Shortly after the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review, I blogged that I had sent an FOI request to the Treasury asking for the evidence held on the savings derived from delaying the receipt of benefit until after the first seven days of unemployment.
I have now received this interim reply:
Despite its saying very little I think it’s fascinating. It admits that some – some – of the information exists but the Treasury is undecided as to whether it would be appropriate to disclose it. It suggests to me one of two things: either that they are unsure how well it will stand up to scrutiny, or that they are concerned that factual information supporting Ministerial decisions should be covered by the presumption that advice is not for public issue.
When civil servants prepare legislation, it is accompanied by a range of assessments, including regulatory impact assessments, designed to estimate the costs for business, or equality impact assessments, designed to show that the measure concerned does not discriminate against vulnerable groups. These are usually included in draft in any consultation. They’re actually incredibly difficult to write; the only honest answer is to give a rough assessment, admit that it’s rough, and to ask for views in the consultation. Back-of-a-fag-packet calculations are more common than many civil servants would care to admit, and consultation often produces nothing better.
The point about the seven-day wait for signing on is that it is supposed to produce significant savings for the taxpayer – that’s really the only publicly respectable rationale for doing it. But until the working is exposed we won’t know whether it is that, or just another attempt to placate the kind of Tory who believes the myth of the undeserving poor. So I’d have said that there is a clear and obvious public interest in revealing this information. As far as Ministerial advice is concerned (and at the risk of giving my civil servant readers a collective fit of the vapours) I believe that in an age of coalition politics it should be available to the public (not least because if Nick Clegg does achieve his ambition of becoming the Hans-Dietrich Genscher of British politics, Liberal Democrat ministers will have collective memory of previous administrations’ decisions), but that’s another issue and another blog post.
So I await the follow-up – if any – with interest. This response leaves me with no faith that there is any real justification for the decision to delay signing-on.