‘Satan’s Little Helpers’ (9) GovNet — Parliament

GovNet, mentioned earlier, has an advisory board of MPs (most of whom are preparing to leave Parliament) including George Foulkes, the (2005) Shadow secretary of state for Scotland; Eleanor Laing;[1] John Smith’s former PPS and former chief whip, Hilary Armstrong; Archy Kirkwood (Baron Kirkwood of Kirkhope) also famous for his expenses claims such as £94 for a lavatory paper holder[2] and Sir Robert Worcester — the Founder of MORI (Market & Opinion Research International), and chairman of the advisory board of Ipsos Public Affairs Worldwide.

Worcester’s and MORI’s contractual relationship with the Labour party goes back to the 1960s and is usually associated with their frequent changes of image.  The party started commissioning polls from Worcester in 1970 and he was formally employed by Labour’s National Executive Committee.[3]

GovNet publish a range of magazines on Defence, Criminal Justice and government, with a decidedly insider feel about them (contributors of ModernGov include Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband, Ed Balls, Peter Mandleson etc.);[4] they also organise events which offer access to “high-profile leaders and policy-makers who act as our speakers;”[5] they offer ‘training’ which aims to deliver “an understanding of the workings of Government, Parliament and the wider Civil Service,”[6] and offer inside information on “the mechanisms of government at all levels” and a “knowledge of the workings of Parliament and the Parliamentary process” and “the mechanisms of the various sectors and future policy direction” via a “Network with high-profile speakers, trainers and fellow delegates.”[7] Another aspect of its operation is ‘Inside Government’ (the same advisory board) which offers “information-led, exclusive forums covering topical, current government issues.” Designed for those working in the public, private and third sectors, this gives policy briefings by “key government representatives the opportunity to discuss critical issues in an environment intended to foster discussion, debate and information-sharing.”[8]

The website states that for their ModernGov magazine “Our audience of top public sector officials includes key decision-makers and budget-holders from project to policy level.”  In the training section[9] there is a link to Buying Solutions,[10] which states that it is “the national procurement partner for UK public services,” part of the out-sourcing of the Office of Government Commerce, this is where GovNet’s clients are led.

A simple observation to make is that the mélange of consultancies, lobbyists, pollsters and MPs openly tout for business.  But it may need to be pointed out to anyone visiting GovNet’s website that this is an outside private business and not part of government — the defence would probably be along the lines of they are rather like someone borrowing chess pieces to play a different game: but the advisory board earn money from selling inside information.  Another similar aspect of Hilary Armstrong’s role on GovNet was used by The Sunday Times (February 24, 2008) in a report titled ‘Ex-ministers cash in on days of power,’ which noted that 28 former Labour ministers had “cashed in on their connections in government and Whitehall by taking jobs in the private sector.”  An estimated 13 of those who have accepted jobs are said to be still serving MPs.  But the article contains no explanation of what GovNet Communications does, it is merely said to be a “publisher”, nor are its connections to ‘Buying Solutions’ outlined.[11]

When Greg Palast’s work exposing how integral lobbying was to New Labour in 1998, a small part of this involved Armstrong, then the Local Government Minister, who walked out of a meeting with journalists as Palast’s revelations reached a local government conference in Bournemouth. A BBC correspondent asked Armstrong about the Local Government Association (LGA) employing lobbyist Ben Lucas and suggested that Lucas had told the association that “he would be able to get hold a copy of the forthcoming White Paper on local government before publication.”  Armstrong said: “No one other than you from the BBC has suggested that anyone from the government has been involved in deals […] It is a slur, it is outrageous. It is not true. I do deals with no one and I have been straight with delegates here.” According to the BBC report, it then emerged that the LGA were to meet to discuss the future of Lucas, a director of lobbyist company LLM, who they had employed on a six-month contract.[12]

In relation to this, Armstrong is also quoted in the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s, analysis of the government’s proposed reforms to the Local Government Bill.  Here the provisions on advance access to reports relating to forthcoming decisions of individual executive members are argued to be weak. Executives may frequently discuss forthcoming decisions which are delegated to individual members or officers.  No decision-making meeting — to which the public would have access  — would ever take place. According to the minister, an executive may:

…meet as a group of executive members, each of whom will have personal responsibility for an area of decision taking.

