What is election ‘purdah’ and what do the rules mean?

With a general election on the way, the UK has entered purdah, restricting what ruling politicians can do

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets club members during a visit to Market Bosworth Bowling Club, while on the General Election campaign trail. Picture date: Tuesday May 28, 2024.
Ruling politicians, such as Rishi Sunak, remain in office after an election is called and are subject to strict rules. (PA/Alamy)

With a general election taking place next month, the country has entered "purdah", officially known as the "pre-election period of sensitivity".

Purdah means ruling politicians and civil servants face restrictions on what they can do and announce in the coming weeks, with a goal of ensuring the election is fair.

Government resources cannot be used for party political campaigning and particular care is meant to be taken in the run-up to an election to ensure the impartiality of the civil service.

The idea is that public money cannot be spent on the election – politicians are forbidden from even using House of Commons stationery – and ministers cannot announce decisions or new policies from their departments which might influence voters during the purdah period.

During the run-up to the election, broadcasters such as the BBC are also subject to separate strict rules around impartiality, with Ofcom warning broadcasters about screening shows hosted by politicians, for example.

On 22 May, Rishi Sunak announced there would be an election on Thursday, 4 July.

The date for the start of purdah was set to 12.01am on 25 May, according to guidance issued to civil servants. It ends after the election.

The Commons also dissolved on 30 May, meaning MPs are no longer MPs. Government ministers, however, keep their jobs and the civil service keeps working, with the purdah rules applying to these two groups.

Tory backbenchers and opposition politicians, such as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer are not restricted by purdah, though they must still ensure they abide by campaign finance and election laws if they are standing again.

The term itself comes from Hindi and refers to gender partition practices among some Hindu and Muslim communities – and this association with gender divisions is why the government now generally uses "pre-election period of sensitivity" instead.

The term literally means "curtain" and some form of "purdah" has been practised in UK elections dating back to the early 20th century.

But in recent elections, the government has turned its back on the term in favour of "pre-election period of sensitivity".

View of the Houses of Parliament, London, UK.
The rules aim to ensure no public money can be spent on campaigning (Getty)

Purdah applies to ministers, local politicians, special advisers and civil servants. The rules apply to both local and general elections.

They mean no public money can be spent on the election, right down to digital services provided in the House of Commons.

Ministers are still free to campaign. They can write articles, make visits and take part in photo opportunities. However, they cannot announce new or long-term policies, funding or appointments on behalf of their departments.

Purdah also applies to local councils during this campaign, in that they can carry on largely as normal but "should assess whether it could be perceived that they are spending public money to influence the outcome of the election".

As per the House of Commons Library, "there are no sanctions for any perceived breach of the pre-election period guidance by ministers".

This is because the pre-election period for the UK government and civil servants is not set out in law but is "governed by conventions". Nonetheless, breaches would be taken seriously.

Last year, Rishi Sunak was accused of flouting purdah after announcing a policy, two weeks before local elections, aimed at forcing young people to study maths until age 18. His spokesman rejected this.

Broadcasters are subject to strict Ofcom rules during the election period, although this is not strictly part of "purdah" and is dealt with separately under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.

The rules mean broadcasters must attempt to provide "appropriate" coverage to all parties, including independent candidates.

Candidates in UK elections must not appear as news presenters or interviewers in the run-up to the election.

When the polling stations open at 7am on 4 July, broadcasters will not be allowed to discuss or analyse election issues until they close at 10pm, and may not publish the results of opinion polls.