Scottish civil servants warned to steer clear of 'pre-election giveaways' amid impartiality concerns

Scottish Government civil servants are to be issued with fresh guidance on rules around impartiality during political campaign periods amid concerns over “pre-election giveaways” from SNP ministers.

Scotland’s top civil servant has been urged to ensure there is no repeat of the row which followed the 2017 council elections when an £8.35 million funding announcement for Glasgow was unveiled by housing minister Kevin Stewart just two days before the vote.

Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans dismissed a complaint about “purdah” rules being breached at the time, but Freedom of Information requests revealed that Scottish Government officials privately admitted it was the “wrong call”.

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In 2017, it was reported that Nicola Sturgeons government made sensitive spending announcements in key election battlegrounds during an election campaign. Picture: John Devlin

Guidance on purdah rules will be issued to officials next week, the government has now confirmed.

“Civil servants will be issued with guidance to ensure that the highest standards of propriety are maintained throughout the pre-election period,” a spokeswoman said.

“The guidance will be issued to staff when we have confirmation from the UK Cabinet Office about the timing of the pre-election period and will also be published on the Scottish Government website at that time.”

Preventing the same mistake

Purdah rules are in place to prevent the party of government from making major announcements on things like funding which could secure them an advantage during the campaign.

They also maintain the impartiality of the civil service. The regulated period ahead of the current December vote begins on Wednesday.

Highlands and Islands Tory MSP Donald Cameron has written to Evans demanding there is no repeat of the row in the build-up to the 2017 election.

“In 2017, we saw examples where Nicola Sturgeon’s government made sensitive spending announcements in key election battlegrounds during an election campaign,” Cameron said.

“Their own civil servants acknowledge they made ‘the wrong call’ in doing so. We called them out then and, in 2019, we need to make sure there is no repeat.

“That is why I have written to Leslie Evans to insist that the government sticks stringently to the highest standards of impartiality during this campaign. Unfortunately, over 12 years in office, the SNP no longer understands the difference between its own political interests and the public interest.

“Pre-election giveaways are simply not acceptable.”

Glasgow was a key battleground for the SNP in the build-up to the 2017 council election as it campaigned, successfully as it turned out, to seize the city after decades of Labour rule.

But a row broke out when Stewart unveiled a £8.35m funding boost to support urban regeneration in the heart of the city in the crucial final week.

Complaints by the opposition that purdah rules had been breached were rejected by Evans. But emails later emerged which paint a different picture in correspondence between officials.

Wrong call

Director of Housing and Social Justice Lesley Fraser wrote to the Director General for Communities, Sarah Davidson, to say: “I think this has been a genuine error of judgement about regular announcements that affect communities across Scotland – but clearly the wrong call on this occasion.”

Another email saw Deputy Director of the Social Justice and regeneration Division Shirley Laing add: “We called it wrong on this occasion as Lesley and I felt it was important to address that up front.”

And a spokesperson for the First Minister responded in an email: “I just thought it was implicit that it was a wrong call given where we are.”

Cameron’s letter demands that all civil servants to be “thoroughly reminded” of Purdah rules in the build-up to the election.

“It is vital that the civil service avoid even the impression of politicisation,” it states.

“In the midst of a general election campaign, it is absolutely essential that the civil service stick stringently to the required standards of impartiality and objectivity.”