Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Housden Affair

As noted in a previous post, Iain Dale has published a leaked exchange of letters between Peter Housden (the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Communities and Local Government) and John Denham (the Secretary of State). These letters are being cited as evidence in Devon County Council's legal challenge against the decision to grant Exeter unitary status.

I would like to comment briefly on the letter sent by Peter Housden to John Denham, taken as evidence by Iain Dale that the relationship between the two has broken down, and taken as evidence by Devon County Council that the Exeter Unitary decision was about protecting Ben Bradshaw's seat in Parliament. Iain Dale has also published John Denham's reply and an explanation of what a "Ministerial Direction" is.

My personal view is that Peter Housden was behaving quite properly in his role as Accounting Officer for the department. However I feel the arguments he used in his letter could be criticised on two points: Firstly he used the fact that the financial benefits of resurgent Exeter & Norwich economies are not easily estimated as an argument against the city unitary options. Given the huge range of variables in relation to estimating such benefits, and the highly disputed basis for the attempts as costings already made, a judgment call is ultimately required. So such an argument is very weak.

Secondly, by prioritising value for money above all other considerations, Housden fails to consider the other criteria on which such a decision needs to be made, in particular (in my view) the democratic aspect. To take this point to its logical conclusion, it would be superficially cheaper to sweep away all democracy in the country. Even if it were conceded (which I do not) that an open society does not reduce the risks of financially disastrous mistakes in comparison with a dictatorship, the removal of democracy would of course be undesirable on other grounds.

However Peter Housden is not stupid and will be aware of these limitations in his arguments. And given the negative career repercussions that flow from writing such a letter requesting a formal ministerial instruction, I'm sure there is a more complicated back-story here to come out about Housden's discomfort with the decision-making process in this case.

Who gains from the leak? It's not clear to me that either of the correspondents gain. Comments at Iain Dale's blog suggest that a written Ministerial Direction makes ministers look bad because it suggests they are overriding not just impartial civil service advice but some element of propriety that transcends partiality. And at the same time, a Ministerial Direction makes senior civil servants look bad because it suggests they have lost influence over their ministers.

Given that the leak gives ammunition to those who oppose the Government's decision, my guess is that the source is a Conservative-leaning civil servant who feels he or she can embarrass the Government in the run-up to the General Election. However, it's a big risk. Unauthorised leaking can be a career-ending step. And however grateful the Opposition is for such leaks at the time, when in government they don't want untrustworthy civil servants anymore than the current ministers. So this is why I doubt the reason for the leak is simply about a personal attachment to current local government arrangements in Devon and Norfolk. More likely, I think, is that it's a matter of principle: he or she perceives the unitary decision as being about either gerrymandering a Labour enclave in the heart of Tory Devon or saving Ben Bradshaw.

Whatever, I'd rather more of the government's decision-making was in the open. And it shouldn't require someone to risk their career to bring to light the reasoning behind public decisions.