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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 840-854)


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 show that.

  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 envelope?

  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 it.

  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 APPC[3] is?

  Mr Wright: The Association of Political Consulting.

  Q848  Chairman: Did you know what it was?

  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 be.

  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 that.

  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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