2 October 2011
With a straight face, the Policy Exchange think tank is hosting an event at next week’s Conservative conference called: Let there be Light: Technology, transparency and fixing Britain’s broken government.
The line up of speakers includes: Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (and co-founder of Policy Exchange); Rishi Saha, Director at PR and lobbying giant Hill & Knowlton and former Head of Digital Communications in No 10; and Piotr Brzezinski, Head of Digital Government at the Policy Exchange.
So, should we be looking to politicians, think tanks and lobbyists for how to fix Britain’s broken government?
Let’s start with politicians: Policy Exchange’s first chair, Michael Gove, for example, appears to be using technology to hide government business from the public: he’s just been caught using a private email account (registered in his wife’s name) to discuss policy with his advisors. This, they (wrongly) claim, exempts such correspondence from Freedom of Information laws.
More regressive use of technology was revealed last week: the routine use of texts by ministers to contact corporate lobbyists about government business, again as a way to slip through the net of Freedom of Information requests.
Do think tanks fare any better on transparency?
Radio 4’s latest File on 4 programme posed the question: Is there a conflict of interest when public servants take private sector jobs?
The so-called ‘revolving door’, which the programme examines, is part of the lobbying toolbox. How does a company wanting to secure government contracts get its foot in the door of the government department? One of the best ways is to employ an insider, someone with the political contacts in the department and detailed knowledge of how the system works.
While some have argued that this leads to better understanding between commerce and government, the pitfalls are enormous. “Crony capitalism ” is how David Cameron referred to it in a speech on lobbying last year: “We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”
When a Committee of MPs conducted an inquiry into lobbying a couple of years ago, it concluded on the issue of the revolving door: “With the rules as loosely and variously interpreted as they are, former Ministers in particular appear to be able to use with impunity the contacts they built up as public servants to further a private interest”.
This appears to be particularly the case with former health ministers. Here's a list:
David Cameron's refusal to deny that he has discussed details of Murdoch's bid for the rest of BSkyB with his friends in News International moves the 'phone-hacking' scandal into new territory.
If it wasn't apparent before, this is now also a story about lobbying. While phone-hacking and alleged police corruption are undoubtedly more awful, and must be tackled, the consequences of unrestrained political influence are potentially much more serious.
On Wednesday the prime minister repeatedly stressed he 'never had one inappropriate conversation' with anyone in the Murdoch empire over the deal. He was at pains to explain that he had completely taken himself out of any decision-making about the bid.
But how credible is this account? Is this really how lobbying works, with constraints put on friendly relationships, and barriers erected between ministerial colleagues and friends of ministerial colleagues?
Not according to Cameron.
"We all know how it works," he confidently said in a speech on lobbying ahead of the general election: "The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear."
With seer-like powers, Cameron predicted in February last year that "secret corporate lobbying" was "the next big scandal waiting to happen". I suspect at the time he didn't picture himself at the centre of it.
18 April 2011
The lobbying industry's attempt at proving that transparency is safe in its hands is so bad it should be taken offline.
The industry's voluntary register of lobbyists, overseen by the industry-run UK Public Affairs Council, is in its design a misleadingly incomplete record of the activities of lobbyists in the UK. However, the latest version, which according to its website went "live on 15th April", is now so wrong it should be shut down.Entries for key lobbying agencies have disappeared, such as Cicero Consulting, which embarrassingly is run by Iain Anderson, head of one of the trade bodies responsible for the register. No entry either for Helen Johnson Consulting, the firm run by the chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), another industry group in charge of the register. College Public Policy, again run by members of the management committee of the APPC, is registered as a lobbying 'client' rather than a lobbying agency, and as such, lists no clients. Type the names of a number of key agencies into the search box - Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Citigate - and they variously exist as 'clients' or not at all.
The short walk up Whitehall this weekend provided one snapshot of why hundreds of thousands of us turned up to protest.
Shuffling past Nick Clegg’s Cabinet Office, amidst the banners and bells, and beautifully timed to a soundtrack of Dolly Parton’s ‘Nine to Five’, I looked to the right and there they were: Clegg’s true ‘alarm clock heroes’, a group of doctors and nurses gathered outside the Department of Health. Four hours into the march and they were still loudly condemning health secretary Andrew Lansley’s plans to fling open the doors of the NHS to private healthcare companies.
