Propriety

Like all civil servants, government communicators must carry out their work objectively and without political bias, in accordance with the standards of behaviour set out in the Civil Service Code.

Propriety in government communications

In the specific context of government communications, propriety means presenting the policies and programmes of the government of the day properly and effectively. To achieve this, government communications:

  • should be relevant to government responsibilities
  • should be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical
  • should not be – and not liable to being misrepresented as – party political
  • should be conducted in an economic and appropriate way
  • should be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds

Propriety guidance

The Civil Service Code sets out the standards of behaviour expected of all civil servants. The Government Communication Propriety Guidance gives more detailed information on how to observe propriety within government communications.

Read the summary of the guidance to answer frequently asked questions to GCS.

Summary of guidance

Rules regarding new policy announcements

Any announcement of a new policy must always respect the primacy of Parliament. If a minister announces a new policy outside the House, they risk being reprimanded by the Speaker.

The announcement must reach all MPs via an Answer to a Parliamentary Question or a Statement. An Answer or Statement must clearly state the timing of the announcement and copies of relevant material must be available in the Houses of Parliament at that time. Departmental parliamentary clerks are able to offer advice on this.

In recess, a press notice can be used if it is copied to the relevant select committee chair and placed in the Library of the House.

Restrictions during elections and referenda

The term purdah is not an official descriptor but has come into popular use across central and local government to describe the run-up to elections or referenda – a time when specific restrictions on the activity of civil servants are in place.

Specific election guidance is published by the Cabinet Office prior to each event. As a guide to the type of restrictions that may apply, government communicators are advised to consult previous examples of election guidance.

Guidance is typically published on the GOV.UK website.

The Cabinet Office publishes guidance to departments in advance of each election and referendum which sets out the specific period in which restrictions apply, as a guide:

  • in the case of general elections, the convention is that the election period should be taken as from the day the General Election is announced, although between that time and date and the dissolution of Parliament it is in order for the Government to clear essential business
  • in the case of local elections, the period of sensitivity is not always fixed to any particular date, but the general convention is that particular care should be taken in the three weeks preceding the elections

Party political content

It is one of the established conventions of government communications that communication by civil servants or use of public resources should not be – or liable to be – misrepresented as being party political.

It is, of course, proper to present and describe the policies of a minister, and to put forward the minister’s justification in defence of them.

However, it is not proper for civil servants to justify or defend those policies in party political terms, to use political slogans, expressly to advocate policies as those of a particular political party or directly attack policies and opinions of opposition parties and groups (though it may be necessary to respond to them in specific terms).

It would be considered improper for a department to issue as an official text a speech containing party political content or political attacks. In such cases, any party political content would have to be omitted from the official release. If a minister wished the speech to be issued in full then it would have to come from the press office of the political party.

Nor should departments publish via their websites and social media accounts link to party political content including such speeches. As in the above case, a version of the text that omits such content can be made available via the department’s web pages.

Party Conference and party political events

Civil servants must not draft Party Conference speeches. However, Ministers can request and receive a factual brief explaining departmental policies or actions for the purposes of the Party Conference and other such events. Equally, if requested, civil servants may check ministers’ Conference speeches for factual accuracy in respect of departmental policies or actions.

Partnerships with the private sector.

We encourage activity that promotes UK trade and economic growth and we support partnership working with business, the wider public and private sectors. In exploring the options, civil servants must at all times act in a spirit of transparency and in accordance with the Civil Service Code. GCS has published Planning and Delivering Effective Communications Partnership Strategies which explores issues of propriety and best practice more fully.

Ensuring fair approach to potential partners

The department will frequently benefit from working with multiple partner organisations on any particular issue. In seeking partners, civil servants must at all times act in a spirit of transparency and in accordance with the Civil Service Code. To encourage engagement, the department might for example:

  • Place a notice on the department’s website;
  • Liaise directly with recognised trade bodies and industry media; or
  • Hold open days and briefing events allowing potential partners to visit and engage with the issues.

GCS has published Planning and Delivering Effective Communications Partnership Strategies which explores issues of propriety and best practice more fully.

We encourage activity that promotes UK trade and economic growth and we support partnership working with business. We do not provide links that offer undue endorsement or may be perceived as offering unfair commercial advantage to third parties.

It is legitimate to provide links to, or otherwise feature an approved partnership campaign – this may include links to an umbrella organisation, trade body or campaign website subject to the considerations outlined in the guidance on partnership communications.

Contact us

If you have any questions about propriety, it is always best to contact your line manager or Director of Communications in the first instance. If you require further clarification or advice, contact the GCS Propriety Team at gcs.propriety@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.