Posts Tagged ‘Whitehall’

This Fortnight’s Private Eye on the Tories’ Attack on the Freedom of Information Act

March 23, 2016

This fortnight’s issue of Private Eye (18th-31st March 2016) has a piece on the government’s latest attempt to water down the Freedom of Information Act. Apparently, the review has rejected the suggestion that charges should be levied on requests, but it is expected to include a series of exemptions for certain types of information. This includes correspondence on government policies, depending on a test of whether it is ‘in the public interest’. It also aims to prevent the release of information that would ‘prejudice the conduct of public affairs’. The Tories’ review also proposes to drop appeals to a first tier tribunal. It is suggested that appeals should only be referred to an upper tribunal in cases involving a point of law.

The Eye makes it clear that these reforms are being suggested because the government is losing a high proportion of appeals. 31 per cent of the cases in which public authorities have refused to release material under the ‘conduct of public affairs’ exemption have been overturned, and partially overturned in a further 24 per cent of cases. As for the ‘policy’ exemption, the Eye notes that the government has been successful in keeping the information secret in less than half of all cases under the last Information Commissioner. Under the present Commissioner, Christopher Graham, the number of cases that have been overturned on this particular exemption reached 83 per cent last year (2015).

So no wonder the Tories, Whitehall and New Labour control freaks like Jack Straw are keen to vitiate the Act so that further information can’t possibly get out.

The Immense Popularity of the Beveridge Report, and its Reception by Labour and the Tories

March 11, 2016

A week or so ago I had a debate on here with a critic, who objected to my crediting Aneurin Bevan with the creation of the NHS. He asserted that the Beveridge Report, on which the NHS is based, was a policy of the wartime National Government, and also had Conservative support.

This is true. However, the Beveridge Report was based on the work of Sidney and Beatrice Webb and the Socialist Medical Association, who had been demanding a free medical service for decades. Indeed, a free health service had been Labour party policy since the 1930s. And while the Tories in the Coalition government also supported Beveridge’s outline of the welfare state, it had particularly strong support in the Labour party.

Pauline Gregg in her book, The Welfare State, describes the massive popularity the Beveridge Report enjoyed with just about all parts of the British population on pages 19-20.

On November 20, 1942, only seventeen months after the appointment of the Committee, it was ready and signed. On December 2, it was made available to the public, and seen at once to go even beyond the expectations of The Times. Though called, simply, Social Insurance and Allied Services, it was an eloquent cry to end poverty, disease, and unemployment, and purported to supply the means of doing so. Its appeal was instantaneous. Queues besieged the Stationary Office in Kingsway. Not only the Press but BBC news bulletins summarized the Report. Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, needed only a few hours in which to perceive its enormous propaganda value, and soon it was being trumpeted across the world in many languages. At the cost of 2s, the then normal price of a government White Paper, it immediately became a best-seller at home and abroad, the subject of leading articles, letters to the Press, speeches and discussions at every level of society. Beveridge himself explained his Plan to millions on the radio and on the cinema screen, as well as addressing countless meetings. In twelve months 256,000 copies of the full Report were sold, 369,000 copies of an abridged edition, 40,000 copies of an American edition. Permission was given for translation into Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Translations were published in Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, and Switzerland. Parts 1 and VI were translated into Czech, the abridgement into Italian and Chinese.

The Trades Union Congress and the Co-operative Party gave it their blessing. the National Council of Labour, representing all the bodies of organized Labour, called for the legislation necessary to implement the Report at an early date. The Liberal Party supported it, and through Geoffrey Mander welcomed the general principles of “that momentous report”. A group of young Tories tabled a motion in the House of Commons requiring the Government “to set up forthwith the proposed Ministry of Social Security for the purpose of giving effect to the principles of the Report”. “We believe”, said Quintin Hogg, who sponsored this motion, “the keynote of the restatement of political controversy after the war to be practical idealism.” The Beveridge scheme, said another Tory Member of Parliament, “touches the individual life of every man, woman and child in the country and reaches deep down into the homes of the people”. The Labour Party made the Report peculiarly its own. “It expresses”, said Sydney Silverman at its Conference in 1943, “the basic principle of this Party, the only thing which entitled us at the beginning and entitles us now to regard ourselves as fundamentally different from all other parties.” The Report, wrote The Times, had changed the phrase “freedom from want” from a vague though deeply felt aspiration into a plainly realizable project of national endeavour. “Sir William Beveridge and his colleagues have put the nation deeply in their debt, not mere for a confident assurance that the poor need not always be with us, but far a masterly exposition of the ways and means whereby the fact and the fear of involuntary poverty can be speedily abolished altogether.” The Report, it concluded, “is a momentous document which should and must exercise a profound and immediate influence on the direction of social changes in Britain.

