Tuesday 25 April 2017 17.02 BST
The government’s attempt to delay publishing its air pollution strategy because of the election is “dishonest” and leaves ministers on “very dodgy ground”, according to constitutional experts.
The government had been under a court direction to produce tougher draft measures to tackle illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which is responsible for thousands of premature deaths each year, by 4pm on Monday. The original plans had been dismissed by judges as so poor as to be unlawful.
But after Theresa May called a general election for 8 June, ministers lodged a lengthy application to the court late on Friday. It asked judges to allow them to breach the Monday deadline to “comply with pre-election propriety rules”.
Politicians and environmental groups reacted with anger, claiming ministers were “hiding behind the election” and running scared to the diesel lobby. Health experts warned the persistent lack of government action had potentially put thousands of lives at risk.
The environment minister, Andrea Leadsom, defended the decision during an emergency debate on Monday, saying she was “personally deeply committed to the importance of ensuring clean air”, but had been told by officials in the Cabinet Office that it would breach purdah rules to publish the plans in the run-up to the election.
However, constitutional experts dismissed that claim on Tuesday, saying it was a political choice.
Dr Catherine Haddon, a constitutional expert at the Institute for Government, said purdah should not have prevented the publication of the report or the subsequent consultation. “There is nothing in their own purdah guidance that prevents them publishing this if they had wanted to.”
She said the government had started the purdah period – which normally only kicks in once parliament has been dissolved – unusually early. And even then, she added, there was an exemption once purdah is active for issues that are deemed to be safeguarding public health.
“In the end it was a political choice to implement purdah early and interpret the guidance in this way,” she said.
Colin Talbot, professor of government at Manchester University, said the government was on “very dodgy ground”.
“Purdah rules normally only come into effect when parliament is dissolved, not as soon as an election is called. In this case it is quite clear they have stretched the definition considerably.”