Previous event

Year Five: the road to election for Whitehall and the political parties

Wednesday 7 May 2014, 09:30

On May 7th we will be one year away from the general election. For the coalition parties and the Civil Service this is uncharted territory and presents a number of challenges. How can the coalition parties continue to work together as a government while also developing their distinctive offer to put before the electorate next spring? What role should the Civil Service have in supporting the two governing parties as each develops those forward policy plans?

This year will also see the opening of formal channels of communication between the Civil Service and the Opposition, under existing conventions for pre-election contacts. What lessons can be taken from how they operated in 2010 and, in the context of coalition, what issues might this process face in 2015?

This event marked the launch of two parallel reports – Year Five: Whitehall and the Parties in the Final Year of Coalition and Pre-election contacts between Civil Service and the parties: lessons from 2010. These examine the challenges of the final year of this parliament.

Introducing the event Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, explained that while the next 12 months will revisit many of the issues that have emerged at previous elections, the context of coalition presents a number of new challenges. The Civil Service and parties must consider how to manage these to ensure that good government is maintained right up to the election.

Introducing the Institute’s ‘Year Five’ report, Akash Paun noted that the Civil Service and coalition parties had done well to reach the final year –  in 2010, few thought that coalition would last this long. Nevertheless, the final year leading to the election raises a set of new challenges. In a single party government ministers can ask officials to carry out work that may, indirectly, feed into manifesto development. In coalition, it is not clear what rights each party has to ask the Civil Service to carry out work relating to possible party policy. The Institute’s research has shown that officials are already being asked to do work for one side of the coalition, and to not share this with the other party. This presents a number of risks, including:

  • If the Civil Service refuses to carry out work only for one side, ‘planning blight’ might ensue, with long-term policy planning being pushed aside
  • The coalition parties may reach the next election with a set of policies that are not well thought-through and tested
  • If the work is carried out for one side and not shared between both parties, there is a risk of perceived politicisation of the civil service.

To mitigate these risks the report recommends:

  • Agreement at the top between coalition leaders on the rules of the game for the final year
  • Explicit agreement that each party can request information in confidence from civil servants in departments led by the other party
  • Consistent application of the rules across Whitehall, with permanent secretaries held accountable for implementing the rules within their departments
  • In the longer term, there’s a strong case for extending the scope of pre-election contacts to provide a level playing field between the governing parties and the Opposition.

Catherine Haddon discussed her report on pre-election contacts. Pre-election contacts between shadow ministers and senior civil servants are a consequence of the UK’s tradition of overnight changes of government. With little time to prepare for a new government, the contacts allow civil servants to get limited but valuable prior warning about the policies the Opposition would bring with them, if elected. Such contacts occur while the Civil Service remain focused on continuing to serve the government of the day.

As well as examining how the contacts worked in 2010, the report examines the ambiguity that surrounds them and the historic reasons for that. It outlines a number of issues:

  • Contacts begin at the discretion of the prime minister, which means shadow ministers cannot plan contacts according to a pre-decided timetable
  • Contacts with shadow ministers happen in isolation from each other, and information is not always shared across the wider shadow team or across departments, limiting the extent to which new government policy is ‘joined up’
  • Guidance on the content of discussions is ambiguous and relies on the judgement of individual permanent secretaries.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Guidance on pre-election contacts should be revised to include the expectation that implementation issues will be discussed, to help identify problems that might arise in the early stages of government
  • To make best use of contacts, shadow ministers should approach the talks with a clear agenda of issues to discuss
  • Both sides need to be clear on the propriety and role of contacts, so they can be used to deliver more effective government after the election, but the limits of the contacts should also be recognised. They are a limited activity and such preparations will not resolve all the issues that may arise in 2015.

Sir John Elvidge discussed the system of separate space that was developed during the final year of the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood. There were three factors that drove the creation of this system:

  • A sense among both parties that the public would not accept ministers taking time off from government to prepare for the election
  • The discipline that existed around sharing information between both parties was so strong that, if parties wanted confidential information, it would be necessary to develop a new system
  • A recognition that, if manifesto policies are to form the building blocks of a coalition agreement, it is important that those policies are well-thought through and tested

Finding a solution to these problems was less about doing a favour to the parties, and more about ensuring the continuation of good government and good policymaking for the citizen.

He added that trust between ministers and civil servants was crucial to the success of the system. Information flowed through the permanent secretary’s office because that was where trust between the Civil Service and ministers was strongest. The dynamics of that relationship, rather than the specifics of how the system worked, are the key to understanding how and why ‘separate space’ worked.

Sir Alex Allan tackled a number of issues raised in both reports. He agreed that it is important to develop a system that allows Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers to access information from departments led by the other party, but wasn’t sure if it was a big problem needing to be resolved. On pre-election contacts, he agreed that implementation issues must be part of the discussion, and that it would be unfair if two of the major parties were able to access information with the Opposition excluded. He also agreed that it was important for pre-elections contacts to be ‘joined up’ across the shadow team, and recalled instances in 2010 when the then Cabinet Secretary was asked to confirm with the leader of the Opposition whether some policies were in fact official party positions.

He added some concerns about points raised in the reports. For permanent secretaries embarking on pre-election contact, he warned that there is a tension between telling a future minister ‘we’ll do what you want’ and informing them that what they want may not be possible – discussions on implementation may be important, but will not be central to these conversations. On the length of time allocated to pre-election contacts, he observed that in 2009, when the talks started in January, the process soon stalled before picking up again later. Six months is a sufficient length of time for the talks.

Questions from the audience included:

  • Is it desirable or feasible for the Opposition to be granted access to the Civil Service on the same terms as governing parties?
  • Is there a case for a more radical pre-election system, such as the Dutch Central Planning Bureau which publishes assessments of all parties’ manifestos prior to an election?
  • Would freedom of information legislation apply to information provided to ministers either through ‘separate space’ or pre-election contacts?