Nigel Hawkes: The absurdity of pre-election purdah

Behind The Numbers
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The Independent Online

During an election campaign, everybody churns out information to inform and sway the electorate. Well, not quite everybody. Some people are simply too dangerous to be allowed to say anything at all.

This group of the gagged includes statisticians employed by the Government, who are explicitly forbidden from providing extra data that might illuminate the political arguments. And, for this general election, the purdah rules have been extended to another great swathe of the intelligentsia: scientists and academics working for research councils or in receipt of grants from them.

They have been warned not to make announcements in a way that appears to favour one political party or candidate, to limit blogging and tweeting, not to stage important announcements, to delay large tenders, avoid comments that can be linked to the research council, and avoid saying anything that isn't already in the public domain.

In Norway, the statistics office releases special presentations daily in the last three weeks of an election campaign. Nobody complains. In the UK, any such approach is not only discouraged, it is banned. Only statistical releases that are already on the calendar are permitted.

Adding academics to the list is a new departure. The first inkling came at the time of last year's local and European elections, when scholars funded by the Economic and Social Research Council were told, at the instigation of John Denham, then Universities Secretary, to keep their mouths shut. He should have been told that freedom is freedom, 24 hours a day, and cannot be diluted or removed at the whim of an elected politician.

This election, the ban now includes the Medical Research Council, established under a Royal Charter which declares it has a duty to generate public awareness and encourage public engagement and dialogue.

Are the scientists knuckling under? On 9 April, three days after the election was called, The Independent published a letter from 22 Labour-supporting scientists. Two of the signatories work for the MRC, while others on the list are almost certainly in receipt of research council grants.

So they broke purdah. Nobody pointed this out, possibly because the MRC hadn't at that point issued its edict. Are sanctions planned? It would make a good test case, though it's unclear what form the sanctions could take, beyond a slap on the wrist.

Nigel Hawkes is director of Straight Statistics (