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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
Press releases

Government Accused Of Floundering On Transparency

A new IfG report has urged Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to commit to taking a more transparent approach in government (Alamy)

8 min read

Constitutional experts and MPs across the political divide, including cabinet ministers, believe the UK government has “floundered” on transparency.

A new Institute for Government (IfG) report has now urged both the Conservatives and Labour to recognise that they themselves would reap the rewards of improved government transparency.

The IfG report, seen by PoliticsHome, suggests that the UK government has been focusing too much on short-term “burdens” of transparency rather than long-term gains of a culture of openness. 

“The government has lost some momentum on transparency in the last few years… part of this is because transparency can be difficult for Government in the short run, whether by exposing politicians to criticism or creating work for officials,” IfG researcher Sachin Savur said.

“As our report shows, there are clear benefits that can outweigh these costs in the long run – but ministers need to commit to doing transparency properly and sustain their focus or they won’t see the pay-off… the general election will be a chance to reset that approach.”

In July last year, the government published a set of proposals to improve ethical standards in government, while Labour is also considering how the party might improve transparency if they come into government. Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has championed the need for Government to be more transparent about the process by which it investigates breaches of the ministerial code. 

There is a growing frustration that the state of transparency in the UK has been poor for years, and is at risk of becoming entrenched. 

"Transparency has fallen off a cliff since the last General Election, leaving the public furious,” Liberal Democrat Health spokesperson Daisy Cooper told PoliticsHome.

“There has been outright anger across the country at the PPE scandal during the pandemic, which saw millions of pounds wasted. You just can't trust Conservative Ministers to be open and transparent."

An earlier IfG report published in 2021 on the quality of ministerial releases showed they were “very poor”. The UK has now fallen to its lowest-ever position in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index this week, from 18th (out of 181 countries) in 2022 to 20th in 2023 – below even countries such as Hong Kong or Uruguay.

Labour MP Dame Meg Hillier, who is Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), told PoliticsHome that the committee were time and again continuing to see examples of "opaque and unaccountable policymaking".

The PAC published a report recently which scrutinised the New Hospital Programme, in which multiple large-scale projects were removed and added to the programme at the last minute.

"We don’t know whether Government special advisers were involved, and this is a classic case of public confidence being undermined by that lack of transparency," Hillier said, adding that they had seen similar examples with the Towns Fund in 2020 and levelling-up funding in 2022.

“We on the Public Accounts Committee are of the firm belief that sunlight is the best disinfectant.

"The civil service is populated with public servants of great integrity and dedication, but with the UK continuing to sink in Transparency International’s rankings for perceived corruption levels, efforts must be doubled and redoubled by senior officials to lead from the top in letting that sunlight in.”

The Governance Project report has also been published on Thursday, a six-month project chaired by former MP and attorney general Dominic Grieve. Recognising there are elements of democracy in the UK that need further protections, the report recommends reinforcing the role of Parliament by strengthening Parliament’s powers as regards to transparency and accountability of executive action.

Against this backdrop, there is a clear imperative for the government to promote transparency measures that allow for the uncovering and deterring corruption in government and effective scrutiny in the public interest.

But the new IfG report has found that it can have other benefits, such as increasing competition for public contracts and delivering savings for Government. It therefore sets out a series of recommendations, including that the government should work closely with users of transparency information to ensure it is useful, making permanent secretaries take responsibility for their department’s releases, and ensuring departmental transparency teams monitor the quality, timeliness and accessibility of information and investigate cases where it falls short.

The report also states there should be a role for departmental ‘transparency champions’ in ensuring a culture of transparency across the whole of government.

“Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer should commit to their government taking a more transparent approach to the workings of their organisations,” the report concluded.

PoliticsHome spoke to multiple MPs who themselves recognised how transparency can be beneficial for the operation of government. Tory MP and former health minister Stephen Hammond said that having to clearly explain your processes and decisions as a minister was helpful for determining policy.

 “As a minister, you clearly are cognizant of the fact that you have to explain your decisions,” he said.

“As a minister showing your decision making process, there is a clear record: do I think it's got worse or better?”

Labour MP and former shadow cabinet minister Dan Carden has called for various measures to improve transparency, including an Overseas Loan Transparency Act to establish a new compulsory register to put an end to exploitative secret loans to foreign governments. 

He told PoliticsHome that improving transparency was essential for securing public trust in the political system as a whole.

“Whether it's lobbying scandals, crony contracts or turning a blind eye to misconduct, this Conservative government has made a mockery of the notion of integrity in public office. Trust in our political system is in crisis, and it's easy to see why,” he said.

“It's clear that we need not only a shift in culture but robust structural reforms to close loopholes, root out conflicts of interest and lift standards for good.”

But another Tory MP and former government minister said they thought transparency needed to be carried out in a “nuanced way”.

“Because otherwise you end up in a position where you can't see the wood for the trees and that's bad for everybody because it allows everyone to cherry pick something to suit their own agenda and I don’t think that helps,” they said.

“No-one is suggesting that there is a silver bullet here. We do need to think about what improvement looks like, but you also have to have an honest and open conversation about why there are areas where total transparency is not in the immediate public interest.”

They suggested that modern technology means future academics and historians will have an “absolute nightmare” sifting through exponentially more data: “That's an opportunity and a problem.”

The former minister revealed that having seen how FOI requests were handled in his department, he felt they were not being used in the way they were intended to after being introduced by former Labour prime minister Tony Blair.

Tony Blair
The Freedom of Information Act was introduced by Tony Blair's Labour government in 2000 (Alamy)

“I was quite struck by how their presumption was simply in favour of keeping stuff out of the public domain, in the very small number of pieces that come to ministers,” they continued.

“The legitimate pushback to that is to say ‘let's try and simplify the process’ and I think in many cases, that results in stuff being hidden rather than being released even when there is nothing whatsoever to hide or to fear.”

He also said he disliked the “politicisation” of government transparency, describing it as “one of the many unhelpful consequences of the political times we've recently lived through”.

This politicisation is very clear when PoliticsHome asked MPs whether they felt the quality of transparency in government has changed over recent years. Multiple Tory MPs said they felt Boris Johnson’s premiership had been damaging in this respect, with one current cabinet minister insisting it was “definitely true” that government transparency was "deprioritised" under Johnson’s time in office. 

“Rishi’s government is well-run, accountable, with strong direction and Boris's government was much more like a medieval court, it lacked all the good things that Rishi’s government is now providing,” they said.

“It's not really about structural stuff. It's about the lead from the top, it's what the leading ministers give.”

To an extent, the IfG agrees. IfG researcher Savur said political leadership was “crucial” in order to make transparency a priority.

“Ministers in post after the election should see this as an opportunity to embed greater transparency in the day-to-day work of their departments,” he said.

A Labour shadow minister told PoliticsHome that they believed the UK political system was “still living with the aftermath of the Johnson culture” and that there therefore needed to be a cultural shift from the top of political leadership.

Frequent changes in prime ministers and their top teams in government may have also hindered progress in this area. A former Tory cabinet minister insisted there had been some progress on a project to track and improve the swift resolution and reduction of FOI applications under the Johnson administration, which had been in its “early stages” when Johnson’s premiership came to an end. 

“I suspect it probably hasn’t been followed up,” the former minister lamented.

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