Access talks are an opportunity for the opposition to hold confidential talks with the civil service about their plans for government. They can be a vital part of preparation for government in the run-up to a general election. This IfG Insight is based on IfG research, including interviews with past participants, and provides advice to the opposition and civil servants on getting the best out of access talks.
Why do access talks matter?
Access talks have been a feature of civil service planning for decades, usually beginning in the 12-16 months prior to the end of a parliament – that is, before the latest date a general election, and so a potential change of government, will take place . If embraced, the talks can be of great help both for the civil service and oppositions, in that they can help:
- the civil service to prepare for the opposition’s key priorities and plans for early in a new government.
- ensure the civil service understands policies beyond what is in public statements and the manifesto.
- shadow teams get to grips with their department more quickly if there is a change of government.
- the leader of the opposition, currently Keir Starmer, plan the kind of government they want to run and prepare for the transition into No.10.
- build trust and understanding. They are a chance for shadow ministers to understand what may become their future department and build relationships with key civil servants. They also give civil servants an opportunity to get to know the future ministers they may be serving, and how they like to work.
Getting access talks right
Most but not all opposition ministers have found the talks helpful, however our research shows that access talks can be of most use when:
- the opposition leadership and Cabinet Office use their talks to discuss the opposition’s whole policy and legislative agenda, as well as plans for the centre of government
- the talks are used to tackle cross-cutting issues through joint meetings with more than one department and shadow team.
- permanent secretaries remember that shadows will not necessarily take up the same posts in government.
But shadows should also be aware of the limits of the talks: for example, permanent secretaries can quiz the opposition about its policies and can provide factual information about the department and its policies but cannot discuss current government plans. Similarly, they are limited in the policy advice they can give – though they can talk in general terms about policy areas that are not part of the opposition’s manifesto and that the opposition shadow teams should consider.
What form do the talks take?
Access talks are meetings between senior members of the opposition and the civil service. They include the meetings that the leader of the opposition and their team have with the cabinet secretary and other members of the Cabinet Office and meetings shadow secretaries of state and their teams have with permanent secretaries.
How many meetings should there be?
There is no strict limit, though the talks should not become a distraction – that is, the civil service focus must continue to be serving the government of the day. The number of talks usually depends on how valuable opposition shadows find them, how extensive a policy platform the opposition has to discuss, and the ease of organising diaries – and of course how much time there is for them to happen before the election. Access talks are usually more valuable in the months before the election campaign formally begins. During the campaign period there is limited time to have meetings as the opposition are busy on the campaign trail.
Where can the meetings take place?
The meetings occur away from government departments; in the past many have taken place in parliamentary offices, but other venues have also been used. Several former participants talked about the value of a first informal meeting – over dinner or drinks – so that shadows and permanent secretaries can have a more casual discussion. Some continued to intersperse informal or one-to-one meetings with more formal sessions, but naturally this depends on the time available.
Who can attend the meetings?
For the opposition leader’s office, talks are often initiated by key advisers, such as the leader’s chief of staff, especially to go over what ground needs to be covered and to keep in touch as issues arise. The leader of the opposition themselves is involved in certain discussions, particularly around key policy priorities and how they would want a government to function. But the schedule of a leader of the opposition and their focus on the campaign means that a lot of discussions will tend to fall to advisers. In the past cabinet secretaries have usually used conversations closer to the election to go over with the leader key questions that will need to be addressed in the first few days of a premiership, which range from who is likely to be appointed to which roles in the government, to what arrangements need to be made for living accommodation in No.10 or No.11.
For departmental meetings, previous participants found value in having the first meeting as a general chat between the shadow and permanent secretary, to get to know each other. It is useful to then plan a schedule of talks which cover key policies and issues the opposition are prioritising, so attendance will reflect that. Shadows can extend discussions to involve their wider team, and some have allowed their key advisers to continue more detailed discussions with the department. Before 1997 Ed Balls, as an adviser to shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, had regular meetings with the permanent secretary to the Treasury. Permanent secretaries also might meet junior shadows who hold the brief on a particular policy.
Permanent secretaries will similarly bring along senior officials who are most expert in the topic being discussed. In 2010 the talks for one department concluded with a final meeting involving the whole shadow team and the top team of the department. However, permanent secretaries have to be mindful about the numbers of officials attending and ensure the department remains focused on working for current ministers and are preparing for all scenarios that the election may bring.
What can the meetings focus on?
Past participants spoke about the value of having a plan where each meeting focused on a different theme. This allowed the permanent secretary to prepare ahead of the meetings and for both sides to decide upon a cast of attendees that reflected the topics to be discussed. Each session might cover a specific policy area, for example reflecting the shadow’s priorities for early action or covering specific sectors of the department’s responsibility.
The discussions have also been an opportunity for civil servants to raise, within the limits of the guidance, issues that might need to be considered alongside the opposition’s policy plans. This could include future and long-term policy concerns or parts of the department’s scope that shadows have not apparently considered.
How are the talks co-ordinated?
