Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 600-619)


8 MAY 2008

  Q600  Mr Prentice: You do not dispute the fact that the corollary of all that is that a quarter of a million people would be transferred out of the NHS and into the private sector?

  Lord Warner: I do dispute that. I do not think it follows from that policy objective that they would all suddenly be employed by the private sector. I think that is nonsense.

  Q601  Mr Prentice: You were sold on the Healthgateway website. In "Meet the Team" you are right at the top; you are described as "Lord Norman Warner, expertise and insight in the UK health market."[6] It then talks about your expertise as Minister of Health and the fact you led a number of reviews and improvements in the delivery of UK healthcare. It goes on to say: "You can contact Norman directly". Do many people contact you directly?

  Lord Warner: No. It is a sad fact that clearly we are not doing terribly well. This hearing may help a little.

  Q602  Mr Prentice: Mr Caborn, I want to ask about nuclear decommissioning. This is the elephant in the room, is it not? I have a note here saying that the Financial Times reported in November that AMEC was part of a consortium competing for a £5 billion contract to run Sellafield.[7] We know that you are barred from making any approaches to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority until June of this year. What is your involvement, if any, in nuclear decommissioning?

  Mr Caborn: It goes much wider than that: it is new build and the supply chain in terms of what AMEC is doing. I have given advice on the problems in South Africa and the energy gap there. I have advised on the trade unions and also the planning and regional development agencies in terms of clean up, reprocessing and new build. Therefore, in all those areas they have asked for my advice on various aspects.

  Q603  Mr Prentice: This is a big issue, is it not? Mr Haddrill told us when he last spoke that one issue was the big contracts. We know that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority faces a bill of £73 billion to clean up nuclear facilities and that the company that employs you and Mr Ian McCartney is heavily involved in the bidding process to get these contracts. My question is very simple: would you pull back from that and say that you do not want to be involved in it because the British Government will make a decision that is worth billions of pounds before the end of the year on the consortium that cleans up nuclear waste?

  Mr Caborn: You are wrong.

  Q604  Mr Prentice: In what way am I wrong?

  Mr Caborn: The British Government is not going to make that decision.

  Q605  Mr Prentice: Who is to make the decision?

  Mr Caborn: The NDA will make that decision. Get your facts correct if you are to ask me questions. The NDA is a non-departmental—

  Q606  Mr Prentice: Will you have anything to do with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority?

  Mr Caborn: I have absolutely no contact with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

  Q607  Mr Prentice: And you will not have any contact after June?

  Mr Caborn: Your question to me is predicated on the assertion that the British Government will make that decision. I am saying that it will not be the British Government but Parliament through an accountable non-departmental public body. The accounting officer is Dr Ian Roxburgh who will come to the House. If you understand how government works, that is where the decision will be made. The NDA will make that decision.

  Q608  Mr Prentice: Let me rephrase my question. When the one-year period of purdah expires in June will you make any approach whatsoever to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority about these nuclear issues?

  Mr Caborn: The answer to that is no because as I understand it the decision will be made on 11 July. That is what the NDA has announced publicly. Therefore, I shall be making no recommendations or have any influence over the NDA. I do not think it takes much notice of me anyway, but that is when the decision will be made.

  Q609  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Mr Caborn, come and lobby me any time you want about Hinckley Point nuclear power station. You know where I am and I look forward to hearing from you. We are decommissioning, commissioning and trying to build a few more. One of the witnesses made the point that nobody really understands how to lobby. We all get lobbied as MPs; we are lobbied all the time. It was said that people want us because they really do not know how to do it themselves. We have all had the PR companies in here; we all glaze over. I am sure that you have done the same; you think, "Oh, God! It's a PR company." If you have a former colleague or Member of the House of Lords coming in you take it more seriously. You know what you are doing and know how the game works. Looking at it from the other point of view—not that of Mr Flynn and others—surely a better way of doing it is to have experts who know what they are talking about rather than some spotty kid from Pimlico?

