On close inspection...
Burying bad news is the oldest government PR trick in the book.
It involves releasing embarassing or damaging information on the day of a big news story, when media heads are turned the other way and when papers, programmes and websites are already full.
Clearly, the tactic can be used by the government only when it has control over the information it wants to suppress.
Internal reports, policy proposals and consultation papers which originate from Whitehall are easier for the government to control.
Reports, reviews and announcements from independent bodies are far harder to handle.
Sometimes, an independent organisation will discuss the timing of publication with the relevant government department. And sometimes, for example with Annual Reports, there are Parliamentary rules they have to follow. But usually independent bodies publish when they want to publish.
For those who are independent of government, be they campaigners, experts or researchers, the importance of being able to set their own publication times, to maximise coverage and handle interest from journalists and stakeholders, is vital. It’s particularly important for inspection bodies which rely on media reporting to shed light on topical events or highlight key issues that the authorities may wish to brush under the carpet.
The prisons inspectorate, until recently under the expert leadership of Peter Clarke, releases most of its reports in time for the first editions of the papers, as well as for breakfast radio and TV. The same goes for the probation inspectorate and the Crown Prosecution Service watchdog, HMCPSI. The policing and fire service inspectorate, HMICFRS, has a mix of publication times - but, crucially, it makes the decisions itself.
For the first five years of its existence, the immigration and borders watchdog, now known as ICIBI, also determined when its reports were released. The inspections were frequently severely critical of the Home Office - and, to the consternation of ministers, set the news agenda for the day.
But in 2014, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, decided to activate a legislative clause which required ICIBI reports to be laid before Parliament. It meant she had control over when they were published.
Later that year, in his final annual report, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine, wrote: “Whilst I understand the Home Secretary’s decision, I feared, at the time it was made, that a consequence might be that reports would not be published promptly, reducing the impact of their findings. Unfortunately my concerns have proven correct.”
Vine, a canny operator who’d raised the profile of his role through well-judged use of the media, quit seven months early.
His successor, David Bolt, has encountered the same problem over publication dates and, like Vine, used his final Annual Report, issued in September 2020, to vent his frustrations.
Although ministers had publicly committed to publishing inspection reports within eight weeks of receiving them, Bolt said it was taking many months for the Home Office to do so.
“Since June 2019, the quickest publication time was 12 weeks, with the other reports taking 16, 19, 20, 21 and 28 weeks,” he wrote.
Bolt added that publication delays “undermine the impact and value” of the watchdog’s work and, in a damning paragraph, suggested the department tended to wait far too long to follow up on the findings.
“While I have sometimes seen evidence of the Home Office having acted quickly, it often seems that there has been little, if any, movement before the formal response has been signed off by ministers, which is typically just before publication,” he said.
Given that over the past five years Bolt and his team have peered into every corner of the immigration, asylum and nationality system, from the EU settlement scheme to the “hostile environment”; from visa processing to border checks, delays in implementing their proposals are likely to have had serious repercussions.
It was a point made by Wendy Williams in her scathing report into the Windrush scandal. She urged the government to consider giving the ICIBI “more powers”over the publication of reports and said ministers should be required to provide “clearly articulated and justified reasons” when they depart from its recommendations.
There is no sign, however, that the Home Office is changing tack. This week the department sanctioned the publication of three ICIBI reports in one day, including a politically toxic review of the way it deals with migrants who enter the UK in small boats or hidden in lorries.
The report was handed to ministers eight months ago. It was finally released on the day the government trumpeted the news that its landmark Immigration Act had gained Royal Assent.
Coincidence? I don’t think so.