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Press conferences: maybe bad, but they provide answers

2010-05-27

The new Parliament is finally back! TheyWorkForYou.com is broken (Matthew is working on it) and they’ve redesigned the Parliament website in an effort to make my life difficult, no doubt. During the election lull, I’ve been enjoying Martin Rowson’s hilarious depictions of the new leadership in the pages of The Guardian: with Cameron as a dandy, Clegg as a Pinocchio-esque wooden puppet, Osborne as an executioner carrying a large axe and swathed in black executioners robes, and Vince Cable as a tamed ape.

But let us get back to business. After the Queen’s Speech, Peter Lilley and Don Foster gave opening speeches where they got to show off their wit and wisdom. Then the stand-in leader of the Labour opposition, Harriet Harman started a rather subdued first round with David Cameron, and said the following:

Despite what we have heard about accountability in the new politics, the Government’s decision to announce £6 billion-worth of cuts in a press conference rather than to this House was a poor start. When I was at Highshore school in my constituency on Friday, people were asking me whether they will be able to go ahead with their new rebuild. They, and people all around the country, want answers, not press conferences. (Commons Hansard, 25 May 2010, Column 41 – web)

As well as a ‘Coalville fallacy’, Harman seems to think that the public have been done a disservice by the Coalition press conference because they are being denied clear information about cuts. But would the teachers and govenors of the Highshore school – to pull a random example – be any more in the know about whether or not the proposed cuts will affect them by the Coalition government announcing the cuts in the House of Commons or at a press conference? Unless Ms. Harman’s constituents spend their days perusing Hansard or sitting in the public gallery of the Commons, it frankly would make no difference. If they are getting news from the press, it makes no difference at all whether the original source is a speech in the Commons or a speech to a press conference.

“Policy by press conference” as critics have come to call it is a problem – it does show some disrespect for Parliament (this is raised later in the debate as a point of order brought up by Chris Bryant at Column 53) and the oversight that Parliament ought to provide for changes in policy, legislation and spending. But to say that it is affecting the people of Camberwell and Peckham – or, indeed, any constituency – is a stretch. It is infuriating for other politicians – especially those on the opposing side of the Commons benches, but it probably isn’t quite as big a concern to people outside Westminster.

The full extent of the cuts would not satisfy the level of detail required for the concerned people at the Highrose school – neither a press conference or a statement in the House of the general thrust of the new government’s changes to spending would be informative enough to help any particular school determine whether it is going to be subject to those cuts. The only way to really know is to wait and see. But during that period of waiting, I’m sure much political hay can and will be made over the process of announcing the public service cuts…

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