Yesterday, we were opaquely conned. Downing Street heralded a “forging ahead in the transparency agenda.” We were misled.
“This is the first time any government has proactively published information on special advisers’ gifts and hospitality. All this information is being published quarterly which will mean more regular and up to date information”, said Downing Street.
The rhetoric was soaring; the action was far more subterranean.
What actually happened was a cynical, but well executed spin exercise to kill the story and deflect attention on to the last Labour government – with Downing St spinners taking lobby journalists for patsies.
The statements were delayed – the first to be published was a statement on the cost of government cars for the last financial year of the Labour government. The next statement was not released for three hours.
Then the number 10 spin machine kicked into overdrive. The information about Labour special advisors for the last 12 months of the last Labour government was placed in the House of Commons library – great, transparent, easy to access. What about the statements on Tory and Lib Dem advisers, where were they? Well they were tucked away online, hidden from view, released in dribs and drabs.
PA led with the easy to find Labour information, comparing figures on the number of advisors. Cameron has reduced the number they say, or has he just moved the goal posts? How many lackeys from CCHQ have now found their way on to the civil service payroll?
We were promised the information for all hospitality received in the first three months of the government. David Cameron told us his diary would be published.
Actually, though other ministers gave us the dates of their meetings, David Cameron failed to do so. Instead, we got a list of people he met during particular months. This meant that it was not confirmed that Rupert Murdoch was his first official guest on May 18, for example.
Worse, we don’t know whether we got the full list. We are told that “private” meetings in the Downing Street flat will not be published. So has David Cameron met James Murdoch or Rebekka Brooks “privately”? Who else has he met that he doesn’t want us to know about?
In his statement to the House, Cameron said that every department would be publishing hospitality and diary lists online. Some departments did. Others didn’t. They used different formats. The information was presented in different ways. I cannot believe the Cabinet Office did not check the lists before they were published. They could easily have compiled the lists in a single format and published them centrally.
Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, even said:
“The data published today is yet another step-change as we strive to make transparency an integral part of government business. The public have a right to see for themselves what we are doing and be able to access the data they need to hold politicians and public bodies to account.
“Our drive for transparency is at the heart of what this Government is about – cutting waste, driving improvements in public services and making all of us more accountable to the taxpaying public.”
Sorry, Francis, I just don’t believe you. I think they have deliberately published this information in such a way because they do not want us to know the facts. Why wasn’t the information about the last three months of the Tory-Lib Dem government put in the library with the Labour information?
We checked every departmental web site a number of times yesterday.
We found datasets on ministerial and special advisors’ hospitality for the following departments:
Remaining cabinet office ministers
Leader of the House
Treasury (no special advisor file – ministers only)
DWP (no special advisor file – ministers only)
Deputy prime minister
We had a good search (three times in fact) for the following departments:
Energy and climate change,
Northern Ireland office
No datasets published at all. So much for transparency.
Most of the other departments were buried away behind pages on their websites. The only really “transparent” department was the cabinet office itself, which also came with a press release. Yet there is an obvious and simple place that all the data could have been published: on data.gov.uk. It wasn’t.
As always with this government, you have to dig deep to get to the facts.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East. Read more on this over at his blog.