Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
WATSON MP, MR
MP AND MR
19 JUNE 2008
Q760 Chairman: Do you know how this
is supposed to work inside government in terms of recording all
Mr Watson: What governs whether
ministers should or should not see an individual or representative
of a body is the Ministerial Code. There is a duty on ministers
under the Code to make objective decisions, and that means not
giving undue access to individuals or particular groups. My feeling
is that departments are very, very serious about how they apply
the Code. Most ministers I know would take advice from their officials
on who they should and should not see and they make sure that
they get an array of opinions when it comes to formulating policy
or legislation. I am not an expert on the Freedom of Information
Act but the Ministerial Code will dictate who gets to see a minister
and who does not.
Q761 Chairman: A mystery to me is
why we have to rely upon freedom of information requests to get
pretty basic information. Departments are collecting this so why
can they not routinely publish all the contacts that are made?
Mr Watson: The argument would
be that there are some meetings that ministers have which are
very sensitive. They might be commercially sensitive. You would
find it difficult with the Ministry of Defence to perhaps publish
the diary meetings of all defence ministers for example. They
might give an impression that early thinking on policy is going
one way and give undue influence to an industry so there are reasons
that people give. The Freedom of Information Act does allow you
to ask me which companies I have met and that would be answered.
Of course MPs also have parliamentary questions they can ask as
Q762 Chairman: You are covered by
the exemptions under the FOI Act anyway but it seems silly that
people have to keep putting FOI requests in. I have a list here
of all the meetings ministers have been having. I teased Iain
about a particular period but if I go to January and March you
did have some meetings. You met the Bradford & Bingley and
you met someone called Places for People. You met the Tenant Participation
Advisory Service and the National Housing Building Council and
you met City West Homes. Do you remember these meetings?
Mr Wright: Yes, I do.
Q763 Chairman: We have a record of
them. The constitutional sky does not fall in when you tell the
world that this happens. I cannot see why the department cannot
routinely publish the records of who ministers and officials saw
and what they talked about.
Mr Watson: I have put the case
why that does not happen now. If you are going to recommend that
in the report then we would take a look at it.
Q764 Chairman: When I look at the
records like this that you give, what it does not tell me is how
many of these contacts were mediated by lobbyists and lobbying
firms or indeed how many lobbyists were at these meetings. It
gives the name of the organisation itself but many of these organisations
are using lobbyists who are selling their access skills to these
bodies. What the record does not tell me is what has been the
role of the lobbyists in all of this and that could usefully be
Mr Watson: The record will find
it difficult to give you clarity on that because there is a problem
with the definition of what is a lobbyist. If the Committee can
find an accurate definition then that might be helpful. When does
a diary secretary or permanent secretary define lobbyist? Shami
Chakrabarti of Liberty, who has been having a lot of meetings
with ministers and MPs over the Terrorism Bill in the last months,
would you define her as a lobbyist?
Q765 Chairman: Yes.
Mr Watson: Others would not so
if we could get an accurate definition.
Chairman: We will worry about that and
you worry about these other things.
Q766 Mr Walker: Do you think government
needs some space in which to operate? My concern is that if companies,
individuals or groups feel that conversations they have with you
are going to be published in full or in part then communications
will simply dry up. There is a need for government to have some
space for organisations, be it Greenpeace or BAA, to come to you
and have confidential conversations and a confidential exchange
of views. The problem is with FOI you get this move towards sofa
government which is all done on the back of a fag paper with no
proper record keeping and it is not actually good for democracy.
Mr Harris: I think there is a
balance to be struck here. I absolutely understand that concern.
My own view is if I am having an official meeting at the department
between me and a Member of Parliament and there is no other outside
interest there but there very often are. As you know, you might
want to see me and bring along constituents, et cetera, but if
it is a one-to-one meeting essentially and no other people are
there or my civil servants taking a note my own view is I am happy
for the event of the meeting to be reported. I would be less happy
with the note of the details of that discussion happening just
because I think Members of Parliament should have some confidence
that details of those discussions are not going to be released.
Having said that, if there are outside organisations it is the
practice that the note of that meeting would be made public simply
because you have other outside organisations who may divulge their
own version of events and it is better to have the official record.
