Impact of COVID-19 on the Senedd Election
1.1 As you are aware, emergency legislation has been passed by the Senedd to provide for measures relating to protection against COVID-19 to apply to the 2021 Senedd election. The legislation also provides the option of postponing the election should there be a public health reason.
1.2 The Election is due to take place on Thursday 6th May and, unlike previous election years, the current Senedd will not be dissolved until one minute past midnight on Thursday 29th April in order to be able to continue to respond to the unfolding public health issues. However, it is envisaged that the pre-election period will commence on 25 March 2021.
1.3 Ministers will remain in post and will continue to do so beyond the election, providing that you are re-elected. This situation will exist until such a time as you are re-appointed or replaced. Ministers who are not re-elected will be expected to resign.
1.4 It is conventional for pre-election discussions to take place between opposition parties and the civil service. These discussions are designed to allow party leaders to ask questions about the organisation of Welsh Government departments and to inform civil servants of any organisational changes likely to take place in the event of a change of government. These discussions are confidential to both sides. I have authorised the Permanent Secretary to extend the offer of discussions under this convention to the main political parties.
2.1 Ordinarily all high profile Government activity ceases during the pre-election period, to avoid any suggestion of you using your Ministerial role and status for campaigning purposes. This also maintains the political neutrality of civil servants. The convention applies to all government business although the need to continue management of the coronavirus will, inevitably, create a unique context.
2.2 During the Senedd election period we will need to continue taking important decisions on managing the virus and officials will continue to provide us with the required level of support and advice; the guidance for the civil service is attached at the Annex. Specifically, two “21 day reviews” of the coronavirus regulations will take place during April (1st and 22nd). We as ministers will not be constrained from speaking politically about COVID-19 but we must make sure that we do not draw the civil service into such activities. Furthermore, continuing work on the Government’s response to the pandemic does not mean that the guidance should not be observed in respect of other areas of Government business.
2.3 We are reminded that the Ministerial Code requires us to keep our official and party political/constituency roles separate. Official engagements and announcements during the campaign period would inevitably raise our campaigning profile, and would be viewed in that light. That would call compliance with the Code into serious doubt. We should also bear in mind that confusing Ministerial and campaigning functions could have implications for campaign expenditure, and may even lead to breaches of electoral law.
2.4 Therefore, we should not in our Ministerial capacities undertake any high-profile engagements or make major announcements during the pre-election period, and should not ask officials to do so on our behalf, apart from specific matters relating to responding to the pandemic.
2.5 The routine business of government continues during the campaign. We should still be prepared, and be available, to make routine decisions, which are not politically contentious or likely to attract media attention.
2.6 Ongoing Welsh Government and public health campaigns and dissemination of factual information relating to the pandemic should continue during the pre-election period. However, no new high profile, novel or contentious campaign work should be undertaken, and neither campaigns nor content should feature Ministers, either quoted, or with photographs / video.
2.7 When Ministers take decisions in their official capacity during the pre-election period, then the civil service communications service will support them in the same way as prior to that period. This might involve the usual range of communications tools: press notices, press conferences, social media material on government channels. Media engagement by civil servants should also be kept to a minimum in this period and strictly limited to provision of necessary factual information.
2.8 If decisions taken by Ministers become the subject of political controversy during the election campaign then additional care should be taken to avoid the perception that government communications are being used for party political purposes.
Role of officials
3.1 While officials will continue to support us in the normal way during the campaign, we need to be sure that such support cannot be interpreted as involvement in the election campaign, and that the political neutrality of the civil service is maintained. Accordingly, we need to take special care that:
- officials (including private office officials) do not accompany us on or join virtual engagements of a campaigning or party-political nature
- by the same token, party staff do not accompany us on or join any official ministerial engagements, whether physical or virtual
- we do not ask officials to brief us for campaigning or party-political engagements
- official cars must not be used to transport us to or from campaigning engagements, and in this regard we should avoid having campaigning engagements interspersed with official engagements where these are physically held
- Government IT equipment is not used to attend virtual campaign or party-political engagements. Welsh Government premises should never be used for campaigning activity.
3.2 The only exception to these principles should be that diary secretaries can continue to record party-political commitments in our official calendars. In line with previous guidance, during the pre-election period all Senedd Candidates will receive replies from us to correspondence.
Guidance for officials
4.1 Welsh Government officials will be provided with guidance (attached) on how to conduct themselves during the pre-election period. Publication to the intranet and internet will follow and the guidance is based on that produced for previous Senedd Elections, amended to reflect handling the current pandemic situation.
4.2 Supplementary guidance has been produced for officials in the Communications Directorate and those involved in statistical, survey and broader research activity, which is set out in separate Appendices.
4.3 The principles of this guidance will be conveyed to the NHS, Welsh Government Sponsored Bodies and other devolved bodies in Wales.
Press and publicity
5.1 Our communications activities will inevitably come under great scrutiny during the pre-election period, as any Government communication could be interpreted as electioneering. We must, therefore, avoid any possible accusations of Government communication resources being used for party political purposes. As mentioned above, these matters are explored in more detail in the Communications appendix to the pre-election guidance for the civil service.
Speeches and statements
6.1 In line with the Ministerial Code, officials should not be asked to prepare “political” speeches or statements, whether for use internally or elsewhere. We should avoid being open to the accusation of use of official engagements, virtual or physical, as campaign occasions.
Conduct of special advisers
7.1 The guidance also provides advice to special advisers on how to conduct themselves during the pre-election period in line with the Code of Conduct for special advisers.
8.1 The guidance attached to this Cabinet paper will be published to the Welsh Government website, accompanied by a news page item on the Welsh Government intranet homepage. A subsequent news page will be published at the start of the pre-election period, and throughout the campaign to remind staff that the guidance has come into force.
Cabinet is invited to note this paper and the attached guidance, and you are individually requested to be guided by it in your conduct over the election period.
Rt. Hon. Mark Drakeford MS
Drafted by: Damian Roche
Approved by: Des Clifford