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DISTRUST IN WHITEHALL

Last Updated: Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Last week the FT ran a story about George Osborne using his autumn statement to redouble the Coalition’s green efforts. I tweeted my disappointment. It’s the last thing, I suggested, that manufacturing needed. A well sourced Tory shot me a text, urging me not to worry. Never forget, I was told, that the FT gets the lion’s share of its Coalition stories from the civil service and secondly from the Liberal Democrats. The story was placed to put pressure on the Chancellor rather than as an indication of his intentions.

Peter Oborne’s attack on the pink ‘un for its relentless support for UK membership of the €uro has probably provided enough FT-bashing for this week. Nonetheless I did think of that text about the FT when I read this week’s story about Michael Gove and the use (or misuse) of non-official emails. The FT’s Chris Cook alleges that Gove himself and his Special Adviser (SpAd), Dominic Cummings, have been using personal email accounts to bypass the departmental email system. Private email accounts can’t be subject to Freedom of Information requests – at least not yet. The information commissioner suggested that this might change. “It is certainly possible,” his spokesman said, “that some information in private emails could fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act if it concerns government business.” Gulp. Which grand inquisitor will look at private emails to establish this?

This whole drama may not have shaken the world beyond Westminster but after the economic crisis it’s been the story that has most exercised Whitehall in the last few days. SpAds have been nervously wondering if the private and not-so-private contents of their own personal email accounts are to be investigated. My understanding is that private emails are used regularly to carry sensitive information. There have simply been far too many leaks within departments for SpAds to trust internal systems to which many civil servants enjoy access. The difficulty is that the line between political matters – that can legitimately be addressed in non-official emails – and government matters can be a blurred one. Some ministers and SpAds have taken to using elaborate systems of code words to disguise their intentions. Trust between officials in some departments and politicians is at a low ebb and this week’s leaks will only increase suspicions.

It has to be remembered that Michael Gove was subject to a barrage of leaks when his time as Education Secretary began. One source told me (not via email!) that much of the department was at war with ministers. My sympathies are certainly with Gove and his SpAds in wanting to establish safe space for strategic and sensitive matters. My sympathies are with the FT in concluding that this descent into underground means of communication doesn’t help produce good or transparent government.

By Tim Montgomerie

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK FROM CONSERVATIVEHOME

 

Why isn’t Vince Cable talking about deregulation? “The real problem with the Business Secretary isn’t so much what he said as what he didn’t say, not so much what he’s doing as what he’s not doing.  I counted a single reference to cutting red tape – hastily followed by the suggestion that his Coalition partners are slavering at the modern equivalent of putting children up chimneys.” More via http://is.gd/a9JTPw

Paul Goodman on environmentalism beyond climate change: “Conservative leadership abroad in the Anglosphere, and sometimes elsewhere, is very cool about global warming.  It stresses adaptation and technological innovation rather than mitigation alone.  There is an example here for those Tory MPs to follow.  Conserving the environment is about more than the global warming debate.  We don’t want soil to be eroded, water to be exhausted or species to be lost.  We don’t like badly designed buildings and estates, or landscapes that are despoiled by wind farms – a reminder that environmental considerations can cut both ways.” More via http://is.gd/lPdLaf

Bernard Jenkin MP on the need for reform of Whitehall: “Ministers want greater specialism in the Civil Service, rather than intelligent generalism.  They want more risk-taking, rather than safe bureaucratic inertia.  They want more cross-departmental working, rather than silos and stovepipes. And they want more continuity in top posts, rather than the reshuffling which moved ten out of 16 permanent secretaries in the Coalition’s first 12 months.” More via http://is.gd/6iChBF

Andrew Bridgen argues that it’s time to dump the 50p tax band: “The Conservative backbenchers are being asked to accept many unpalatable compromises to satisfy our Coalition partners. The watered-down NHS reforms, the lack of movement on a British Bill of Rights, the vetoing of a stronger line on the EU. With the 50p tax rate, we have a chance to show we are serious about growth and that we want to encourage our own and the world’s entrepreneurs and companies that Britain is a place to do business. What will not encourage these people is our Deputy Prime Minster and Business Secretary signaling their desire for Britain to maintain one of the highest top rates of tax in the world.” More via http://is.gd/bDSh8g

Ruth Lea on the Coalition’s damaging energy policies:

“Over the period 2002-2010 Britain had spent £5bn subsidising dedicated renewable electricity plant, at a cost of £230,000 per employee in the wind energy industry. Subsidy per worker in the year 2009-10 amounted to £54,000, which was greatly in excess of the median earnings in either the public (£29,000) or private sectors (£25,000). This is Alice in Wonderland economics. “ More via http://is.gd/PPCfdb

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