25 July 2019

A last-minute rush of activity in the days before Parliament rises is an age-old government tactic – and one which is bad for effective scrutiny and transparency, argues Joe Marshall.

The recent flood of government reports, ministerial statements and consultation announcements – highlighted by the shadow Leader of the Commons – show that the traditional ‘taking out the trash’ day is alive and well. This flurry of pre-holiday activity actually takes place over several days – and this year is no exception.

On the Monday before recess alone, 30 written ministerial statements were laid before Parliament by 13 different ministers. This compares to an average of just 5.3 written ministerial statements per sitting day during the 2017–19 parliamentary session. In the few days before MPs break up for summer, a total of 45 statements will have been tabled. This mirrors a pattern seen in previous years, with 57 written ministerial statements tabled in the comparable period in 2017, and 61 in 2018.  But this year, given the focus on the change of Prime Minister, it is even less likely this material will get the scrutiny is deserves.

In keeping with recent years, the Government has used the flurry of activity to hide bad news

The Government’s annual report on Crossrail, which has now been published, confirms the scale of this year’s cost overrun and that the project is behind schedule – with the line not due to open fully until winter 2020 at the earliest. The former Secretary of State for Housing and Local Government also used the pre-recess window to confirm the Government’s re-appointment of Sir Roger Scruton to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. A new report, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, also makes clear that air quality in London is likely to remain poor against World Health Organization standards even if ‘extreme measures’ are taken between now and 2030. 

Some announcements have been made late in the day. The (now former) Education Secretary used a written ministerial statement to tell MPs that the Government would accept the School Teachers’ Review Body’s recommendations to increase teacher pay by 2.75% – but with the Government only agreeing to provide new funding for part of the pay rise. Many schools will have already prepared their budgets for the next academic year – raising questions about how schools will incorporate the pay rises before September. This mirrors a similarly late announcement last year.

Other proposals have been rushed out for largely political reasons

The Department of Health and Social Care’s latest green paper on preventing ill health has been rushed out before summer and without media fanfare, partly driven by Theresa May’s desire to make her mark before resigning as Prime Minister. The paper includes new plans to tackle smoking and a proposed ban on the sale of energy drinks to children, but it has been criticised as a "missed opportunity" by the Director of the Health Foundation and has left the Government’s commitment to extending so-called ‘sin taxes’ in doubt.

This followed the Health Secretary’s statement that the sugar levy would only be extended to milk-based drinks "if the evidence shows that industry has not made enough progress on reducing sugar". This statement appeared to be a nod towards Boris Johnson, who had expressed scepticism over such taxes during the Conservative Party leadership campaign.

The Government is also putting off key decisions. The former Business Secretary has launched a new consultation on the funding of investment in low-carbon energy – which included the question of paying for nuclear power stations after Hinkley Point C. Addressing this question is important, but the delay has consequences: while the Government has been reviewing funding options, two planned nuclear projects (Wylfa and Moorside) have collapsed after their private developers could not find a viable funding model.

This last-minute rush of activity doesn’t make for good government

To some extent, it is inevitable that there will a last-minute rush of activity before Parliament breaks up. Politicians and civil servants will be keen to finish pieces of work before the holidays, and the timing of some reports is out of the Government’s hands. It would also be unfair to say that these announcement always bring bad news, as many are relatively routine or even positive for the Government.

However, as the Institute for Government has previously highlighted, ‘taking out the trash day’ is bad for scrutiny and transparency. The fact that journalists, parliamentarians and government have come to expect it doesn’t mean it should be a permanent fixture. Rushing out material may be politically expedient, but it rarely keeps it off the radar permanently and can often end up storing up more problems than it solves.