By Tony Collins
It’s extraordinary that some of the Department for Work and Pensions’ main arguments against publishing three reports on the Universal Credit programme resemble, in part, those given by the Walpole government of 1738 when the House of Commons passed a resolution against the publishing of Parliamentary debates.
The DWP argues that the media could misinterpret the three Universal Credit reports or take negative comments in them out of context, which would have a “chilling effect” on the officials who contribute to or write the reports.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, members of the House of Commons and House of Lords were concerned that parliament could be brought into disrepute by the irresponsible reporting of its proceedings, and that MPs could be influenced in what they said in debates by the knowledge that their speeches could be reported .
Sir Robert Walpole, the then prime minister, in winding up an 1738 debate on banning newspaper reporting of Parliament, said press coverage of parliamentary proceedings was a “forgery of the worst kind”.
Neither officials nor ministers had at that time invented the phrase “chilling effect” but they held to its meaning: they expressed concern that if debates were in the public domain members would shape what they said in debates to win influence, or avoid criticism by, newspapers.
Eventually Parliament decided in the 19th century that it was in its own interests to have debates in the public domain partly because important speeches were going unreported.
Today the DWP is a long way from reaching the stage of openness of Parliament in the 18th century.
After hearing the DWP’s evidence in the case of the three Universal Credit reports, an FOI tribunal judge sympathised with the department. He (Judge Edward Jacobs) said, “It is not difficult, looking at the Risk Register (one of the three Universal Credit reports in question), to see how a journalist or blogger with an agenda could select and present parts of the material in a way that would generate attention and attract criticism of the Department (DWP).”
Still referring to the media, he said, “There is no limit to the ways in which seemingly innocuous details can be used as a means of causing trouble.”
The judge’s apparent sympathy for the DWP’s case surprised me, given that Parliament decided centuries ago that the risk of MPs being influenced by the media when making speeches was a minor consideration when weighed against the importance of reporting the proceedings of parliament.
Democracy is far from perfect but it is surely not served by departments such as the DWP keeping secret for as long as they can reports on their performance on high-cost, risky and innovative programmes such as Universal Credit.
The National Audit Office will usually report on programmes as big as Universal Credit, and will usually do so with skill, insight and professionalism. But it didn’t report on the UC programme until September 2013.
Disclosure of the risk and issues registers and project assessment review when they were requested under FOI would have given MPs, the public and stakeholders the chance to hold ministers and officials to account in 2012 – at a time when Iain Duncan Smith and senior officials at the DWP were confidently claiming that the UC programme was on time and to budget. IDS said nothing in 2012 about the problems the programme was facing.
It’s fascinating to look back at debates of the House of Commons in the 17th and 18th centuries to see how closely some of the speeches resemble the arguments the DWP is making in its submissions to next week’s FOI tribunal.
In April 1738 the Commons passed a resolution declaring that it was a “high indignity and a notorious breach of privilege” to report what was said in the Chamber, even when it was in recess.
This was the 1738 resolution:
“That it is an high indignity to, and a notorious breach of privilege of, this House, for any News writer, in letters, or other papers (as Minutes or under any other denomination) or for any printer or publisher of any printed newspaper, of any denomination, to presume to infer in the said letters or papers, or to give therein, any account of the debates, or other proceedings of this House, or any Committee thereof, as well during the recess, as the sitting of Parliament; and that this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offenders.”
Part of the DWP’s case to the FOI tribunal next week in Leicester is that, if the reports in question are published, they could be misinterpreted by the public, which would involve ministers and civil servants being diverted from the Universal Credit programme to correct the media.
It may be worth noting some of the actions taken by the House of Commons in 1771 against newspaper proprietors who published proceedings of the Commons – and allegedly got it wrong.
The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser on Friday 8 February 8 1771, which was printed for R. Thomson, and also the Middlesex Journal on Tuesday 5 February 5 to Thursday 7 February 1771, which was printed for J Weeble, were accused of “misrepresenting the speeches, and reflecting on several of the members of this House, in contempt of the order, and in breach of the privilege of this House”.
The House issued a proclamation for the apprehension of John Weeble and R Thompson.
Today the DWP seems not to accept that being held to account by journalists, even incompetent and hostile ones, is a price to be paid for democracy.
Parliament banned newspaper reports of its debates in the 17th and 18th centuries in part because publication would have meant contemporaneous accountability.
That, it seems to me, is the main reason the DWP opposes disclosure of any independent and authoritative reports on its performance on the UC programme.
Senior officials are understandably concerned about personal and contemporaneous accountability on a big, risky, high-cost IT-enabled programme. Not the IT professionals who, incidentally, are largely in favour of openness.
Middle-ranking managers on the UC programme have a tough time of it. They rarely get any credit for what they achieve. But there is a notable divide between the cultures of middle and senior management.
Now that the House of Commons allows reporting of its proceedings, and even allows TV cameras, the DWP’s ministers and senior officials look as if they are stuck in a bygone era. They believe that the public can wait for accountability until the National Audit Office decides to publish its reports.
But how well can the public hold the DWP to account if people doesn’t know how hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent – at the time it is spent – on the Universal Credit IT programme?
The high turnover of senior management on big programmes all but ensures that the most senior officials will probably have moved on by the time the National Audit Office reports on their programmes.
No bureaucracy will embrace openness until it is forced to. Nobody should be surprised that the DWP is fighting the publication of the disputed UC reports.
Kicking and screaming
What’s needed, therefore, is a campaigning minister, to bring today’s top officials at the DWP kicking and screaming into the modern world.
There is a serious consequence to the DWP’s antiquated approach to openness: the mounting legal costs of the FOI case it keeps appealing.
Officials and ministers at the DWP are launching FOI appeals as if money were no object. Bundles of documents have been produced by barristers and other lawyers who have been working on behalf of the DWP.
I don’t believe senior officials care particularly what is in the reports.
They are really fighting, perhaps subconsciously, to continue their control of official information on the UC programme.
For that privilege they will continue to dig deeply into the public purse for the legal costs of this case. That’s a scandalous waste of money, especially in a supposed era of open government.