Five minutes further up Whitehall, however, and we got a timely reminder of the government’s unwavering support for the private sector. Outside the smoked-glass windows of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (lobbyists for the big drug companies), stood an impenetrable line of police. Whether the protective shield was the idea of the ABPI or the government is irrelevant. What is clear is that the pharmaceutical industry enjoys a relationship with the government that is off limits to the public.
It’s not just big drug companies that enjoy close ties with our politicians. Private health companies across the board have built a dense and largely opaque network of political contacts with one aim – to influence policy in their interests. They don’t have to shout.
10 March 2011
"The new register of lobbyists published by the UK Public Affairs Council" says Austin Mitchell MP, "is riddled with errors, omissions, inconsistencies and redactions... it includes the entries of only a very small percentage of the thousands of lobbyists who should be registered and it includes substantially less information than many registrants would have wished."
Mitchell's criticism comes in a Motion he's raised in the House of Commons, which highlights the lobbying industry's "failure to deal with registration in an open, transparent, comprehensive and professional manner".
It calls on the government to quit stalling and "bring forward legislation to regulate the lobbying profession without further delay", underlining the indisputable fact that "the consistency and clarity of statutory regulation is now the only appropriate course of action". The government's timetable for a statutory register has slipped six months to May 2012.
He's not alone in his criticism and frustration. Many have slammed the voluntary register since its launch last week, including one senior lobbyist who called it 'dreadful' .
While the UKPAC voluntary register does nothing to increase the transparency of lobbying, what is now clear as day are the industry's motives for launching it. As Telegraph blogger Ian Douglas writes: "The UKPAC list... [is] designed to avoid grasping the nettle of regulation."
The government should take note of the growing impatience with the industry's tactics (and apparent government complicity). You've said you'd regulate lobbyists. Let's get on with it.
1 March 2011
An estimated 85-90% of lobbyists are shunning a new transparency register to be launched later today by the lobbying industry as part of its bid to stave off statutory regulation, a new survey shows.
The survey by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency of the industry’s own figures has found that that:
Andrew Lansley’s wife runs a public affairs business which boasts about advising drug and food companies, the Telegraph reports at the weekend.
Sally Low, Lansley’s wife and MD of Low Associates, doesn’t call herself a lobbyist – few do – but instead provides “strategic policy” advice to clients. And like many in the industry, Low doesn’t declare who it lobbies for under the current system of self-regulation.
As her husband’s boss said of lobbying last year: “We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence.”
If it’s ‘strategic policy advice’ you’re after from someone close to the heart of government, you could also try one of firms owned by one of David Cameron’s closest allies, Lord Chadlington, aka Peter Gummer. Quiller Consultants for example, which will help its “clients make their case directly to key targets in government and Parliament” (and “understands the importance of discretion”). You’d be buying the advice of Quiller lobbyist George Bridges, friend to George Osborne and Cameron’s former election campaign manager, as well as Theresa May’s ex-chief of staff, and an ex-strategist for the Chief Medical Officer. Quiller lobbies for among others, Capita, the enormous outsourcing firm which has its eye on running NHS Direct, and a private equity firm heavily invested in health.
Plans to radically change the NHS will be presented to Parliament today (19 January) by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.
Doctors, nurses, unions and MPs have variously described Lansley's reforms as “extraordinarily risky ”, “expensive ”, “rushed, ill-conceived and potentially disastrous ” – “it could be a bloody awful train crash ”.
Others see reform differently. “A new, exciting era… that will ultimately change, to our benefit, the landscape in which we operate” is the view of one CEO of a private hospital company.
He is just one of a largely unseen army of lobbyists pushing Lansley for reforms that will see private health companies making huge profits out of the NHS.
To get the changes to the NHS they want, companies have been busy employing politicians (including former health ministers), hiring lobbying agencies full of government insiders, and paying think tanks close to the Conservative Party.
This short film takes you on a tour of the offices of just some of these healthcare companies, agencies and think tanks surrounding Parliament, all of which are lobbying to fundamentally change the NHS in their own interests.