During more recent elections, the Cabinet Office and leader of the opposition’s office have played a stronger role in co-ordinating talks than in the past. Shadows and permanent secretaries are usually given a degree of latitude to get on with their own talks, but there is some central co-ordination to make sure the talks are going well and to ensure a whole-of-government perspective on the message being given to the civil service. Past oppositions have sometimes had a representative from the leader’s office attend, though this can affect the nature of the conversation. Similarly past cabinet secretaries have asked permanent secretaries to provide a short note on their meetings, but have understood that these will usually be cursory so as not to break confidences.
The leader of the opposition or their advisers will also hold talks with the cabinet secretary to focus on the overall policy picture, any departmental re-organisation and plans for No.10 – as well to assess the progress of departmental talks. Some degree of co-ordination by the leader’s office and Cabinet Office helps ensure that the policy priorities of the whole government match up with what permanent secretaries are being told by shadows.
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What can access talks cover?
Access talks are one of the few exceptions to the rule that the opposition does not have access to the civil service.
The talks must remain confidential
Guidance normally issued to civil servants before these talks strictly states that the content of the talks will not be shared with current ministers. Leaks from the opposition side would be equally damaging.
The talks are limited in what civil servants can discuss, but there is some flexibility
The official guidance issued in the past on access talks calls for permanent secretaries to put themselves in ‘listening mode’. However, this is usually interpreted flexibly, with the onus on permanent secretaries to facilitate a discussion and have a clear idea in their mind of where the line on ‘policy advice’ lies. One permanent secretary told us that if the shadow set out an Act that they wanted passed quickly – and could specify what it would involve – then it was acceptable to discuss their plans. 16 Haddon, C and Varma, S, Pre-election Contact between the Civil Service and the Parties: Lessons from 2010, Institute for Government 2014, pp.14-15, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/20140430%20-%20FINAL%20Pre-election%20contacts_0.pdf However, the civil service should not use these discussions to work up detailed legislative options.
How do the talks help?
Past participants have found that the talks are valuable in several ways, beyond their primary role to forewarn of departmental changes or major policy.
The talks can be used to ensure both sides have an idea of any major policy implementation challenges. In the first instance, this might relate to specific policies that involve changes to the machinery of government or the organisation of staff, but there are many other implementation issues that may also be relevant.
Previous shadows have shared ‘business plans’ and even draft legislation, though the latter will often need to be reworked anyway in government, so discussions around objectives for early legislation can be more helpful. The rules on ‘policy advice’ will determine how far these can be discussed (though as noted can be treated with some flexibility). Permanent secretaries we spoke used questions as a way to offer advice: for instance, “how do you want to introduce that policy?”, “over what time frame?”, “have you considered that department X will have an interest?". 21 Haddon, Pre-election Contact 2014, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/20140430%20-%20FINAL%20Pre-election%20contacts_0.pdf p.14
For the permanent secretary, the talks can be extremely useful for planning what kind of organisational changes they would need to make to implement the new policies: this might be moving staff around, making changes to the structure of the department or bringing in new staff – all of which can be time consuming.
Understanding the department
Past shadows we interviewed said how useful the talks can be to learn about the department, within limits. Previous guidance stipulates that the shadow can ask ‘factual questions’. Those with experience of the talks discussed the value of being able to cover the basic budgetary framework for the department, the relationship to arm’s-length bodies and the policy landscape – but civil servants could only provide information available in the public domain and absolutely could not comment on confidential government policy (for example spending plans).
Permanent secretaries who have taken part in these talks emphasise the importance of not critiquing the current government’s policies or discussing advice they had provided to ministers. Topics that can be particularly difficult to address include current contracts and policies that the opposition may wish to halt or change. One permanent secretary talked about the constraints of talking about implementation while needing to make sure “you’re not giving them some insight into the problems that the present government is having”. 22 Haddon, Pre-election Contact 2014, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/20140430%20-%20FINAL%20Pre-election%20contacts_0.pdf. p.16 Another said that managing the balance between factual explanation and not ‘revealing anything secret’ was something they frequently had to manage in their dealings with parliament. 23 Haddon, Pre-election Contact 2014, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/20140430%20-%20FINAL%20Pre-election%20contacts_0.pdf
Building a relationship
Permanent secretaries who have participated in access talks said how valuable they could be in beginning to develop a productive relationship with a potential new secretary of state. The discussions allowed them to get to know people with whom they may have previously had little or no contact, find out how they worked and what it might mean for the department. How far this is possible depends on how relaxed the talks become, and the tone of early talks can set the foundation for a relationship in government.
As one permanent secretary put it:
“this is not some formal going through the motions, this is about… building a relationship with someone you may have to work closely with, so that when you walk into the door you feel comfortable working with them and they have quite a bit of confidence in you – and also really getting behind what they’re trying to do". 24 Haddon, Pre-election Contact 2014, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/20140430%20-%20FINAL%20Pre-election%20contacts_0.pdf p.9
By contrast, sometimes the talks break down early on when the shadow and permanent secretary fail to build a personal rapport.
Lessons for shadows
There are several key lessons for shadows as they approach the talks.
