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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 749-759)


19 JUNE 2008

  Q749 Chairman: Could I extend a very warm welcome to our witnesses and colleagues this morning. We are delighted to have with us Tom Watson from the Cabinet Office, Iain Wright from the Department of Communities and Local Government and Tom Harris from Transport. This is the last session that we are doing in our inquiry into lobbying and it seemed right we should have some ministers in to try to get an official view, if there is one, and to hear from ministers about their experience of being lobbied. We thought of the three of you because Tom in the Cabinet Office has responsibility inside government, Iain because of the housing brief and therefore the interests of the property world in what you are doing, and Tom because your department gives out lots of contracts for rail and, therefore, liable to be the subject of a certain amount of lobbying. I have been given something from one of our Committee staff who went to a Cabinet Office event the other day and managed to win champagne for two in the Pugin Room with Tom Watson and he wondered if this would do instead.

Mr Watson: That was the Trooping of the Colour charity raffle and I was not trying to apply undue influence to the Committee!

  Q750  Chairman: What would be interesting to hear is your experience of being lobbied. Who wants to come and talk to you and who do you talk to?

  Mr Harris: I am responsible for the Highways Agency as well as the railways but I have been in railways for longer so on that side of the job it is mostly industry associations who represent either a group of supply companies or a group of train operating companies like the Association of Train Operating Companies. I have regular meetings with them and they want to speak to me and I want to speak to them so there is no question of not giving them access. I need to get their feedback and their perceptions of what is happening in the industry and that happens as frequently as my diary will allow it.

  Q751  Chairman: How do you decide who to see?

  Mr Harris: The Rail Industry Association is a respected organisation and represents a number of private sector suppliers mostly to Network Rail but to other train operating companies as well. When I first became a minister one of my first meetings was with the Rail Industry Association so I guess, in that respect, coming into the industry brand new and not really knowing how the industry was structured, I accepted the advice of my private office who had dealt with them on a number of occasions with different ministers before then. Unless there is a very good reason not to meet someone, I would generally say let us see what they have to say.

  Q752  Chairman: Who would you say no to?

  Mr Harris: The vast amount of lobbying that happens directly to me is from parliamentary colleagues. I have a rule in the office that if a parliamentary colleague wants to see me about anything at all the answer is yes and then ask them what the subject is, so in that sense it is a very open door as far as colleagues are concerned. I genuinely do not remember saying no to any organisation if I think they have something interesting to tell me. For example, there are different rail user groups and there is one called Rail Future which is essentially a group of volunteers who are train spotters. These gentlemen feel very strongly about the industry. They do not have any statutory authority or anything but they really appreciate having access to the minister for half an hour every few months and I am happy to give them that because I think it is quite interesting for them to tell me what they think of the state of the industry. I am not aware of having said no to anybody.

  Q753  Chairman: Who wants to see you, who do you see and who do you not see?

  Mr Wright: My answer is very similar to that of Tom Harris. I have responsibility for the house building sector, sustainable construction and the private rented sector and in terms of groups with regards to those organisations and individuals I am keen to see them as much as possible. I too am like Tom Harris and would say that MPs have privileged access. I would never ever turn down a meeting with an MP and I think that is very important. One of the things I enjoy doing is going up and down the country and actually speaking to people. I have responsibility for the social rented sector as well and I go and speak to tenants in different regions, which again I think that is very important to do. The second part of my answer is to do with the Housing and Regeneration Bill which I have just taken through the House of Commons and which is now in the House of Lords. People were trying to have meetings with me in order to get my take on particular aspects of the Bill and I would divide up the meetings I had in terms of the Bill into landlords, social landlords and tenants. That was a particular focus in the early part of the year with a series of meetings to decide their views on particular aspects of the Bill.

  Q754  Chairman: Do you keep a record of all these meetings?

  Mr Wright: Yes.

  Q755  Chairman: Everybody you meet is recorded.

  Mr Wright: Yes, from the diary secretary everything is recorded.

  Q756  Chairman: Including meetings with MPs?

  Mr Wright: A formal meeting in the department, and I can think of one with regard to gypsies and travellers from a colleague, is certainly recorded but a quick chat in the tea room is different and would not be recorded.

  Q757  Chairman: What happens to these records?

  Mr Wright: As far as I am concerned they are collated and maintained. I have records of the meetings I have had since I was a minister.

  Q758  Chairman: One of the issues that come up in talking about lobbying all the time is the idea that there are these meetings that go on and lobbyists have preferential access. There have been FOI requests made to different bits of government including your department. I know, for example, that between the 20 March and 22 April this year you met nobody.

  Mr Wright: That is not quite correct then.

  Q759  Chairman: Given what you just said I was quite surprised by that because it sounded as though you were busy meeting people all time.

  Mr Wright: I am. What I would say with regard to that is every meeting that I have is recorded by the diary secretary. In terms of the specific provisions of FOI, I am not entirely certain what is required. Certainly I am confident that every meeting that I have had is recorded.

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