Let civil servants do their job: the Brexit impact studies should not be published
If government has to give a running commentary on the Brexit talks, then the negotiations will suffer. Sometimes secrecy can be in the national interest
Keir Starmer and Hilary Benn are on a mission. Their mission is to get the government to publish their cross-sectoral analysis of our trading position with the EU and the alternative options for industries as we prepare to leave the EU. The Westminster Twittersphere and many Whitehall watchers are joining in the clamour for these documents.
But surely there must be a space for developing policy positions away from public scrutiny?
It has been claimed the government has 58 impact studies, but as Robin Walker, the DExEU minister made clear last week, there is an overarching document summarised the 58 ‘sector analyses’, which are constantly evolving as a result of discussions with industry and our negotiations with the EU. His main argument against publication was that it would impede the government’s ability to negotiate with the EU. Although the government has now agreed in principle to publish the document, discussions about what will be redacted are ongoing. So why is there a conspiracy theory forming around this document and whom does it serve?
- Government says civil servants need ‘safe space’ for Brexit talks as it refuses to publish impact assessments
- Nearly 3,000 civil servants hired to work on Brexit
- Whitehall trade chief Crawford Falconer pledges UK-US trade deal will not be ‘cooked up by a few bureaucrats’
Let’s take a step back. With Brexit, Whitehall is wrestling with the biggest peace-time policy challenge in living memory. Officials and ministers are having to plan concurrently for a no deal, a hard exit and a softer exit, and also having to anticipate all the implementation challenges that may emanate from these options. We can all see that this is phenomenally complex.
As if that were not difficult enough, Whitehall is dealing with a situation in which the Cabinet are struggling to agree on policy positions for exiting the EU, even before we arrive at the negotiating table. And let’s not forget that we are only currently negotiating on some high-level issues (like the divorce bill, rights for EU citizens, future trade arrangements and the Irish border). There will be hundreds of other issues to resolve that are waiting in the wings.
When I was involved in running the BSE public inquiry, we published hundreds of thousands of documents. The journalists who came to the inquiry every day were deluged with information, and ran many stories as a result, but they rarely made the front pages (however controversial the subject matter was) because these were documents that we had placed in the public domain. Then one day I called a lobby journalist to encourage him to come down and look at some of the documents, because of their news value. He came down to our glamorous offices in Lambeth North, and was astonished at the content of the documents we had published. He promptly ran a front page story covering the meeting where Michael Heseltine had suggested to a Cabinet committee that the whole UK beef heard might need to be slaughtered in response to the BSE inquiry. This, incidentally, did not play well with the broadsheet paper who had covered it on page 6 three weeks earlier, who felt that they had been somewhat overshadowed by the front page splash.
My point is that if ‘sensitive’ documents are found on a train, they are news for a couple of days, but when you are open and transparent, it can be hard to get people interested. The fact that this sector analysis exists, and the government has been reluctant publish it, makes it sound dramatic and exciting. The reality is probably very different.
But I’d like to stand up for the civil service here.
Departments are trying to triangulate tough policy issues, obtain high quality information from external stakeholders, get agreement across Whitehall for policies and feed them into the negotiating machine. If they have to spend all their time looking over their shoulder and worrying about providing a running commentary, then the quality of their work will suffer, and so will the negotiations. Let’s not forget about the national interest. Of course there is a place for the armchair auditors who can take government data and produce great analyses and policy critiques, but if we try to have open book policymaking while we are preparing to exit the EU, the already slow progress will grind to a halt.
It’s easy when you are in opposition to take the moral high ground and demand access to information, and it’s easy on social media to whip up a storm around ‘defensive’ Westminster and ministers being on the back foot. But when we boil it down, the Brexit negotiations are not a game, they will inform our economy and our institutions for decades.
A lot of civil service work is grindingly boring – you have to take a detailed, multi-dimensional view, and you have to make sure that all key eventualities are covered when you put up advice. In this current febrile environment, the quality of the advice given to ministers is very important. The government and the civil service are investing a lot of time in canvassing the views of external stakeholders on Brexit policy issues, probably more than is customary in government, there is no ‘conspiracy’ to exclude stakeholders, in fact quite the reverse.
Civil servants are there to do the difficult, boring due diligence that informs the big policy decisions of the day. We should them get on with it.
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