Civil servants are supposed to be in “purdah” during the General Election campaign.  However, despite central Cabinet Office guidance, Government Departments seem to be developing rather different interpretations of what this means and some seem to be taking it to ludicrous extremes.

Three examples that I have come across this week illustrate the point:

  • one Government Department has cancelled a meeting that takes place in private, whose papers and proceedings are classified, is only attended by civil servants and official representatives of public bodies, and does not take decisions – canceled in the name of “purdah”.
  • another Government Department allowed a meeting of an officially-constituted Advisory Group (on a fairly non-controversial area of work) to go ahead (on their premises) attended by about twenty voluntary sector representatives – but no civil servants attended in the name of “purdah”.
  • a third Government Department has instructed a contractor to stop working on a Departmental programme (one that is likely to continue in some form whatever the result of the election) because the work involves talking to the external bodies that deliver the programme concerned – business-as-usual-not, in the name of “purdah”.

I am not sure that any of the decisions make particular sense, but they all stretch the meaning of “purdah” as previously interpreted.

Presumably, civil servants are now so busy producing policy options for so many different permutations of electoral outcomes that day-to-day government has had to come to a grinding halt – no wonder it took them so long to notice the volcanic ash crisis.

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