  Mr Caborn: The answer to that is yes. When I was chairman of the Select Committee I found that the memoranda sent in were extremely useful. You are absolutely right. If you have people with authority, knowledge and understanding of the subject-matter you take them very seriously. In the various jobs I have done I have been lobbied thousands of times. There is no doubt that you place more importance on someone who knows the subject-matter, and that is why it is so important that industry, business and commerce—the wealth creators—have a voice and a much clearer line into this. I have worked in Europe. When you work in an adversarial system of politics as we do, as opposed to consensus politics when one works in the institutions of Europe which is totally different, it is a much more politicised civil service in terms of lobbying. Influence over regulations and directives within the European Union is totally different from how you would influence legislation that goes onto the statute book here. The adversarial system of politics is different from the one that operates in Europe and in many other countries round the world. That is why it is sometimes a bit difficult—I read with a lot of interest the evidence that has been given—to think you can transplant what has happened in the US to here; it just would not work, but I do believe there is integrity within our Civil Service and parliamentary institutions which is revered around the world because of the type of cross-examination we have here and the system we operate.

  Q610  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Can I take you on to the spotty youths?

  Lord Warner: I have never seen any spotty youths when serving as a minister but I am perfectly prepared to believe they exist. Your basic point is a sound one. If you are sitting there as a minister there will be a variety of people from public and private bodies, including voluntary ones, who will lobby you about something. On the whole, the people from whatever sector who do better with ministers are those who look as though they know what they are talking about and can put across a coherent argument. Sometimes that is someone from PR; it can be the director of public relations; it can be a variety of people, but on the whole your point about competence is absolutely valid. Having spent 25 years as a civil servant, I would say that if you are a minister there is a tendency for the Civil Service to wrap you up in cotton wool to some extent and stop you being exposed to what might be called more radical opinion on a particular issue. That is built into the system. I think that the people who find it most difficult to get their point across to government, from all sectors, not just the private one, are those on the innovative edge who are trying to do things differently. Very often they find it very difficult to get at ministers and put their point of view. I think we should do nothing that makes it more difficult for ministers to be exposed to a wide range of opinion.

  Q611  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Mr Haddrill, do you recognise Lord Warner's point about ministers being wrapped in cotton wool?

  Mr Haddrill: Frankly, I do recognise it. There were one or two honourable exceptions whom we never quite manage to wrap up. If there is an opportunity to meet a minister frequently we will bring people from the industry with us because they will tell the story in a rather different way. They are very expert and want to get it over. I think that what we do to some extent is make sure thought waves follow the same sort of path so that the conversation can happen in half an hour and important information can be imparted, but it is vitally important to get people close to the industry into the ministerial room.

  Mr Caborn: I can assure you that Yes Minister is still alive in Whitehall.

  Q612  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Is that not one of the problems? Mr Caborn, you hit on a very important point. If the Government makes a decision on 11 July my constituency will probably get two new nuclear power stations; it will be a hundred years' worth of building, commissioning, running and decommissioning. That is a major decision. I am delighted that I am being lobbied. I do resent being lobbied by the spotty youths, but I accept being lobbied by the head of EDF or whoever because they have a depth of understanding and know what they are talking about. But if I was not lobbied I would not know and then the only thing I could do would be to dig through websites which is the other way of finding out as Mr Prentice said. Therefore, if the system is working in that way what would you change? Obviously, you have to lobby MPs; you must accept that because you have been there. Where are we going wrong—or is there nothing wrong?

  Mr Caborn: There is a certain perception in the general public's mind, but, broadly speaking, in the past 10 years, looking at what has happened in terms of codes of conduct, the way that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and so on are working, there is reassurance that the system is regulated and to a large extent is being policed and is operating reasonably well. Can it be improved? There is no doubt that it can always be improved in two ways: one is to reassure the general public that there is transparency, openness and integrity and the other is to make sure that you and the rest of parliamentarians and Whitehall in general are exposed to ideas and developments, whether it is industry, trade unions or the voluntary sector. That is absolutely right, because we are making decisions that affect people's business lives or daily lives. It is absolutely essential to the democratic process. The adversarial system that we operate here is somewhat different from what happens in other countries. Decision-makers in the power chain here are not as accessible as they are elsewhere.

