Former head of Federation of Small Businesses criticises lack of transparency in Whitehall

Yet more ammunition for those who do NOT believe that Freedom of Information requests are a waste of money and that the Freedom of Information Act is invaluable!

Today’s Western Morning News:

Ian Handford is a former national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses:

“Whitehall civil servants have always had a problem with transparency, writes Ian Handford. There is little doubt that Whitehall staff and not politicians dream up the majority of new ideas or, as the business community might say, new legislation resulting in more regulation.

Governments come and go as do our Members of Parliament but the process rarely sees civil servants moving on and particularly not the “mandarins”. Today’s most senior civil servant at Whitehall is Sir Jeremy Heywood who has suggested the idea of wanting to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) .

He has stated he wished the FOI rules to be amended as the law was making his officials “less candid” when advising ministers on political issues. Earlier this year an ex-Tory was even quoted as having stated “Sir Jeremy has the Prime Minister by the privates” which seemed an interesting comment bearing in mind the PM’s own comment a few years before about the power of Whitehall.

Some years ago the Daily Mail unearthed an email from Whitehall boss Sir Andrew Cahn, the then head of the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) quango, in which he had instructed his staff “to invent ways of spending one million pounds of taxpayers’ money” so that he might protect his department’s 2011 budget. The evidence was so damaging the Prime Minister had observed – the Civil Service seemed not to have developed a mind set about saving money continuing. He believed there was a cultural problem in Whitehall. “Frankly, it’s a culture that needs to change and we are going to change it,” he said.

Fine words but in practice a mission to fail, as had previously been found under numerous past Prime Ministers – including Mrs Thatcher.

Why on earth we continue to allow Whitehall officials to become so adept at side-stepping important questions is hard to understand, as it results in less transparency and virtually no accountability, which undermines the democratic process. Most of us can recall the marvellous television series Yes Minister where Sir Humphrey portrayed what happens in the corridors of power. It was a situation I witnessed over a number of years while lobbying for the Federation of Small Businesses.

Whitehall mandarins managed to block the idea of a Foreign Affairs Select Committee being set up to look into the Iraq conflict for more than 13 months before finally in 2013 Sir Jeremy’s predecessor, Gus O’Donnell, having been called to give evidence announced “various memos were not disclosable”. It was then down to Sir Jeremy to act as arbitrator .

Sir Jeremy’s brilliance at Civil Service “speak” is unequalled as question after question drew answers like “our talent matrix” or “functional leaders” or when asked to explain his own involvement in a decision as “no greater than that laid down in a protocol governing the inquiry”.

When Parliament appoints a Select Committee or asks the National Audit Office (NAO) to investigate an issue, the purpose is not to embarrass anyone but to interrogate those who are accountable in the hope of achieving more transparency.

Unfortunately, neither occurs and you have to wonder how it is that state-paid civil servants gain such notoriety.

In the private sector if a proprietor gets something seriously wrong, they will likely lose everything, yet if a civil servant dreams up a bad idea or makes a wrong decision they are rarely named.

For a highly paid civil servant to imagine that any email can remain buried might seems incredible. Yet having dealt with these officials for more than 20 years I know how far removed they are from reality. Sir Andrew, when later asked to comment, was unrepentant saying he had done nothing wrong.

He said: “In Government you are criticised as much for not spending your budget as you are for overspending.” That was exactly the portrayal of Ministers that Sir Humphrey undertook in Yes, Minister.

Sir Andrew eventually did depart, although not before being awarded a reported package of a quarter of a million pounds and a pension pot of a £1 million. Meanwhile the Prime Minister may still be seeking to change attitudes in Whitehall although in my view this is unlikely to occur until Select Committees and the NAO are given political power over decisions.

Sir Jeremy, meanwhile, will continue his quest to amend the FOI, maybe in the hope his staff can be left unaccountable to anyone, while Parliamentary committees will continue to use the law to demand an attendance. A much harsher regime than embarrassment is needed if we are to convince taxpayers that real accountability and transparency is being achieved from those they employ.”