About two dud stories

A friend and former colleague has set me a challenge that (probably recklessly) I can’t resist:

I would be interested in your view of 2 recent events involving Gordon Brown. The first is his reported reluctance to agree to the Tories’ request to be granted access to senior Whitehall officials as from early 2009 in accordance with the convention which enables opposition parties to prepare for possible office. This despite Labour having in 19997 being given similar access some 18 months before the last date for calling an election.
The second is the premature release by No. 10 of partial and unchecked knife crime statistics despite their being warned that they should not do so.
Both issues could perhaps be considered as relatively unimportant compared with the economic crisis but they appear to me, at any rate, as examples of shabby political manoeuvres designed to thwart the opposition from gaining any advantage – at any cost, and at odds with Brown’s avowed intent to insist on transparent and honest government.
I look forward to your reaction but somehow I doubt that these are issues which will feature on your blog site!

So here goes.

(1) Tory access to civil servants before the next general election: This seems to originate from a story in the Times of 12 December by Sam Coates, ‘Senior Political Correspondent’, headlined “Gordon Brown provokes Tory anger by delaying consent for Civil Service handover talks” and beginning:

Gordon Brown is risking a political row by considering blocking the Conservatives from meeting senior civil servants in the new year to discuss their proposals for power.  Plans for the Tories to hold meetings with permanent secretaries from every department, widely expected to begin in January, have been put on hold because the Prime Minister has not yet given authorisation. Labour was allowed to begin talks with senior civil servants 15 months [sic] before the 1997 general election…

There are several things worth noting about this story.  First, it is wholly speculative, and relies entirely on what unspecified “Whitehall sources” are said to have “suggested”.  The sole fact in the report is that when the Cabinet Secretary gave evidence to a parliamentary select committee —

Asked at what point in the electoral cycle the Civil Service would talk to opposition parties, Sir Gus [O’Donnell] replied: “It’s when the Prime Minister agrees that with the Leader of the Opposition. I’m aware that the Leader of the Opposition has written to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister will respond.”

This falls far short of evidence that the prime minister is “delaying consent for Civil Service handover talks”, as the headline asserts, or even that he is considering doing so.  All we know is that David Cameron has asked when the contacts can begin, and that Gordon Brown has not yet replied.

Secondly, this is all rather premature.  The Electoral Commission website confirms that “A general election to elect the new Parliament must be held by no later than Thursday 3 June 2010.”  If the 15-month precedent of 1997 is followed, that would suggest that Tory contacts with civil servants might begin in or about March, 2009, i.e. in three months’ time.  We might be forgiven for suspecting that Mr Cameron’s request is designed more to reinforce the impression that a general election is or should be imminent than to elicit information.  It’s true that Tony Blair, when still prime minister, told Cameron that the contacts could start at the beginning of 2009, but he had no business seeking to pre-empt his successor’s decision on timing;  Brown is under no possible obligation to regard himself as bound by Blair’s mischievous promise, since the timing is within his own discretion;  and anyway the precedent of what did or didn’t happen in 1997 is no more binding than the precedents of other general elections either before or after 1997.  There’s therefore no basis for describing whatever date Brown eventually sets as a “delay”, since there’s no established start date from which to measure delay.  Moreover, if Brown had replied instantly that Cameron and his colleagues could start talking to the civil servants “immediately” (i.e. even before the date offered by Tony Blair), it’s a cert that Mr Murdoch’s Times and other noisy tabloids would have been running banner headlines announcing that Brown was obviously planning a general election early in 2009 (which may or may not be the case:  the chances are that he has very sensibly not decided yet when to call the election).  That this was indeed Cameron’s real purpose in demanding immediate access to the civil service is amply confirmed by what he said in his letter to Gordon Brown, as quoted by the BBC:

Given that you have allowed members of the Cabinet to speculate openly that an election is to be called imminently, I am asking you today to give the necessary instructions for such meetings to begin immediately.

Thirdly, it might (equally mischievously) be argued that since at least one Tory front-bench MP, and probably more than one, has been enjoying regular and systematic access to at least one home office civil servant for about two years, and possibly to at least one Treasury civil servant too, there’s no special hurry about putting such access on a legitimate basis.  Mr Coates of the Times doesn’t mention that, for some reason.

