While ‘alternative facts’ keep making headlines, UK Government Ministers have been skillfully using ‘no facts’ for years! Should the reality that our politicians evade questions worry us? I think so, and here’s why.
If the attitude of the UK Health Minister Jeremy Hunt was unique then we could deal with the problem relatively easily. But dissembling and evasion now appears to be the default approach of Government, one which is not limited to the Conservatives.
The UK government assumes secrecy as a default
I spoke recently with two people who simply view all politicians as devious, secretive and narcissistic – one in his 20s and one of about 50 years of age.
They considered these vices to be endemic with little point in trying to improve the situation and, depressingly, the younger person made it clear that he saw absolutely no problem with politicians behaving in this manner.
Like most people I accept that the Government has to keep certain information and discussions confidential. National security and the privacy of individual members of the public are two obvious examples. But the UK Government assumes secrecy as a default. There are important reasons why secrecy in Government should worry us. Secrecy makes us collectively weaker and damages our society. We are weaker because it means only a few people are involved in decision making leading to an increased possibility of bad or suboptimal decisions.
It is damaging because poor decisions mean both unstable Government and the fact that we all have to live with the unpleasant consequences, whether financial in terms of public resources or through restrictions of civil liberties. The problem is currently highlighted by the Brexit arrangements where Prime Minister Theresa May wants all decisions made by a small group of people rather than involving Parliament.
Hunt adopted the familiar politician’s ruse of answering a different question entirely
Nowhere is the problem better illustrated, however, than in the behavior of Jeremy Hunt, who was surprisingly reappointed to his post by PM May when she assumed office in July 2016. The Conservative Health Secretary had been in dispute with UK National Health Service Junior Doctors since 2014 when talks over a new contract broke down triggering a series of strikes by doctors during 2016.
Evidence of Hunt’s attempts to evade questions and suppress information emerged before the strikes even started. On 8th February 2016 The Independent newspaper reported that both the NHS Employers and Hunt’s own Department of Health were prepared to accept a proposal from the British Medical Association (BMA) thus averting the impending strike.
Here it gets a little obscure as the paper reports it was ‘sources close’ to the BMA which claimed that Hunt personally intervened to block the deal and sabotage the negotiations. ‘Sources’ means that the claim was unattributed and thus not subject to public verification. The following day however, Hunt was asked directly about the assertion in the House of Commons by Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders. You can view the interaction here.
The Ministerial Code makes explicit references to openness
Instead of answering the question put to him, Hunt adopted the familiar politician’s ruse of answering a different question entirely. But he is a public servant and the Department of Health is not his personal fiefdom to do with as he wishes. If he did veto the deal then we need to know the reasons. It was not as if Jeremy Hunt didn’t have other opportunities to set the record straight. For example, he could have dealt with it in this article a few days later on 12th February for Conservative Home.
Hunt’s approach is puzzling considering the Ministerial Code issued by the Government, which makes explicit references to openness, elevating it to one of the Seven Principles of Public Life:
Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so.
If there were any lawful reasons for Hunt evading Madders Commons question they were certainly anything but clear.
A deal allowing Virgin to run 200 NHS services supports Hunt’s privatizing intentions
Maybe the real reason is that Hunt’s aims for the NHS are too toxic to be revealed openly to the public. In 2005 Hunt was co-author of a book titled Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party which clearly advocates a privatized NHS. An analysis of the important points of the book as it applies to health along with a link to the book itself was provided here on the blogsite What would Virchow do?
The deal to allow Virgin to run 200 NHS services provides much support to the theory that Hunt is pushing ahead with such a plan. But short of outright privatization, the experience of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) provides a strong warning of other dangers.
The corporate giant Maximus who run the Work Capability Assessment system for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) reported that they made a loss on the contract to autumn 2015 rather than the handsome profit which was forecast. The shortfall was largely attributed to difficulties in recruiting doctors to carry out tests. How convenient, then, to have a pool of doctors disenchanted with their job and looking for pastures new!
Jeremy Hunt is symptomatic of the malaise affecting our democracy
Fortunately the MEPs of the EU Parliament held up progress of the TTIP which has now been effectively killed by Donald Trump. With Brexit, however, and Trump holding out the possibility of a quick trade deal there must be a real possibility of NHS services being included in a UK only version of the agreement, especially as the new President, notoriously inconsistent, has shown himself to be a critic of publicly funded health systems.
That a dispirited medical workforce tired of being abused and attacked would be ripe for transferring to private medical providers does appear to be the aim of this Government – with the point of attack now shifting from Junior Doctors to GPs.
Jeremy Hunt is symptomatic of the malaise affecting our democracy. It can be seen most clearly at Prime Ministers Questions where previous PM David Cameron in particular used a range of techniques including ridicule, personal attacks, quoting irrelevant statistics as well as answering his own question.
One of the most vital institutions in an open society is a free press
In an open society where the Government is working for the people it is expected to be responsive and accountable. To facilitate this politics must be transparent with rules and institutions preventing arbitrary actions by Ministers being capable of bringing them to account if required.
One of the most vital institutions in an open society is a free press. Earlier this year journalist Graeme Demianyk drew attention to a report which tracked the appearances on national TV by Government Ministers. The modest number, particularly during the period Monday, November 16 to Friday, December 18.2015 was set against events of national importance such as the decision to bomb Syria and the controversial Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Demianyk claimed that TV Ministerial interviews were becoming an ‘endangered species’.
The problem of evasion is not limited to the UK. In the Republic of Ireland the The Dáil Reform Committee has proposed giving the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) extra powers to compel Government Ministers to answer questions. This includes the publication on a quarterly basis of a list of ministers who repeatedly evade questions and an on the spot ability to rule on relevance where there has been a clear failure to give information sought.
It is clear that the depressing lack of confidence in our system expressed by the two individuals mentioned earlier derives at least partly from our inherently secretive system. The attempt to control and suppress information is a defining characteristic of corrupt totalitarian regimes, the return of which is now such a frightening possibility.
As individuals we have little power but gathered together in support of pressure groups such as the Campaign for Freedom of Information or Republic we can get in the faces of the powerful and make a real change in our democracy.
Image: Rohin Francis