Working to make government more effective


Why government (still) needs to dispose of ‘Take Out the Trash Day’

The habit of issuing a deluge of data and documents as parliament rises for the summer is bad for scrutiny.

Rishi Sunak
The Suank government published hundreds of reports, documents and statements the day MPs rose for recess.

Last Thursday the House of Commons rose for summer recess, prompting a pile-up of ministerial statements in parliament and a dump of data and documents on GOV.UK. There were 13 written ministerial statement to the Commons, more than double the average of 5.3 per day since November 2014 (when data became more easily available). Though even that number was dwarfed by the 753 documents that appeared or were updated on GOV.UK the same day.

The term ‘Take Out The Trash Day’ came to prominence thanks to an episode of The West Wing, where the Bartlett administration releases several stories it would rather not be picked up late on a Friday (Saturday being the least read paper of the week). On this side of the Atlantic, this year the UK government’s ‘trash’ was less toxic compared to some previous occasions, but its release on the eve of a six-week recess remains a tradition that needs to be binned.

Standards, severance pay and spad numbers

In the recent past, stories governments have wanted to put out quietly have included everything from the awkward (reports on the burning of surplus PPE, Crossrail delays, and an increase in the Brexit ‘divorce bill’) to the worrying (warnings on school building collapses) to outright damning (child poverty statistics).

This year, details of special adviser salaries – a regular fixture of Take Out The Trash Days – made a return, including that severance costs for Boris Johnson’s premiership ran to £1.9m, and for Liz Truss’s 49-day tenure £1m. The Treasury’s annual accounts also included details of pay-offs, 10 including £335,000 to its former permanent secretary, sacked by Truss, and ministerial severance to the disgraced Chris Pincher.

More positive was the government finally responding to recommendations on standards and ethics from the Committee for Standards in Public Life, the Boardman review and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. Our analysis found while the government does not go as far as the three reports, there may be some steps forward – if the government delivers on the various future commitments it has made.

As well as all that, announcements included: updates on MoD support to Ukraine, new policing codes of practice, and statutory intervention at the London Borough of Croydon; delays to guidance on gender identity for schools and colleges, and to a response to a planning consultation including onshore wind; responses to important reviews including on maternity and neonatal services at East Kent University NHS Foundation Trust and the Wade review into domestic homicide sentencing; consultations on extending ‘suspicionless stop and search’ powers, UK domain names and extending the growth duty to various regulators; big appointments (including chief inspector of Ofsted); and a pay rise for the King. 11

And as ever, some big data releases (such as crime statistics and the Whole of Government Accounts), annual reports and accounts, and a details of the gifts and hospitality received and meetings conducted by various departments’ ministers and senior officials. We also discovered the next session of parliament will begin on 7 November, and parliament itself snuck out a review of working practices in parliament. 12

Government should dispose of a tradition so damaging to scrutiny

There may be a more innocent, more human explanation than governments simply trying to bury bad news: ministers and civil servants, like the rest of us, are rushing to get things done before a deadline. Given certain parliamentary requirements, they don’t have the luxury – as author Douglas Adams did – of enjoying the ‘whooshing noise’ as deadlines go by. And it’s obviously a good thing that government is publishing (and committing to publishing) more and more information on its actions.

But it is still a damaging tradition. It will be September before the Commons can respond to anything published last week. There isn’t really an excuse for publishing lots of data releases on the same day, when setting (and publicising) earlier deadlines is more than possible – and, as we discussed on our Twitter Space, it suggests data internal to government is still more difficult to use than it should be.

We’ve argued before (we can recycle posts from 2017 and 2019) that it’s time to bin Take Out The Trash Day. It’s counter-productive to scrutiny. It’s not even especially good for hiding bad news stories any more, as journalists and think tankers know to tune in and hit the refresh button all day. But arguably worse, it propagates a miasma of suspicion around what should be useful, routine releases. It’s time to consign this garbage tradition to the dustbin of history.

Related content