Such meetings would apparently be private under the draft regulations.[13] In her statement that: “Committee meetings may be open to the public, but too often that is not where real decisions are made,” we begin to gain a fuller picture of how democracy works to exclude the public and that in the case of the MPs who make up GovNet it is made to work by including the lobbyists.

Indeed Armstrong’s role in government/business was mentioned in the Public Administration Committee’s (January 2008) deliberations on ‘Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall,’ which of course notes that “Lobbying activity in the United Kingdom is subject to no specific external regulation.”[14] This also noted:

The main difference between the CIPR [Chartered Institute of Public Relations] Code and the Codes of the APPC [Association of Professional Political Consultants] and PRCA [Public Relations Consultants Association] is that the former does not require the public disclosure of clients’ names, while the latter do. This issue is at the heart of debate within the lobbying world about the appropriate limits to transparency and the extent to which lobbyists have a duty to inform the wider public about their activities.

The importance of duty and codes of practice have a tendency to be offset by levels of cognitive dissonance proportional to the sums of money and methods of facilitation undertaken in the lobbying world.  Although the industry is quite forthcoming in its work for charity, as the Committee’s report noted: for those who use public affairs firms outside both the APPC and the PRCA, a client’s right to privacy was paramount, and if they do not wish to be named in public they will not be. APPC and PRCA members (which are consultancies) are also required not to “employ any MP, MEP, sitting Peer or any member of the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly of Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Greater London Assembly.”  But former members, spouses and so on are out with these codes, as, presumably is the ‘employment’ of MPs and so on via a survey.  The elasticity here included that while MPs are forbidden from acting “as the representative of [an] outside body in regard to any matters to be transacted in Parliament” and from making “any approach … to Ministers or servants of the Crown” in return for money or other benefits.  This does not prevent Members from offering paid advice to outside bodies, as parliamentary advisers, or from representing their interests outside Parliament and Government.  To add to the complexity, the Committee noted:

The central problem is that the three umbrella groups have an in-built conflict of interest, in that they attempt to act both as trade associations for the lobbyists themselves and as the regulators of their members’ behaviour. The conditions are not currently in place for genuinely effective self-regulation of lobbying activity by those who carry out this activity. [emphasis in the original]

I will now turn to my concluding remarks.


[1] Laing was caught up in the expenses row and paid back £25,000 while claiming to have done nothing wrong, oddly she requested that the money be donated to charity: see http://www.eleanorlaing.com/12102009_expenses_statement The Times noted that she avoided “a £180,000 capital gains tax bill on the sale of two Westminster flats in 2008.”  See: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6875270.ece

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5431827/MPs-expenses-Lord-Kirkwood-did-up-flat-on-expenses-then-sold-it-cheaply-to-daughter.html The report states that: “When he made the claims, Lord Kirkwood, then Sir Archy Kirkwood, sat on the House of Commons commission which was overseeing the first publication of basic details of MPs’ expenses. As the details were published in October 2004, he said that he welcomed the fact that “taxpayers can really see how their money is being spent.”

[3] Dennis Kavanagh (1982) ‘Election Campaigns and Opinion Polls: British Political parties and the use of Private Polls’, Parliamentary Affairs, XXXV: p. 267-281.

[4] http://www.govnet.co.uk/publications/moderngov/contributors

[5] http://www.govnet.co.uk/events/why-attend

[6] http://www.govnet.co.uk/training Speakers include Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale (now openly described as a MI6 agent, Sir Menzies Campbell, Stephen Pound, Michael Meacher, John McTernan with several others drawn from the Civil Service: http://www.moderngov.info/ speakers

[7] http://www.moderngov.info/courses

[8] http://www.moderngov.info/govnet

[9] http://www.govnet.co.uk/training

[10] http://www.buyingsolutions.gov.uk/aboutus/

[11] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3423486.ece A similar organisation to GovNet is the events organiser/publiser/lobbying business Neil Stewart Associates: see https://pinkindustry.wordpress.com/2007/12/03/charlie-burgess/

[12] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/128931.stm

[13] Local Government Bill Briefing for Report Stage  4 & 5 July 2000 Open Meetings, Access to Information and Disclosure Offences see: http://www.cfoi.org.uk/pdf/lgbreptbriefing.pdf

[14] http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/36/3606.htm See also: http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/36/36i.pdf


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