Working to make government more effective


Is 'government by direction' creeping up on us?

'Technical directions' should not become the norm when it comes to making spending decisions.

The Government is using newly-introduced ‘technical directions’ to help deliver Brexit. Benoit Guerin says these directions should not become the norm when it comes to making spending decisions.

Today the Department for Transport published a new technical direction on Brexit-related preparations for road haulage permits and trailer registrations. It is the fourth such direction since the start of 2018.

Technical directions were introduced last year to help departments preparing for Brexit. At the time, Liz Truss said this tool would allow departments to spend money on new services where there was no legislative basis for doing so – yet.

Technical directions are no way for government to deliver its business

The fact that these directions are being used at all points to wider transparency and accountability issues.

First, these directions are used as a last resort to avoid disrupting public services. All directions issued so far are directly related to delays in Brexit legislation, partly due to Government making every effort to avoid defeats in Parliament.

Since legislation is stuck in Parliament, departments are relying on these technical directions to prepare for Brexit. For instance, the DEFRA direction covers spending to prepare for the regulation of chemical substances for the UK market as legislated in the much-debated EU Withdrawal Bill. It goes without saying that departments should not have to resort to directions as a normal course of action to prevent potential harm to the public. 

Second, there are question marks around the degree of Parliamentary scrutiny surrounding future decisions. The Government’s approach to Brexit legislation in Parliament, and resulting delays, are creating the potential for a parliamentary pile-up. In a ‘no deal’ scenario, this could mean large swathes of legislation are passed quickly to ready the statute book for Brexit in March 2019.

We risk having a critical gap in accountability

Departments would then have to make decisions to prepare for Brexit on the basis of legislation that has not been thoroughly debated by Parliament. This would mean a critical gap in accountability which may ultimately lead to poor decisions being taken, increasing the risk of failure or harm to the public.

Finally, technical directions could hamper public scrutiny of government decisions. The DfT direction published today was requested in February 2018, but was only published three months later. During that time, members of the public would have had no indication that this decision involving public money was made.

Delays and the prospect of a potential pile-up in Parliament would mean that such gaps in public scrutiny could occur again. This would result in a chronic lack of transparency on decisions that matter to the future of the country.

Related content