Monday, 21 July 2014

A few rivets short of a flagship

It may be the recess at Holyrood, but questions about the SNP government's promise to "transform" childcare policy under independence rumble on.

A few months ago ministers refused a freedom of information request I had lodged about the basic arithmetic behind their headline-grabbing plan.

You might remember that back in January, ministers published an economic analysis of the impact of a theoretical 6% rise in the female workforce, which they said could eventually raise £700m in extra taxes to help pay for childcare.

Strikingly, the analysis failed to spell out how many years it would take before a 6% rise would yield £700m extra in tax (assuming it ever happened), 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".

Holyrood's impartial information centre later pointed out that when the SNP government talks about "the long-term", it can mean 20 years or more.

So under FoI, I asked to see the full, unedited results of the modelling exercise, in the hope of seeing the short- and medium-term numbers.

Ministers refused, saying it would be "premature" to disclose it, and so I appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew.

Ministers made their submissions to the Commissioner on June 16.

Agnew has now ruled on the matter.

Sadly from my perspective, she has sided with the government, and said that ministers were entitled to withhold the modelling work I was after.

The main thrust of it is that, although the SNP's White Paper set out the "high level" direction on childcare, the nuts and bolts of the policy remain "in development", and so material which "relates" to it can be withheld.

However, the Commissioner's decision also contains some fascinating insights.

For a start, it confirms that ministers have modelled far more on childcare than they have been willing to share with voters, and that the policy is still only part-cooked.

"The Ministers stated that the withheld information comprised the modelled impact of changes in economic output and tax revenues under different scenarios of increased female participation in the labour market," the Commissioner's decision says (my emphasis in bold).

"The Ministers argued that the withheld information comprised part of the evidence base provided to assist them in developing their policy on childcare in the event of independence.

"They argued that although the strategic policy direction had been set out in Scotland’s Future, detailed policy design work continued and the details of the policy were yet to be set out.

"The Ministers submitted that the information was created as part of an ongoing process of developing their position on childcare and that the formulation of the policy remains in development."

And here's where it gets really interesting.

Ministers admit they have modelled but have also withheld the short- and medium-term numbers.

In other words, they have withheld modelling on the crucial period covering the introduction of the policy, perhaps the first 10 or 15 years, when it would not yet be self-financing, and when the net burden on taxpayers could be hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Informative material, surely? I'd say so. But ministers say it would only confuse the poor punters.

"The Ministers stated that the modelling results presented in the published report Childcare and Labour Market Participation – Economic Analysis provide a high-level summary of the impact of increases in labour market participation on economic output and tax revenues in the long-term.

"The results for individual years which detail the short and medium-term impacts have been withheld. 

"The Ministers considered that disclosure of the annual short- and medium-term results could be misleading. 

"They stated that the short- and medium-term results reflect a very specific labour market response, from which the long-term results are independent."

And my favourite phrase...

"The Ministers considered that disclosure of the information would give an unjustifiable impression that there is a level of certainty in the information.

A few rivets short of a flagship: ministers on withholding childcare information

The long and the short of it is that my FoI pursuit of this information has now hit a dead end.

Others may yet be more successful.

In the meantime, I leave you with this recent press release from the SNP demanding full disclosure and clarity from the UK government on another aspect of the referendum debate.

SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said: "People in Scotland paid for these polls and they have a right to see the results in full.”