Arguments that the civil service should provide support to the official opposition party have been made quite a few times over the years. Most times it tends to go over the same complications before being swiftly forgotten until the next time.
The question is not whether the quality of policymaking and our system of governance would be improved by better resources and opportunities for the Opposition to help them prepare for government. It would. That is the reason why the Institute for Government published a report in 2009 on how transitions could be managed better. It is why we provide some support to opposition parties prepare for the possibility of government when elections are expected or possible. It is also why we have focused on the issue of how opposition policy making could be improved and what principles they should consider if they want their plans to work when they take office.
But simply passing the buck to the civil service is not the answer. Yes, crying ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ is not sufficient reason why not; but it is the reality of what would actually happen that concerns me.
First, what role would this Department for the Opposition play? Is it to be permanent or just in the run up to an election and what would be the limits of its role? For most of the time the role of opposition is not just preparing for office, nor is it even just scrutinising government, the reality of opposition is about making political mayhem for the government. You could argue that, like in government, the role of the civil service would be constrained to non-party matters. But that is a much murkier line in opposition and would be very hard for this department to manage.
The second thing to consider is how this plays out in the way it is staffed. Do these civil servants join the department permanently until the next election? Does that mean they are forced to stay in their roles? That seems unlikely (and, anyway, would you be able to find the best civil servants wanting to work for an opposition that seems extremely unlikely to come into power?).
It also undermines the argument for why this support should be civil servants. Their value would lie partly in the fact that they have ongoing links and understanding of wider Whitehall. But it is one thing to see officials caught between ministers of the same party who are battling it out. To be placed between opposition and government would be a very unenvious position. If the role was just more information provision of the kind that the Commons and Lords libraries provide to all MPs it might be managed. But then you are not achieving the kind of transformation in support that Norman Strauss is looking for. You might as well just expand the role of the libraries.
There is a good argument to be made about whether access to the civil service can be made more systematic and less dependent upon the permission of incumbent ministers. Other countries do allow opposition parties to come into government buildings, ask questions and access information far more extensively than we do. There are other things that perhaps could happen. Public money helps fund our opposition parties, including for policy development specifically, but we don’t go anywhere near as far as some countries do in providing them with support. Some of that is to do with political and public consensus on funding of political parties and perhaps it should change. But it is unlikely to do so any time soon.
The other thing the Institute for Government has explored previously is the role that others might play, including perhaps the Office for Budget Responsibility in examining the costings of opposition policies. It is a role played by the Dutch Central Planning Bureau and it is one that Robert Chote, head of the OBR, has said would “offer the prospect of improving the quality of policy development for parties… and potentially improve the quality of public debate”. But nothing has happened on that front.
The internet, open data, much higher transparency of government all provide a significantly different amount of information and evidence to use for policy making compared to the late 1970s. Oppositions do lack the means to access key government data and commission research as government can, but quantity of information in and of itself is not the problem, it is wading through and applying it to policymaking. I don’t disagree that we could and should improve that, but there is a lot else that can happen before we give the role of opposition to the civil service.