Monday, 5 May 2014

Secrecy is Good for You

It's back to one of my regular bugbears today - the sketchy background to the Scottish Government's flagship policy on expanding childcare under independence.
New readers can get the background in my last post.
Today's post is about something new that's come out through FoI.
Although official spokespeople - including the education secretary's special adviser - said on the record that it didn't exist, it turns out ministers do have specific modelling of how the policy would work (or not) after all.
But guess what? You and me can't see it.
Apparently it's in the public interest for the public to remain ignorant of the detail.
Here's the story

Tom Gordon

SNP ministers have finally admitted carrying out research into their flagship childcare policy - but say it would be against “the public interest” to publish it.

The confirmation, after months of official denials, was secured through a freedom of information (FoI) enquiry.

The policy, which would see free nursery hours for three- and four-year-olds rise from 600 to 1140 a year after a Yes, is a cornerstone of the government’s White Paper on Independence and a key part of the Yes campaign’s offer to voters on September 18.

Besides improving the lives of children, the plan is intended to allow more women to enter the workforce, generating more taxes to help pay for a “transformation” in childcare.
But in spite of the policy’s importance, the government claimed it had not conducted any computer modelling to see how it would work - an omission strongly criticised by other parties.
Instead, ministers published limited results from a computer modelling exercise about a theoretical rise in female employment, which suggested a 6% uplift could yield £700m a year in extra taxes - the same cost as the policy.
However this work never looked at whether the specific childcare policy in the White Paper would actually produce such a 6% rise.
The government has never said how many years it believes achieving a 6% rise might take, and hence the net cost of the policy is unclear.
The government also refuses to put a price on the second phase of the childcare policy - extending free hours to one- and two-year-olds - although the Scottish Parliament has estimated this could cost around £1.2bn a year.
Ministers were asked in January if they held any unpublished modelling on the White Paper’s specific childcare plans.
The initial response was to cite more research about female employment.
Pressed to clarify whether it held any research or not, the Government made a “modification” of its original response by admitting it did hold information after all.
Yes, we've got it. No, you can't see it
Dr Louise Scott of the Children and Families Analytical Unit said: “The Scottish Government does hold other information on the specific childcare proposals which falls within the scope of your request.”

However she refused to release it, arguing “the public interest” was best served by keeping it a secret, as the policy was still being designed and disclosure would be “premature”.

She said: “I recognise that there is some public interest in release as part of open, transparent government and to inform public debate.

“However, this is outweighed by 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 a complete settled policy.

“While the strategic policy direction has been set out in the White Paper, detailed policy design work is continuing.
“The premature release of this detailed modelling-type work could be to the detriment of full consideration of the entirety of the evidence and the options which underpin development of childcare policy.”

Labour said it was scandalous that the SNP government was refusing to share what it knew about the efficacy of the childcare policy with voters before the referendum.

Education spokeswoman Kezia Dugdale said: “How can it not be in the public interest to know whether a key aspect of the government’s plan for independence is credible or not?
“We’ve believed for a long time that the numbers don’t stack up. It’s really disappointing that the government are trying to appeal for women’s votes but hiding the details.”

The government blamed “confusion” for the contradictory initial and final positions.
He said: “Some analytical work on the policy was identified... as it could be considered to be modelling, albeit of a different nature to that macro-economic modelling undertaken around female participation rates.
“We apologise for any confusion.”

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