Civil servants warned to expect more parliamentary requests to see policy papers after Brexit reports row
Select committee chair Frank Field told DWP that he could not guarantee the universal credit reports he has obtained will remain confidential
The Department for Work and Pensions contested the publication of the Universal Credit project assessment reports. Credit: John Stillwell/PA
Government has been told to expect more requests from Parliament to release official papers across key policy areas due to what a select committee chair described as a “different constitutional ballgame” following the request to release Brexit impact assessments.
In a letter requesting the release of reports into the impact of Universal Credit rollout, Frank Field, a Labour MP and former minister for welfare reform, said he recognised the risk such requests pose to frank, independent advice from civil servants to ministers.
He said that care would be taken to ensure they were initially read only by committee members, but insisted that he could not guarantee that they would remain confidential.
At the end of last year Labour twice used parliamentary procedure to force government to hand over first the Department for Exiting the European Union’s Brexit impact assessments and then the Universal Credit project assessment reports.
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The Department for Work and Pensions contested the publication of these reports because it could “through precedent, compromise the effective operation of government, including the free and frank provision of advice to ministers and the free and frank exchange of views”, Field said, adding that he shared this concern.
“Civil servants being able to tell their ministers openly and truthfully the problems with the strategy a government or minister wishes to pursue is immensely important,” he said.
“But we are now in a different constitutional ballgame, where I would assume that an increasing number of requests for papers will be made to the government in each of its major areas of policy.”
In his response to Field, written prior to the release of the documents in December, David Gauke, the former work and pensions secretary who was appointed as justice secretary in Monday's Cabinet reshuffle, said impact assessments are only useful if they are not written with a view to publication.
This is so that “all involved feel safe in the knowledge that they can be entirely candid and clear about any issues that they see", he said.
Gauke added: “It is a long-held principle, agreed with the Public Accounts Committee, that the government does not release project assessment reports produced by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA).”
However, he agreed that the “exceptional public debate around Universal Credit” meant there was a public interest in sharing the project assessment reports with the committee on a confidential basis.
In correspondence sent between Gauke and Field last month and published on the select committee website on Thursday, Field took issue with Gauke’s attempt to impose conditions on the release of information and said he could not “guarantee that the reports will remain confidential in part or in full”.
In separate a letter to Field, Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, confirmed that her committee had not explicitly agreed to reviews not being made public.
“The committee has consistently argued for greater transparency in the IPA and its predecessor,” she said. “The committee has not agreed a blanket ban policy on publishing or quoting from certain classes of documents and would consider whether or not to make a particular document public, in whole or in part, on a case by case basis.”
Gauke also said his department would be redacting the names of junior officials, and Field stressed that this was the only information he expected to see redacted.
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