Accountability and the empty chair – Yes Minister, we want you!
We did ask the Foreign Office for a Minister to respond, but no one was available; we did ask the Home Office for someone to respond but no one was available; we did ask the Department of Health for a Minister to respond, but no one was available; we did ask the Education Department for a Minister…we did ask, we did ask, we did ask.
But no one was available; no one was available; no one was…Argggghhhh!
“No Minister Available” is currently one of the most readily used phrases in Government.
A few weeks back I tweeted that I hadn’t interviewed Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health for three years. He came on the next night. It proved to be no precedent. Even the striking junior doctors have got in on the act; last night for the assembled press outside the Department of Health, they produced a chair with Mr Hunt’s name on it. It remained and remains empty.
The frost descended last year, perhaps because we first reported aspects of both Cameron’s and Osborne’s various family tax issues. George Osborne has only appeared once in the Channel 4 News studio since 2010; he appeared during the election but has not done an interview with us since our “bogus and desperate” story on his family firm’s tax affairs.
The Prime Minister has been more accessible, although the only programme interview he has given me since the election as main presenter of Channel 4 News was at the Conservative Party Conference.
Similarly, almost a year before the Panama papers, we were repeatedly told last year that our own revelations concerning his father’s offshore funds were “a new low for Channel 4.”
It is not through want of trying.
This week we have focussed on the NHS dental crisis in which vast numbers of people in Britain are denied care. We had been talking to NHS England for many weeks about what we were doing and about the availability of the Chief Dental Officer, Sarah Hurley, to appear live to coincide with our dental series.
This week, we were told that her diary was now “full for the next six months and beyond”.
No minister from the Department of Health was “available” either.
A sad state of affairs given that the series revealed acute shortage of access to NHS dental care, particularly amongst children, some of whom had had to have all their teeth removed at the age of two.
When a Government enjoys majority rule on an electoral figure of 36.9 per cent of votes cast, it perhaps behoves them to remedy the democratic deficit, if not by coalition as in 2010, then in part by “availability” to the media.
There are two kinds of media covering politics in the UK.
Those inside the Downing Street lobby (most political correspondents and political editors) and those who are not.
The “pol corrs” as we call them, depend for their livelihoods on remaining within the lobby. If they step seriously out of line they could be barred from access to Downing Street briefings, held behind closed doors and often “not for attribution”.
Hence those interviews conducted with a minister by those of us who live beyond the Downing Street lobby, are a critical element of Governmental accountability.
Thus when it was possible in that Tory Party Conference interview for us to quiz David Cameron about the UK’s controversial relations with Saudi Arabia.
It appears to be an industry-wide issue affecting even our national broadcaster.
The editor of one high-profile BBC radio programme seemed to vent his frustration on social media during the refugee crisis last year. He posted a picture of an empty chair after being told that no one was available from the Home Office, Department for International Development or Foreign Office on one of the biggest global stories of our time.
— Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) September 3, 2015
The Government appears to be unaware of the extent of public frustration when the phrase “no minister was available” surfaces. The people they are elected to represent complain – most loudly on social media.
Here we have, for example, the Secretary of State for Health presiding over one of the most serious crises the National Health Service has endured, and in media terms, he is nowhere to be seen.
It seems to me that there is a brewing sense of alienation both here and abroad – at home represented by as disparate forces as UKIP, the SNP, and Jeremy Corbyn, and abroad by Marie LePen, Donald Trump and the equally extreme Senator Ted Cruz.
In Britain this alienation is met most nights by the words, “but no Minister was available.” Is it beyond the powers of a political system even to produce a single Minister of ANY department to appear on a rota to give the Government’s point of view?
If the affected Secretary of State or Minister is genuinely tied up, is stranded on a bus, or looking after the kids at home, or even in the local supermarket hunting down the family’s supper, we will be understanding.
How refreshing if instead of “no one is available”, we got “We are very sorry but the Minister’s husband is ill and she’s had to go home to tend to the children.” Hey presto, in one leap the unavailable minister is rendered one of us!
There are, of course some notable heroes, a tiny handful of ministers who buck the trend, and the emergence of MPs like Chris Philp who are always available.
But as for the rest, is it perhaps time the Government heard a cry they never expected? “We want more Theresa May, more Philip Hammond, more Greg Clark, more Gove, more Grayling, more absolutely anyone who can tell us anything about anything” – or do we?
Should we just lie back and allow the ripples of unavailability to wash over us as we sink into a stupor of not knowing quite what the Government is trying to do, even if they do?
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