This is not Trudy Harrison MP Photo 69514642 © MinervaStudio
This is not Trudy Harrison MP. © MinervaStudio

It is easy to forget the good that governments can do when the behaviour of those within government falls below the expected standards.

I’m not talking about ethics advisor Lord Geidt’s resignation from the employ of the UK prime minister, although that is one of the many cases in point, but in particular I’m thinking of the UK government’s persistent refusal to discuss its plans with the media.

In a top-down government structure, those at the lower end take their lead from those at the top, so perhaps we should be unsurprised by what follows.

When a junior minister appears in public to launch what we are led to believe is an important new initiative – in this case Trudy Harrison, undersecretary of state at the Department for Transport – it is important that some scrutiny of the new initiative is allowed.

That’s not only good governance, i.e. democracy – it is the stated opinion of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which identifies the key attributes of good governance as “transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation and responsiveness” (to the needs of the people).

It is evident that Boris Johnson’s government is having trouble getting its head round this on a range of issues, but let’s just focus on the seemingly more trivial matter of Ms Harrison at this year’s Multimodal event.

When a minister takes the trouble to travel all the way from London to Birmingham to launch a policy in front of a friendly crowd and is confronted with a single journalist – yours truly – asking some comparatively soft questions, you’d think she would like to take the opportunity to explain the details, particularly after she had just announced funding of several hundred millions of pounds.

Well, apparently not. The government’s ‘Future of Freight’ policy, which Ms Harrison said was the “first time government has published a long-term cross-modal plan for the sector”, either does not bear scrutiny – or the minister doesn’t.

Future of Freight includes five priorities: a national freight network that covers all modes of transport; supporting the transition to net zero through the encouragement of private investment; a reform of the planning system to allow logistics companies to develop necessary infrastructure; the launch of the Generation Logistics campaign to support workforce renewal; and a new freight innovation initiative.

The last includes £7m in funding for research, while the government’s support for energy transition offers £200m for the development of zero-emission trucks and a further £206m for maritime research.

There are a number of questions arising from this rather thin policy announcement. One of which I put to the minister, albeit under duress, as her ‘attack dogs’ closed in on me as I manoeuvred to prevent her from making good on her ministerial escape.

Why, I asked, is the government backing LNG when it’s a greater threat to the climate – 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon?

In reply, the minister cited the circular idea of breaking down LNG so that trucks could use a net-zero fuel.

I attempted to put a follow-up question, but the protective shroud of snarling, security guards of our apparently accountable leaders had surrounded the minister protecting her from any line of enquiry whatsoever.

One attack dog informed me that the minister was far too busy to speak with me as she would be doing the rounds of the exhibition.

To my surprise, the too-busy-to-answer-a single question minister ended up back on the podium some hours later, with industry luminaries, discussing the ways forward for freight. Again, I asked if the minister could spare some time to answer some points.

Attack dog one (AD1) got onto the phone to chief attack dog, who said I could ring a freephone number to request an interview with a minister seated less than 10 metres away – or I could send my questions to an email address, which made me really rather cross and I refused.

So, for the record, here are some of the questions I might have asked, which I hoped would spark a deeper, more meaningful discussion.

Given that very large amounts of fuel are needed for deepsea shipping, even compared to trucking in the UK, the potential for increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are much greater through the promotion of the use of LNG, would it be better to look for zero-emission, rather than net zero emission fuels?

Or perhaps, as shipping lines have themselves proposed a $5bn fund for research, which was rejected by the regulator, and UMAS estimated the maritime transition would cost in excess of $1tn, shouldn’t the UK government show more ambition, given that the Future of Freight initiative has allocated just £206m to maritime research?

It is also questionable what the £7m innovation fund hopes to achieve with so little. Questionable, but apparently not answerable.

And as for the Generation Logistics campaign proudly driven by Logistics UK in a laudable attempt to encourage much needed new blood to the industry, one has to ask at a time when record revenues are being reported by the industry virtually every quarter, wouldn’t better wages attract youth to the business?

Perhaps the most eye-catching of the five proposals was the integration of logistics planning, through what Ms Harrison called a National Freight Network. According to the minister this will improve our understanding of how freight moves through the system and “how we will value the economic value of freight”. Apparently, this will “support the case for investment in the future”.

At a guess I reckon most people will be thinking what I’m thinking. Which is: that sounds like jam tomorrow. And what exactly does the cross-modal plan involve?

These and perhaps many more questions went unanswered in the minister’s unseemly rush to avoid “transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation and responsiveness” (to the needs of the people).

Can that be because the logistics industry is being “Johnsoned” once again by a government that appears to double down on the gaslighting at every turn? All we would like to do is reassure ourselves and our readers that this new policy is actually as positive a step as we are being told.

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  • peter stanley

    June 17, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    The problem with the Johnson Government is ministers have no understanding of the department they are in charge of or the policy’s they announce, they are simply there because they are loyal to him.
    The only ones who may have some understanding are the Civil Servants behind the Minister and they have all been cowed by the constant attacks on them by the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg.