Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
WATSON MP, MR
MP AND MR
19 JUNE 2008
Q800 Mr Liddell-Grainger: One of
our colleagues, Michael Meacher, stood up and said in a debate
that he felt that civil servants should be disciplined or sacked
if they have colluded, and it is a very specific example, with
BAA over the Heathrow expansion. Do not comment on that particular
one but on the wider picture. If you discovered that your civil
servants, regardless of level, were pushing government policy
without your knowledge, taking hospitality from whoever and you
did not know, what would you do about it?
Mr Watson: There is a very robust
Code in the Civil Service Code and the guidance is set out. Gus
O'Donnell is responsible for discipline in the Civil Service and
I know that he would take a very dim view of civil servants breaking
the terms of the Code.
Q801 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Do you
think it is robust enough?
Mr Watson: I have been trying
to apply the principles of the Code to another area of policy
in the last few weeks and I think it is a very robust piece of
work. If you think it requires strengthening and can find ways
it can be further strengthened then I would be interested to see
Q802 Mr Liddell-Grainger: That is
one of the problems, is it not? Tony read out a list of who you
had met, or had not as the case may be, but to get a list of who
the civil servants met in your department, and each of your departments
is quite big, you are not going to know. To take another example,
the nuclear issue, there has been a lot written about civil servants
being lobbied about nuclear. I know that you do not cover that
Mr Wright: Although I have a nuclear
power station in my patch.
Q803 Mr Liddell-Grainger: But you
are not the minister responsible. I have a nuclear power station
in my patch so I do not mind being lobbied. They have obviously
had an awful lot of input and they have been trying to get hold
of civil servants because civil servants tend to go on. Do you
think the system needs to be tightened on lobbyists being able
to wine and dine civil servants?
Mr Watson: I would be interested
to see what the recommendations of the report are with regard
to transparency and senior civil servants meeting members in industry.
The Civil Service Code and the guidance given to civil servants
on how they deal with lobbyists is very robust. If you think there
is a case that they need to justify that with greater transparency
then I would be interested to see it.
Q804 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You have
not quite answered the question. The question is very direct.
Do you think, and I am talking about you, it is strong enough?
This is obviously going on because there is enough documented
evidence to show BAA and I suspect the nuclear industry. There
are other examples in this piece, and in fact I was actually at
one of the occasions so I know there were civil servants there.
Whether or not they were declared I do not know and I am not interested
but do you think that is right?
Mr Watson: Yes, the guidelines
can be justified and they are robust. Do I think that you might
have a case that there needs to be greater transparency in the
system? You might have a case and I would be interested to see
what the report comes up with. The Civil Service Code is very,
very powerful and I think the guidelines given to civil servants
about how they meet and deal with lobbyists is again very strong.
Q805 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Have you
had any evidence in any of your departments that civil servants
have spoken to lobbyists and you said "We better find out.
Could you check up and get hold of the lobbyists?" Do you
Mr Watson: I would not know on
every specific occasion.
Q806 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Have you
said to them "Can you go and get this information?"
Mr Watson: I have asked for information.
I would not know necessarily where they would get the source but
I certainly have no evidence of my civil servants breaking the
Civil Service Code or the guidelines given to them when they meet
Mr Harris: There is an appropriate
example in my own department. Jack Paine, who is with me today,
is the head of rail procurement and is responsible for overseeing
the franchising process. These franchises are worth millions in
some cases resulting in a premium to the Government of more than
£1 billion so we are talking about a lot of money. You talk
about a lot of private interest in gaining those franchises and
Jack is religiously obsessiveI hope he does not mind me
using that expressionin that he will not speak to anyone
who he thinks may have a vested interest in the particular franchising
process. That allows me, in fact, to be protected as well because
he puts himself in a silo as far as a particular franchise is
concerned and makes sure that he is absolutely untouchable. No-one
could ever say that anyone from outside has any influence at all
on who gets a particular franchise and I am grateful for that
because that protects me as well.
Mr Wright: My experience is very
similar to the two Tom's which is I am confident that the framework
is working. Linking the two things, this is all down to good governance.
I have examples, in my own ministerial experience, where there
is good governance and where there are related questions about
conflict of interest and on the civil service advice we have moved
quickly and the individual was removed. My experience of the whole
process about procurement, potential conflict interest and good
governance is that it is working.
Q807 Chairman: The guidance for civil
servants is very robust on paper but I am not sure if it is for
ministers. Ministers have simply these rather general-sounding
statements in the Ministerial Code. Civil servants have page after
page of detailed guidance on particular circumstances but ministers
have none of that and just have these general exaltations.
Mr Watson: I am trying to give
you a government view. My personal view is the Ministerial Code
has guided me and my conduct as a minister quite well in a way
that I could keep my integrity in tact. I know that opens you
up immediately but it has worked pretty well for me.
