EU Referendum: Government Accused Of 'Burying Bad News' Amid David Cameron's Brussels 'Deal'

19/02/2016 15:25 | Updated 22 February 2016
Martin Meissner/AP

The Government has been accused of using the historic start of Britain’s EU referendum to “bury” bad news, as it faced a wave of potential crises while all eyes were on Brussels.

On Friday, a rash of announcements quietly emerged from Westminster that received little to no coverage as David Cameron thrashed out his new "special status" with Europe.

Among them was the Cabinet Office quietly publishing the Government's departmental plans, documents which mapped out how the Conservative manifesto and George Osborne's spending review would be turned into reality.

The Institute of Government said the plans were "little more than a laundry list of nice-to-haves, giving no sense of ministerial priorities" and that any of the priorities are "little more than waffle". In any case, they avoided scrutiny.

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Julian McCrae, its deputy director, said: "For example, it’s possible to identify over 60 separate priorities in Theresa May’s plan for the Home Office, while there are close to 100 in Patrick McLoughlin’s one for the Department for Transport.

"Worse still, many of these individual priorities are little more than waffle, which is no use either to civil servants trying to implement the Government’s agenda or to the public trying to hold them to account.

"Ministers’ failure to produce a single, clear roadmap for Whitehall departments will undoubtedly limit the Government’s ability to fulfil its promises.”

It was among 55 publications out that day on the government's official website.

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At the same time, the Electoral Reform Society, a group campaigning for better democracy, hit out at ministers for announcing a consultation on plans to cut money given to opposition parties by almost one-fifth amid Cameron’s protracted talks.

Ministers published online a ‘consultation’ on proposals to slash ‘Short Money’ grants - taxpayer funding for opposition parties - by 19% this year and freeze it thereafter until 2020.

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David Cameron during a group photo at an EU summit in Brussels

The move is controversial as it is seen as an attempt to undermine scrutiny of the Government and follows a series of policies critics fear serve to keep the Tories in power, such as re-drawing the electoral map - which should boost the number of Conservative MPs.

Will Brett, head of campaigns and communications at the Electoral Reform Society, said: “The Government is launching this consultation on the day when an EU deal is set to be announced.

“A cynic might think they want to bury the news that they’re going ahead with 19% cuts to funding for opposition parties. Trying to sweep this under the carpet does British voters a real disservice.”

MPs were on a half-term parliamentary recess on Friday, so away from Westminster, and the Government’s attention has been firmly on getting its four EU reforms signed off by EU leaders, which triggered the referendum on “Brexit” in June.

But the wheels of government continue to turn, despite reduced media and political scrutiny. Here are five other potentially embarrassing stories that have been eclipsed by the talks.

Fears of an NHS “crash”

Statistics published today revealed the NHS overspent by £2.26bn from April to December - nearly triple the 2014-15 figure. Earlier this week, the former head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake, warned income tax would have to increase by at least 3p in the pound in order to avoid a financial crisis in the health searvice.

Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander said the government had "caused the worst cash crisis in the NHS’s history". "No amount of spin can disguise the fact that the NHS is now in financial free fall and Tory Ministers have absolutely no solution for turning this situation around," she said.

Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Norman Lamb MP, said: “The Government has a choice. It either continues in denial, sleepwalking towards a crash with awful consequences for patients or it acts now.”

Missing borrowing targets

Figures released today by the Office for National Statistics showed George Osborne can only borrow £7bn in February and March if he wants to meet his 2015/16 £73.5bn target.

Over the same two month period last year, the Government borrowed £14.8bn. Mr Osborne said while figures showed the deficit is falling, there is still more work to do.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies also warned Osborne today his aim of eliminating the deficit was under threat.

Thomas Pope, a Research Economist at the IFS said: "The last Office for Budget Responsibility forecast suggested he had a surplus of £10 billion. But this could easily be eliminated by a weaker outlook for the economy, even if associated with a reduction in forecast debt interest spending.

“Any Budget giveaways – for example to deliver manifesto commitments to reduce income tax, or to cut taxes on North Sea oil and gas producers – would make it harder to deliver a budget surplus."

Families charged to discuss benefits

On Tuesday, The Mirror revealed the Department for Work and Pensions is refusing to set up an 0800 freephone number for the millions of people soon to be making claims through the new Universal Credit welfare system.

Frank Field, the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, said: “There is something really disturbing about the idea of people on their uppers having to incur a hefty phone bill just to talk to somebody about their benefit claim.”

Syria bombing questioned

The Huffington Post UK revealed yesterday British air strikes in Syria have killed or injured just seven ISIS fighters. None of the strikes involved the high precision Brimstone missile which was cited by the Prime Minister as the kind of UK asset which would make a "meaningful difference" to the coalition's battle against Isil in Syria.

SNP MP Alex Salmond, the party's International Affairs spokesman in Westminster, told HuffPost UK: "This information contrasts dramatically with the case made by the Prime Minister for bombing when he said that the much-lauded Brimstone missile system would be crucial in cutting off the 'head of the snake' in Raqqa.”

EU migrants cost mystery

The Government claimed it has no information on how much EU migrants cost - or benefit - the UK. Treasury Minister Lord O'Neill made the startling admission in a written Parliamentary answer that was quietly published while the Prime Minister was in Brussels.

Shadow Justice Minister Lord Beecham pointed out that Mr Cameron was making migrant benefits a centrepiece of his Brussels renegotiation. "It is extraordinary that the government, which is making such an issue about the impact of migrants on the nation's finances should turn out to have no information about what it is actually paying out in benefits on the one hand and receiving by way of taxes and VAT on the other," he told HuffPost UK.

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