Claims from civil servants they need a 'safe space' to think freely are undermined by today's FT front page

July 28, 2011 4:30 PM

I'm currently appealing to the Information Tribunal against the Department of Energy and Climate Change's refusal to answer a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I submitted about the economic and financial cost of the higher emissions target they want. TPA research suggests that could be extremely expensive. But the Government are refusing to let us know the cost estimate they have been basing their position on.



One of the grounds for that refusal relies on an exception in FOI law for internal communications which is intended to avoid, in the words of the Information Tribunal, the "threat of lurid headlines depicting that which has merely been broached as agreed policy". The idea is to ensure that people can still freely discuss ideas within a 'safe space' in government. My request doesn't do anything to seriously threaten that safe space, but a civil service leak today completely undermined it. Another example of how something can be a matter of principle and ensuring good government for officials when it suits them, and discarded just as quickly when it doesn't.

Climate change targets are a big deal. The Government put the cost of the Climate Change Act 2008, which enshrines a target for an 80 per cent cut by 2050 in law, at £324 to £404 billion. It is vital that we are able to scrutinise the likely costs of new targets before the Government signs up to them at an international conference. I requested what they thought the cost would be after the conference in Copenhagen where the pledge was made. The only reason we didn't sign up to such a target is that the Chinese and Indian negotiators understandably wouldn't accept binding limits on their own emissions. The policy therefore clearly hadn't merely been broached and there is no reason they shouldn't release an estimate of the likely cost of a target they are still pushing for at an EU level.  It is vital we know the expected cost of these policies so that there can be proper democratic scrutiny of the Government's estimates and decisions.

That makes it particularly annoying to see the front page of the Financial Times today with a very lurid headline: "Abolish jobcentres, scrap maternity leave, suspect consumer rights - Cameron's strategy chief peddles a radical agenda". The journalists have done their job and the story does explain that these were just ideas from Steve Hilton, David Cameron's Strategy Director, but this is exactly the kind of thing that the safe space exception is supposed to protect. And who has breached it?

Over the past few months, government officials have told the Financial Times of some of Mr Hilton's quirkiest ideas, which failed to make the government's red tape review, being announced today.

Steve Hilton's ideas may be good, bad or just impractical. He is certainly right that maternity pay clearly does make it harder for small firms in particular to recruit young women. The solution might be paying for it in another way so that it is less of a burden on a specific employer. But all that is neither here nor there for the time being. Clearly the civil servants are finding looking into these ideas a hassle, or just haven't taken to Steve Hilton as a colleague. So they have taken ideas which the Government isn't intending to pursue and leaked them to journalists.

When officials want to avoid scrutiny over the costs of climate targets, the safe space is sacred, but when someone actually uses that space for its intended purpose, they will happily violate it themselves. Apparently some in Whitehall are still attached to Sir Humphrey's old tricks.I'm currently appealing to the Information Tribunal against the Department of Energy and Climate Change's refusal to answer a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I submitted about the economic and financial cost of the higher emissions target they want. TPA research suggests that could be extremely expensive. But the Government are refusing to let us know the cost estimate they have been basing their position on.



One of the grounds for that refusal relies on an exception in FOI law for internal communications which is intended to avoid, in the words of the Information Tribunal, the "threat of lurid headlines depicting that which has merely been broached as agreed policy". The idea is to ensure that people can still freely discuss ideas within a 'safe space' in government. My request doesn't do anything to seriously threaten that safe space, but a civil service leak today completely undermined it. Another example of how something can be a matter of principle and ensuring good government for officials when it suits them, and discarded just as quickly when it doesn't.

Climate change targets are a big deal. The Government put the cost of the Climate Change Act 2008, which enshrines a target for an 80 per cent cut by 2050 in law, at £324 to £404 billion. It is vital that we are able to scrutinise the likely costs of new targets before the Government signs up to them at an international conference. I requested what they thought the cost would be after the conference in Copenhagen where the pledge was made. The only reason we didn't sign up to such a target is that the Chinese and Indian negotiators understandably wouldn't accept binding limits on their own emissions. The policy therefore clearly hadn't merely been broached and there is no reason they shouldn't release an estimate of the likely cost of a target they are still pushing for at an EU level.  It is vital we know the expected cost of these policies so that there can be proper democratic scrutiny of the Government's estimates and decisions.

That makes it particularly annoying to see the front page of the Financial Times today with a very lurid headline: "Abolish jobcentres, scrap maternity leave, suspect consumer rights - Cameron's strategy chief peddles a radical agenda". The journalists have done their job and the story does explain that these were just ideas from Steve Hilton, David Cameron's Strategy Director, but this is exactly the kind of thing that the safe space exception is supposed to protect. And who has breached it?

Over the past few months, government officials have told the Financial Times of some of Mr Hilton's quirkiest ideas, which failed to make the government's red tape review, being announced today.

Steve Hilton's ideas may be good, bad or just impractical. He is certainly right that maternity pay clearly does make it harder for small firms in particular to recruit young women. The solution might be paying for it in another way so that it is less of a burden on a specific employer. But all that is neither here nor there for the time being. Clearly the civil servants are finding looking into these ideas a hassle, or just haven't taken to Steve Hilton as a colleague. So they have taken ideas which the Government isn't intending to pursue and leaked them to journalists.

When officials want to avoid scrutiny over the costs of climate targets, the safe space is sacred, but when someone actually uses that space for its intended purpose, they will happily violate it themselves. Apparently some in Whitehall are still attached to Sir Humphrey's old tricks.

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