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  • Noah Keate

Government reports must be open, frank and honest

I don’t remember a lot about my early years in education, but the feelings that never left me were those relating to criticism. Whether it was a school report or direct punishment, education that delivered sanctions were far more memorable than any praise. The same can be said for authors, who are more likely to remember scathing book reviews than those of celebration. Logically, then, the same should be the case for reports delivering a damning verdict of governments.

This should be welcomed. A desire for governments to improve its effectiveness through commissioning reports should be admired, especially when they are unaware of its contents or verdict. The logic is that the details, recommendations and ultimate verdict of a report can lead to improved future government and prevent mistakes from repeating themselves.

Logic, however, rarely translates to reality. Following the Windrush scandal, which led to the deportation of individuals who had rightfully lived and contributed to the UK for generations, the Home Office commissioned a report into what had gone so terribly wrong. According to The Guardian, the Home Office failed to ensure radical discrimination didn’t took place, failed to evaluate how effective its politics were and didn’t consider the impact on citizens. This is extremely shocking, deserving of international coverage and the thorough attention of Priti Patel - the current Home Secretary.

The picture isn’t quite as clear as this. Both Sky News and the Daily Telegraph reported that the accusation of the Home Office being ‘institutionally racist’ had been removed, with the phrase being included in earlier drafts but not the latest version. What is the motive behind this? Of course, there is nothing wrong with reports being revised and edited, if their authors think it is a realistic interpretation and analysis. For a government department to be ‘institutionally racist’ is a serious accusation and one that must be backed up by evidence. But if Wendy Williams, the author of the Windrush report, believes this to be the case, those remarks must be published. There should be no interference whatsoever from government ministers in altering the report. If it is altered, if there’s a whitewash, how on Earth can change and improvement be achieved?

At least the Windrush report looks set to be published imminently. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said with regards to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian interference in British politics. Despite receiving much criticism, the government didn't publish the report before the 2019 election, with this having no impact on their final electoral triumph. The 50 page report, according to the Guardian, was based on analysis from Britain's intelligence agencies, including MI6. While security procedures must be carried through, the report was approved for publication by the intelligence services. It was only the government who sat on publishing the report to withhold scrutiny.

Yet, the Prime Minister announced his approval for the report’s publication as soon as the election had been won. This was severely criticised by the former Committee Chair Dominic Grieve, who told The Independent, “the fact that he has been able to sanction its publication now shows that in fact it was perfectly possible to sanction its publication before parliament was dissolved in November.” Again, this emphasises how the government may be withholding damaging information. It raises the purpose of such reports if they aren't released to allow scrutiny. The New European have reported that the document won't even be released until later this year and contain a number of redactions. The continued delay behind the report is unknown, unconvincing and prevents government development.

The public have a right to know about their government’s actions, successes and failings. As one Boris Johnson once said ‘we [MPs] are the servants’ of the people. For the effectiveness of government and transparency of policies, honesty, whether it gives the government political clout or not, is always the best policy. It is pleasing to see a report on life expectancy, even though its findings are horrific. According to the Marmot Report, England has ‘lost a decade' in health, with stalling rates of life expectancy, shorter life expectancy in deprived areas and poorer individuals people in poorer areas spending more of their lives ill. These findings are on the surface extremely depressing and harrowing to read.

The report does, inadvertently, create cause for optimism. By being aware of government failings in this great problem, it’s possible to create a response to improve and even reverse the changes. According to the Financial Times, Michael Marmot, the report’s author, argued that austerity and the slowing increases in life expectancy were clearly linked, with zero-hours contracts, declining education funding and child poverty leading to families resorting to food banks. It is pleasing then, that the government is focusing on investment in communities and public services. However, it can’t be money alone. Firstly, the money must be spent effectively. Secondly, must funding simply takes resources back to their 2010 levels before the coalition introduced cuts. It is thanks to this report’s publication that there is hope for reversing these shocking trends.

The government will always be selective about what information it discloses. While I believe acts like Freedom of Information should be celebrated for increasing transparency, not all information should be disclosed. Legal advice, for example, should remain private so lawyers can be honest with politicians. The government, despite its verdict, should see the Marmot Report as a sign that damning verdicts can translate into positive outcomes through government action. It is the worst school reports we remember the best, for we are more likely to act on them, improve our behaviour and transform the situation around.

Image: Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

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