‘Satan’s Little Helpers’ (6) “A number of unspecified companies in the financial industry”

The total of MSPs who admit to being surveyed is 17. These were 12 Labour Party members, 4 SNP members and 1 LibDem at the close of 2009.  In the Scottish Parliament there are a total of 129 MSPs with 47 SNP members, 46 Labour members, 16 Conservatives and 16 LibDem members with the other parties making up the 4 other seats.

No round up of who has been surveyed exists on the Scottish Parliament’s web site, but it can be compiled on the basis of what information is provided to demonstrate that the Register of Interests presents an incomplete and misleading representation.  It should be noted that the figures the Register provides are supposedly an aggregate of all surveys undertaken by all the companies involved, with the earliest said to have taken place in 2007.[1] Even at this stage the suspicion arises that much more of this activity might have occurred than was being reported;[2] either that or the basic rules of survey taking have been ignored.  For instance: taken on face value, we can say that as an overall survey of opinion the sample is inefficient and biased towards Labour. The absence of any Conservative MSPs is obviously a serious and glaring omission — and an incomplete picture.[3] Nevertheless using the Register we can arrange the data that we are provided with by the MSPs who admit to being paid for their survey and, who also at times, include what company contacts them, as I present below.

It is likely therefore, and other supporting evidence will be offered later, that many other MSPs have been surveyed but have not declared this in their Register of Interest section for a range of reasons as yet unexplained.  But on the basis of the evidence offered to the public, we can say that there is little evidence that these surveys are simply surveys as such.  Even here they appear to be a version of lobbying, whereby an overall opinion survey is not the intention but targeted approaches on behalf of clients who provide payment are.  We can, and other evidence presented below supports this, say that this is not a complete picture of who was contacted and that therefore the Register is failing in its purpose.  Whatever way we look at the information provided we encounter a problem in the light of other facts.  There are other possibilities of course.  These MSPs may have been cautious about recording this form of activity, they (or whoever completes their Register) may have felt particularly uneasy about the process for sensitive reasons.  Or they may simply be confused.  Some times leadership lacks leadership.

On the limited evidence we are provided with we can say that a small group of ‘polling companies’, specifically: ComRes, Populous and Ipsos MORI carry out the majority of the survey/lobbies.  The clients who are behind these surveys tend not to be disclosed to the MSP who generally appear not to request this information. Even when they do know the clients some MSPs tend not to record it in the Register.  Taking the Register as a whole a variation of explanations are offered: either the client is not disclosed, at times the client was identified during the course of interview but not disclosed in the interests sections, or, on some occasions the client is identified.  The purpose of the surveys are never really touched upon or explained even when clients are mentioned.

A similar variation in how the survey companies are described by MSPs is also evident.  The SNP’s Keith Brown describes Ipsos MORI as “a research company specialising in advertising, customer loyalty, marketing, media and public affairs.”[4] Labour’s Patricia Ferguson describes Populus as a “PR and polling agency.”[5] Labour’s Marlyn Glen describes ComRes as “a polling and research consultancy” and Ipsos MORI as “a market and opinion research consultancy.”[6] Other descriptions include Ipsos MORI as “a surveys and opinion poll company,”[7] or “an opinion research company,”[8] or even “a multi specialist research company.”[9] With Labour’s Michael McMahon all three companies, Ipsos MORI, Populus and ComRes are described as “a research company who conduct social, economic and political opinion surveys.”[10] MSPs can even say that: “I am not aware of the clients on whose behalf ComRes were acting,”[11] thus conceding that they were acting on behalf of a client: but no MSP has termed these companies as ‘lobbyists.’ The SNP’s Ian McKee can even state that he “participated in an annual survey of Members of the Scottish Parliament for Ipsos MORI […] who conducted this survey on behalf of various companies in the field of finance” without the notion of lobbying entering the frame.[12] David Whitton, can even state that he was managing director of Whitton PR Ltd, name the clients he worked for, reveal he received £50,000 per annum, and note that Ipsos MORI “undertook this survey on behalf of a number of their clients” but still refer to Ipsos MORI as “a market and opinion research company.”[13]

None of the MSPs claim to be so credulous that they argue that they did not know a client was behind the survey but there is no evidence in the Register that any of them consider the process to be lobbying despite the presence of clients, intermediaries, targeted questions and money.  Nevertheless a marked degree of evasive vagueness in reporting the identity of the client is evident together with a common evasiveness as to the fee provided: for example the MSPs declare it as ‘remuneration’ and that ‘falls into the ‘up to £500’ bandwidth’ but say they “received no direct payment or expenses.”[14] Either the MSP was “not directly aware” of the clients or “not directly aware” of the clients until the end of the interview.  It is unclear what this means or why the latter formulation should preclude the revelation of the client in the Register.  It remains a secret.  This evasion is compounded further on other occasions whereby the MSP stated they were aware of various clients but not aware of specific client; or that they believed that a number of unspecified companies in the financial industry were behind the approach.  The financial sector was the most frequent sector to approach the MSPs in this way, but with the level of non-disclosure we cannot really say if that is an accurate picture.

