Britain’s transparency problem

According to reports in the Daily Telegraph, the Energy Department is blocking publication of a serious and detailed study of the impact of wind farms across the UK. This exposes the tip of an iceberg. At least a dozen major reports on energy policy issues, in many cases commissioned at considerable expense from external consultants, are being kept secret because of their inconvenient findings. It is time for a change of culture in Whitehall.

Where, for example, is the study on the impact of energy costs on the UK’s competitiveness commissioned earlier this year from the Energy Department (DECC) and the Business Department?

Or the internal DECC analysis of the Green Deal which as the few figures which have been published shows has led to only 36 households taking up the deal on offer. At a total cost of £ 16m that means a cost per household of some £ 450,000.

Or the exchanges between DECC and the Treasury on the potential for building stocks of natural gas to mitigate the risks of price volatility.?

Or the detailed working papers behind the Department’s projection that gas and other energy prices will continue to rise in real terms for the foreseeable future – a projection at odds with the views of most companies who actually work in the sector ?

Or the internal assessment of the impact on domestic and industrial prices of OFGEM’s proposals for change in the retail electricity market ?

A report from the Government’s own Major Project Authority, published in May, shows the Energy Department is using a claim of commercial confidentiality to keep secret the facts about 12 of its 13 major projects. In total the cost of those projects amounts to over £80bn. That cost will be paid by taxpayers and consumers. Why can they not see what is being negotiated in their name?

None of these issues should be secret. There are no issues of national security involved. The department is being defensive only because the analyses – some of which are circulating freely around Whitehall and, in some cases, externally – would expose ministers and in some cases the companies involved.

The crutch of secrecy is being used by those embarrassed to expose what has been done and its full implications for consumers. Objective analysis is exposing the fact that policy is failing. Freedom of Information Act requests to DECC are regularly and systematically blocked.

As someone once said: “There should not be one law for politicians and another for everyone else. Exemptions from Freedom of Information can only serve to reinforce perceptions of parliament as opaque and clouded in secrecy”. No prizes for guessing that the author of that statement back in 2007 is now the Secretary of State for Energy.

No wonder people are cynical about politics and politicians.