Q808 Chairman: If one of the big
property companies came in and waved a Centre Court ticket for
Wimbledon in front of you what would you do?
Mr Wright: It has never happened.
I probably would turn it down. I would take advice from officials
but at the minute I would probably turn it down.
Q809 Chairman: What if one of the
train operating companies came along with a bit of hospitality
Mr Harris: The Ministerial Code
is quite strict in terms of accepting hospitality. I have been
given gifts in various contexts, almost invariably model trains
inside Perspex boxes. That is very nice and when I eventually
move on they will remain the property of the department. You just
accept it. It really does depend on your private office and you
always accept the advice of the private office. If the private
office ever said to me that I cannot accept it and it is inappropriate
there would be no question, you would not even argue: you would
not accept it. Before you get to that stage I would like to think
that we have some judgment ourselves and we would know when a
gift was inappropriate and therefore not to accept it.
Q810 Chairman: If you look at the
actual rules, there is nothing which prevents you from taking
hospitality of that kind; indeed, the registration requirements
are on a level where that would not be covered.
Mr Watson: There are a number
of things that guide you as an MP and a minister. If you were
offered hospitality you would clear it with a permanent secretary.
Each department sets their own rules for monetary value that requires
declaration and, of course, you are also guided by the Register
of Members' Interests which requires you to declare.
Q811 Chairman: It actually matters
if every time a minister is offered hospitality he or she consults
an official about whether it is acceptable or not.
Mr Watson: Circumstances are different
for each department. If I can give you an example, if you were
offered a gift or hospitality and you were a foreign office minister
it would be very different to a housing minister or a transport
minister involved in a procurement contract being offered a gift.
You would not want to give insult to an ally or another nation
that sends some kind of ceremonial gift but you would send a gift
back if you were a housing minister on a procurement project.
You need to allow departments a degree of flexibility to administer
their own policies on how hospitality is accepted.
Q812 Chairman: The question was would
each offer of hospitality cause a minister to take advice from
an official about it?
Mr Watson: Most offers of hospitality
would come through a department so the officials would know about
Mr Harris: It would depend on
what you mean by hospitality. For example, if I am invited to
go along to a reception in the House of Commons in one of the
dining rooms and I walked through the door and accept a glass
of orange juice and a canapé, I do not consult my civil
servants about whether or not that is acceptable and I do not
think that is recorded.
Mr Wright: It is certainly ministerial
responsibilities as opposed to being an MP. For example there
are two occasions that I can recall where I have been the guest
of the managing director of Tyne Tees to go and see Middlesborough
Football Club. If I was a sports minister that would certainly
have gone through but as a housing minister I have not consulted
officials but that is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests.
Q813 Chairman: I have been told now
that on the week beginning 28 January 2008 you met the Liverpool
Mr Harris: You have been misinformed.
Q814 Chairman: Liverpool Football
Club, Merseytravel, do you know what that was?
Mr Harris: I meet Merseytravel
quite a lot because they are the Passenger Transport Executive
but I have never met Liverpool Football Club. I wish I had. I
am afraid you have been misinformed. I meet Merseytravel all the
time and since they are the best performing rail company in the
country I quite like to meet them.
Q815 Chairman: Can I say for the
record that it comes from the record issued by your department
about your meetings with outside interest groups. I suspect you
will go back and ask them why they are putting out that you are
meeting Liverpool Football Club.
Mr Harris: Or why I do not remember
meeting Liverpool Football Club.
Q816 Mr Walker: We are talking about
hospitality and civil service rules relating to their relationships.
What about hospitality with the press, for example? If you are
called out and a member of the press corps wants to take you out
to lunch at a nice restaurant, do you seek advice from officials
on that? That is hospitality so why would you treat that differently
than an invitation from an organisation?
Mr Harris: On the few occasions
where the press actually agree to buy me lunch, I would simply
say to my private office can we make space in my diary to meet
so-and-so. To be honest, the actual discussion does not go along
the lines of do I accept it if he picks up the tab; it is just
a question that I am meeting a colleague for lunch.
Q817 Mr Walker: If you have lunch
with a member of the press do you take an official with you to
record what is said?
Mr Watson: No.
Q818 Mr Walker: Why would the press
potentially be allowed to operate to a different set of rules
than Joe Bloggs train spotter or Joe Bloggs train manager?
Mr Watson: This goes back to the
principles of the Ministerial Code that you need to justify how
you make objective decisions. It is not unreasonable for ministers
to seek advice where they think that organisations are trying
to influence policy making.
Q819 Mr Walker: The press certainly
influence policy making more so than any organisation.
Mr Watson: I suspect most of the
time that is not the reason why MPs lunch with journalists.