FOI and the politically empowered

Here at the Unit we’re wrapping up a project on FOI and Parliament which looked at the use of FOI by MPs and peers. We’ve been asking:

  • Is FOI another tool in MPs’ arsenal?
  • Is it useful, and has it become part of the cut and thrust of politics?
  • Or, is it not being used?

After all, MPs already have great research tools, like Parliamentary Questions, access to the House of Commons Library and many NGOs working in the field who can provide them with information. Plus they are likely to get a more robust reply from ministerial letters than an ordinary member of the public (a reason their work for constituents is so valuable).

So why do any MPs make FOI requests? Examples from different parliamentarians provide us with some answers:

A key role of the parliamentarian is to hold public institutions to account, and our previous research finds that FOI helps increase accountability of institutions. Time will tell if FOI grows in popularity as an accountability tool among the elites who know how to manipulate and publicise information more than most. Our study finds that overcoming structural resourcing shortages may be the key to this.  The time and resource issues of FOI, compared with ‘instant’ PQs, cannot be easily overcome. FOI requests and their subsequent analysis takes much time, something that heavily effects FOI’s use by peers in the less professional and less well resourced House of Lords in particular. In New Zealand, it was the switch to a proportional voting system and a parliament with at least five political parties represented that saw FOI use increase as parliamentary competition did. Maybe an elected House of Lords could at least provide the competitive impetuous for wider use by peers. Though a cynic may say any increase in use by MPs will coincide when the tally of requests becomes another feature of They WorkForYou statistics…

The Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works–A Summary

The Coalition in Whitehall

  • Finding a balance between unity and distinctiveness is the key problem for coalition government. The current coalition has successfully ensured unity, and stability; but struggles to allow the two parties to express their distinctiveness.
  • Formal cabinet government has been revived: Cabinet and cabinet committees now meet regularly, but these are mostly forums for dealing with interdepartmental issues rather than specifically coalition issues.
  • The main forums for reaching agreement between coalition partners are informal. Coalition issues are often dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.
  • This informality of coalition decision making is based on high levels of trust between the leadership of the two parties. Trust, and the importance of compatible personalities, are essential for coalition government.
  • However, this informality has one drawback: it means that the Lib Dems are often unable to demonstrate their influence in government.
  • Some machinery has surprisingly not been effective in coalition brokerage—in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, special advisers, and Liberal Democrat junior ministers.

The Coalition in Westminster

  • Flexibility within the executive is not always matched by flexibility in parliament. Compromise hammered out in government has led to excessive rigidity when policies are introduced into Parliament.
  • The informality and relatively close relationships in the executive are not matched by similar relationships within Parliament. In both houses, the coalition is tolerated rather than embraced.
  • Coalition governments often lead to a divide between the frontbench and backbench. Rebellions in this parliament are historically at record highs.
  • The parliamentary parties have begun to modify their backbench committees to prevent the divide between frontbench and backbench widening.

The Dilemmas for the Junior Partner

  • The Lib Dems are still reeling from the loss of their state funding, given only to opposition parties. This has led to the loss of many of their staff. It may help explain their under powered performance, particularly with the media.
  • By going for breadth over depth, the Lib Dems have spread themselves too thinly. They need to prioritise. Given the numbers they have, what can they realistically do which will have an impact with the public?
  • In a future coalition, the junior partner might seek to specify the support to be made available to them, in terms of special advisers, expanded Private Offices, and additional support for the parliamentary party.

Press Release: Coalition Works! The inside story from the Constitution Unit

What works, and what doesn’t in the new coalition? A first year report – full version pdf

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

The Unit’s first year report, Inside Story: How coalition government works, is based upon 90 interviews with senior people in Whitehall and Westminster. The mutual trust and close working relations developed inside the government should help as it faces tougher times ahead.

“People feared that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided” said the Unit’s director Prof Robert Hazell. “But in the first year the coalition has been remarkably stable and united. Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years”.

“Maintaining that unity in government while demonstrating the distinctiveness of the two parties is the key challenge going forward” Prof Hazell added. “This is particularly difficult for the Lib Dems as the junior partner. Instead of spreading themselves thinly across the whole of government, they need to prioritise their effort on areas where they can clearly have an impact”.

“An interesting development is the Lib Dems’ backbench committees” said the project’s lead researcher Dr Ben Yong. “It is a sign of how stretched the Lib Dems are for resources that these have been created. But it is also a way of preserving their distinct identity, and gives backbenchers regular contact with the frontbench. Conservatives we interviewed have been rather envious, and they have now started their own backbench policy committees”.

The report’s findings and recommendations include:

  • The Lib Dems did well in the coalition negotiations, with 75% of their manifesto items going into the coalition agreement compared with 60% of the Conservative manifesto. But in any future coalition, they should focus as much on the division of office as the division of policy. It is through ministerial leadership that coalition partners have visible impact.
  • By going for breadth over depth in their selection of ministerial posts, the Lib Dems risk spreading themselves too thinly. They may have achieved hundreds of small policy wins, but their influence is invisible to the public
  • Cabinet committees deal mainly with interdepartmental issues. Coalition issues are resolved in half a dozen informal forums, and are dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.

Notes for Editors

  • This is an initial report from a 12 month study of how the coalition works, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The project runs until December.
  • Access to Whitehall interviewees has been authorised by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Sir Gus O’Donnell. So far the project team have interviewed 90 officials, ministers, special advisers, parliamentarians and outside groups.
  • Robert Hazell is available for interview this weekend, tel 020 7679 4977 (Friday), 020 7267 4881 (Sat and Sunday).
  • Browse the coalition government project pages

Crunchtime looms for Lords vs Commons

Who will blink first in the stand-off between Lords and Government over the Reduction of Seats Bill? Lords watchers among us and the fans of self-regulation are on tenterhooks. Ben Brogan the well-informed Deputy Editor of the Telegraph says he has the outline of a deal. Check it out against events.

The outline of the deal, I am told, would involve the government compromising in three areas in exchange for the Labour bully boys pulling stumps. These are:

allowing some kind of oral public inquiry where boundary changes are contentious, maybe an online public consultationa post legislation scrutiny of some sort, perhaps an inquiry, into the reduction to 600 seats.

a greater amount of variation of seat sizes. David Cameron has told the Lib Dems he’s willing to see a 5pc variation around the final figure (say 75,000), and I’m told he will not give any more, which means this one could be a sticking point.To focus minds, Lord Strathclyde, who has been told by Dave to sort it out, has a closure motion ready to table this evening. It would be put to a vote tomorrow. This is the nuclear device, because while it will be gently worded and will aply only to this legislation, it is the guillotine that will fall on the Lords and at a stroke – if their Lordships so approve – will cut off their history of self regulation.