I absolutely accept this argument that you move towards sofa government
but in my experience the extra transparency provided by the Freedom
of Information Act is probably providing more of a benefit than
the disbenefit that might be created by going to a more informal
form of government. I think it has helped more than it has hindered.
Mr Watson: I think you should
take it back to the Nolan principles. Nolan said effectively it
is everyone's right to lobby Parliament and it is the job of government
departments to moderate the activity of professional lobbyists
so that ministers can make objective decisions. I have a small
role looking at the technology sector and my understanding of
the industry has improved because of trade bodies in the sector
giving me their advice. It is important that that access is maintained
but I also think it is perfectly reasonable for me to justify
why I meet someone and why I do not under the Freedom of Information
Mr Wright: Housing policy at the
moment is particularly interesting with lots going on and I do
not want to make housing policy in a bubble. I want to be as accessible
as possible and make sure that I speak to as many people as possible
in order to have views about various interests and how we go forward.
In that regard, in terms of formulation of policy, I understand
your point but I think it is very important. As Tom Watson said,
the Nolan principles and the framework that the Ministerial Code
provides enables us, as ministers, to have individual judgments
based upon that.
Q767 Mr Walker: How do you respect
commercial confidentiality? How do your civil servants define
whether a conversation is commercially confidential? Is it decided
that it is commercially confidential because the organisation
having the conversation with you tells you that it is commercially
confidential or is a view taken by your civil servants perhaps
in conversation with the organisation you are seeing?
Mr Watson: It is very difficult
to give you a general answer to that. You would have to take advice
from your officials and occasionally legal advice.
Q768 Mr Prentice: Lobbying can be
malign or benign. There is nothing in itself wrong with lobbying
but it is where lobbying results in the exercise of improper influence.
Do you think there is a problem with lobbying in that context
in Britain today?
Mr Watson: I have not seen a huge
body of evidence which shows that people are abusing the system,
that the Ministerial Code has been subverted and that we are not
making clear and open decisions on policy. If, in the course of
your investigation, you have found a systemic problem with the
lobbying industry I would like to see it but my impression is
we have a pretty good system in the UK.
Q769 Mr Prentice: Would it bother
you if we recommended a register of lobbyists or would we have
to identify a problem first?
Mr Watson: There is very little
this Committee would do that would bother me, Mr Prentice.
Q770 Mr Prentice: You must not call
me Mr Prentice!
Mr Watson: You must remember that
the last Select Committee I appeared before was the Defence Select
Committee which was rather more formal. I have read the transcripts
of your previous interviews and the debate about a register which
I found quite interesting. I would want to know whether you have
identified a problem that would be remedied by a register and
I have not seen evidence to show that there is a problem yet.
If you have identified a problem then we would probably want you
to justify why a register would be the way to go forward. I have
an open mind on it.
Q771 Mr Prentice: You are a former
defence minister and we have a debate in the House today on defence
procurement. There is a huge amount of traffic between people
who worked in the MoD and in defence companies, not just civil
servants and military people but also colleagues and former colleagues;
Ivor Caplin is a good example. Would it give you any problems
if the register were to include meetings between lobbyists and
senior civil servants serving in the Ministry of Defence?
Mr Watson: Which register is this?
Q772 Mr Prentice: This would be a
register that would detail meetings sought by lobbyists with civil
servants buried deep in the Ministry of Defence who may be key
people when it comes to recommending procurement contracts and
Mr Watson: I think civil servants
are entitled to have private meetings, although of course for
the first time this year we will be producing, and we are compiling
it now, a register of civil servant's hospitality which will be
published hopefully later in the year; we are compiling the figures
for 2007. We are trying to give you some kind of transparency
about who senior civil servants have met outside office hours.
Q773 Mr Prentice: We had David Owen
before us a month or so ago and he said the Freedom of Information
Act has changed everything, and what with MPs expenses and all
that kind of thing the name of the game these days is openness
and transparency; in fact, just closing things down creates more
problems than it is worth so that is what is behind my question.
If we were to recommend a more open transparent system which includes
meetings with civil servants and ministers, you would be relaxed
about that. Is that what you are telling us?
