Henry Hill: Data is emerging as the latest front in the pro-Union fightback

2 Dec

Earlier this week, the Daily Express reported that pro-Union MPs were “plotting to launch a rebellion” on the Health and Care Bill over an amendment to improve UK-wide data collection on healthcare performance.

It would apparently have ensured the “interoperability of data and collection of comparable healthcare statistics across the UK”, and was backed by 18 Conservative and eight Democratic Unionist MPs.

This is an interesting story for a couple of reasons.

First, it suggests that there is some division of opinion within the Conservative Union Research Unit (CURU). The group brings together more than 70 Tory backbenchers to advance the unionist cause in Parliament. I wrote an introduction to it last year.

Upon launch, CURU took pains to try and distance itself from the rebellious, ‘party-in-a-party’ model established by the European Research Group, even at one point choosing to call itself a ‘resources unit’. It has so far worked behind the scenes, giving information to ministers and canvassing backbench opinion on constitutional questions.

Senior sources in the group are keen to downplay the Express’s framing of this week’s events as a rebellion – one described it as straight-up “wrong”. But someone involved has clearly been talking to the paper, claiming that the Government is “keen to appease” the devolved administrations, and dismissing the negotiated settlement that avoided a division on the amendment as a “time-buying exercise”.

As I have reported previously, sections of the Party are increasingly frustrated with the softly-softly strategy – described by one Whitehall source as the “hug-them-close approach” – which they attribute to Michael Gove, the man in charge of the Government’s Union policy. Others report clashes over seeking legislative consent motions for important Bills and ministerial visits which might be seen as treading on devocrat toes.

It is perhaps therefore not surprising that at least some of the MPs involved in this week’s events want to take a harder line, even though it doesn’t look as if CURU itself has formally shifted from its cooperative approach. Robin Millar, one of its leaders, told me that:

“These amendments put patients’ interests first. They also help professionals and politicians in their respective roles. We fully support the government’s efforts to secure these benefits through agreement with the DAs.”

Regardless, they also show that CURU are building a working relationship with the DUP. This is essential if the group is to advance the cause of one-nation, pan-UK unionism. CURU’s leadership contains English, Scottish, and Welsh MPs but no Northern Irish ones, as the party returns no MPs in the Province. (An important next step will be forging links with unionist MPs on the Labour benches, to try and avoid the future of the country becoming a partisan cause of the right.)

But the actual subject of the amendment, data collection, is perhaps the most interesting of all.

The lack of uniform British data on public service performance has been an area of concern for unionists for some time, especially since the pandemic. I wrote about it back in January. The concern is that devolved administrations are using their control over data collection to opt out of international performance measures and tweak domestic statistics so they are not comparable between the Home Nations.

By doing this, they prevent easy comparison of the relative performance of the NHS, schools, and other vital services in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; this both hinders scrutiny of their records and prevents devolution serving as a ‘policy lab’.

Coronavirus has pushed NHS stats to the forefront, especially as at least one CURU member is an GP. But the need to mandate uniform data collection was also one of the recommendations of Sir Peter Hendy’s recent Union Connectivity Review. Senior government sources are also concerned about the implications of having devolved control of the census to the Scottish Government.

Although a compromise was reached on this amendment, plans are apparently afoot to include a broader move on data collection in upcoming legislation, although it isn’t certain which yet. Bills on levelling up and reforming GDPR are both candidates.