Access talks are meetings between the civil service and opposition parties, held in the run-up to a general election. Because the handover of power usually takes place overnight, access talks are the only opportunity for the civil service and an incoming government to exchange information and establish relationships with each other in advance of the potential handover date.
Access talks are unique: civil servants do not normally meet with opposition MPs. They are held “without ministers having a right to be privy to the content of the discussions”, though the prime minister must agree before any talks can happen and ministers should know that they are occurring.
They can also take place between the Opposition and arm’s-length bodies.
The leader of the opposition writes to the prime minister requesting access talks with the civil service. By convention, in the run-up to an election, the prime minister is expected to respond authorising the talks. At that point, the cabinet secretary and the Cabinet Office become responsible for overseeing and organising contact between both sides.
Because these talks are by convention, the incumbent government has discretion in when they are granted. In 2018 and early 2019, Labour repeatedly asked for the talks to begin in order to take into account the possibility of an early election. However, the requests were initially refused because the next election is not scheduled until 2022 under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. They have now been authorised to begin in anticipation of an impending election.
The convention also means that it is at the prime minister’s discretion whether smaller parties should be granted talks. For example, in 2015 David Cameron refused Nicola Sturgeon’s request that the SNP be granted talks with the civil service.
The time offered has varied between two and 16 months. Gordon Brown authorised contact between the Conservative Party and the civil service a full 15 months in advance of the 2010 election. In 2017, the talks were initiated on the day Theresa May announced the election, giving the Labour Party 51 days in which to speak with the civil service.
How much contact can the opposition have with the civil service during access talks?
There is no formal guidance as to how many meetings there should be. IfG research in 2014 found that smaller departments tend to have fewer than five meetings, while larger departments have around seven. There is an expectation that meetings are held outside of departments, and as a result they usually take place in Parliament.
Ed Balls, then a special adviser to Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, claimed to have had met Terry Burns, then permanent secretary to the Treasury, “maybe once or twice a week, for two or three hours at a time” in the year before the 1997 election.
Attendance at the meetings varies considerably by department. Usually, senior spokespeople or shadow ministers for the opposition parties and the relevant permanent secretaries have an initial meeting. Subsequent meetings might be themed around topics, with the relevant civil service staff and officials from the opposition party attending relevant meetings.
In theory, the talks are restricted to organisational matters and the civil service hearing what major policies opposition parties are planning. The Cabinet Manual says they should cover “questions about departmental organisation and to inform civil servants of any organisational changes likely to take place in the event of a change of government”.
It is at the discretion of permanent secretaries where they draw the line in discussing aspects of policy. They may, for example, have implementation concerns they want to make sure are raised. The guidance says they can “ask questions about the implications of opposition parties’ policy statements” but should never “give advice about policies”.
In the past, shadow ministers have passed on drafts of legislation they have had drawn up privately or structural reform plans that set out plans for their policy and legislative timetable.
Access talks with the civil service can be invaluable in helping a new government to prepare in advance of and during a general election campaign. They also allow the civil service to anticipate the level of transformation and upheaval which will accompany changes in government – both in terms of policy delivery and in changes of personnel. They can also be the first opportunity for potential new secretaries of state to get to know the permanent secretary of the department they lead.
However, talks need some prior thought to maximise their usefulness. As Harriet Harman pointed out in her interview for our Ministers Reflect project: “the discussions that are held between the top of the civil service and the shadow secretaries of state could be much better focused on helping the shadow secretary of state understand what they are going to be doing”.
Their success can be dependent on how well the shadow gets on with the permanent secretary. But shadows also need to consider what they want to get out of the meeting. Past IfG research shows that it can be hugely valuable for the shadow and permanent secretary to discuss a plan for the talks in their first meeting.