Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Secrecy is Good for You 2

Another day, another post about the Scottish Government's "transformational" childcare policy to double free nursery hours after independence.

On Monday, I revealed the government's admission that - despite previous denials - it does indeed hold direct modelling of this policy, which is a cornerstone of the referendum White Paper.

So will the policy work? I'm afraid I can't say, as the government has refused to publish the modelling work, arguing disclosure would be "premature" and against "the public interest".

Now, following another freedom of information request, I can share a further example of the government's secrecy mindset on this issue.

Back in January, ministers published an economic analysis of the impact of a theoretical 6% rise in the female workforce, which said this would raise £700m in extra taxes to help pay for more childcare.

But as I've blogged before, the fine print contained a disclaimer - the analysis didn't actually model the SNP's childcare policy, just an "illustrative" rise in women in work. There was no proof the policy would ever yield a 6% rise.

Nevertheless, Alex Salmond appeared on BBC Sunday Politics Scotland to hail it as a "very important paper", saying the government had published it "so that everybody can read and understand these things".

But even on its own terms, the analysis left a lot to be desired.

In particular, it failed to say how many years it would take before a 6% rise (assuming it happened) would yield £700m extra in tax, and hence how much the policy would cost to deliver.
Some top vagueness from the SG analysis (my emphasis)

Instead, there were vague descriptions of output and tax revenue rising "in the long run" and "over a number of years".

Considering this work was supposed to be result of the government's all singing, all dancing "Computable Equilibrium Model", that didn't seem very satisfactory.

A great recent paper from the Scottish Parliament's impartial information centre on childcare also reported that when the SNP govenment talks about "the long-term", it can mean 20 years or more. "This may have implications for the funding of the [childcare] policy, particularly over the short-term," it noted drily.

So under freedom of information, I asked to see the full, unedited results of the "really important" modelling exercise the First Minister had discussed on TV.

The Scottish Government refused to release them. I asked them to reconsider.

They have now refused again, arguing it would be "premature" and against "the public interest", because the "design work" on the childcare policy is still not finished.

Colin MacBean, of the Chief Economist Directorate, said there was a need to "protect the public interest in ensuring ministers and officials have the ability to consider relevant data and evidence, debate findings, and explore all available options before reaching settled policy".

The "premature release of long-term strategic modelling results could be to the detriment of full consideration of the entirety of the evidence and the options which underpin development of childcare policy," he added.

Disclosure could lead to an unhelpful "narrowly focused debate".

Remember: the First Minister himself went on television to talk about the same piece of work, and said ministers had published data "so that everybody can read and understand these things".

So publishing some results from the modelling exercise was timely and a good thing, but publishing all the results would be premature and a bad thing. Publishing partial data widens the debate, but publishing full data narrows it. Work that out if you can.

Look familiar?  Highlighted text also appeared in another FoI review response

As a footnote, regular readers may have experienced a sense of deja vu while reading Mr MacBean's reasoning.

That's because his letter used the same justifications used by Dr Louise Scott of the Education Analytical Services Directorate to withhold the other childcare modelling work I mentioned at the start of this blog.

Mr MacBean works in the Energy and Climate Change Analytical Unit, while Dr Scott works in a completely different directorate, in the Children and Families Analytical Unit.

Yet somehow they ended up using the same words - often long verbatim sentences - to justify withholding different sets of data, after conducting FoI reviews of different FoI requests, each of which was to be assessed on its particular merits. Uncanny.

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