easton, Head of News; Pauline Aylesbury, Head of Marketing and Insight, or Kenneth Fowler, Head of Communications, as appropriate.
Use of government property
Government property should not be used by Ministers or candidates for electioneering purposes.
In the case of NHS property, decisions are for the relevant NHS body, 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
During the election period, statistical activities should continue to be conducted in accordance with the UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice for Statistics and the relevant Pre-Release Access to Official Statistics Orders, which should be read as though they are part of that Code.
Regular pre-announced statistical releases (for example, press notices or bulletin publications) will continue to be issued and published.
The principles set out here are not about restricting commentary from independent sources, for example academics who may also hold public appointments or non-executive roles in government departments or public bodies. It is for individual public bodies to apply this pre-election guidance within their own organisations, but in doing so they should not go beyond the principles set out in this document.
Social research activities should be in accordance with the Government Social Research (GSR) Code and supplementary guidance, including the GSR Publication Protocol. Requests for information should be handled in accordance with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (see above) and with the Code of Practice for Statistics. In cases of doubt, advice should be sought from the relevant Chief Professional Officer (the Chief Statistician, the Office of the Chief Researcher, or the Chief Economic Adviser, as appropriate).
Use of public funds
During the pre-election period, Directorates should carefully consider the timing of decisions and announcements in relation to large and/or contentious commercial contracts or grants 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 and the need to continue essential business. Each case should be considered on its merits.
Political activity connected with the UK general election falls within the definition of national political activity.
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, and in Section 4.4 of the Civil Service Management Code.
Practical advice on personal conduct during pre-election periods and general guidance on social media use (whether for official, professional or personal use) are available: you should take the time to familiarise yourself with both these sources of guidance [these are published on the Scottish Government Intranet and are available to staff].
If you are in any doubt, speak to your line manager in the first instance and then HR Help on 0131 244 8500.
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 spend public money, make public announcements and may employ civil servants. It is for individual public bodies to apply this pre-election guidance within their own organisations, but in doing so they should not go beyond the principles set out in this document.
Sponsor teams should ensure that staff and members of the public bodies for which they are responsible are aware of this guidance and are applying the principles appropriately. In cases of doubt, public bodies should always seek advice from their Scottish Government sponsor team/contacts for further guidance, who should refer to Cabinet Secretariat as required.
In cases of doubt, or if you have any queries about the application of this guidance, please e-mail the Cabinet Secretariat inbox.
Cabinet Secretariat will seek the advice of the Permanent Secretary, as required.
This guidance is also being made public by being placed in the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe).
Email: Cabinet Secretariat
Telephone: 0131 244 3579 or 0131 244 6933