Part 6: Advertising in the pre-election period

Government and parliamentary publicity and advertising.


The period preceding a general election has specific implications for publicly funded publicity and advertising.

We mentioned in Part 3 the “benefits of incumbency” that enable Ministers and MPs to achieve indirect party political benefit from publicity or advertising at public expense. That potential undoubtedly increases in the period leading up to a general election.

Similarly, the risks for government departments in undertaking publicity and advertising activities increase as an election draws near – especially if the subject matter of the publicity or advertising is politically contentious.

Why are we concerned about pre-election publicity and advertising?

At present, publicly funded publicity and advertising by Ministers, government departments, and parliamentary parties in the pre-election period is not subject to any comprehensive rules or guidance. This contrasts with the detailed requirements of the Broadcasting Act 1989 that fix the amounts of pre-election broadcasting that are allocated to political parties.

During an election period, successive governments have chosen to avoid conducting advertising campaigns that may create a perception that funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes. Paragraph 4.14 of the Cabinet Manual 2001 states –

In the period immediately before a general election, the government is not bound by the caretaker convention…unless the election has resulted from the government losing the support of the House. But successive governments have chosen to restrict their actions to some extent at this time, in recognition of the fact that an election, and therefore potentially a change of government, is imminent. For example…some government advertising has been thought to be inappropriate during the election campaign (that is, where it might create a perception that public funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes – see the Guidelines for Government Advertising at appendix 2 for general guidance). In practice, restraints have tended to be applied from approximately three months before the general election is due, or (if the period between the announcement of the election and polling day is less than three months) from the announcement of the election.

Judgements about when and how restraints should be applied are matters for Ministers and, ultimately, the Prime Minister. The question under the guidelines of whether publicity or advertising has resulted in public funds being “used to finance publicity for party political purposes” must be considered with reference not only to the content of the publicity or advertising, but also to its timing.

The Members’ Handbook Guidelinesexpressly exclude “party political, promotional or electioneering material for the purpose of supporting the election of any person” from the definition of “parliamentary business” in relation to advertising by MPs or parliamentary parties.

There is no guidance as to how this should be applied in the period before Parliament is dissolved. However, there is clear potential for MPs’ and parliamentary parties’ publicity and advertising activities in the weeks and months leading up to a dissolution to bring considerable party political benefit. That potential increases as political content is permitted in such publicity and advertising.

What needs to happen?

It needs to be recognised that government and parliamentary publicity and advertising outside the 3-month period before a general election can have electoral advantage for governing parties and parliamentary parties.

It is clearly impracticable for government publicity and advertising to cease completely during a pre-election period. The routine business of government must continue, and publicity and advertising is an integral part of that business. However, the potential for improper benefit exists nonetheless.

The basic expectations of theCabinet Manual 2001 and the Members’ Handbook Guidelinesare clear about conducting advertising campaigns close to a general election, and not using parliamentary advertising for electioneering or related purposes. Beyond those basic expectations, the potential for indirect political benefit requires risk management by Ministers and government department chief executives.

We have provided comprehensive guidance on communications by local authorities in a pre-election period (see Appendix 4) in our report Good Practice for Managing Communications by Local Authorities (April 2004).

Our guidance for local authorities states that–

A local authority must not promote, nor be perceived to promote, the reelection prospects of a sitting member. Therefore, the use of Council resources for re-election purposes is unacceptable and possibly unlawful.

And –

A Council’s communications policy should also recognise the risk that communications by or about Members, in their capacities as spokespersons for Council, during a pre-election period could result in the Member achieving electoral advantage at ratepayers’ expense. The chief executive officer (or his or her delegate) should actively manage the risk in accordance with the relevant electoral law.

There is a need for similar guidance in respect of government department and ministerial publicity activities in a pre-election period. In recent months, we have been approached on several occasions for assurance about advertising campaigns at public expense that have been planned by government departments or Crown entities during a general election year. In each case, the content of the advertising was consistent with the Government Advertising Guidelines, had the advertising been scheduled to take place outside an election period.

We do not regard it as our role to make judgements on whether electoral advantage might accrue as a result of particular publicity or advertising being undertaken close to an election. In our view, that judgement is one for chief executives and, ultimately, for Ministers.

However, the making of those judgements would clearly be enhanced if there were more comprehensive guidance about how to manage the risks involved.

The United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office issued, in 2001, specific guidance relating to government information activities during a general election. The general principle is–

… to do everything possible to avoid competition with Parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public. In addition, it has always been recognised that special care must be taken during the course of an Election since material produced with complete impartiality which would be accepted as objective in ordinary times, may excite criticism during an Election period when feelings are running high.15

The guidance is comprehensive, and sets out how different types of publicity should be managed during the pre-election period, including:

  • relations between government departments and news media;
  • press articles, interviews, broadcasts, and webcasts by Ministers;
  • exhibitions that may advocate government policies;
  • window displays;
  • films, videos, and photographs from government department libraries;
  • printed material (including posters and leaflets);
  • advertising campaigns; and
  • the Internet.

15: See

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