The amounts of money declared and passed to their respective Constituency Offices are £825 by Labour (mostly donated to Glasgow Central Labour Party); £50 to SNP with £3,450 going to nominated charities, but the argument is that much more money is in the system.  Some MSPs, Iain Grey for example, acknowledge that their Constituency Party makes donations to them.[15]

Some explanation of some of the references to various statements and companies mentioned is needed here.  The specific date of Wendy Alexander’s survey is not provided, it is only mention of when the cheque was received (December 2009) that is recorded, the declaration tells us very little other than Ipsos MORI performed the survey. This lack of provision of specific information on exactly when the survey took place is a common feature as is the date when the cheque arrived.  GovNet Communications, for which Alexander states she spoke, has Lord George Foulkes as the Chairman of its Editorial Board, and the company also includes his wife.[16] Carrick Court Associates Ltd., a consultancy of which he is also a director, receives money from GovNet because of Foulkes’ work with GovNet.  Foulkes owns 100% shares of Carrick Court Associates Ltd., of which GovNet is a client.[17] Foulkes also works for the political and parliamentary consultancy, Eversheds LLP,[18] and admitted introducing the firm’s clients to chairmen and members of select committees and giving clients tours of the Palace of Westminster.[19] The LibDem peer, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, also works for GovNet who publish ‘public sector magazines’.[20] In a report on Foulkes’ expense claim of £45,000 for staying in a house he owns, the Herald noted that this London address also appeared to be the business address for his work as a director and political consultant with Carrick Court Associates, which makes £50,000 per year.[21] Peter Peacock MSP spoke at a December 2009 seminar in Edinburgh (on the Role of the Minister in a Government Department) that was organised by ‘Understanding ModernGov’ (a division of GovNet Communications).

I will present some background on GovNet as a separate section later, so that we can continue with our focus on the register here; suffice to say at this juncture that MSPs themselves engage in aspects of lobbying, and have devised their own companies to do so.  We should be disinclined to see them as entirely innocent of such processes.

David Whitton, who we mentioned earlier in connection to Whitton PR Ltd, had clients that included: First Group PLC; Reliance Security Services; Al-Maktoum Institute, Dundee; Scottish Enterprise Glasgow/Dunbartonshire/Ayrshire. Whitton is the Labour nominee and a Non-Executive Director to the Scottish Parliament & Business Exchange which acts as a more open business lobby inside the Parliament — its free market advocacy is not without a somewhat familiar irony concerning its viability as a ‘business.’ The Exchange ran up deficits of £61,000 over the past two years.  It is to be given a £30,000 ‘exceptional one-off payment’ to ‘tide it over.’[22]

We should note too that there might be some MSPs who refused to take part in these surveys, although I have no information to support this.   It would be interesting to hear their views.

Returning to the Register, we also see a strong variation in how MSPs explain the payment system when they attempt to do so.[23] Ian McKee states that for his work for Ipsos MORI: “I did not receive expenses, benefit or direct payment of any kind.” [24] Yet the simple fact is that a £100 donation was made on his behalf: reading McKee’s explanation one would be led to believe that the two events were unconnected. McKee also states:

ComRes conducted this survey on behalf of a number of unspecified organisations, including various charities. On 30 April 2009, I received a cheque for £50 from ComRes made out, at my request, to the Wester Hailes Health Agency. I sent this cheque to the Wester Hailes Health Agency on 12 May 2009. I did not benefit personally from the cheque.

On one level this seems fine, noble even, but are we being told that the ends justify the means here? McKee also stated that:

On 10 May 2009 I participated in an MSP panel survey for ComRes […] ComRes conducted this survey on behalf of various companies in the field of finance […] On 6 October 2009 I participated in an annual survey of Members of the Scottish Parliament for Ipsos MORI Scotland.

