Politically Restricted

Is everything political?

In this guest post a middle (I assume) manager asks why certain posts within local government are politically restricted. If you have a guest post you’d like to have on this site please drop us a line at welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com but not before you’ve read this interesting take on the neutrality of officers.

I recently received a promotion within my local authority and now find myself in the rarefied air of a ‘politically restricted’ post. This means I can no longer do such radical things as go canvassing or speak or write in public in a way that people might perceive as expressing support for a political party.

Many people will be reading this and thinking ‘why not?’ so let’s have a brief diversion and explain.

The Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (LGHA 1989) introduced the principle of ‘politically restricted posts’ (PoRPs) and of restricting the political activities of local authority employees. This was, so I am told, designed to prevent local government officers from having any lack of political impartiality, which could lead to separate loyalties and prejudicial service.

In other words, the idea of PoRPs (a horrible looking acronym) was to prevent people like me being biased in my work. To a certain extent this is not unreasonable. My job involves managing services that are managed by politicians. The services, in this case, are fairly controversial and each year a fair amount of strategic decisions are taken, usually by the Director, to the Cabinet for decision.

In addition, the councillors are then responsible, and accountable, for whatever my service does. With this in mind I can see why the politician would want to be certain that when I was at work I wasn’t doing anything to undermine them, as a local politician.

Despite this I still think the rule is bordering on the ridiculous. This is for three reasons:

1)    Proportionality: I can fully accept that it would be unwise for me to comment publicly on the state of my service, or even anything to do with my council, in public. But to say that I can’t comment on any other political issues anywhere in the country for fear that this would undermine my council employees is surely a bit over the top?

2)    A belief that public sector workers can be totally neutral in their beliefs: What’s funny about the rules is that they sort of assume that expressing ‘political’ beliefs in public is bad because it makes you less disinterested AND that all political opinion is expressed through support for a political party. The first half of that sentence doesn’t really work. No-one is truly disinterested (although many may be uninterested) and whether they express that opinion in public or not seems a strange way of deciding whether they can do their job impartially.

3)    An over-emphasis on parties: The second half of the above sentence is worse. I have been, at times, a member of Amnesty International and Greenpeace and along with most people in this country right now choose to express my ‘political’ opinions through non party interest groups. Is that any better? Why is it ok to be a member of greenpeace and write about the environment and not express support for the Lib Dem position on tuition fees (for example, not because I do)?

I am good at my job and would continue to be good at my job even if I spent a weekend or two putting fliers through some doors in my home town. The fact that we have to legislate for these politically restricted posts is surely nothing more than a crushing lack of trust in local government staff and the ability of them to do their job well without bias whilst separating their home and personal lives.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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20 Comments on “Politically Restricted”

  1. Legalese Says:

    But if you object to being in a PoRP, why not simply apply to your authority’s Standards Committee for a dispensation from its requirements? The LG&HA 1989 already had built into it a method for gaining a dispensation by appealing to an Independent Adjudicator, and the LG & Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 turned this process over to the Standards Committee. The LG Economic Development & Construction Act 2009 removed the automatic designation of all posts with a salary of £36K or higher as politically restricted. Your authority might need to re-evaluate all its roles based upon duties rather than salary. If your role involves regularly advising the Executive, individual Cabinet members, Committees and / or speaking to the press, which it appears to, then it’s classified as a Category D post and becomes restricted, but that’s still open for an exemption from the Standards Committee. The Committee can direct either that the post itself should not be classified as Category D, or it can direct that you personally can be granted an exemption. Either way, it might be worth a try before railing against the unfairness of it all, because it’s not always about what you personally think you can do to separate your personal convictions from your professional life, but about the public perception of whether or not you can do this.

  2. Lou Says:

    It also makes the assumption that I am not capable of separating the intentions, morals and political motivations of those I serve who have been elected, as opposed to the political issues of the day which may be swirling elsewhere.

    It also makes the stupid assumption that because someone isn’t ‘saying’ something, they’re not thinking it or indeed letting it colour their enthusiasm for serving the current party in power.

    We are people. We have political leanings. Trying to restrict them, I think, is ridiculous.

  3. Ben Proctor Says:

    I always chafed against the idea of political restriction when I was in that role but there is a but.

    It’s worth bearing in mind that political restriction is at least as much concerned with protecting senior officers from bullying and coercion by elected politicians. If senior staff were allowed to publicly campaign for political parties, they might come under considerable pressure to campaign for the ruling party. This could make their role untenable when political control shifts.

    I do think that in this country we have allowed a situation to evolve where we see party politics as toxic and fear that anyone associated with it is contaminated. Vast swathes of people in public life: civil servants, local government employees, BBC employees are expected to shut up and play no role in that part of our society. People also try to resist political action from people associated with charity (Tom Steinberg before the election for example).

    This pushes politicians into an exceptional space. Our democracy suffers. Elected officials should be representative of and form part of society not some weird elite defined by the bits of society they are separate from.

  4. Pete McClymont Says:

    Playing devil’s advocate:

    would the rule be ridiculous if the officer in question was a member of the BNP or some other flavour of extreme?

    • localgov Says:

      I think that the adage of “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it” may come into play here. Those people should be tackled in ways other than by politically restricting their post.

      I couldn’t see that rule being respected in any case.

      • Pete McClymont Says:

        I’m not suggesting excluding a person from a post on the basis of their political views though I do believe some teachers have been sacked for belonging to far right parties.

        I don’t particularly like the political restriction rules, but I can see some logic in the rules especially in the case of an officer campaigning for an extremist group.

