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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 800-819)


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 it.

  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 area.

  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 do that?

  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 lobbyists.

  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 obsessive—I hope he does not mind me using that expression—in 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 like that?

  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 it anyway.

  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 Football Club.

  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.

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