openDemocracyUK: Opinion

6 government policies that are scarier than Halloween

If you’re scared of haunted houses and the faceless figure in the dark corner of your room, this list of government policies is guaranteed to fill you with a sense of doom

Anita Mureithi
29 October 2021, 12.01am
6 scares to get your Halloween started

Government secrecy

Cabinet Office, London | Alamy

Getting us off to a chilling start is A Nightmare on Downing Street. Did you know the UK government is waging a secret war against transparency? openDemocracy’s report ‘Access Denied’ recently exposed the depth of the government’s attack on the Freedom of Information Act. The report shows that 2020 was the worst year on record for government transparency. Only 41% of requests to the government were granted in full last year – the lowest proportion since records began in 2005. This follows a major investigation by openDemocracy last year, which revealed how a secretive Cabinet Office unit called the ‘Clearing House’ vetted sensitive requests for information.

During a parliamentary inquiry, openDemocracy reporter Jenna Corderoy told MPs that the Cabinet Office is “utterly failing on Freedom of Information”. To put it another way, it isn’t just lurking in the shadows, it’s actively casting them. If the state of secrecy and lack of transparency in British government isn’t enough to haunt you, keep reading.

Climate hypocrisy

Offshore oil rig | Canva stock photo

Double, double, oil and trouble. Almost one in ten Conservative peers has financial interests in oil and gas. In the run-up to COP26, hosted by the UK, it has been reported that 43 members of the House of Lords have a financial stake in the oil and gas industry, prompting accusations of “unethical” conflicts of interest. Greenpeace has accused politicians of being “worryingly cosy” with the fossil fuel industry. A spokesperson said: “How can these powerful people be trusted to seize the opportunities of the green industries of the future, when they directly benefit from propping up business as usual?”

“Big oil and gas has its tentacles firmly wrapped around our governments,” said a spokesperson for the Corporate Europe Observatory. In a matter of days, Boris Johnson will take to the stage and lecture other countries on the need to reduce their emissions. But stories like this reveal the hypocrisy behind Johnson’s speeches. Despite the great illusionist’s enchanting words about solutions to climate change, our government is pursuing policies at home and abroad that undermine the goals set for the biggest climate summit in six years. Terrifying.

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Anti-protest bill

The horror, the horror | Alamy

Be afraid, be very afraid. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is coming. Restrictions on protests under this legislation will increase the risk of peaceful demonstrators in England and Wales being thrown into the dungeons. This Bill is so broad in its scope that everybody should be worried. Our right to peaceful protest is under attack. The only thing scarier than the grim reaper is a law that gives the home secretary and police unreasonably wide and vague powers to curb demonstrations that they don’t like. The new policing powers will not only threaten the rights to peaceful protest, but will also exacerbate racism and discrimination within the criminal justice system, and essentially seek to ban Gypsies, the Roma and Travellers from their traditional, nomadic way of life.

Alongside the fact that peaceful demonstrators will soon run the risk of being criminalised, it turns out they’re being spied on too. ‘Access Denied’ revealed a “shocking” web of surveillance spun by oil giant BP, which used an ex-MI6 spy firm to snoop on peaceful climate protesters. BP has been keeping tabs on campaigners and sharing information with public institutions, including the British Museum and the University of Warwick. Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? Maybe you are...

PPE Contracts

Haunted by cronyism | Canva stock photo

Up next is the “eye watering” cost of dragons hoarding our public wealth. A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that NHS Test and Trace failed to achieve its “main objective” of allowing people to return to normality. According to PAC, the programme's outcomes have been "muddled" and a number of its goals have been "overstated or not achieved".

Last September, openDemocracy journalist Caroline Molloy revealed that the outsourcing giant Serco won an additional £45m to provide COVID-19 test centres. The multimillion-pound deal provided a major additional role for the controversial firm in the UK’s troubled Test and Trace scheme, which had come under fire as infection rates continued to rise. It had also emerged that another big Serco contract for COVID contact tracing, worth up to £432m, included a clause allowing Serco to effectively rewrite key terms on service provision – terms which have been redacted. The move was criticised by procurement experts as “unethical” and “bad practice”, with the government’s overall approach to the contract labelled “astonishing”. A Serco spokesperson told openDemocracy that it’s high-profile controversies took place before 2013, and since then the company had undergone “complete change of its management and significant reform of all its governance and procedures”.

Private firms sitting on the boards of local NHS organisations

Matt Hancock | Alamy

This Halloween, don’t let the creepy clowns conjured up in your imagination distract you from the real ones in power. While people continue to mourn the loss of loved ones, struggle with economic uncertainty, and fear for their futures, the government has been using the pandemic to reshape the NHS. Last year, openDemocracy dug into the terrifying truth about those making decisions about the future of our health service. Powerful people and organisations have used the shadows of the COVID crisis to consolidate their power, and to reshape the NHS in their own interests.

The real fright is the financial motive behind major decisions about our healthcare. If profits continue to come from contracts that prioritise treating the generally healthy, the wealthy and the privileged, then the poor, less healthy and those with more complex, intense and unpredictable needs that are difficult to profit from will be excluded. The UK government’s Health and Care Bill is a major threat to the future of our health service. It will change the NHS from a national public service, delivered by public sector workers, to around 42 local, integrated care ‘systems’, each based on a business model. The implications for patients and staff are extremely serious.

Universal credit cuts

Rishi Sunak | Flickr, 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

No amount of garlic, crosses or holy water can stop this Tory chancellor from draining taxpayers of their money. Rishi Sunak has slashed the taxes paid by UK-based banks while also significantly increasing National Insurance contributions for workers.

He had also previously cut £20 a week from Universal Credit, with the change in the taper rate announced in his recent budget doing little to make up for it. The taper rate – the rate at which individuals lose their benefits as their earnings rise above the work allowance – has been reduced from 63p to 55p. The idea of this is for lower-income families to have more money in their pockets for winter. But charities have warned that changes to the taper will not help the most vulnerable. Around 5.5 million families will be hit by the £20 a week cut, whereas only 1.7 million families will actually benefit from the 8p tweak to the taper.

If that’s not demonic, I don’t know what is.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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