Will MPs successfully table an Urgent Question to ministers regarding the Dutch Government’s offer of help in response to flooding, and if so, what should MPs ask? (Note – Parliament is in recess till 24 February)
Because the allegation from Channel 4 News is serious:
It’s worth reading the article in full – in particular the quotations from the Dutch water authorities mentioned, and also from the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. In their questions, MPs need to avoid party-political point-scoring (especially Labour – tempting though it might be) and focus on the specifics. All too often opposition MPs have a habit of making a half-decent preamble, before following it up with a ‘Doesn’t this show the Government being a shambles?’ – which ministers tend to respond with something along the lines of ‘Well when they were in office…’ – and thus the public is none-the-wiser about what happened and when on the topic of debate. It just descends into phallus-waving.
“What specifics do we need to know?”
For a start, the sequencing of what was offered by whom, and when – along with what was the British Government’s response – by whom and when. Dates and times – really focus in on this. The response will then inform further questions.
- What information did ministers have when responding to the requests?
- Where did that information come from?
- What is the current structure and system for providing ministers with data to inform their responses?
- What has been the sequencing of escalation (and the deployment of increasing resources) in response to the floods? People, distribution over counties, capital assets available and used by organisation
- Re the above point, at what point did ministers take the decision that they needed to ask EU partners for assistance?
- Re the above-point, did EU partners offer assistance first or did the UK ask for it first?
- How has the closure of the Government Office Network, along with cuts to local councils, the Environment Agency and other publicly-funded organisations affected the Government’s ability to respond to the floods?
- What considerations did ministers make of the 2014 Euro elections regarding asking EU partners for assistance? (This is important in the context of future FoI requests).
- Are any Dutch experts being seconded into UK ministries or public bodies to help with the flood response?
- At what point were the military put on alert, at what point were they deployed, in what numbers, when and where?
“Once ministers have responded, then what?”
Then you scrutinise and follow-up at a later point – ideally through public FoI requests eg through WhatDoTheyKnow. One of the accusations that has been made is that ministers delayed due to party-political considerations regarding the European elections in May. Email trails from the past couple of weeks may reveal whether this was the case. How much was party-political, how much was a breakdown in public administration and how much was something else? Simply asking departments to reveal emails regarding the flooding that make a mention of European elections could be enough to verify whether or not political considerations were the case.
Why history also matters
Tempting though it is for party-political point-scoring, politicians seeking public office whether local or national are probably better directed at examining how public sector organisations are functioning in response to what is a significant demand on their resources and capabilities. (It’ll inform you on how to deal with a crisis should you find yourself in the middle of a big one later on in life should you get elected/appointed). One of the things too many ‘professional’ politicians tend to have limited experience of is running large organisations at a board or executive level. It’s one thing being a policy-type where you come up with the ideas, but quite another when you have to implement someone else’s ideas knowing what the flaws might be. That’s why feedback loops into policy are ever so important. Ditto feedback loops in a crisis.
“And the blame game? Because politics is all about blaming stuff!”
In the meantime, the clear-up continues.