The coalition agreement: government transparency and immigration

Welcome to the eleventh in a series of posts going through the full coalition agreement section by section. You can read the full coalition document here.

Unlike the nearly all of the rest of the document, both of these sections lift very heavily from Conservative Party policy, with little of the Liberal Democrat manifesto featuring. However, whilst in the immigration section that means policies which will leave many Liberal Democrats uncomfortable, in the government transparency section this is good news – for truth be told, the Conservative manifesto was rather better than the Liberal Democrat manifesto in this regard.

The Lib Dem manifesto was rather light on improving government transparency and it’s a policy area where the Conservatives had rather stolen a march on the Lib Dems. I suspect therefore that this is one area where the coalition negotiators were only too happy to agree to inclusion of the Conservative plans – and rightly so.

A key theme running through the transparency section is publishing more details of what the public sector gets up to, particularly financial ones, both for good reasons of accountability and also in the hope that this scrutiny will help flush out examples of inefficiency or waste which ministers facing overall budget pressures need to find and want to act on. It won’t just be a small number of ministers and their special advisers pouring over details of the old ways of doing things looking for ways to improve them; they will be joined by potentially millions of public eyes.

Hence there are promises to publish more government data (including local government performance data), extensions of the Freedom of Information Act, contract details to appear online and so on. Select Committees will also have their scrutiny powers strengthened.

On the vexed issue of remuneration for the highest paid civil servants there is a twin-track approach: greater transparency over high pay levels and a requirements for special permission from the Treasury for anyone who gets paid more than the Prime Minister.

Lobbying is to be regulated with a statutory register of lobbyists and whistleblowers will be given more protection.

Party funding slips into this section with a promise to “pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics”. Given the failures of previous cross-party talks to reach agreement, this could be one of the toughest areas of political reform for Nick Clegg to oversee.

On immigration some Lib Dem friendly details (such as ending detention of children for immigration purposes and tackling human trafficking) are overshadowed by two core Conservative policies: a cap on non-EU immigrants and a pledge to apply transitional controls for all new EU members in future.

Some in the party have taken a fairly pragmatic view of these (if you objected to a cap because it wouldn’t work, how much harm will be done by the policy? and how many large countries are likely to join the EU in the next five years?) but for many these are two of unpalatable policy concessions that have had to be made.

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