22nd April 2020
Yesterday a senior civil servant gave evidence to a select committee.
In that evidence was a fascinating exchange, and it is worth watching carefully.
Here is the exchange on this issue at this afternoon's Foreign Affairs Committee. pic.twitter.com/7nBrtmjWzR— Nick Gutteridge (@nick_gutteridge) April 21, 2020
Later that day, the civil servant sent an extraordinary “clarification”.
This is a guided tour of that supposed clarification letter.
One theme of this tour is that the letter is not one would expect from a senior civil servant seeking to clarify something otherwise unclear, and that the letter instead makes the situation far less clear.
The letter also appears to have had more than one author, and it appears that it is a document negotiated between the civil servant and others.
“EU VENTILATOR PROCUREMENT SCHEME”
The letter has a title, and it is worth noting for what follows that it is about the ventilator scheme.
“I wanted to clarify a point…”
You may think that the point that was made to the committee was clear, and that its clarity is what caused the political fuss.
(Here it is also worth considering whether the letter was entirely voluntary, or whether the civil servant had insisted on a ministerial direction to write the letter.)
“…the EU’s Ventilator procurement scheme – the Joint Procurement Agreement”
This is where the letter starts becoming (ahem) unclear.
From the title it would seem we are looking at just one of the recent procurement rounds under the joint procurement agreement.
But the addition of the text after the hyphen makes it less clear what is about to be denied in the next paragraph.
“Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly…”
Anyone who knows about how careful senior civil servants are in drafting formal documents would at this stage affect an Alan Hansen-like face discussing some footballing defensive disaster.
Some would even say that the “due to” is a tell that someone other than the civil servant was involved in drafting this letter (more on this later).
The “misunderstanding” is not stated.
The word “inadvertently” adds nothing to the “misunderstanding” and is surplus.
The word “wrongly” is vague, because it is not clear which of the following propositions is wrong.
And we are not even half way through this sentence.
“…that Ministers were briefed by UKMIS on the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement scheme and took a political decision not to participate in it”
Something inside this text is “wrong” but it is not clear whether it wrong in part or in full.
The insertion of “by UKMIS” is eye-catching, as it means ministers could have been briefed by others.
And the text does not say Ministers were not aware – and that would have been easier to write.
The reference to “the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement scheme” is also not clear – the United Kingdom has been a signatory to the agreement since 2014 and is still a signatory following Brexit (now along with fellow non-members Iceland, Norway and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and so the United Kingdom was (and is) already participating in it.
And what does “political decision” mean?
Why not just “decision”?
The longer this letter goes on, the less clear it becomes.
And then the next two sentences are a cracker.
“This is incorrect.”
What is incorrect?
He has already stated something is “wrong” – but surely this is not some sly double-negative?
The preceding sentence is so jumbled and tortured it is not clear what is being negated by “This is incorrect”.
“Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels…”
But could have been briefed by others.
“…about the scheme…”
The ventilator procurement scheme by itself, or the joint procurement agreement scheme more generally?
“…and a political decision…”
As opposed to another sort of decision?
“…was not taken on whether or not to participate”
Why is this so specific?
Was some other decision taken?
And now we come to the third paragraph of the “clarification”, where things get even more unclear.
“The facts of the situation are as previously set out.”
Where and by whom?
So the supposed author does know better than to use “due to” earlier in the letter – hmmmmm.
“…an initial communications problem…”
This is vague in two ways – why “initial” and why no express mention of the supposed email?
A communication between whom?
Between the European Union and the United Kingdom?
Or within the United Kingdom?
“…the United Kingdom did not receive an invitation in time…”
But as part of the decision-making meetings before the procurement, the United Kingdom would have been aware of the procurements.
It would not have had to have waited until the invitation to know about them.
This would be like Mr Bean being surprised when sending himself a Christmas card.
“…to join in four joint COVID EU procurement schemes.”
Notice the subtle switch to the plural – “schemes”.
This letter starts off about the ventilator scheme, then it calls the joint procurement agreement a scheme, and now it is talking about four schemes.
Which scheme does the “political decision” in the proceeding paragraph now refer to?
“As those four initial schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part.”
What does “we were unable to take part” mean here?
Is it limited to the past tense?
Can we take part now?
And how does this accord with other statements about the United Kingdom now taking part?
“The Health Secretary has set out the Government’s position on this going forward.”
The ugly “going forward” indicates that someone else was involved in the drafting of this statement – no senior civil servant would happily use such a phrase in formal correspondence.
But more generally, what does this statement mean – what is the “this” in that sentence?
This letter is the opposite of a clarification.
Senior civil servants are, like lawyers, wordsmiths.
A formal document, such as a letter to a select committee, should be a considered, structured and coherent composition.
But this letter is all over the place (Alan Hansen wince).
The letter is tortured and awkward, and this indicates that the letter was a negotiated document – and negotiated to the point of strangulation.
The particular sentences may be all correct, but there seems to be gaps between sentences, and other things seem cloaked (especially “scheme”/”schemes”).
The overall letter smacks of evasion and misdirection.
The civil servant’s statement was clear, and this clarification is not.
Something is up here.
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