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By ANNABELLE DICKSON
with Matt Honeycombe-Foster
STAND-IN: Happy Thursday and welcome back to London Influence. I’m Annabelle Dickson and I’ll be bringing you the latest from the world of campaigning, lobbying and political influence for the next few weeks while Matt Honeycombe-Foster is on leave. Please send along your tips, tales, traumas to @newsannabelle or [email protected] | View in your browser
— What next for the ethics report everybody’s talking about?
— MPs park a standards ruling on former Tory Cabinet minister Owen Paterson, vote through plans to overhaul the standards system before a government U-turn seemingly shelves the whole thing.
— Who was Alok Sharma meeting in the run-up to COP26?
STANDARDS AND SANCTIONS: It’s been another big week on the ethics beat. The Committee on Standards in Public Life — which advises the prime minister on ethical standards — published its long-awaited review Monday, the biggest of its kind in years. It paints a bleak picture. The standards system is suffering from an over-dependence on convention, which has been ignored at times. When it comes to lobbying, transparency is poor, it concludes.
And yet: Just days after the committee said reform is needed to “restore public confidence in the regulation of ethical standards in government,” Conservative MPs dramatically parked a 30-day suspension handed to their colleague Owen Paterson for committing serious breaches of the rules on paid advocacy and voted to overhaul the current system of investigating breaches by MPs.
Caveat: Not everybody is happy, including many on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own benches. The proposal was approved, but with a majority of just 18 after 13 Conservative MPs voted against the proposal and many more abstained. The government were greeted by a furious backlash to the plans in Thursday’s newspapers, including an outraged front page splash from the normally somewhat supportive Daily Mail.
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Before in somewhat predictable news … The government U-turned on the proposals Thursday morning less than 24 hours later, astonishing both opposition politicians and Influence writers on a tight deadline. Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told parliament there was a “strong feeling” any change to the standards process “should not be based on a single case” and that the government would come back to MPs with new plans after consulting other parties. According to the BBC another vote will also take place on Paterson’s suspension.
Awkward I: The U-turn came just hours after Cabinet minister Kwasi Kwarteng’s broadcast round, where he defended the government’s proposals and said they were about “getting a system of fairness back into” politics. He denied feeling any “shame.”
Awkward II: Paterson went on a victory lap Wednesday night after MPs voted to park his suspension, telling Sky News he would not hesitate to lobby ministers and officials in exactly the same way tomorrow. What happens to Paterson is one of the big questions still hanging over the affair after the government’s U-turn.
The detail on those proposals: The plan was for a new nine-member committee (five Tory, four opposition) to be formed to consider whether the parliamentary watchdog should give MPs what its architects claim would be “the same or similar rights as apply to those subject to investigations of alleged misconduct in other workplaces and professions.” Former Tory Culture Secretary John Whittingdale was lined up to chair the committee. The proposal quickly fell apart when both the Labour and SNP opposition parties said they wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Leader Keir Starmer described it as a “complete and utter sham process” in the Guardian this morning. The stink caused by the seemingly now-shelved plans is likely to linger — this story is not going away anytime soon.
Recap: Last week Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone found that Paterson, who had outside jobs working for diagnostics firm Randox and meat supplier Lynn’s Country Foods, had approached ministers and the Food Standards Agency on behalf of the companies, and concluded Paterson’s emails could have gained benefits for the firms. Parliament’s committee on standards, which is comprised of cross party MPs and lay members, had accepted Stone’s findings and recommended that Paterson should be suspended from the Commons for 30 days.
Case for the defense: Paterson, whose wife Rose took her own life in June 2020, strongly denies wrongdoing and claims his approaches to ministers and the Food Standards Agency were not to benefit the companies but to raise serious public health issues. Paterson also says the investigation against him was flawed and that Stone refused to interview witnesses who would have helped his defense. He says the ordeal was a major factor that drove his wife to suicide.
A period of scandal: The government’s handling of cases like Paterson has prompted particular interest in this week’s Upholding Standards in Public Life report, which was led by former head of the British Security Service Jonathan Evans. The Paterson case is just one of a long line of controversies, even since the report was launched in September 2020. These include allegations of bullying against Home Secretary Priti Patel, the Greensill lobbying scandal involving former Prime Minister David Cameron, the Downing Street wallpaper-gate furor, the NHS contract awarded to the sister of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock … to name just a few.
