UK general election: implications for Scottish institutions

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A UK general election is to be held on 12 December 2019. Ahead of a general election the UK Parliament is dissolved at one minute past midnight, 25 working days before polling day. So for this election, the UK Parliament was dissolved at one minute past midnight on 6 November. At this point every seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant. The period of 25 days is known at the ‘pre-election period’ and is the official campaigning period for the general election.

Fifty nine MPs are elected to represent Scotland at the UK Parliament. This means that there will be a lot of political campaigning ahead of the election on 12 December.

This blog sets out the basic rules in place in the run-up to the general election and gives an overview of how the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are affected.

What is the pre-election period?

During the pre-election period the activity of civil servants is limited and there is a restriction on the use of public resources. The pre-election period is to ensure that the Government of the day is not able to use public resources to gain political advantage in the election. The convention is that during the pre-election period there are no policy announcements made and no consultations launched. The Cabinet Office has issued guidance for civil servants ahead of the UK general election.

The UK Government retains its responsibility to govern and Ministers remain in charge of their departments until a new government is formed after the election. It is important that throughout any election period there is still a government.

Civil servants for the devolved administrations

The Civil Service Code applies to civil servants working for the devolved administrations. It is acknowledged in the Cabinet Office guidance that civil servants ‘owe their loyalty’ to the devolved administration and not to the UK Government. This means that the Cabinet Office guidance issued to civil servants ahead of the general election does not apply to those working for the Scottish Government.

Devolved administrations do, however, issue their own guidance ahead of general elections reinforcing civil servants’ duty to be politically impartial.

The Scottish Government also has a duty to be aware of the potential impact it could have on a general election when publishing information, making announcements and so on. The Cabinet Office guidance states that:

“While the devolved administrations will continue largely as normal, they are aware of the need to avoid any action that is, or could be construed as being, party-political or likely to have a direct bearing on the general election.”

What does the UK general election mean for the Scottish Parliament?

The Scottish Parliament is elected separately to the House of Commons. So, it is business as usual for the Scottish Parliament which continues to sit throughout the pre-election period. Debates continue as normal and MSPs’ ability to lodge motions and parliamentary questions is unaffected. By convention, the Scottish Parliament does not sit on polling day.

There is, however, an acknowledgement that what happens at the Scottish Parliament could affect the election and there are rules in place to minimise any such impact.

Rules for MSPs and their staff

MSPs, as members of political parties, will campaign during the election, but there are strict rules in place to ensure that they do not misuse Scottish Parliament resources for party political purposes. These rules apply at all times, but during election campaigns it is particularly important that MSPs are clear on them and that they are observed. The Clerk to the Parliament issues guidance to MSPs and their staff to remind them of these rules and their responsibilities as MSPs throughout the pre-election period.

MSPs and their staff have full access to and use of all the services which are provided by the Scottish Parliament, so that they can continue to carry out their work as elected representatives. This means the work of MSPs and their staff at the Scottish Parliament and in local parliamentary offices. The services which are provided by the Scottish Parliament include things like IT services and postage and stationery as well as research and enquiry services provided by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe).

As the Scottish Parliament allocates MSPs a staffing budget, MSPs’ staff are not allowed to campaign during their contracted working hours. The guidance states that:

“Members are reminded that during their contracted hours members of staff employed by the Member may not undertake any significant party political activity.  Campaigning or assisting in an election or other political campaign would constitute “significant party political activity”.

MSPs’ staff are able to campaign in their own time or by taking annual leave or unpaid leave.

The publication of any material which is funded by the Scottish Parliament is also forbidden within four months of a Scottish Parliament election and within three months of a UK Parliament, European Parliament or local government election. This means that MSPs are not able to issue annual reports, newsletters, surveys or general circular letters.

How does the pre-election period affect the work of SPICe and other Scottish Parliamentary Service staff?

Staff employed direct by the Scottish Parliament (i.e. not MSP staff) belong to the Scottish Parliamentary Service (SPS). SPS staff include numerous teams such as SPICe, clerking, media relations, events and facilities management.

Given that the Scottish Parliament continues to sit in the run up to a UK general election, SPS staff continue to work as usual to support the business of the Parliament. This includes its committees and, for example in the case of SPICe, delivering research and enquiry services for MSPs which relate to parliamentary or constituency/regional business.

As an impartial service, SPICe provides a service to support MSPs with their parliamentary and constituency/regional duties. Its services are not to be used for party political purposes. As such, SPICe services must not be used as any part of the election campaign. The SPICe team is able to ask for clarification on any requests which it is concerned may be used for party political purposes.

Sarah Atherton, Senior Researcher, SPICe