Gregg notes on page 23 that in the House of Commons, when it came to a vote only a minority voted for the immediate implementation of the policy. In the end the Labour Party tabled an amendment calling for the early implementation of Beveridge’s plan as a test of Parliament’s sincerity. She also notes on page 25 that many Tory MPs voted against the motion as a reaction against the Plan’s support by Labour.

Meanwhile the Labour amendment was put to the House of Commons. “The Beveridge Plan”, said James Griffiths, moving it, “has become in the minds of the people and the nation both a symbol and a test. It has become, first of all symbol of the kind of Britain we are determined to build when the victory is won, a Britain in which the mass of the people shall ensured security from preventable want. Almost … every comment that has been made in the Press and on the platform since the Report was issued, the widespread interest taken in it and in its proposals, and the almost universal support given to it, are clear indications that the Report and the plan meet a deep-felt need in the minds and hearts of our people.”

But the effect of calling upon a Labour amendment was to unite the Tories against it, in spite of their own speeches, and Griffiths’ amendment was lost by 335 votes to 119, leaving the original non-committal motion to stand. It was a regrettable position. After the welcome and the publicity given to Beveridge’s proposals, and the high hopes raised, the Report was accepted by then sent to another Committee at Whitehall, who spent nearly two years considering it. Further consideration of details had, indeed, been assumed by its author. But the impression given was of shelving the Report, of wriggling out of the proposals. “This”, said Griffiths after the counting of the votes in the House of Commons,” makes the return of the Labour Party to power at the next election an absolute certainty.”

(My emphasis).

The commenter also found my story, about how the pharmacist father of one of my mother’s friends declared he was going to vote Labour because so many people needed the NHS ‘absurd’. This was presumably because he couldn’t accept the idea of a true-blue Tory businessman ever voting Labour. But this paragraph shows this was pretty much what did happen, and the government knew it the moment the Tories voted against the Labour motion.

As for Sydney Silverman’s statement that support for the welfare state is what makes the Labour party fundamentally different from all other parties, it’s a pity that this wasn’t taken on board by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they decided to continue Thatcher’s programme of dismantling the welfare state and privatising the NHS. And it’s a pit that it isn’t recognised by Bliar’s successors – Liz Kendall and now Dan Jarvis.

Private Eye from 2006 on the Failure and Dysfunction of the Freedom of Information Act

February 28, 2016

Private Eye in its issue for the 6th to 19th January 2006 published a long article on how the Blair government’s Freedom of Information Act actually didn’t do what everyone expected, and lead to great openness and freedom of information from government. I’m posting it up here as it shows how there’s always been a problem using the Act to get information, as Mike and so many of the other disability activists have found out for themselves, trying to get information out of Ian Duncan Smith’s DWP. Here’s the article:

How FOI Doesn’t Work

“The culture of secrecy in Whitehall, and beyond, is cracking open,” announced Lord Falconer in the Guardian last week, reflecting on the first anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act.

“We have seen real change … We seek to achieve across the whole public sector a new culture of openness, fully embedded in each and every public authority, where information is made available to the widest possible audience at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Oh yeah? This has hardly been the experience of Private Eye and its readers of the last 12 months.

The law allows the government 20 working days (about a month) to respond to a request under the act, but it may judge that one of 24 exemptions (including some very broad let-outs such as the potential to harm “policy development” and the country’s “economic interests”) allows it to withhold the information.

Most exemptions only apply if disclosure would not be “in the public interest”, and once a suitable exemption has been found the government has another month to ponder this question. If the request is for something it doesn’t want to give up, after a couple of months (or longer: delays are common as there is no penalty for missing the deadlines) it will conclude that the public is better off remaining ignorant.

Anything but the most uncontroversial request can be rejected on these grounds and as a result many Whitehall departments refuse more than half the requests they receive. The Treasury is the most secretive, coughing up what it’s asked in just 26 per cent of cases.

To challenge a rejection you first have to ask for an “internal review” by the department that has just turned you down, which is when the snail-like pace decelerates. When the Eye recently complained to the Information Commissioner that a review by HM Revenue and Customs had taken almost three months before reaching the predictable conclusion that the reviewer’s colleagues had been right to block the request, the commissioner’s office replied that “there is no statutory time within which a public authority must complete a review. There is therefore no further action we can take…”

After several months, if you’re lucky you’ll reach the stage where the commissioner can consider your case. The Eye’s latest referral was met with the response that a “case resolution team” will be in touch “to explain how the refusal to disclose information … will be progressed”. Action at last? Not quite. “Due to the volume of complaints we are receiving [the backlog is over 1,200] at present it may be up to two months before you hear from us.” And that’s before the “case resolution team” even starts to think about it.

When the act came into force last year, the Department for Constitutional Affairs set up a “Freedom of Information Users group” for those such as journalists, academics and other researchers to comment on how the government answers requests. But when author and FoI campaigner Heather Brooke, one of the runners-up in last year’s inaugural Paul Foot Awards – asked the DCA for a list of members of the group, she was told the list was secret – as are the criteria on which members are selected.

There is no application process, so those picked get on only at the behest of civil servants and special advisers – the very people most opposed to FoI in the first place. “We have identified those contacts we deem most appropriate whom we believe will make a significant contribution,” said Rob Murphy, of the DCA’s Information Rights Division.

So who are these “contacts”? Even the chosen ones cannot be named, says Murphy, because they must first be cleared with ministers. How rigorous such an FoI “users group” can be, when it is micromanaged at every level by civil servants, is unclear. But at least the DCA was able to tell Brooke, who has written a book on FoI and makes frequent requests for information to government departments, one genuine nugget about the list. She isn’t on it!

Twelve months ago Lord Falconer wrote of his new act: “The real test is whether there is a change in attitude across the public sector during the next few years, and whether communication between the state and its citizens is strengthened.” So far the test has been dismally flunked.

So the Freedom of Information Act was always half-hearted. Nevertheless, it was a genuine achievement of Blair’s period in power, and did a little to attack the endemic culture of secrecy around British government. Now Cameron wants to end even that. According to the Conservatives, you should only use the Freedom of Information Act to understand how a decision has been made, not to question the decision itself, or the process by which it has been reached. Blair’s government was profoundly authoritarian, but it made a gesture of opening up government. This government is merely authoritarian, and while it still wants to retain a façade of openness, is determined to close even the minuscule crack in the edifice Blair and co opened.

Tory Ex-Cabinet Ministers Given Jobs in the Industries They Supervised

January 12, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political reported a piece in yesterday’s Mirror, that five former members of Cameron’s cabinet had found jobs in the very industries that it was their business to supervise. See his article http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/01/11/gravy-train-scandal-as-ex-ministers-join-payroll-of-industries-they-used-to-oversee/

Mike rightly points out that Private Eye has an occasional column about this, ‘Revolving Doors’. It’s a fine old Tory tradition, though one which Bliar and New Labour also took up with enthusiasm. Before Blair took power, however, it was a real scandal under John Major. Then there was a series of scandals of cabinet ministers and senior civil servants taking up jobs in the very industries that they had helped to privatise. This was attacked in the British press as ‘sleaze’.

On the other side of the Channel, the French have very strict rules against such conduct. There are laws against it. I think one of them, which has been proposed by the Eye, is that there should be a two year wait before a cabinet minister or senior civil servant can take up such a post. The reason businesses take on former ministers and mandarins is to get hold of their address book of useful contacts. While this has gone on in just about all area of politics and the economy, some of the most blatant examples have been with former defence ministers getting jobs with arms companies. A two year wait for such posts would vastly cut down on this, as by that time their diaries and lists of friends and associates would be well out of date. There’d be absolutely no reason for firms to hire them.

