Sofa versus Cabinet – lessons of the Child Benefit fiasco


I heard, yet again, David Cameron say this morning (on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme) that the new Coalition government had “done away with sofa government” and was making decisions properly around the table – they had “restored proper Cabinet government”. That might not be as good as it sounds….

This was in response to criticisms of the new policy on Child Benefit, which removes it from households with a higher rate tax payer in residence (although it entirely unclear how that can be enforced as we are all taxed separately now and Child Benefit is usually claimed only by the mother – for a good analysis see Nick Timmins in the FT). The obvious anomaly that is generated by this scheme – that households with two parents earning just below the 40% tax threshold will get Child Benefit whilst one with only a single parent at work who erans just above the threshold won’t, seems ot have passed by the decision makers.

And this highlights a phenomena that has gone largely un commented upon: the policy-making introversion of this government. It may be true that Coalition has imposed more formalised, more traditional, decision making in Whitehall (although it’s not clear that is always the case) – but that does not mean that the decision making lives up to the best standards of policy-making.

The last Labour government tried – it did not always, or even often, succeed but it did try – to improve policy-making standards in Whitehall. From the Modernising Government (1999) white paper onwards it published a series of guides on ‘professional policy making’, the ‘strategy survival guide’ and various other attempts. these were supported by the NAO, who produced their own guidance, and several parliamentary reports that reinforced the principles developed for best practice.

One key aspect of these principles was that policy-making should be more outward looking, open, consultative and transparent. What is interesting about this government is that the dynamics of Coalition – coupled with an increasing siege mentality as the cuts programme develops – is forcing all it’s policy-making to be inward looking, closed, and very much not open to inspection. It may be too early to conclude that this is going to lead to more episodes like Child Benefits – where the angry reaction was clearly not anticipated. But the signs do not look good. Perhaps Ministers should go back and read the excellent book by David Butler, Andrew Adonis and Tony Travers on the Poll Tax fiasco and see how decision-making in government can go very badly wrong indeed. Just because Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, and their mandarins, are being terribly professional to each other it doesn’t stop them making “brave decisions” as Sir Humphrey used to say. Certainly deciding to penalise the stay-at-home yummy mummy’s was “brave” – that’s not a constituency I’d like to take on.

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government. Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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