Jill Rutter explains what ‘access talks’ between the opposition and civil servants are, what the talks cover, and why they matter.
Rishi Sunak has now said that he is happy for so-called ‘access talks’ between the opposition and civil servants to begin whenever the Leader of the Opposition wants them. That agreement normally comes after a request from the opposition but on this occasion Sunak has acted first (there is no clear convention on who should take the initiative in the Cabinet Manual).
What are access talks?
Access talks are a key element in preparing for a possible change of government in the run-up to a general election. The civil service works for the government of the day and normally only has very limited contact with opposition parties (for example if a briefing on a topic is specifically authorised by a minister).
Talks take place between shadow ministers and the most senior civil servants in a department, and their content is not disclosed to government ministers. The Leader of the Opposition will also have talks with the Cabinet Secretary.
What do the talks cover?
The talks are an opportunity for the opposition party to explain their priorities on coming into government and in particular to clarify any machinery of government or other organisational changes they would like to make if they form the next government. Many stress that their prime importance is to start to build some of the essential relationships. This has become more important with longer intervals between changes in government meaning that many senior opposition figures have not served in government before and not had any opportunity to engage with the civil service.
Access talks are not an opportunity for civil servants to advise on policy. The Cabinet Manual states that ‘Senior civil servants may ask questions about the implications of opposition parties’ policy statements, although they would not normally comment on or give advice about policies.’
How frequent are the talks?
There is no rule on frequency. It is very much up to the shadow minister how much they want to engage before an election.
Who takes part?
The cast list for access talks is normally quite small in order to ensure confidentiality. But it is for the Leader of the Opposition and the responsible shadow minister to agree on participation from the opposition side, and for the permanent secretary to agree who should attend from the official side. Advisers can also play a significant role in contacts – in particular as election day nears and politicians are increasingly preoccupied with campaigning.
Why do they matter?
Access talks are a distinctive feature of the UK system, to enable the very rapid transfer of power that takes place in the immediate aftermath of an election. In other systems there is often a planned interval between an election and the change of government, or time taken for prolonged coalition negotiations before a government is formed.
Are these access talks late?
When there is a surprise election, well before the end of a parliament, as in 2017 and 2019, there may be only a very short period for talks which coincides with the election campaign. But research by the Institute for Government shows that, when a parliament runs to a near full term (as in 2010 and 1997) talks begin well over a year before the last scheduled election date so by authorising talks now time is already short, even if the election is in the autumn.
That said, Labour does not appear to want to start talks yet. That may be because it is still working through its own internal priority process – and it can also get advice from Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, who was until March last year a very senior civil servant and so may feel less need to rush into official access talks.
Can they be a waste of time?
Access talks will obviously be less useful if the shadow spokesman does not take on the same role in government. In 2010 there was a lot of change because of the creation of the Coalition and positions being filled by Liberal Democrats who had not been part of the official talks. There can also be discussions – but on a much lesser scale – between minor parties and civil servants in the run-up to an election.
What other preparations does the civil service make?
The civil service works for the government of the day right until power is transferred (though there are restrictions on government activity once an election has been called in the so-called ‘purdah’ period). But during that period, the civil service will prepare for a new government by working up briefings for incoming ministers, including how to take forward proposals in manifestos. Only the briefing pack for the party that forms the next government will then be used. The civil service may also ‘war game’ potential election outcomes and government formations as it did in 2010.
By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.