This, however, is too much like good sense and genuine, disinterested government, for the politicos and apparatchiks at Westminster and Whitehall, and so it stands absolutely no chance of being introduced over here. I suspect if someone were to suggest it, they would be taken aside by the latest incarnation of Sir Humphrey Appleby, and quietly told that what they were doing was ‘courageous’. Or they’d try some other way to circumvent and undermine it.

The French, meanwhile, were spectacularly unimpressed with what they saw as our failure to take the matters as seriously as it should. One French minister interviewed by the Financial Times stated quite clearly that simply calling it ‘sleaze’ misrepresented its true importance. ‘What you call ‘sleaze’, he said, ‘we call corruption’.

So let’s call it like they do in la Belle France: Five Tory ministers have corruptly taken up jobs in the industries they supervised while in government.

Private Eye on Government’s Attempt to Destroy Freedom of Information Act

November 15, 2015

This fortnight’s Private Eye has a piece attacking the government’s attempt to neuter the Freedom of Information Act. It takes apart their claims they are doing so ‘because newspapers are using it to generate stories’, and gives the email address for people to contact the Commissioners to express their opinions on the issue. The Private Eye article makes much the same points Mike over at Vox Political and the other bloggers have done.

I’m posting up the article as you have to email the commissioners before the end of Friday, 20th November. This means that if you feel so strongly about this issue that you want to state your case to the commissioners, you only have about five days or so left.

FOI
Cry Freedom

The government’s “Independent” commission of the great and not so good on the future of the Freedom of Information Act is looking for views on if and how the rules should be changed. The mood music is not encouraging.

First there was the appointment of former cabinet ministers with little interest in the full truth emerging – Lord (Michael) Howard and Jack Straw – while no campaigner for more openness was invited on the commission. Then last week the leader of the Commons, Chris Grayling, complained that the law was being used by the media to “generate stories”. How appalling!

Among the “stories” that would not have come out were it not for the legislation, and might not again if it were watered down or subject to financial charges, are MPs’ expenses and several exposed in the Eye over the past ten years, including: the recent mapping of English and Welsh property owned by offshore companies; the “shameful” (the Coalition’s word) privatisation of part of the UK’s international development fund CDC; rampant junketing by the country’s public spending watchdog; the scale fo the “tax gap” (extent of the tax dodging in the UK); the schmoozing of Whitehall mandarins that forced the open publication of hospitality registers; and New Labour’s prolific and ruinous spending on management consultants and the disastrous NHS IT project – to name just a few.

Readers who think such matters should continue be exposed, or indeed if they think they should be covered up, can write to foi.commission@justice.gsi.gov.uk by the end of Friday 20 November.

Private Eye on A4E Lobbying at 2013 Lib Dem Conference

February 19, 2015

I also found this story in Private Eye’s issue for the 18th to 31st October 2013.

McNally Pally: How Lobbying Works

Documents released to Private Eye under freedom of information show how scandal-hit welfare-to-work contractor A4E used last year’s Lib Dem party conference in Brighton to get around obstructive civil servants and arrange an official meeting to lobby justice minister Lord McNally directly over probably contracts.

Along with other “workfare” providers, last year A4e wrote to all Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ministers asking for a meeting as the department made plans to privatise the probation service and dole out some very big contracts.

Given that at the time A4e was facing allegations of fraud (these led to nine former employees being charged last month) senior MoJ civil servant Jenny Giblett was not keen.

“From our perspective there would be no specific need for a meeting,” she wrote. In particular, she highlighted “presentation and media handling” issues since “A4e suffered some reputational damage in connection with the earlier allegations of fraud.” She stressed that meetings with ministers “are declared, and are the subject of repeated parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests”.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling and two of his ministers declined to meet A4e. But an anguished civil servant revealed: “Lord McNally has let me know this morning that he agreed whilst he was at Lib Dem Conference to meet with XXX for A4e.”