Don’t be afraid to ask basic questions
One permanent secretary from 2010 talked about how valuable it was to have a shadow who was keen to ask even basic questions. This can be a good way to open up the conversation and can put permanent secretaries at ease, in what can be a difficult initial meeting. If shadows are unsure about what can be covered in the talks and the limits of them, they should ask the permanent secretary.
Communicate goals clearly
Access talks are an opportunity for shadows to ensure that a department is aware of their goals for government, and the objectives behind them. To make these talks work it is hugely important for the opposition to be open about its plans for government and clear about its priorities. The talks may be the only source permanent secretaries have, outside of public statements, to understand what the opposition actually intends to do if elected and what it is trying to achieve with any publicly stated policies. The civil service will take what is said in the talks very seriously – shadows should be sure to get across what they are thinking and the aim behind the policy; to be explicit and consistent.
There may be policies where opposition parties have undertaken extensive preparation and on which shadows will want immediate action if they take office. Other policy areas may need more work. Implementation can only feature in these talks in a general sense, but can lay a foundation for discussions about implementation challenges in government and ensure that both new ministers and the civil service are on the same page.
However, shadows should always remember that these talks are no substitute for detailed implementation work in government. Participants from 2010 said the talks had not been used well to think about broad “swathes of policy and trying to spot some minefields” – which then caused problems early on in government. 26 Haddon, Pre-election Contact 2014, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/20140430%20-%20FINAL%20Pre-election%20contacts_0.pdf p.25
Think about co-ordination
As well as focusing on access talks in individual departments, opposition parties need to ensure they are giving the civil service a consistent message across departments so that policies are joined-up. The purpose of some of the Conservative Party’s business plans and their pre-election discussions in 2010 was to make sure their initial legislative agenda was co-ordinated (including with the shadow leader of the house).
The opposition should also try to be consistent on cross-cutting issues that overlap several departments, as well as between shadows and the leadership about what the biggest policy priorities are. There is value in holding talks with more than one department to discuss associated issues. These can be difficult to organise but rewarding if done well.
Past participants in access talks have spoken about the problems that can occur when a minister ends up taking up a post they did not shadow and does not know what policies were planned. Making sure that the civil service is getting a consistent message will help.
The opposition party leadership should consider how to co-ordinate the talks while allowing shadows the leeway to build their own productive relationships. Though permanent secretaries will keep the detail of the conversations confidential, the cabinet secretary will want to ensure the civil service leadership has a clear view across departments.
Lessons for the civil service
There are several key lessons permanent secretaries should bear in mind as they approach the talks.
Focus on the personal relationship
Access talks are sometimes felt to be more useful to the civil service than for the shadow; permanent secretaries should be conscious that the limits placed on these talks can be frustrating for shadows. Some shadows will be wary in their approach the talks, uncertain how open to be or concerned about not seeming knowledgeable across their whole brief.
Permanent secretaries should use the first meeting to find out what the shadow wants to get out of the talks and to plan for future meetings. Permanent secretaries should also be aware that pointed questions about policies, or off-hand comments on what they are being told, can sometimes be misunderstood, even off-putting. Remember the talks can be the first opportunity some shadows have to properly meet officials from government departments.
Be clear about what can and can’t be discussed
Guidance issued about the talks usually gives permanent secretaries some degree of latitude, but officials are limited in the policy advice they can provide and cannot discuss current government plans. Most permanent secretaries we spoke to said that this balancing act was something they were perfectly comfortable with: it comes with the job. Permanent secretaries need to retain the trust and confidence of current ministers. They need to make sure that the talks (or any other preparation for an election and the possible outcomes) are not a distraction for the department.
But civil servants should not assume that the opposition are fully aware of the limits to what the talks can cover and how that affects the conversation. Permanent secretaries will want to ensure that the talks are positive and helpful to the shadow. Having an honest and open conversation with the shadow early on about the limits of what they can discuss can be the best way to manage this.
Use the contacts to understand opposition policy and people
The talks can be a hugely valuable chance to get into the aims behind policy pledges. Policies may change significantly if a new party gets into government, so it is helpful for the civil service to understand the outcomes the incoming party are trying to achieve. The talks can also help the civil service understand the political philosophy and personnel behind a new government.
Permanent secretaries who took part in access talks in the run up to the 2010 election talked about the failure to realise how much Labour’s way of working and the language they used was ‘in the bones of the department’ and that they needed to make a mental adjustment to a government that wanted the state to be far less interventionist and talked about government and politics in different ways. 28 Haddon, Pre-election Contact 2014, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/20140430%20-%20FINAL%20Pre-election%20contacts_0.pdf p.24
Share insights with colleagues
The talks are based on trust, so permanent secretaries will want to ensure that they maintain strict confidentiality about what is discussed. However, it is useful to ensure that insights are shared, and the Cabinet Office will play some form of co-ordinating role. This will be two-fold: first, to monitor how well the talks are going and ensure that the Cabinet Office can offer guidance or help intervene when they are not going well; second, to help co-ordinate policy and allow the Cabinet Office to take a whole-of-government perspective. This can be managed while maintaining confidentiality about the detail of the talks.