Coalition’s final year ‘demands clarity for Whitehall’

7 May 14
Whitehall working arrangements need to be urgently clarified as the coalition government enters its final year, an Institute for Government report has said.

By Richard Johnstone | 7 May 2014

Whitehall working arrangements need to be urgently clarified as the coalition government enters its final year, an Institute for Government report has said.

In an examination of the implications of the last year of a coalition government, the think-tank said a lack of clarity in current arrangements created the risk of confusion over how the two parties work with civil servants.

Its Year five: Whitehall and the parties in the final year of coalition report stated civil servants already fear breaching propriety rules when requests come from the parties in government.

One civil servant said: ‘We are often … providing things sometimes for one or the other [minister] without copying in the other minister[s] in the department. That’s quite an uncomfortable place for us to be.’

As the two coalition parties begin to develop policies ahead of general election – which will take place one year from today – there was a need for Prime Minister David Cameron and deputy Nick Clegg to publish guidelines on ‘the rules of the game’.

A clear statement should be made about the rights of each party to civil service support for policy development, as well as how the two sides can reach ‘agreement to disagree’ that may include suspensions of collective responsibility.

In his foreword to the report, IfG director Peter Riddell said there was an ‘understandable tendency at the top of Whitehall to prefer ambiguity and getting-by’. However, it would be wrong to brush aside the challenge that a coalition government presents in its final year.

There is an obvious risk at present of unfairness to the smaller party, especially when most departments are headed by secretaries of state of the larger party, he said.

‘But a broader danger for government is that, without clearer guidelines, caution will prevail and insufficient work will be undertaken on post-2015 policy options in areas of disagreement within the coalition. This informality and lack of clarity are no longer good enough.’

The report highlighted that in the lead-up to the Scottish Parliamentary election in 2007, the then permanent secretary Sir John Elvidge introduced a system known as ‘separate space’. The two coalition parties – Labour and the Liberal Democrats – were each able to request information from civil servants, but under clear rules and with the guarantee of confidentiality.

A similar system should be introduced in Westminster, the IfG has concluded, with Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood overseeing the final year system.

There should be separate and confidential channels through which the coalition parties can access civil service support, but this should also be coordinated centrally so the Cabinet Office could pull together teams across departments to give better quality information as needed.

In a separate report published today, the political and constitutional reform select committee also urged the government, Parliament and all the political parties to properly plan ahead of the election.

Committee chair Graham Allen said the certainty of fixed-term parliaments could allow more formal pre-election contact between the civil service and opposition, and improve costing of policies, ahead of the general election on May 7 next year.

‘The year ahead of the next general election presents a wonderful opportunity for Parliament, parties and politicians to demonstrate a better side to the public including exploring real policy choices and holding serious debate,’ he said.

‘We should be bold enough to use this unique period not just as a conventional legislative year but with imagination and creativity.’


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