  Q613  Chairman: What do you say about the proposal that has been put to us for a lobbyist register elsewhere so that lobbyists have to register but also each lobbying transaction has to be registered? The point of it is to say that lobbying is a valuable and necessary activity.

  Mr Caborn: What is your definition of "lobbying"?

  Q614  Chairman: But people need to be reassured that there is not improper access and the only way to do that is through transparency which a register would provide. Is there not something in that?

  Mr Caborn: I think you would have to define what lobbying is .

  Q615  Mr Prentice: There is a model in the United States. There is an Act on the statute book which lists lobbying contacts in the way the Chairman described.

  Mr Caborn: But the system in the States is a totally different one from the one we operate here. I would ask you: how would that improve the system?

  Q616  Chairman: You acknowledge that there is a problem of public perception and that is the reason for thinking that transparency may be the answer. If you want to have transparency you have to think about a mechanism to ensure that happens and that is the argument for having some kind of register.

  Lord Warner: Is not the problem what is meant by the word "lobbying"? Its origins have pejorative overtones. I have been in a state legislature on the last day of a session when literally in the lobby between the House of Representatives and the Senate there are hundreds and hundreds of lobbyists. We do not have that system in this country. We have to be clear what we mean by a register. Are we to say that any conversation that Mr Haddrill has, for example, with a minister or a civil servant above a certain grade or one engaged in a particular area must be registered? What is the definition of what you have to register? It seems to me that that is the challenge facing the Committee. If you devised something that became a bureaucratic nightmare which led to government ministers and departments experiencing a reduction in the number of people with expertise contacting them that would be a bad thing for good governance.

  Q617  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Let me give an example. I refer to Dr Ian Roxbrough of the NDA. He has been lobbying me to know my thoughts about my constituency in the future. He is effectively a government-paid official but he has been lobbying me basically to ask whether my constituency will take two nuclear power stations. Is that right or wrong? I suppose that the rhetorical question to ask is: why should he not do so, and if he did not how would you know? Is that lobbying or not?

  Mr Caborn: From your point of view, yes.

  Q618  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Mr Haddrill, as a former civil servant what do you say?

  Mr Haddrill: You really must not have a register in order just to talk to a minister. It seems to me that that is cutting government off from people. It also creates a lobbying profession, if you like. We will be defined by whether or not we are on the register. I do not believe that this country or the United States is particularly served by having a lobbying profession. You must not create rules that absolve people of the duty to act with integrity. That is a cultural aspect that you have to find ways to build up. When I was in the Civil Service I visited a civil servant in the United States. I did not know the system and I said that I would buy him lunch. He said I could not do that because it was not allowed. I then suggested that he should buy me lunch because I was hungry and he said he was not allowed to do that either. Now you cannot even buy a cup of coffee. Because the rules in the United States at that time did not apply to the way in which public officials acted when abroad I got an email from him a couple of months later which said he was visiting the UK and asked me whether I could obtain a couple of tickets for the Arsenal. I thought that was a system beset by rules but it did not generate any integrity at all.

  Q619  Mr Liddell-Grainger: You have hit the nail on the head, have you not? This is where the anomaly arises: if you do not lobby you cannot get the message across; if you do lobby you are castigated. Is the system in this country with three wise men working just about as well as it will work without the creation of a stifling system like that in America which is completely farcical? You cannot even buy a cup of coffee. Is it about right?

  Mr Caborn: I think it is. Mr Flynn has gone now, but the innuendo was that a minister was leaving and a big contract was signed to get a job. I just say: produce the evidence. If there is evidence let us deal with it. Broadly speaking, I think the system is working. Can it be improved? I suppose that it can be improved but broadly speaking it works. I think that it is the perception out there that needs to be addressed.

6   Meet The Team, www.ukhealthgateway.com Back

7   "Caborn is latest ex-minister to take nuclear job", Financial Times, 17 November 2007, p 2 Back

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