Whispers from Westminster

26th February 2016 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes weekly about policy and education

Occasionally, people say that the government isn’t quite modern enough. I disagree. So this week, I want to talk about “purdah” – a vitally important element of how government works, and which, in 2016, is still called by an early 19th-century Persian term.

The word means veil, or curtain, and relates to the constitutional practice where much of government public activity (including ministerial statements, legislating and communications) shuts down in the four weeks or so before elections, in order to ensure impartiality. But this year, it threatens to curtail quite a lot of government work, especially with the EU referendum.

I’m tracking two major areas of work in wonkland at the moment – the forthcoming Department for Education consultation on school funding, and a complex but important measure out of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills called the Teaching Excellence Framework, or TEF, which is a new system for how universities will be assessed (and linked to their ability to raise fees). Both of these are, I think, at significant risk of what civil servants like to call “moving to the right” (which is Whitehall-ese for “being delayed”).

Let’s work through the timetable. On 5 May there are elections for a slew of local councils, the London mayoralty, and Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. Assuming purdah commences four weeks beforehand, that means calling a halt to business on 7 April. But Parliament goes into recess even earlier – on 24 March. If outstanding issues that need Parliament to be sitting (and there are a lot of these) aren’t done in the next four weeks, it will have to hold till 5 May.

But here’s the EU rub – a 23 June referendum means another, extra, purdah period starting on 26 May. So departments have only another tiny window. Because if they miss the 26 May deadline (and assuming for argument’s sake the UK stays in), then business only resumes for about another three weeks before summer recess, which runs, with the party conference break, until October. And we all know just how keen everyone is on doing work just before the summer holidays.

But the second risk isn’t parliamentary so much as political. The government “grid” (which maps all announcements) will have been scrubbed of pretty much everything big between now and 23 June. If No 10 is consumed with the referendum (and, less so, all the other elections), and ministers are electioneering as well as governing, getting agreement to take even technical business forward can be tricky because it risks distracting from the wider agenda.

School funding reform and university quality assessment are dry but vitally important. The months of dull government legwork that follow a flashy speech or legislation is where such announcements stand or fall. It’s going to be tight this year to get the work done.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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