Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
WATSON MP, MR
MP AND MR
19 JUNE 2008
Q840 Kelvin Hopkins: You are very
kind and you were very charming at the time but I just thought
it was something you had to get through and you would go on to
more serious consideration of policy after that. That was a strong
impression, and it is not the first time it has happened with
ministers. Is it not the case that with a high proportion of what
used to be in the public sector now in the private sector, the
companies who are bidding for the contracts at every level of
government are much more significant than Members of Parliament,
MPs who often have irrelevant ideas like mine that council housing
was a good idea and that we ought to have more of it?
Mr Wright: The idea is not irrelevant.
I think we all agree that if an MP wants to meet I would always
say yes. I cannot think of a time when I would turn down a Member
of Parliament. I see the status of a Member of Parliament as being
very privileged. You do have privileged access to ministers and
that is how it should be.
Q841 Kelvin Hopkins: My last question
is something I raised before, particularly with the previous Prime
Minister and I guess the present one too. Downing Street seems
now to be open to big business lobbying in a way that even with
Mrs Thatcher it was not. We get constant reports of gambling corporations
from America, health corporations, and no doubt railway corporations
as well, but particularly health and gambling, who are welcome
in Downing Street and have immediate pull with the core of our
government, the Prime Minister's office and the immediate Downing
Street staff. How much do you sense that decisions are really
taken rather above your level? You do a splendid job and are conscientious
ministers but really the core now is in Downing Street and that
is where lobbying really counts.
Mr Watson: You have a view on
that but I disagree with you. The principles of the Ministerial
Code apply to prime ministers as well as irrelevant junior ministers
and I think you have to make your case and provide evidence to
Kelvin Hopkins: Perhaps we can discuss
this further over a glass of claret some time.
Q842 Mr Walker: To go back to something
you said, I am a little concerned that when you opened that magic
envelope you do not know what is in it. You are the minister and
you should know. You are paid to make decisions; you are paid
to bring your intellect and understanding of the issues to bear
on that decision making process. I am also concerned that all
these bids are coded so no-one knows which bid belongs to whom.
You could have some really crummy operator with a track record
of failure who has a great bid but history tells us they should
be avoided like the plague. Do you think perhaps it has gone too
far and we do need a little bit of subjectivity in the decision-making
process? After all, you are paid to make decisions and stand by
those decisions as your civil servants are.
Mr Harris: I can imagine nothing
worse than having to appear in front of this Committee having
made a subjective judgment about giving a £1 billion contract
to particular firm with whom I has just had dinner the previous
week. You have to understand that when that envelope is opened
I do not know what the name of the company is but long before
that point is reached there has been a process of analysing all
of the interested bidders and short listing those bids. Those
are short listed on the basis of things like deliverability and
track record so no-one with a track record that would indicate
they cannot provide the service in the new franchise would even
be short listed anyway. I have absolute confidence that whichever
of the three or four short listed companies, whatever name is
in that envelope, will be able to deliver. It is the job of my
civil servants to assess the bids at a much earlier stage so if
they are short listed, if they get that close, of course they
can deliver the bid. I think everyone on all sides of the House
can absolutely 100 % guarantee that there are no deals being done
and there are no favours being made. I think that is absolutely
essential in a system.
Q843 Mr Walker: What is your role
as a minister? Does the Secretary of State know what is in the
Mr Harris: No. I only opened it
at that point because the Secretary of State happened to be on
holiday. Usually it is the Secretary of State who does it.
Q844 Mr Walker: I personally, in
my humble opinion, find it pretty frightening that the Secretary
of State who is paid to run the Transport Department has no idea
what is in the envelope.
Mr Harris: I can assure you that
it would be a lot more scary if you thought that Labour ministers
were making a subjective judgment about which company to give
a contract of that size to. That is a situation no government
would want to put themselves in.
Q845 Mr Walker: I would still like
you to be able to know what was in the envelope before you opened
Mr Harris: Bless you, but that
will not happen.
Q846 Mr Prentice: Maybe the lobbying,
if we can call it that, is at an earlier stage when you are drawing
up the specifications for the franchise. When GNER went down the
pan, people who travel on the East Coast were very complimentary
about the on-board dining services and I do not know if that was
in the specification.
Mr Harris: It was not. We do not
specify catering but you are right. I know you do not want to
go down the road of franchising but in terms of lobbying when
a franchise is originally put together in order to come up with
a service specification and an invitation to tender the people
whose opinions are most valued are the users of that service.
They are consulted extensively not just by the department but
by all the companies who are interested in putting in a bid so
they do have a say in the shape of that franchise.
Q847 Chairman: Do you know what the
Mr Wright: The Association of
Q848 Chairman: Did you know what
Mr Harris: What he said.
