Leading article: The abuse of a valuable principle

Thursday 18 March 2010 01:00 GMT

The concept of civil service "purdah" in the run up to general elections is a valuable one. It guarantees the impartiality of public servants during an intensely partisan period and facilitates a relatively smooth transition between administrations. Yet this newspaper has uncovered various indications that this concept is being abused. As we reported yesterday, purdah has been used to justify a delay in the publication of official statistics on youth crime. One can only assume the figures would be unhelpful to Labour as it prepares for the forthcoming election.

And we reported last week that ministers are locking departments into commercial contracts for pet Labour projects that will be difficult and expensive to break, despite the rule that civil servants should not enact policies in the run-up to an election that might conflict with the agenda of a potentially incoming administration. The Government has been able to get away with this because an election has not yet officially been called and so the rules of purdah do not yet technically apply.

What all this exposes, first and foremost, is the Government's cynicism. On youth crime statistics, it is hiding behind the principle of civil service neutrality, but over long-term contracts it is busily exploiting a loophole. Yet the opposition seem just as ready to exploit the concept when it is convenient. The Conservative Party has put pressure on the BBC to delay the broadcast of an investigation into their deputy chairman, Michael Ashcroft, on the grounds that it would be unfair to screen such a documentary in the run up to an election. And the BBC appears to have caved in.

A large part of the problem lies in the fact that Gordon Brown has exercised his right to take this parliament to its maximum five-year length. This means everyone knows an election has to take place before the summer, even if it has not officially been announced. The result is that we have been in a de facto election campaign since the beginning of the year. The solution is a sharper codification of purdah (on precisely when it applies and which institutions are bound by it) and a move to fixed-term parliaments. The concept of civil service neutrality is too precious for it to be abused in this fashion by unscrupulous politicians.

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