Election publicty rules raise their head in Oldham

The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election (which concluded yesterday) has thrown up a familiar issue for those who work in or with the public sector, albeit in a rather unusual way.

The Guardian and Labour Party blogs were yesterday reporting that Local Government Minister Andrew Stunell had apologised for a series of events which led to complaints that purdah regulations were breached.

Purdah is the term that covers the regulations restricting what can (and mostly can’t) be said and done before an election. Apart from the obvious rules about public bodies attending or supporting political events, purdah also covers Government business, which should not be seen to influence voter opinion ahead of an election.

In recent days, Mr Stunell announced the Government’s new £100m empty homes initiative, then visited Oldham to promote it before the Lib Dems put out a press release promoting the issue. This led to complaints that purdah rules were breached.

Having worked occasionally for Oldham Council and the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder in my previous job, I know what a big issue housing is in that area. It is understandable that candidates and ministers would want to campaign for better homes.

That this has led to complaints, and an apology, for a breach of the dreaded regulations underlines what a minefield purdah continues to be. With local elections just a few months away, I will need to brush up on the rules soon.