The firm’s Lobbyist had already used the conference, where ministers are free of their civil servants, to extract a promise of a full meeting with the minister in his office. Though Lord McNally was advised of the ministry’s position and the possible pitfalls, he made “very clear that he is going to meet with XXX of A4e, as he promised …”

One civil servant’s email reads: “He is going to need some very robust advice if we think he shouldn’t proceed with a meeting. Lord McNally has been chased directly by A4e twice already.” Another said: “If we’re going to convince him not to do it (which it seems to me we should!), I’m going to need to give him some more robust arguments. Do you think you could outline in an email the reasons you think such a meeting would be ill-advised.”

In the event the official Whitehall meeting went ahead. By nabbing Lord McNally at the party conference, A4E was able to overcome its “fraud” issues and gain official access to the MoJ ahead of other companies.

The record of the Whitehall meeting last November says A4e’s lobbyists expressed “concern that the level of risk organisations are being asked to take, at least initially, should not be too burdensome” for probation contracts, and tried to talk down “the risk of huge penalties for initial failure to meet targets” on such contracts, which Lord McNally said he “understood”.

This shows how the workfare companies continue to get contracts: through very aggressive lobbying, aided and abetted by politicians, who have absolutely no qualms about talking to a firm mired in a corruption scandal. And it all tells you all you need to know about the ‘business-friendly’ Lib Dems that McNally ‘understood’ A4e’s demands to have as little risk put on their shoulders as possible. It’s an attitude that has seen the taxpayer continually picking up the tab for late and shoddy work in other parts of the public-private partnership system.

From 2010: Private Eye on the Failures of Jarvis, Vertex, Liberata and other Private Contractors

April 10, 2014

This is the from the Eye’s issue for 17th -30th September 2010:

Outsourcing

A Private Dysfunction

Government cost-cutting plans to outsource more and more services could herald a series of cock-ups as companies running the services go the same way in tough economic times as PFI and rail maintenance company Jarvis and, last week, housing maintenance company Connaught.

Alongside the usual suspects of Capita, Serco et al, many previously unheard of outsourcers are eying up contracts even though they have limited track records and shaky finances. Several are owned by a private equity industry that sees outsourcing as the next quick buck and are accordingly borrowed up to the eyeballs. Fine if they succeed, quick disaster if they don’t.

One such outsourcer is Vertex, chaired by Sir Peter Gershon. As David Cameron’s productivity adviser before the election, Gershon counselled: “a new government faces a massive and complex agenda of driving savings to close the deficit. It ought to simplify this agenda by deciding that all back office transactional functions will be outsourced within 18 months …” Coincidentally, this will hugely benefit his employer Vertex, which already has “contact Centre” and other service contracts with JobCentre Plus and councils including Westminster and Hertfordshire.

Vertex needs all the business it can get. In the two years ended 31 march 2009 it lost £43m, largely because of £35m in finance costs brought about by the huge debts (£215m in 2009) that come with private equity ownership, and which leave Vertex with liabilities exceeding its assets. Since 2008 Vertex has been owned by a consortium of US private equity firms.

Another firm in even firer financial straits is Liberata, which runs finance, payroll, IT, maintenance and any number of other services for councils from Somerset to Manchester and in Whitehall for the Justice ministry and culture department, among others. it is owned by private equity outfits General Atlantic Partners Ltd and GAP-W International, and groans under liabilities exceeding its assets by £67m and losses in the last two years running to £91m. Most arose on its pension schemes, which by last year had run up a combined deficit of £81m. In September, Liberata brought in a Serco and Crapita veteran, Dermot Joyce, to turn things round.

When Jarvis failed to turn things round and went into administration earlier this year, 1,000 “outsourced” workers lost their jobs and there was no money left for redundancy payments. With public services thrown at the mercy of a volatile private equity market, they might well not be the last.

Several of the care homes, which were in the new a year or so ago for poor care and appalling abuse inflicted to their miserable inmates were similarly owned by private equity firms. These firms regarded them solely as a source of profit, and were not interested in providing good quality care to their disabled and mentally retarded wards. They may also have been in similar perilous financial condition.

As for Gershon’s relationship with David Cameron, this seems to be the norm with Tory party politics and privatisation. The Skwawkbox blogged earlier this week about the connection between George Osborne and one of the companies that made a massive profit from the privatisation of the Royal Mail. It’s time this was all stopped.