Mr Watson: What I think you need
to do first is put the cart before the horse and if you feel there
is a problem with the integrity of civil servants awarding procurement
projects or giving advice to ministers then we would be duty bound
to look at your recommendation. I have an open mind on that. My
sense is we actually have a really robust system. Civil servants
are guided by the Civil Service Code. They are given guidelines
on how they deal with lobbyists and I have not seen a great deal
of evidence that they do not adhere to that.
Q774 Mr Prentice: Can I ask Tom and
Iain, because you told us earlier that you meet any colleague
that wants to see you, have you ever been lobbied by a former
colleague? We do have MPs who work in the lobbying industry and
if a lobbyist were a former colleague would that make you more
inclined to see them?
Mr Harris: I have had a drink
with both David Jamieson, who was actually one of my predecessors,
and also with Ivor Caplin who I met at conference. I was friendly
with him when he was an MP but he did lobby me. David actually
asked to meet me and we had a drink in the Pugin Room. The reason
he wanted to meet me was because he had some good advice on how
to deal with my civil servants as a former minister. I am not
telling you whether I took his advice or not but he was not actually
lobbying on behalf of any third party.
Mr Wright: I have seen Ivor Caplin
at a reception but I have never had formal meetings with former
colleagues, it was literally "Hello, how are you" and
that was it. I have never been approached either.
Q775 Mr Prentice: That gets me to
on the issue of revolving doors which the Committee have been
looking at. The Cabinet Office is responsible, is it not, for
the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments? Do you think
the present system works well? We have an increasing number of
serving Members of Parliament who have outside jobs in industries
that are linked in some way to the jobs they did when they were
serving as ministers. Patricia Hewitt is a classic example, a
former health secretary now working for Boots. Do you think the
rules on business appointments are robust, do they need changing
or are you happy with the situation as it stands at the moment?
Mr Watson: The rules were slightly
strengthened last year by the Prime Minister. He changed the rules
so that former ministers would be obliged to take advice where
previously they were in an advisory capacity. My view is that
it works pretty well. They have to justify their decision to do
whatever they are doing to the Committee and they are pretty thorough.
Q776 Mr Prentice: We know, because
we have been told by Patrick Mayhew, that the Committee will say
to a former minister you must not lobby for 12 months but that
is not policed in any way. Should it be policed? People who came
before us were not interviewed: Ian McCartney, former chair of
the Labour Party now working for the Fluor Corporation, was not
interviewed, Patricia Hewitt was not interviewed. No-one is interviewed
and the whole system is not policed.
Mr Watson: First of all I think
you have to find the evidence that there is a problem and if you
have found that there are former ministers who are not taking
the advice of the Committee or breaking the terms in which they
have taken jobs then I would want to look at that and take your
Q777 Mr Prentice: You do not need
to answer this because it is outside your ministerial brief but
when a serving MP, who is a high profile figure, takes a job with
a company that is bidding for the Sellafield clean-up contract
which will bring in millions of pounds to that organisation, should
it be a matter for that individual MP or should the party organisation,
whether it is the Parliamentary Labour Party or the Conservative
parliamentary party, have a view on it? It is not just a matter
for that individual but it affects all of us, does it not?
Mr Watson: The integrity of the
decision to award contracts would be taken by ministers and they
are guided by the Ministerial Code. The behaviour of individual
MPs is open to scrutiny. I would say that if an MP chooses to
take a contract like that they must be aware they could be hauled
in front of the Public Administration Committee and interviewed
and made to justify themselves. They would probably end up in
the pages of newspapers given their answers and they have their
integrity to protect. It is for them to justify their own decisions
and for the court of public opinion to form a view.
Q778 Chairman: One answer you gave
was about the hospitality register which you are going to publish
Mr Watson: They are compiling
it now so very shortly, yes.
Q779 Chairman: As I understand it,
and I have a note here from the Cabinet Office, it is committed
to publishing an annual list of hospitality received by board
members of departments. In fact these are not going to be the
people that Gordon is describing, these people who are buried
away in the recesses.
Mr Watson: The people who take
the decisions would be senior civil servants. It is senior civil
servants who would give advice to ministers on procurement I would