MPs are questioning the number of spin doctors checking over government pronouncements before they are released, after a leaked memo revealed just how many Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials check answers given to parliamentarians.
Internal departmental guidance seen by Politics.co.uk reveals an extraordinary level of control exercised by civil servants over the MoJ's messaging. At least ten people are required to sign off proposed answers before the refined, redrafted text even reaches the minister's office. It takes 15 pages of in-depth instructions for the MoJ to explain to its staff exactly how questions from MPs and peers should be answered.
This is an important job - these parliamentary questions (PQs) are an important part of how the government is held to account. But the MoJ appears determined to ensure it does not release anything that could actually make it look bad.
The document demands that the following people are copied in whenever a draft PQ answer is being proposed:
- 1. Parliamentary Branch
- 2. Special Advisors
- 3. Head of News
- 4. Deputy Head of News
- 5. Press Officers
- 6. The SCS who cleared the response
- 7. Your designated Press Officer (if applicable, i.e. where a designated Press Officer has been involved in the handling of the PQ)
- 8. Any applicable individuals in your team
In addition to this there also exists a "large list of individuals who have requested sight of the day's PQs". All MoJ staff who feel they ought to be chipping in to the debate need to do to get their name added is email the MoJ's parliamentary branch.
Let's look at how the process works across different government departments. Philip Davies, the Tory backbencher, asked the attorney-general how many appeals against bail had been made successfully and unsuccessfully. The solicitor-general responded with this carefully-crafted prose:
"The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) maintains no central record of the number or outcomes of appeals against bail conducted by the CPS in Crown courts. This information could be obtained only by examining all prosecution files maintained during the requested period, which would incur disproportionate cost."
Davies asked what the employment rate is for people born with a disability and those who become disabled later in life. He received this answer from minister Mark Harper:
"The information is not available."
He tried the Department for International Development next, wanting to know how much money they were spending on keeping an eye on the newspapers. Minister Desmond Swayne was only happy to give this reply.
"Since financial year 2008-09, media monitoring costs have been reduced by more than half to £63,960.40 in 2012-13."
This answer made the government look rather good, so officials were only too happy to release it.
This is how the process works: parliamentarians try their hardest to get useful information, but are frequently blocked by an executive determined to give nothing away.
Davies appears to have had enough. This has been going on for years but last Thursday he took the unusual step of calling for a debate on the problem in the Commons. He said:
"Surely a parliamentary question should simply be responded to with a factual answer. Why does it need to go through so many spin doctors? I have no idea how many of the other departments run this kind of operation. May we have a debate on this, or a statement from the Ministry of Justice on why it goes through this rigmarole? It is no wonder that it gets so far behind in answering our questions."
What Davies really wants is an answer to the question of why parliamentary answers are "being subjected to this kind of spin".
Leader of the House William Hague was never going to allow any such debate to take place. He told MPs:
"The fact that the answers go through so many wise people before they get to my hon. Friend probably explains why they are so good."
As ever, no government wants to give up its ability to get rid of bad news. Don't expect change anytime soon.