Policy Exchange, illuminate us!

Image2 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?

The Policy Exchange, like many think tanks, is funded by business interests seeking to influence politicians. It maintains that it is “an independent, non-partisan educational charity”, which is “research-led and evidence-based” and nothing to do with lobbying. But it is worth reminding ourselves of former Minister, Patricia Hewitt’s take on its work . Last year she explained to undercover reporters the best ways to buy political influence:

“Now the think tank and the seminar route I think is a very good one and will remain a good one. And so identifying the right think-tank – Policy Exchange is a good one at the moment – and saying ok, does that think tank already have a relationship with Minister X? Can we invite Minister X to give a seminar on this subject? Your client would then sponsor the seminar and you do it via the think-tank. And that’s very useful, because what you get for your sponsorship is basically you sit next to the Minister.”

Yet despite its clear role in commercial lobbying, Policy Exchange refuses to disclose a list of its funders. We know that they’ve included BP, BSkyB and booze company SAB Miller, Bupa, Care UK and Tribal (all lobbying for marketisation of the NHS), as well as a host of city backers – this year's Tory conference events include tie-ins with the Corporation of London, Citibank and Deloitte.

When Oliver Letwin describes the Policy Exchange as “one of the seminal influences on political debate in Britain”, surely we should have public scrutiny of the private interests it is promoting.

And what of PR and lobbying firms like Hill & Knowlton? In the words of David Cameron: “Today [lobbying] is a £2 billion industry that has a huge presence in Parliament…Much of the time this happens covertly. 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…. I believe that secret corporate lobbying… goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics.”

Hill & Knowlton was for a long time the biggest PR and lobbying firm in the world. Dubbed “a company without a moral rudder” by a former employee, it’s been called in to spin corporate disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was central to the tobacco industry’s long-running PR campaign to cast doubt on the health effects of smoking, was accused of disseminating ‘false’ and ‘misleading’ information by US authorities, and has ‘managed crises’ for governments with dreadful human rights records, including China after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Let there be light - is it perhaps ironic?

To be fair, the government is proposing to do something about “secret corporate lobbying”. The coalition agreement included a promise to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, which would allow public scrutiny of who is lobbying whom, and over what. That promise was made in May last year. A consultation on the register was due “this autumn” (July 2010), “in the coming months” (March 2011); “later this year” (August 2011)… We’re still waiting.

As for the lobbying industry, they have fought transparency regulations all the way.

Lobbyists, alongside business-funded think tanks –  aided and abetted by politicians (many of whom are former lobbyists) – are bent on fixing British politics in the interests of their largely corporate clients, outside of public scrutiny.

Look to them to fix it? They all play a big part in why Britain’s government in broken.

(Let there be Light: Technology, transparency and fixing Britain’s broken government is on Tuesday 4 October)