I’m an optimist by nature. I assume that people will do the right thing, until they don’t.
I understand all about ‘spin’ – promoting the most positive things about your policies, whilst relegating the negative aspects. After all, it would be a surprise if a salesman only told you about the worst features of the product, whilst forgetting to mention the best ones. I suspect his sales bonus wouldn’t amount to much.
And, of course, I’m familiar with some people proclaiming that the glass is half full, whilst their critics will claim it is half empty.
But I don’t think that I can ever remember a time when a government, collectively, and individual government ministers worked so hard to hide the truth, to avoid scrutiny, and to refuse to answer simple questions of fact. It’s like trying to extract blood from a stone.
Let’s just put to one side for a moment – even though Brexit is the single greatest challenge to our social, economic and environmental futures - the 58 reports on the impact of Brexit on particular sectors of the UK economy that the government has consistently refused to publish. Do you think they would be hiding these reports if they told us what a rosy post-Brexit future we should be looking at?
Let’s just look at the last week.
Immediately before Parliament adjourned for the summer recess , and without notice, government ministers made a record-breaking 21 written statements. Most of these had actually been promised weeks ago, but Mrs May held them all back until the last minute to try to avoid any proper parliamentary scrutiny.
In my own special area of interest – housing, communities and local government – the Secretary of State made hugely controversial statements, including
- the National Planning Policy Framework (what some commentators called ‘a green light to developers to build all over the green belt’)
- local government finance when, as each day passes, it seems that another council announces that it is heading for financial ruin because of the government’s cuts in, and repeated failure to agree new arrangements for, adult social care and children’s services
- fundamental changes in the promised devolution of business rates
- big changes to new homes bonus payments mooted, while councils are to be told to increase council tax above inflation rates next year to partially fill the gap
- a whole package of proposed reforms to Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs)
- proposals for filling the big hole that Brexit will cause in finds to support structural change and economic renewal in the poorest areas of England
Then, we learn that, in this last year, government departments applied to keep 7,406 documents from publication by the National Archives, an increase of more than 30 per cent. This is a record level of censorship in the number of official documents that were due to have been made public.
This means that the papers are transferred from Whitehall to the National Archives but remain sealed for years, often decades, before they are declassified. Some have no date set for their release at all.
The number of closure applications dramatically increased from 4250 in 2015 to 5,974 this year. These will be released eventually but at a date well beyond the 20-year rule. There were also 1,432 retention applications, up from 793 in 2015; these are documents without a release date and which may never see the light of day.
However, it is in the very simplest of issues that we can see the real extent of the determined obfuscation, avoidance of revelation of the facts, and authorised ministerial briefing which is simply untrue.
Earlier this year, I revealed that the government’s shambolic changes to national rail timetables would see a significant increase in peak rail journey times between Sheffield and London. A spokesman for the most seriously incompetent cabinet member in the government, Christopher Grayling, told the local and national media that this was not true.
Of course, when the new timetable was published, we find that the journey time of the main train of the day, the Master Cutler, has been increased by 8 minutes.
Ever since then, through written and oral parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests, I and others have been trying to find out when the journey time for the Master Cutler will get back to the 1997, 2007 and 2017 times.
Every request has been met with a response of sickening obfuscation.
We still don’t know the answer to those simple questions.
What I can confirm is that there is not a chance of reducing these increased journey times before 2022 at the very earliest. So much for the government’s commitment to the north.