So what does it suggest? The report mainly focuses on government, rather than parliament. It essentially wants the ministerial code to be policed more independently to keep up with similar arrangements for MPs, peers and civil servants. It wants the scope of post-government business appointment rules to be expanded, and to be legally enforced, with the Commissioner for Public Appointments given more power.
How to deal with rule-breakers: It has some thoughts on sanctions, too. Rule-breaking former ministers and officials, who breach business appointment rules, could be stripped of some of their pensions. While the range of sanctions for existing ministers who break rules should include apologies, fines and asking for a resignation.
Good news for Influence: To improve lobbying transparency, the report suggests an accessible, centrally managed and searchable database of departmental transparency releases, with a “sufficient level of detail” on the subject matter of all lobbying meetings, published monthly rather than quarterly. Amen to that.
Why this matters: Polling and focus group research carried out for the review show the public thinks MPs and ministers have poor ethical standards. Four in 10 of those polled rated the standards of conduct of ministers as quite low or very low, compared to just a quarter who viewed standards as quite high or very high. MPs ranked even lower, with just 20 percent taking a positive view of them and 44 percent a negative view.
Sleazy: “Different current and former politicians were immediately associated with the word “sleaze,” including Matt Hancock, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, with a feeling for some that these politicians do not possess the core values expected from political leaders,” accompanying research on public perceptions by Deltapoll found.
What industry thinks: Chartered Institute of Public Relations Chief Executive Alastair McCapra said the review provided a “welcome, joined-up view on how government should approach ethical rules and standards.” Anything less than a public proposal from the government about how they will implement the changes would be “unsatisfactory,” he said.
And more: Public Relations and Communications Association Director General Francis Ingham also wants the government to accept the report’s recommendations. “This heavyweight report is a damning indictment of the government’s continued indifference towards the mess that is the Lobbying Act introduced by David Cameron in 2014,” he said. “We agree entirely with its assessment that it is ‘unfit for purpose’ — a view we have made clear for approaching a decade.”
Will they listen? A Cabinet Office spokesman said they would “carefully consider” the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, alongside the recommendations made by Nigel Boardman and other forthcoming reports on similar themes. The spokesman gave Influence the dreaded “due course” response on how long this might take. At the time of the Boardman report, Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith promised a “substantive government policy statement.”
Boardman recap: Nigel Boardman’s report into the Greensill affair published its recommendations in September. He said former U.K. government ministers or senior civil servants engaged in lobbying should be formally required to register as consultant lobbyists, with post-employment restrictions made legally binding.
But but but: Asked about the Evans recommendation that the prime minister’s independent adviser should be able to instigate investigations into potential breaches of the Ministerial Code, the PM’s spokesman highlighted a letter previously sent by the PM to Evans, which he said “sets out our position clearly, that as the ultimate arbiter of the code … the prime minister believes it rightly remains for the prime minister to instruct on investigations.”
In his letter in April, Boris Johnson said: “I cannot and would not wish to abrogate the ultimate responsibility for deciding on an investigation into allegations concerning ministerial misconduct.” The Press Association wrote up the quotes.
What about the opposition? Labour still thinks the issue of ethics is fertile territory for them. The party’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner is back from compassionate leave and is planning a big intervention fleshing out more of what Labour would do this side of Christmas, a party official told Influence. While Rayner welcomed the report, she said she wants to overhaul the system and introduce an independent Integrity and Ethics Commission.
Not had enough? The Institute for Government is holding a whole day of discussions for real government ethics geeks today. Evans is top of the billing, but the conference will also hear from Chair of the Committees on Standards and Privileges Chris Bryant and Chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) Eric Pickles. Ethics Commissioner of the Canadian Parliament Mario Dion will give the debate an international perspective.
IMPORTANT THREAD: Christine Berry, who was due to take over as director of IPPR North, has bravely decided to step back from the job after suffering from burnout, anxiety and depression since July. She shares her thoughts in this must-read thread. IPPR North will now be looking for a new director.
NEW RESEARCH GROUP KLAXON: Strong story from the Birmingham Mail’s Jonathan Walker and Rhi Storer who reveal that West Midlands Conservative MPs are planning a new Northern Research Group-style lobby group of their own in a bid to ensure the region doesn’t get left out of the ‘leveling up’ debate. One name being considered is West Midlands Innovation, and the MPs are hoping to get it off the ground in time for the leveling up white paper due later this year.
