The 2010 election was fought in the shadow of the expenses scandal and rising public distrust for politicians. In order to reverse these perceptions and make Government more accountable, both coalition partners sought to make Government more transparent and give voters a clearer idea of how they taxes were spent.
While nothing on the scale of the expenses scandal has dogged this Government’s work, there have been a number of controversies. In November 2012, IPSA published a list of landlords who are paid taxpayer-funded rent by MPs. Over 50 MPs were allowed to keep their landlords secret for security reasons, which opened up a row on transparency. Also, in December 2012, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards announced an inquiry into Culture Secretary Maria Miller after discovering she claimed £90,000 in expenses between 2005 and 2009.
The pledge to require all councils to publish meeting minutes, local service and performance data may similarly run into problems with presentation or lack of public interest. Some councils have made failed attempts to stream meetings online. It was reported in July 2012 that Hampshire County Council spent £220,000 broadcasting their meetings online, but only picked up 57 viewers, while Stoke Council spent £120,000 to show meetings online, and picked up a single viewer for an April 2012 debate.
The Government pledged to strengthen the scrutiny power of select committees, and over the past three years, select committees have seen a renaissance. Keith Vaz described his current role as Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee as a far more fulfilling job than when he was a minister. However, this renaissance is largely due to factors extraneous of the Coalition. Tony Wright’s 2009 report led to the implementation of select committee chairs elected by the whole House of Commons, open elections of committee members within each Party (instead of nomination by Whips), and a rule whereby members not attending 60% of meetings in a session ran the risk of removal prior to the 2010 election. Commenting in January 2013, Dr Wright said, ‘Three years on and the place just seems to be more vital, more robust and I think the people who are making it like that are the select committees and we should rejoice in it.’
Also, the high-profile nature of some select committee inquiries has played its role in strengthening their power. Transport Select Committee chair Louise Ellman commented at Insight Public Affairs’ Transport Priorities breakfast that the public has recently taken more interest in the work of select committees following the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s grilling of Rupert Murdoch.
However, the Economist Intelligence Unit released a worrying report in March 2013 which found that the public participation rate in British politics was lower than in Iraq and Palestine. They suggested that the low rate is due to voters losing faith in politicians.
This suggests that whilst progress has been made, these barriers have not been repaired. So going forward, the Government still has the same transparency challenge it had three years ago to restore public confidence in politicians and the Parliamentary system.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissible in Pay Band I of the Senior Civil Service pay scale, and organograms that include all positions in those bodies.
Status: Done – Details of civil service salaries began to be published from summer 2010. In March 2011, the Cabinet Office published guidance on publishing organograms and senior salary information.
Pledge: We will require anyone paid more than the Prime Minister in the centrally funded public sector to have their salary signed off by the Treasury.
Status: Done – On 24 May 2010, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced that he will approve pay and remuneration levels for all Civil Service appointments and appointments to public sector bodies over £142,500, which is the amount of the Prime Minister’s salary.
Pledge: We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.
Status: In progress – following a consultation on introducing a statutory register of lobbyists, the Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform published its report on 13 July 2012. The Government’s response to the report is still awaited.
Pledge: We will also pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics.
Status: In progress – the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended a cap on donations of £10,000 in November 2011, following a year-long inquiry. However, with no visible action on the issue, Committee Chair Sir Christopher Kelly urged the government to consider its proposals and implement some form of reform in November 2012.
Pledge: We will strengthen the powers of Select Committees to scrutinise major public appointments.
Status: In progress – the Liaison Committee published its report on Select Committees and Public Appointments in September 2011, and the Government response to this was published in June 2012, with the Liaison Committee’s report on this response following in September 2012. The Rt Hon Francis Maude MP then wrote the Government response to this, explaining the Government’s stance further. This affirmed the Government’s general agreement with the Liaison Committee’s recommendations, and sets out Government support for: Ministers liaising with relevant Chairs prior to the recruitment process; departments should provide Committees with relevant information; pre-appointment scrutiny by Select Committees is invaluable for relevant public appointments, but effective vetoes on a wider range of posts cannot be accepted; and the Government is currently updating the list of appointments which are subject to pre-appointment scrutiny. On 31 January 2013, a Commons debate was held on the Liaison Committee’s report and the Government’s response.
Pledge: We will introduce new protections for whistleblowers in the public sector.
Status: In progress – following the Mid Staffordshire scandal, the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP stated that ‘gagging clauses’ within NHS severance agreements will be banned. A National Confidential Alert Line is being piloted for a year in Scotland for NHS staff. In February 2013 the Government further announced that it would amend the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill to make employers liable for any abuse suffered by whistleblowers at the hands of other staff; this will apply to the public sector.
Pledge: We will take steps to open up government procurement and reduce costs; and we will publish government ICT contracts online.
Status: Done – Contracts worth over £10,000 awarded by the Government Procurement Service since 1 July 2010 are published on the Contracts Finder website.
Pledge: We will create a level playing field for open-source software and will enable large ICT projects to be able to be split into smaller components.
Status: In progress – the Government Service Design Manual was published in March 2013; this instructs new digital public services to use open source software in preference to other alternatives.
Pledge: We will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts over £25,000.
Status: Done - Government spending over £25,000 began to be published in 2010, with HM Treasury publishing guidance on how it should be presented. Datasets of spending over £25,000 are now available on the www.data.gov.uk website.
Pledge: We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.
Status: Done – Clause 92 of the Protection of Freedoms Act, passed in May 2012, provides for public sector authorities to publish datasets, available for re-use and in a re-usable format. This can be done as a response to requests or through their own publication schemes.
Pledge: We will require all councils to publish meeting minutes and local service and performance data.
Status: In progress – The Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency, published in September 2011, lists several pieces of data that councils should publish at a minimum, including committee minutes and data on performance.
Pledge: We will require all councils to publish items of spending over £500, and to publish contracts and tender documents in full.
Status: Done – the Department for Communities and Local Government asked all councils to publish expenditures over £500 in The Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency. Details of this spending can be found for each local authority through the Directgov website.
Pledge: We will ensure that all data published by public bodies is published in an open and standardised format, so that it can be used easily and with minimal cost by third parties.
Status: Done – the Government’s White Paper on Open Data, published in June 2012, states that open data should be in a digital, machine readable format. Over 9000 datasets have already been published on the www.data.gov.uk portal.