So here we have three different types of survey (four really if we count the 10 March 2009 online survey), all with unspecified clients, except, for some reason, where the clients were specified as being charities, while arguably the more required or desirable information to provide would specify the nature of the private business or indeed individual who’s anonymity is being preserved — and why do we have the situation whereby charities are making circuitous donations to charities? When their representatives have dealings with big business many of the electorate might rather they did not play a game of blind man’s bluff.

The ComRes MSP panel survey of 2008 (p.6) states that 50 MSPs were on the ComRes MSP Panel.[25] Note that we found substantially less (17) who disclosed they had been surveyed in the Register.  So here we have an anomaly.  In the methodology section (p.11) of the ComRes document it states:

ComRes surveyed 50 MSPs (39% of all MSPs) on the ComRes Scottish Parliament Panel between 15th April and 23rd June 2008 by self-completion postal questionnaire and online.

So we are left with the question why might some MSPs report these financial ‘donations’ and others not?  The MSPs register of interests leaves us guessing.  The website as a whole avoids this issue, needlessly and in error in my opinion.  It might simply be that some MSPs were not paid, but payment, as Hawkins said earlier, is standard practice.[26]

But we have evidence that some 50 MSPs are regularly surveyed: four times a year[27] by the ComRes MSP Panel alone.  If the 50 MSPs are paid £50 (as is standard) and this happens four times a year, that is £10,000 overall for one survey by one company — the figures for this type of money going through the Scottish Parliament could easily be far in excess of this modest estimate.  We are not given the information to make a proper assessment.  This failing should be remedied by a fuller study tracing and linking it to other aspects of the lobby/survey processes: a study of how this fits in with, and is part of a regular cycle, including how it relates to and might be timed to coincide with MSP’s decision-making.

Beyond Scotland ComRes state they have the largest research panel of Westminster MPs ever created. Their panel is surveyed eight times a year and they guarantee responses from “a market leading minimum of 150 MPs per wave.”[28] They also state that “clients commission bespoke individual question units on this survey, and each question unit can test up to four statements.” ComRes offers clients a ‘full service package’ assisting with all question design, fieldwork management, through to providing a full analytical report outlining the findings of the research and putting them into a “practical context.”  In the devolved assemblies this operates every six months, in June and November.[29] The careful avoidance of the term ‘Lobbying’ has been over-looked in ComRes’ partnership with Strategem to team up to conduct surveys of Northern Irish politicians (supposedly in accordance with the Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct).  The Strategem website which explains the partnership has “Lobbing for the future” in its masthead to “to help reclaim that often debased term,”[30] and Strategem is described as “Northern Ireland’s first lobbying company” in its director, Quintin Oliver’s biography page.[31]

ComRes argue that online and paper surveys eliminates ‘interviewer effect’ where respondents may be influenced by personal contact, although again it is not just that influence effects are still pervasive, no survey can avoid them; but judging from other rhetoric the diminution of influence is not entirely unwanted if we take the whole process, inclusive of how the client uses ‘reliable results.’ into consideration.  The survey companies want to have it both ways here: influence via insider knowledge is why the companies pay yet here we have this hiding behind pseudo-scientific terminology as if their ‘science’ was value-free.  For instance ComRes adds:

Clients utilise the Panel to ascertain how they and their sector are perceived by MSPs; how successful their communications efforts have been; and how favourable MSPs are towards their organisation and its work.[32]

Even on this level, if cognizant with this assertion the MSPs could also be said to be influenced.  The matter is simply not left there, it is on-going as we have seen in our previous glance at how the process of influence can take shape: influence is its telos.  Or we are left with the conclusion that even although it happens four times a year (and is interspersed with other more targeted surveys) MSPs have no real idea what is going on or possibly view it favorably.

In fact the survey’s methodology (p.11) states that ComRes’ survey design (i.e. the way the questions are constructed, asked and so forth) is such that: “This helps organisations to further target their public affairs efforts.”  That is one of the reasons the clients pay the money.  Here influence is openly the end to which the survey is designed as a preliminary step towards informing the substance of future attempts at influence directly aimed at decision makers: the survey is simply part of this cycle.  We must also realize that companies may use a panoply of methods and indeed access the findings of different survey companies to build up a very complete picture.  The game is complex, personal contact and access its essence with financial transaction ubiquitous and integral. On personal contact, the 2009 Ipsos MORI survey of MSPs asked the question: “What are the most important things companies and organisations can do to develop and maintain good relations with MSPs?” and 26% (the second highest response) said ‘Personal Contact,’ 15% said ‘Regular Contact’ and 13% said ‘Maintain ongoing dialogue.’ This states it surveyed 73 MSPs (note only 17 have entries in the Register) from the September 3 to November 6. Interviews were conducted face-to-face. The MSPs are named except for three who wished to remain anonymous.[33]

