A complement to: (Ve)toeing the Line
Joseph Markus wrote yesterday about the veto that the Cabinet decided to exercise over the publication of the independent risk assessment of the government’s now-passed health reforms. He deplored it as demonstrating that “ideology and the desire for ‘effective government’, for this government, overrides our interest in democratic governance.” He is right. It is a disgrace.
Effective government seems all well and good, but it is not an end in itself. After all, most dictatorships in their prime are quite ‘effective’ at governing, which in their case usually involves repressing their populations and plundering their state’s resources. Effective government is only desirable if what is being effected is in the interests of the population. In the case of the health reforms, it now seems we might never know whether this is the case.
Mr Lansley appears to have made no effort to understand this, let alone mention it. Or if he has understood it, he is treating the people like idiots. For him, effectiveness is the goal, and transparency is an obstacle to achieving it. Secrecy, in Mr Lansley’s mind, appears to breed truth and honesty. This brazen sort of doublespeak would have made George Orwell squirm.
It is worth quoting Mr Lansley’s comments at length to highlight the honourable minister’s duplicity:
“This is not a step I have taken lightly. I am a firm believer in greater transparency and this government and this department have done far more than our predecessors in publishing information about the performance and results of our policies. But there also needs to be safe space where officials are able to give ministers full and frank advice in developing policies and programmes…
The Freedom of Information Act always contemplated such a ‘safe space’ and I believe effective government requires it. That is why cabinet has today decided to veto the release of the department’s transition risk register. Had we not taken this decision, it is highly likely that future sensitive risk registers would turn into anodyne documents, and be worded quite differently with civil servants worrying about how they sound to the public rather than giving ministers frank policy advice.”
This is, frankly, either shameful dishonesty, or horrendous stupidity. If we accept Mr Lansley’s dubious premise that civil servants would become sheepish about giving honest advice to ministers if they knew it might become public, then why not just redact their names? If they fear no exposure (for giving an honest opinion), why should they not express themselves? Mr Lansley doesn’t seem to have thought of this idea.
Secondly, Mr Lansley makes it sound as though the civil servants are the ones who would take the decision on whether to carry out the reforms, and therefore might feel responsible if the risks that they had assessed actually turned out badly. But this is not the case: Mr Lansley is the one who made the decision to go forward. Mr Lansley is therefore the one who is accountable for the decision. And it is Mr Lansley who would be culpable if the risks – that we do not know about – turn out for the worse. Has he forgotten what his job is?
The real reason Mr Lansley, and his “effective” Cabinet accomplices pushed through the veto of the document is because they know what it contains does not sound good. It is certainly not for the reasons given. If “frank policy advice” had equated to “a big thumbs-up” there would have been no trouble. Indeed, publishing might have made the passing the reforms – which now look more damaging than ever – a lot easier.
A “firm believer in greater transparency”, he said. And yet, in the spirit of Big Brother, he ensured opacity. The groupthink-affected Cabinet can hang their miserable heads in shame. As for Mr Lansley, his barefaced duplicity means he must go.