Commons committee scolds government for failure to address transparency concerns

Written by Beckie Smith on 18 June 2021 in News
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PACAC claims its recommendations have not been sufficiently engaged with

Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

A committee of MPs has said it is unsatisfied with the government’s response to several recommendations it has made to increase transparency and accountability of its actions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a letter sent to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove yesterday, William Wragg, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said the government had not “adequately addressed” some of the concerns the MPs had raised in its March report.

Many of those concerns related to a tendency by ministers to present information in a “politicised” way that is not always “frank about uncertainties in the data”, the report said.

The MPs said that, on several occasions during the pandemic, “data has been communicated with the apparent intention of creating a more favourable view of the government – or even to provoke anxiety, rather than help people understand risk”.


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Their report called for, among other things, a requirement for ministers to abide by the UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice when presenting data, in a move to strengthen the ministerial code; that any data quoted publicly by officials or ministers should be published; and ministerial statements on government websites should link to detailed data underpinning any stats quoted, using footnotes or hyperlinks.

The report said the government’s response “should state whether each recommendation is accepted or rejected and should state the next steps the government will take or provide an explanation for those recommendations rejected”.

“It is not sufficient for the government to ‘note’ a recommendation, as they have done in the past,” it added.

But the government’s response to PACAC’s report, published on 25 May, failed to fulfil this requirement, Wragg said. It is standard for responses to address each recommendation in a select committee report individually, beginning with a clear statement saying whether the government has accepted, rejected or partially accepted it.

In his letter, he demanded Gove explain why the government had been “unable to state whether each of the committee’s recommendations were accepted or rejected”.

The response to the two recommendations about publishing data behind stats quoted by ministers said only that the government “is committed to transparency and will endeavour to publish all statistics and underlying data when referenced publicly”, in line with the UKSA code. However, it did not address the specific requirements recommended by PACAC or explicitly accept or reject the recommendation.

The government, meanwhile, appeared to reject the call to require ministers to abide by UKSA’s code of practice when presenting data.

Its response said: “There will be occasions where it is in the public interest to utilise emerging information, such as to provide a more accurate and up to date response to parliament. As such, the government does not agree that a change is necessary to the ministerial code.”

Wragg asked Gove to clarify why the need to use emerging information was considered incompatible with the code of practice.

And he said PACAC was also unsatisfied with the government’s rejection of its recommendation to publish thresholds aligned to the February roadmap out of lockdown – in response to which Gove had told the committee that the indicators of whether to impose or lift lockdown controls were indefinable criteria.

“Given the government’s ‘data not dates’ approach, we would expect the government to be able to provide the thresholds set within the data,” Wragg said. “Why is the government not able to be more transparent with the thresholds that they use for assessing the data?”

This is the latest in a series of rebukes by PACAC of Gove, who was accused in the report of behaving in a manner “contemptuous of parliament” and engaging in “wilful evasion of scrutiny”.

Wragg wrote to Gove and health secretary Matt Hancock in February, chastising them for turning down an invitation to give evidence to the inquiry.

“We are extremely disappointed that we have been unable to take evidence from the ministers responsible for key questions on how data has been used to combat the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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