Asking difficult questions is one of the key tasks of members of parliament. By difficult, I don’t mean that the answers are necessarily complicated, but that the simple and accurate responses are likely to prove embarrassing to the government.
So, it is no surprise that some Government Ministers turned the whole business of not answering questions in to an art form. They would commit thousands of hours of civil servant time in to providing non-answers, misleading responses or the most dubious legal justifications for making ‘no comment’.
Former Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, was an expert at all this.
He committed £250 million of tax-payers’ money in to an inept promise to ensure that every household would have “a weekly all-purpose refuse collection”; he called it a “basic human right”. In fact, in each and every year in which he was the Minister, the number of households getting a weekly collection dropped by hundreds of thousands, with the biggest falls being in Conservative and Liberal Democrat controlled councils. But, however often and in different ways he was asked the question, he found numerous ways of refusing to provide the numbers.
Eric was just the same when it came to not answering questions about the government’s new-build housing commitments. It was clear that none of the promises were being kept but, instead of providing the answers, they’d sack or move the Housing Minister. It was no surprise that Mrs May has sacked another one in her latest reshuffle when it became clear that the last promise had proved to be little more than a newspaper headline.
Before Christmas, Theresa May spoke about the need for transparency in government and wrote to her Ministers:
“Online transparency is crucial to delivering value for money, to cutting waste and inefficiency, and to ensuring every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent in the best possible way…
The sunlight of transparency also acts in itself as an important check and balance, and helps ensure the highest standards of public life among senior government representatives.”
So, you might be surprised to learn that, in response to a Freedom of Information request to publish the guidance given to government departments on how to prepare registers of Ministerial gifts, hospitality, travel and meetings – all mentioned in the Mrs May’s letter on transparency – No 10 says ‘No’.
“…we consider that this information is exempt from disclosure under section 35(1)(a) (formulation and development of government policy). While we recognise there is a public interest in understanding how this transparency information is prepared, we consider that this is outweighed by the public interest in not providing information that may be soon out of date and therefore potentially misleading and inaccurate. On balance it is therefore not in the public interest to release this material."
It is difficult to believe that the supposed legal justification for the refusal will stand up in court, but it will take a lot of hard work and probably more than 12 months to show that. The argument that “the information may become out of date or may be misleading” is not a relevant public interest factor for refusing disclosure.
Therefore, I have now tabled a Written Parliamentary Question to Theresa May’s Cabinet Officer Minister asking him to publish the guidance. He is due to answer it on January 29th.
On that day, we’ll find out whether Mrs May is committed to the transparency she asserted just a month ago, or whether it was simply more hot air from this government.