  5. Performance Says:

    Have to say I agree with the poster. There’s practically noone I’ve met in local government who doesn’t have a political opinion – it’s kind of part of the job to think about what are inevitably political issues. And knowing about the issues, you end up mentally agreeing or disagreeing with the different parties on their policies or approaches. You’d be a pretty awful officer if you didn’t think about your service (at the very least) and have opinions!

    Now I, and most of the people I reference, aren’t at the restricted level, but it seems bizarre to me to expect people to suddenly drop all that when they’re promoted.

    What’s more critical, surely, is something about carrying out your job in an impartial manner and in line with local elected politicans regardless of their hue. And something, possibly, similar to a conflict of interests clause. An example might be not actively campaigning against (or even for) politicans IN YOUR AUTHORITY. But certainly where I work, in London, very few officers live in borough and activities in a different borough should have little bearing on day to day activities.

  6. Andrew Says:

    My own post is politically restricted, and I agree with a lot of what the post says. But there is also the question of public perception. Many members of the public will understand that an officer expressing personal support for Party X can operate neutrally when implementing any parties’ policies. But some of the public don’t see that. If an officer says “My view is that the policy proposed by Party X, now in control of my Council, is legal / not unreasonable / will have little negative impact” and they are well known as a supporter of Party X then some opponents of the policy will say “Well, they would say that” and kick up a stink. Dealing with that will drain resources and energy from the officers and members and provide a ready stick to beat the officer with. So if officers are seen as having to be politically neutral then that may avoid accusations of bias when implementing policies.
    Of course the flip side is if people can see the officer carefully and fully implementing Party X policies that it is known that they support Party Y then perhaps the public will believe we are neutral at work!

  7. Will Says:

    I work in democratic services so have no quibble with my politically restricted status. I’d reiterate the advice for individuals that they should consider appealling to their Standards Committee to ask for a dispensation where they feel their political restriction is unwarranted. In the end if you work closely with elected members and offer them advice they need to trust you. One of the ways to ensure this is by excluding ourselves from overt political activity. I’m always conscious of having to tread a cautious line as Chair of a local Charity and involved resident even in a neighbouring authority to the one where I work.

    • LG Worker Says:

      And this is why I also agree with the political restrictions. I advice Councillors daily and my independence allows me to give all options, even ones I know would not be politically accepted, to them. It is the Councillors job to then decide what is the correct option, not mine.

  8. Will Says:

    On the issue of Teachers being sacked for being members of the BNP. If the meet the requirements set out the Equalities Commission start and legally become a ‘non-racist’ organisation on the face of it what grounds can be given for sacking a teacher who is also a member? Don’t say I like it but it’s an interesting question.

  9. Ed Hammond Says:

    There’s an argument for saying that if you work directly with elected members you should be politically restricted but for senior staff there’s much less point.

    In understanding why we have this system it’s interesting to bear in mind when and how it came into being – not something I will go into now but reading the history of it you can begin to understand some of the justification for how unnecessarily stringent it seems these days.

  10. lef Says:

    My post is politically resticted and it’s necessary. The post author is wrong that there’s assuption that you don’t have opinions. They don’t require you not to vote, and you can even join a political party (although that may be something specific to my authority).

    But I find it makes more sense from a different perspective. If I was actively campaigning for a party, or even made my opinions known to them, the members would make my job impossible, because those of a different party/opinions would refuse to work with me. Petty perhaps, but they’re the politicians and deem it necessary.

    I work with Councillors, so it’s necessary for me. It’s also necessary for the most senior officers, who also work closely with the Councillors (and if their views were known would probably get the sack come a new administration). Obviously at some point down the ranks of officers in departments where they don’t advise Councillors directly it becomes unnecessary, but it’s a question where you reasonably draw the line.

  11. Tony H Says:

    When I received my letter about being Politically Restricted, as I recall, it was during the Thatcher era when ‘she who must be obeyed was in deep conflict with the so-called looney left.

    I felt upset at the time because, as a member of a profession who just happened to be employed in the public sector, I felt it was compelling me to do something that I thought all dedicated professionals would do automatically. In fact, during my time in the Civil Service, we were expected to carry out whatever duties the government of the day required us to do.

    This didn’t differ greatly from when I worked in the private sector. I’d no more consider spreading views about my employer’s which would be in opposition to their policies outside the organisation.

    However, when it comes to challenging the practicalities of implementing policy, whatever sector I’ve worked in, then I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t put forward the pros and cons from an entirely unbiased viewpoint. Something which I think any true professional would do when constructing a business case for their project.

  12. […] in a politically restricted post means that you can’t be an active member of a political party, you can’t put stickers in your […]

  13. Gina Says:

    I’m studing for a public affairs exam and stumbled across your blog, it makes a much more interesting read then the text book! Anyhow I was wondering whether stating that you previously were a member of Green Peace would be breaking the PoRP? What exactly are the limitations on what you can say? Does this PoRP just apply to council officers or to more people?

    • Glad you liked the blog…
      In terms of Politically Restricted Posts there is no restriction as to what you have done in the past; all the restrictions are going forward. There is no limit on what you can say privately but any statement in public that could be construed as ‘Big P’ Political could contravene it…
      It’s all a little ill defined to be honest but I don’t think our guest poster is the only one who thinks the policy needs reviewing.

  14. Fiona Says:

    Can anyone recommend a nice straightforward document that lists what you cannot do when you hold a politically restricted post?

  15. […] not offensive, he could well have breached his contract. There’s a good article and debate here about the impact of what’s known as political restriction upon locl government officers like […]

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