Using the results of the survey Ipsos MORI then provide confidential reporting and recommendations to their clients which includes: overall Scottish Parliament results, Government and opposition results, individual party results, trend and comparative data, selected committees/spokespersons results, client-identified ‘key MPSs’ group results, transcripts from open-ended questions and Ipsos MORI’s interpretation of key results.[34] Clients can buy as many or as few questions on the survey as they wish, including ‘complex, issue-specific questions.’[35] Concerning these core questions, the results are confidential as with client-specific questions.[36] Background questions focus on how ‘to develop and maintain relations with MSPs.’[37] The clients for Ipsos MORI include: Atkins, ASCO, Diageo Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group and Standard Life.[38] They state that:

For projects requiring specialist knowledge of particular areas, we often collaborate with academic experts. Most recently, we have worked with researchers from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow, the University of Stirling and the University of Strathclyde.[39]

Ipsos MORI state that as far as this wider survey goes, MSPs are unaware of the client’s identities and also state that their opinions are ‘unattributable.’[40] That would seem contradicted by the provision of transcripts and the option of confidentiality, the targeting of ‘selected committees/spokespersons results’, and with ‘Client-identified ‘key MPSs’group results.’  They also say that:

Ipsos MORI understands the attitudes and opinions of elites whose views affect your company […] our interviews amongst politicians, journalists and business leaders are conducted face-to-face allowing us to collect valuable and actionable verbatim commentary.[41]

Yet for MSPs this is not lobbying.

MORI Scotland also conduct an annual survey of MSPs, to find out how MSPs prefer to receive and access information, what they read. The survey is said to form an important benchmark for business and organisations who want to monitor the effectiveness of their communications with the Scottish Parliament.[42] The MORI survey results are that the MSPs read: The Herald 76%; Scotland on Sunday 73%; Holyrood Magazine 58%; Good Morning Scotland 87%; Newsnight Scotland 90%; Holyrood 62%; http://www.news.bbc.co.uk 65%.[43] If a company targets these areas they begin a process of positive feedback.

Returning to the survey/lobby system itself.  What if one party was using this system to gain information about another, or one individual was at work here, or a foreign power or investigative journalist; why do MSPs seem to have no desire to establish whether a company wished to influence the MSP’s decision on a particular committee?  Should not the establishment of who was behind the survey (it is clear to the MSP that a client was behind it) be a concern; should not the purposes to which the mystery client might put this information to and how it might affect them also be a consideration?  Not if MSPs knew this to be lobbying.

These annual surveys are remunerated as we have seen from the register of interests.[44] Its purpose is to be used by business who buy questions, the price of a question on the ComRes MPs panel includes help with designing the question, as they state:

Seven times a year ComRes sends a postal questionnaire to MPs who have pre-agreed to take part in our surveys.  Our clients commission questions on these surveys for a flat fee of £995 per question unit.  These questions include up to four statements and take many forms. Popular types of question include “To what extent do you think that…” or “How effective or otherwise are…” or “What kind of contact, if any, do you remember having with…”

ComRes guarantees that 150 MPs will return a completed survey each time thepanel is run. These MPs are representative of all political groups and regions in Parliament. ComRes can weight the data to make sure that they give a truly representative picture of views in Parliament.

We offer a full service package; this means that the price of a question on the ComRes MPs panel includes help with designing the question, and a full analytical report which explains the results in context. All results are available 5 weeks after fieldwork begins. [45]

Again, that is problematic in terms of the accuracy of the Register of Interest, which is beginning to look like it presents a very distorted view of what is taking place.  And we also have the prospect of £52,500 being paid here (if it is £50 per MSP as would seem to be the case) which may well be unaccounted for along with other substantial sums whose amounts the public would be left guessing at should they wish to enquire.

Note too that ComRes claim they can guarantee 150 MSPs, so we have a regular relationship here, they are effectively on a retainer, and we do not know what other perquisites and emoluments might be grist for the mill and regarded as a special right or privilege enjoyed as a result of one’s position.  And we must also see this in context, how it is normalised, made perfunctory, a part of bureaucracy.

How much money the survey companies are making out of this is another matter.  Why they are being allowed to farm MSPs like this without public assent another too.  Do they pay a fee (an access tax) to the public for this privilege?  Would the public be offered such widespread and intimate access if we offer to pay?

