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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 760-779)


19 JUNE 2008

  Q760  Chairman: Do you know how this is supposed to work inside government in terms of recording all this?

  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 well.

  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 done.

  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 Act.

  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 so on.

  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 recommendations.

  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 shortly.

  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 say.

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