UK civil service chief blocks opposition policy costings as election looms

By on 07/11/2019
Chancellor Sajid Javid is said to be enraged that Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill blocked the government from publishing Treasury costings of the opposition party’s policies. (Image courtesy: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/flickr).

The UK’s Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Mark Sedwill, has intervened to block the release of a government document estimating the costs of the opposition Labour Party’s policies, as campaigning begins for a general election on 12 December.

The costings were put together by Treasury officials at the request of the governing Conservative Party, and chancellor Sajid Javid told Cabinet on Tuesday morning that they’d be released in an official document that afternoon. But Sedwill blocked publication at the last minute, infuriating the chancellor, The Guardian reported.  

According to the BBC, Sedwill’s decision came after shadow chancellor John McDonnell complained vehemently to Treasury permanent secretary Tom Scholar about the government’s intention to publish. Labour argued that this amounted to interference in the upcoming general election, with McDonnell telling The Independent that it represented an “abuse of power”.

The BBC reported that Scholar described the conversation between he and McDonnell as a “courtesy call”. Following that call, Labour sources said, they assumed that the document would be published regardless of their objections and a letter sent from the party’s legal team complaining about the “ethics and propriety” of the decision to involve the civil service in the costings so close to the election.

However, after a phone call with the Treasury on Tuesday afternoon, Sedwill decided that it would be inappropriate for the civil service to publish the document, which Javid had said estimated the cost of nine Labour policies. Labour received confirmation at 5pm that it would not be published after all.

Labour said that the government had been caught “red handed” using civil servants for party political purposes, the BBC reported, and pointed out that the government has chosen not to do an economic assessment of its own landmark policy: the new Brexit deal.

McDonnell told The Independent that, when told by the Treasury that it had looked at a range of Labour’s policy statements, he’d responded that the department did not know what was in the party’s manifesto and so its calculations could only represent “pure speculation”.

“It is completely contrary to everything we expect from the civil service in this country. I’m happy for anyone to examine our policies, but to do this hours before a general election campaign is I think an abuse of power. Unacceptable,” he said.

“Whitehall farce”

One government insider called the decision to pull the document a “Whitehall farce”. The source told the BBC it is an “established process” for a government to cost opposition policies. A Treasury source agreed, telling PoliticsHome that the practice has been common since Labour’s Gordon Brown became chancellor in 1997.

“It’s a very ordinary thing for the Treasury to look at opposition policies and work out how much they would cost to implement,” the source told PoliticsHome, adding that work on the latest document had “been going on for a good couple of weeks” and that “Sedwill was aware of it”.

Both Conservative and Labour governments have done so ahead of elections and referendums in the past – though not usually so close to the ‘purdah’ election campaign period, during which civil servants’ actions are strictly restricted. The purdah rules were set to kick in at midnight on the day of the document’s planned publication.

One recent example, highlighted by The Guardian, is former Conservative chancellor George Osborne’s use of a dossier of civil service reports to attack the Opposition leader Ed Miliband’s policies in 2015. That was published in January of that year, significantly ahead of the May 2015 election.

Too close to campaign

Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at think tank the Institute for Government, explained in a blog that the practice runs back to at least the 1950s. Between 2008 and 2010, she wrote, the Treasury was asked to undertake 38 costings by the Labour government – covering Conservative policy ideas such as marriage tax breaks, changes to stamp duty, and proposals for high-speed rail – although only about half were completed.

Haddon cited the UK’s directory of civil service guidance, which states that “since departments provide factual answers to MPs and peers about the costs of identifiable changes in activities or benefits, there is no objection to officials providing ministers with similarly factual information about clearly identified opposition policies”.

However, the guidance states that departments “should not undertake costings or analysis of opposition policies” during an election, nor should they be asked by the government to “devise new arguments or cost policies for use in the election campaign”.

“Sedwill seems to have taken the view that releasing these costings a few hours before the formal election period started, and when all the parties including the government had already started campaigning, would have risked offending the spirit of the guidelines,” Haddon wrote, adding that he appeared to have acted to protect civil service impartiality.  

On Thursday, Sedwill also blocked publication of a report by the Treasury’s economic forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which, according to The Guardian, was expected to show the UK’s public finances have deteriorated over the last eight months, and that the outlook for public finances has worsened as a result of Brexit uncertainty.

According to the OBR, Sedwill concluded that publication of the report would have breached the Cabinet Office’s general election guidance.

The election campaign began formally this week, after Jeremy Corbyn’s Opposition – content that the danger of a ‘no deal’ Brexit has receded – backed calls by prime minister Boris Johnson for a December poll. Johnson is seeking a Commons majority to push through his Brexit deal, while Corbyn has promised to renegotiate with the EU and put a new deal back to the population in a referendum. The Tories are well ahead in the polls, but have had a difficult start in a highly unpredictable and fragmented campaigning environment.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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