In IPSOS’ client testimonials, which provide feedback received from clients about the efficacy of the MSPs survey, one assesses their performance as:

Flexible: Especially since we had specific objectives that were dovetailed in […] Overall, they managed to create the illusion that we were the only client Ipsos MORI were working for on this project.[46]

That means the survey also created the illusion that other companies were not part of the survey and creating such illusions are not a feature of a normal survey and neither are many of the other features we have identified.

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[1] Previous surveys such as the Ipsos MORI, ‘Members Of The Scottish Parliament Annual Survey’ date back to 1999, see: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/poll.aspx?oItemId=918

[2] Ipsos MORI’s 2009Annual survey of Members of the Scottish Parliament, comprises hour-long face-to-face interviews with over 60 MSPs, see: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/specareas/government.aspx

[3] Theoretically, given the intimate contacts with the Conservative Party of several of the polling companies, we could make the assumption that the reason that no attempt was made to contact Conservatives was that their opinion could be assessed by other means—most likely within the Party.

[4] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/keith_brown/roi.htm

[5] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/apps2/msp/msphome/default.aspx#A

[6] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/apps2/msp/msphome/default.aspx#A

[7] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/james_kelly/roi.htm

[8] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/johann_lamont/roi.htm

[9] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/marilyn_livingstone/roi.htm

[10] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/michael_mcmahon/roi.htm

[11] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/david_whitton/roi.htm

[12] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/ian_mckee/roi.htm

[13] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/david_whitton/roi.htm

[14] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/rhoda_grant/roi.htm

[15] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/iain_gray/roi.htm

[16] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/george_foulkes/roi.htm

[17] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldreg/reg09.htm

[18] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1130012/The-noble-Lords-special-interests.html

[19] The Sunday Herald, 2009, September 6.

[20] Several of these types of companies are engaged in publications of some sort, which includes writing by various MPs, see: http://www.govnet.co.uk/publications/moderngov/contributors .

[21] http://www.heraldscotland.com/foulkes-claimed-pound-45-000-to-stay-in-own-london-flat-1.828695

[22] Scotsman, 2009, 31 December  http://news.scotsman.com/edinburgh/Scottish-Parliament-bails-out-business.5948784.jp

[23] The range and variation is also notable with Jackie Baillie’s explanation being possibly the most confusing and arguably evasive.

[24] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/ian_mckee/roi.htm

[25] http://www.comres.co.uk/resources/3/Devolution%20to%20Independence%20Paper%20Nov%2008.pdf

[26] Members of the UK Parliament seem also to receive payment for panel surveys see: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmregmem/091125/memi17.htm

[27] http://www.comres.co.uk/resources/3/Devolution%20to%20Independence%20Paper%20Nov%2008.pdf see p. 11.

[28] http://www.comres.co.uk/political_reputational.aspx

[29] http://www.comres.co.uk/political_reputational.aspx

[30] http://www.stratagem-ni.com/about.aspx

[31] http://www.stratagem-ni.com/people_specific.aspx?dataid=355065 Strategem also work with PoliticsDirect in London and Newsdirect in Edinburgh, see: http://www.stratagem-ni.com/our-values.aspx?dataid=355898 .  Several of Strategem’s staff are members of Common Purpose.

[32] http://www.comres.co.uk/resources/3/Devolution%20to%20Independence%20Paper%20Nov%2008.pdf

[33] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/scotland-msps-survey-2009-maintaining-relations-with-MSPs.pdf

[34] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/specareas/mspssurvey/analysisandreporting.aspx

[35] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/specareas/mspssurvey.aspx

[36] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/specareas/mspssurvey/surveycontent.aspx

[37] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/specareas/mspssurvey/surveycontent.aspx

[38] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/ourclients.aspx

[39] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/ourclients.aspx

[40] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/specareas/mspssurvey.aspx

[41] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchspecialisms/reputationresearch/kit.aspx See also: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/RepCenKey-Influencer-Tracking-Timetable-2010.pdf

[42] See: Members Of The Scottish Parliament Annual Survey, Published: 13 February 2004

http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/poll.aspx?oItemId=918

[43] See: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Archive/Polls/msp.pdf

[44] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msp/membersPages/ian_mckee/roi.htm

[45] http://www.comres.co.uk/resources/3/THE%20COMRES%20MPs%20PANEL%20EXPLAINED.pdf

[46] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/offices/scotland/specareas/mspssurvey/whatclientssay.aspx#

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