Don’t keep it a secret

The case for national communications on energy use

It seems odd to have to convince government to show off their own policies, but a newly published Green Alliance report argues that a whole raft of consumer-facing energy policies are in danger of sinking if we don’t have a co-ordinated communications plan. With the rising cost of fossil fuels and the recession grinding on, we can’t afford the usual lacklustre take-up of energy efficiency polices with the Green Deal, the smart meter roll-out and the renewable heat incentive. If the government is going to protect the public from our rising bills, it needs to show clearly and explicitly what’s in place to help reduce our costs. That will take a bit more than a departmental press release.

A clear government narrative is especially important when it comes to energy: policies that will save people money in this area face unique difficulties; in the first instance, mounting suspicion around the motives of energy companies selling it to them and, in the second, having to overcome a vocal, if eccentric, opposition to any policy that involves decarbonising. We’ve already seen how odd it can get: one quiet weekend, war was declared on proposed changes to building regulations. A Lib Dem tax on our conservatories? Aux barricades! This bizarre clarion call conveniently ignored the fact that the idea was a key Conservative one, and applicable only to the most enormous conservatories. Also, it wouldn’t have been a tax, as householders would have been eligible for Green Deal funding to help pay for the improvements involved. As Kevin McCloud said, "If that makes it a tax, let’s have more of them." Three wrong out of three wrong, but this kind of puffing and blowing becomes accepted wisdom for the public if the government does not offer its own narrative, stating clearly what it’s trying to do.

This governmental shyness about communicating contrasts with the openness we’re seeing more generally; every bill’s amendment can be data mined, we can watch live footage of traffic cameras, find out every (declared) ministerial meeting, or check on crimes rates in our area. We have all this data, but so little information.

The National Archives website shows what a change in approach this is for government. It contains decades of public information video footage, covering everything from rabies to the 1971 census. Most apt is the rather surreal 1947 approach to energy efficiency as the public are told to "watch their meters". Most use fear to get their point across: the post war austerity need to overcome the general decline in quality of life, more recently, fear of climate change. Perhaps the most famous is Norman Fowler’s apocalyptic (and effective) national television film on AIDS.

But fear isn’t the route our report advocates. Instead, we think the message should be about opportunity. As government once did with films on the right to buy, or what the birth of the NHS meant for the public, a national message, backed up by local promotion, should make clear to us the opportunities on offer. A co-ordinated, simple, but comprehensive message will get trusted organisations on board, and counter the risk of conflicting and contradictory communications.

Green Alliance’s report, Neither sermons nor silence, which we put together with a broad consortium of businesses, argues that successfully communicating energy policies and, more importantly, securing take-up, can’t be managed by the private sector alone. A disjointed approach runs the risk of creating confusion and mistrust. Scottish Power, one of the businesses who fed into our report, and an enthusiastic advocate of the Green Deal, states clearly that a national approach to communications is vital to complement its own efforts and provide a foundation on which they can build customer engagement.

This is about being sensible with public money. These policies have cost a lot to develop; they will cost more in delivery and even more in failure. Without an effective communications strategy, a lot of taxpayers’ money will be wasted. When the Change4Life healthy eating campaign had its budget frozen, it saw a 90 per cent drop in calls to its information line. The government, realising that some communications money is well spent, restored the campaign backed with private sector contributions. We need to learn from such lessons and encourage the government to say, loudly and clearly, what it is doing for us.

Shout it from the rooftops, the 6 O'Clock news, the Today Show - just don't keep it quiet.

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle