Purdah rules suppress reports with 'no electoral significance' claims top QC

One of the country's top lawyers has attacked the government over its use of purdah, accusing civil servants of stifling debate by needlessly withholding information.

David Anderson QC claims purdah rules are being misapplied to suppress reports (pic credit: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock)
David Anderson QC claims purdah rules are being misapplied to suppress reports (pic credit: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock)

Election purdah rules are being used to suppress a number of reports on issues that have "no foreseeable electoral significance", according to David Anderson QC, Britain's former independent reviewer of terrorism.

He cites the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme as a case in point. Another example is a report by Anderson on deportation, which was supposed to be published in February this year and has been delayed even further by purdah.

The release of reports by independent inspectors on subjects ranging from policing, prisons and probation, to borders and immigration, has been pushed back until after the General Election, as has the publication of NHS financial data for trusts.

Writing on legal website The Brief Premium yesterday, Anderson speculated that the sweeping use of purdah could be the result of a "jumpy civil service" being "bounced into caution by an election for which there was little time to plan".

There needs to be "explicit recognition" that purdah does not restrict the actions of non-governmental experts, and some statistical releases should be published as normal and not delayed until after the election, according to the lawyer.

Anderson said: "It is also time to revisit the injunction that everything possible should be done to "avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public. The modern electorate is bombarded with information, much of it inaccurate, slanted or even fake."

He added: "The informed political debate on which a healthy democracy depends requires access to the best expertise, and up-to-date statistics published with the authority of bodies such as the Office for National Statistics and the Office for Budget Responsibility."

In his view, "Both the democratic process and the aim of protecting the civil service from controversy are better served by publishing such material than by hiding it under the veil."

Anderson said the principle of purdah was, in itself, sound but that it was not being used effectively and called for "revisions" to the guidance.

He said: "There is good sense in a convention that protects civil servants from being drawn into the election campaign. But during the current General Election campaign, several high-profile applications of purdah have not so much protected civil servants from controversy as plunged them into it.

"The lessons of this campaign need to be reflected in revisions to the current purdah guidance."

His criticisms were echoed by professor Judith Freedman CBE, a tax law expert at Oxford University, who tweeted: "It does seem ridiculous that just when people most need hard information, many sources are gagged by purdah rules."

Nick Taylor, chief executive, Foundation for Peace, commented: "It has badly affected my charity that tackles extremism. We can't continue like this and purdah is an excuse and misused."

Reacting to Anderson’s concerns, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants tweeted: "Purdah should not be an obstacle to the normal functioning of government. Sadly it seems to be an all-purpose excuse."

This comes amid mounting anger over the way in which purdah is being applied.

More than ten of Britain's leading science organisations, such as the British Science Association, the Royal Statistical Society, and British Pharmacological Society, recently complained to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service.

But Sir Jeremy is standing by the rules, which he said are "designed to maintain the impartiality of the Civil Service," and has rejected demands for a review of purdah.

In a written response to the concerns of scientists and academics, he said: "It is standard practice, after an election, for the Cabinet Office to reflect on how the election guidance has operated in practice, and we will be doing so this time round. I do not believe a wider review or consultation is required."

A Cabinet Office spokesperson told PRWeek: "The pre-election guidelines that we publish provide guidance to government departments and arms-length bodies on their activities during the pre-election period aimed at maintaining the impartiality of the Civil Service and avoiding any criticism of an inappropriate use of official resources.  Individual government departments and arms-length bodies will have regard to this Guidance when making their decisions."

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