EU Referendum: When political 'purdah' seems peculiar

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With the EU referendum on the horizon, guidelines are in place to prevent councils campaigning for one side to win. The advice, though, is open to interpretation - leading to some councils taking decisions which may appear a little peculiar.

A 28-day moratorium before all polls - so-called "purdah" - is a period during which no major announcements should be made to avoid influencing their outcome.

Councils are told they can talk about local issues - such as potholes - but should steer clear of things like the impact on the local area of immigration.

But can bin lorries, art installations and roses really influence the way the public votes? They have all emerged as victims of the zealous - sometimes perhaps over-zealous - application of the convention in recent months.

The tiny riot

Image copyright Gioconda Beekman/Barney Livingston
Image caption Viewers peer through drilled holes to see the tiny display, described as a "bizarre twisted model village"

Artist James Cauty - formerly of the band KLF - created a miniature village depicting the aftermath of a riot. However, it was banned from being displayed in Northampton town centre because the council feared it would influence how people voted in the upcoming referendum.

The piece is described on Cauty's website as "a vast 1:87 scale-model landscape which has been completely looted, destroyed, burnt and is devoid of life apart from 5,000 or so model police that attend this apocalyptic aftermath; a kind of bizarre twisted model village experience".

The work, called The Aftermath Dislocation Principle, is a shipping container riddled with peep holes through which people can peer to view the exhibit within. Originally shown at Banksy's "Dismaland" exhibition, it was due to spend a day in the Market Square in Northampton.

But the council decided not to allow the display because it "depicts an election riot which could be misinterpreted in the pre-referendum 'purdah' period".

The display was eventually put up in the car park of local cafe, Super Sausage.

Shhh - this report's public

Image caption A public report was published about Milton Keynes hospital - but no-one would speak about it

The NHS in Bedford and Milton Keynes released a report about the future of hospitals in the area, but then - despite it being available for anyone to read - refused to do any media interviews about it, citing "purdah" as the reason. A public meeting on 14 June was then cancelled for the same reason.

The review group says it had taken legal advice and been advised that to proceed with such a meeting in the immediate run-up to the EU Referendum would contravene the principles of the moratorium.

It leaves them in the invidious position that the review has been published but they cannot talk about it.

Bedford MP Richard Fuller was critical of the decision, however, saying that if "purdah" was such a concern the report should have been published on 24 June - after the EU referendum.

The red roses

Image copyright BBC/Shutterstock
Image caption Stockport Council's love wasn't like a red red rose

Although the poet Robert Burns once wrote his love was "like a red, red rose", Stockport Council did not see it that way in April when it banned market traders handing out the flowers to mark St George's Day.

The council said the roses were used in the Labour Party's logo and thus dispensing them "could breach election rules" in the run up to the local elections.

The town's market traders have handed out the flowers for many years on 23 April.

The Liberal Democrat-led council - which the National Market Traders' Federation said had threatened to "forcibly remove" anyone giving out roses - was besieged with complaints and abandoned the stance.

Stallholder Mostafa Rezvani said: "I think the 100 roses that we were going to give out is not going to make a great difference for the Labour Party in Stockport."

The Brexit bin lorry

Image copyright Trash UK
Image caption The bin lorry, with no sign of Boris Johnson

A bin lorry emblazoned with the company's logo - a union jack - was prevented from taking to roads in Sussex after a council decreed it was too similar to the battle bus driven round the country by a Brexit-urging Boris Johnson.

Brighton and Hove Council said concerns had been raised on social media that the bin lorry was backing the Leave campaign.

"Therefore the decision was taken by the chief executive to take this particular truck off the road on what was an election day and replace it with a plain one."

The lorry's owner, Chris Wood from Evesham company Trash UK, was slightly baffled by the decision, saying the only previous complaint he'd had was from an Army colonel who said the flag was upside down.

Mr Wood, who says he will vote to stay in the EU, added: "We thought it looked nice".

Image copyright Ian Forsyth
Image caption The actual Brexit battle bus

'You're not coming in'

Image caption Redditch Town Hall nearly became off-limits to to reporters

During Worcestershire's council elections in May, reporters wanted to interview local party leaders in Redditch Town Hall - but borough council press officers claimed the building itself was totally off limits.

On another occasion, the county council's press office told reporters a councillor was unavailable for interview due to "purdah" rules, BBC Hereford and Worcester's Matthew Bone said.

But both bans were reversed after some persuasion.

"Again it took a lot of persuading to remove the bans. I don't think the councils were being deliberately obstructive, it can come down to a simple misunderstanding".

Indeed, the BBC's chief advisor on politics, Ric Bailey, described so-called purdah as "not a strict law".

"It's a piece of guidance which is perfectly sensible and low key.

"But different councils and public bodies apply widely different interpretations of the same guidelines".

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