My conclusion is that the Times story has no basis.  It’s not a story at all:  it’s political propaganda.  As political reporting, it’s a dud.  If and when the prime minister sets a date for these contacts to begin which leaves inadequate time for Tory shadow ministers to get briefing from their putative future department heads, that will be the time to bang on about the anger supposedly caused by his unfairness.

Update (pm 14 Dec 08):  Sam Coates is at it again in today’s Sunday Times:

Transition talks blocked

A former head of the civil service criticised Gordon Brown last night for seeking to block “transition” talks with the Tories. Lord Butler of Brockwell, cabinet secretary for a decade until 1998, said the prime minister’s actions had been “wrong” and “regrettable”. Under a convention dating to the early 1960s, the Conservatives were due to open discussions in the new year to brief civil servants on their plans for government so as to ensure a smooth transition if they win the next election. However, Sir Gus O’Donnell, the present cabinet secretary, said last week that Brown had yet to give his permission for the talks. Butler said: “It would be a pity if that permission wasn’t given. In fact, it would be wrong.”

Once again, the sub-heading states as a fact what has clearly not in fact happened;  and this time Lord Butler’s comments are said to refer to “the prime minister’s actions” which “had been” wrong and regrettable, as if the prime minister had done something both concrete and deplorable, whereas it’s clear from the direct quotation that Butler’s comments were purely conditional:  “It would be a pity if that permission wasn’t given. In fact, it would be wrong.”  Not content with that flagrant misrepresentation, Mr Coates conflates an alleged convention “dating back to the early 1960s” with a one-off undertaking about the timing of pre-election talks in 2009 given by a man (Blair) who isn’t now even a member either of the government or of parliament.  Even editors of once-great British newspapers now appointed by Rupert Murdoch ought not to be approving this sort of stuff for publication.

(2) “Premature release by No. 10 of partial and unchecked knife crime statistics”: As far as I can discover, the ‘fact sheet’ containing these partial and unchecked statistics was issued by the home office at the behest of someone in No. 10, not by No. 10 itself, although I can’t find any sign of it on either department’s website, so it’s difficult to be sure.  Since both were warned beforehand that the figures were not yet checked (as required by the statistics code of practice), that those intended to be quoted were incomplete and therefore gave only a partial picture, and that accordingly it would be premature to release them now, it was plainly quite wrong and indefensible to go ahead regardless and issue the fact sheet.  An inquiry is reportedly under way into how this blunder came to be committed and who — probably primarily in No. 10, but also in the home office — was responsible for it.  As the Tories and LibDems have gleefully remarked, such idiotic mishandling of official statistics brings all government statistics into disrepute by undermining public confidence in them.  In other words, the fact sheet was another dud report.

None of which means that the basic message sought to be illustrated by the incomplete and selective statistics was necessarily — or even probably — untrue:  namely, that (contrary to the impression deliberately given by the right-wing tabloids and opposition politicians) knife crime is declining.  From such officially checked and published statistics as are currently available, e.g. here, here and here, it seems likely that knife crimes are indeed declining, or at worst roughly level, in the areas where special police measures have been introduced (a qualification conscientiously emphasised by ministers in the context of the fact sheet — whether it was also made clear in the fact sheet itself, I don’t know and can’t find out).  In the words of these documents themselves,

These statistics on crime in England and Wales are prepared by staff of the Government Statistical Service under the National Statistics Code of Practice. They are produced free from political interference.

It was the present Labour government that established the independence of the Government Statistical Service, precisely to avoid suspicion that official statistics are massaged for political purposes.  The blundering issue of the fact-sheet was in blatant breach of the government’s own rules.  It was an own goal,  providing predictable joy to those spectators in the grandstand who see advantage for themselves in encouraging the false idea that violent crime is a mounting threat to us all, despite the inconvenient fact that it isn’t.

And I’m happy to discuss both these dud reports on my blog: QED.


1 Response

  1. 14 December, 2008

    […] Ephems of BLB » Blog Archive » About two dud stories This despite Labour having in 19997 being given similar access some 18 months before the last date for calling an election. The second is the premature release by No. 10 of partial and unchecked knife crime statistics despite their … […]

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