Mr Watson: It is one of the three
trade bodies that represent the lobbying industry.
Q849 Chairman: Some bits of the public
sector have started saying that companies the Government does
business with should be a member of this trade organisation. Do
you have a view on that?
Mr Harris: Can I point out that
in a previous life I was not exactly a lobbyist, Ian may refer
to me as a spin doctor, but when I worked for a passenger transport
executive I was down here before I was an MP lobbying and doing
the job of a consultant, although I was in-house, lobbying Members
of Parliament on the Transport Bill 2000 on railways. I suspect
that if such a requirement were made, that ministers and even
MPs could not deal directly with people who were not in that organisation,
I would have been excluded from some of the avenues that I used
at that time and I think that would be unfair to organisations
who cannot afford to hire rather expensive consultancy firms.
Q850 Chairman: What is the Government
line on this?
Mr Watson: A publicly funded organisation
would have to justify that it is in the public interest to employ
the skills of a lobby firm.
Q851 Chairman: I had a letter from
DLA Piper, lobbyists who are not members of APPC. They say that
earlier this year the Met Office, which is overseen by the Ministry
of Defence, issued a tender invitation to provide public relations
support. The tender invitation, which was widely circulated and
in the public affairs PR world, stipulated that respondents should
be members of the APPC to be eligible to apply for the work and
obviously they are complaining about that. Is that the direction
of travel inside government?
Mr Watson: What I think this Committee
has already done has got the industry to get its act together.
I notice three trade bodies have tried to adhere to a common set
of principles by which they go about their business. I do not
think it would be unreasonable for members of the trade body to
use that as a positive in the way they pitch for business. If
I was awarding a contract I would probably want to make sure they
are reputable firms who are members of trade bodies who adhere
to a particular code. That is one consideration that an organisation
has to make when they decide to award a contract and I can understand
why the Met Office have gone down that road.
Q852 Chairman: You have a choice:
you can either regulate government in relation to lobbying, as
we do in relation to the codes for civil servants, what we said
about ministers and so on, or you can regulate the lobbyists.
Which of those models is the better one, or do you think there
is a case for doing something on each side?
Mr Watson: The case for regulation
has to be made if you identify a problem. I go back to my point
that if in collecting evidence in this inquiry you find that the
industry are exerting undue influence and getting policy and legislative
outcomes that are unfair, then obviously we need to look at that.
My concern about regulation is you cannot partially regulate an
industry because there are always consequences. The process already
has put the industry under a bit of pressure. I saw the press
release the three trade bodies put out and in a sense you are
already helping some of them bring a bit of common sense to the
way they ply their trade.
Q853 Chairman: One of the issues
is whether multi-client lobbyist firms should have to disclose
who their client list is. What view would you take on that?
Mr Watson: If I was a blue chip
company I would probably want to employ a contractor that was
pretty straight about who their clients were. Their argument back
would be that some of their clients are entitled to privacy and
confidentiality. I would say that if you think there is genuinely
a problem with multi-client lobbyists, if you can define them
that way and I have never heard that definition before, then I
would have an open mind about what your recommendations would
Q854 Chairman: From your experience,
just generally outside Parliament and inside Parliament as ministers,
we all know that the lobbying of government is an integral part
of the democratic process but do you think the lobbying industry
adds value to that process?
Mr Watson: Yes, on balance I do.
Sometimes we forget how complex government is, and people who
understand the interrelationships between various the parts of
government help voluntary sector and private sector communicate
better with government so in general I think it is a pretty healthy
thing. There are always bad apples in every industry.
Mr Harris: I agree with that.
If you are a part of an organisation, say a voluntary organisation
or a charity, and you want to lobby on a particular policy it
is an incredibly opaque process. I take it for granted now and
because we have been MPs for so long there is a danger of assuming
that every organisation out there knows exactly who to speak to,
what is the process of the Bill and the consultation process.
It is actually a very difficult thing to get your head around
and if a lobbying company or a firm of consultants can help a
company get through all of that, even if they do not achieve the
policy aims at the end of it, as long as an organisation has had
the opportunity to make their case then that is very important.
If lobbyists can facilitate that I do not see anything wrong with
Mr Wright: Following on from what
Tom was saying, where it adds value, from my own experience, is
in order to clarify some of the complexities of how government
works and to show how the legislative process is undertaken. That
is where it adds value rather than the access point, access to
ministers or access to civil servants, which is what people have
concentrated on previously.
Chairman: That is very helpful. It has
been an interesting session. I hope it has not been one of those
sessions that have been described by Kelvin as one you have to
get through and get on to the real business of life. We have enjoyed
it and we have learnt a lot from it and we are very grateful for
that. I am afraid, Tom, it still does not let you off having champagne
in the Pugin Room with one of our staff. Thank you very much to
all of you.
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