CONTRACTS WATCH: PA Consulting bagged £282,300 for three months of work to assess privacy standards on the Test and Trace program … Mac Clinical Research Finance will get just shy of £4 million to run Test and Trace “service evaluations” … and Deloitte will be paid £4.7 million to provide consultants assessing a new COVID-19 testing product.
COP SOME ALOK: As world leaders meet in Glasgow for the climate summit, Influence has trawled more Cabinet Office transparency documents to see who got face time with the man in charge — COP26 President Alok Sharma. The ever transparent Cabinet Office has only got as far as publishing his meetings to June.
A lot of face time: Sharma submitted details of 126 meetings in the six months to June. Many of them involved multiple organizations and individuals. From civil society groups to charities, climate campaigners to big business and even faith leaders, he has heard views from a broad range of voices. Here is a flavor of what he’s been up to.
Big business: Some big names in business have had time with Sharma — both in the U.K. and on his very extensive travels. Among them Hitachi (which discussed COP priorities and opportunities with him alongside the Japanese government); India’s Dalmia Cement, Brazil’s biggest paper producer and recycler Klabin, and materials and chemical company Solvay.
Energy giants: He also spent time with some big energy companies in the run-up to the summit, including Scottish & Southern Energy in March and May (it is a major partner of the summit), state-owned Qatar Petroleum (now Qatar Energy) in March, and EDF was invited to a roundtable in May.
Financiers: Big banks, both commercial and development, have also been talking to Sharma. These include the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, the Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank and Bank of America, HSBC, Allianz Bank, NatWest and Citi Group.
Charity sector: It wasn’t all big business meetings. Some big names in the charity world, including the World Wildlife Fund, got time with Sharma.
Putin their oar in: Russian President Vladimir Putin might not have made it to Glasgow this week, but his business leaders got to bend Sharma’s ear in the buildup. The Russo-British Chamber of Commerce saw Sharma in June.
Limbering up: Sharma recorded a “workshop on negotiations strategy ahead of COP26” with the Centre for Multilateral Negotiations (Cemune) also in June — 16 months into the job and just over four months before the summit.
Divine intervention: Not your usual lobbyists, but a raft of religious leaders got to give Sharma their two pennyworth in April. Sharma met an episcopacy of bishops, the Chief Rabbi and representatives from the Quaker faith, the UK Buddhist Society, the Methodist Church in Great Britain, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Lutheran Church in Great Britain and the Al-Khoei Institute.
Celeb watch: Meetings with former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger’s institute feature strongly. Sharma held talks in March and April as he tried to tap into Schwarzenegger’s high profile to influence the U.S. conversation. It culminated in a web interview in which Schwarzenegger told him nobody knew what COP26 stood for. Sharma also met political celeb, the former White House Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton, John Podesta in January.
Agency mentions: Portland, Finsbury and Teneo all organized business events with Sharma. The Cabinet Office included a cast list for Portland’s May event which included Uber, Heathrow, Mitie, Southern Water, Biffa ,Fidelity International, Associated British Ports, Diageo, Johnson Matthey, Porterbrook and O2.
Campaign corner: The vocal Glasgow Calls out Polluters — a campaign group calling for the big climate polluters to be excluded from the 2021 U.N. climate talks — got to meet Sharma in June. They are still not convinced with Sharma’s response to their campaign.
Think tank land: Denmark’s Green think tank CONCITO and the Energy and Resources Institute of India were among a raft of organizations which got to put their policy ideas to the COP26 president ahead of the Glasgow summit.
Media matters: The Cabinet Office has recorded an intriguing meeting between Sharma and Hugo Dixon, a business journalist and old school friend of Boris Johnson, in January. Sharma also met Bloomberg to “discuss Bloomberg and COP26” in January. His Outrage and Optimism podcast appearance with former U.N. Chief Christiana Figueres, of Paris Agreement fame, was recorded for March.
Booty: The gifts disclosures also make for interesting reading. Sharma was given a £236 silk jacket by Japan’s environment minister, which he clearly liked so much he forked out to keep it. He gave the Japanese prime minister a £220 blanket — a nice idea given we are all meant to be reducing our energy consumption. A £165 pair of cufflinks from the French ecology minister got left in the department and a £190 hamper from the Qatari Embassy was used for hospitality.
ON THE MOVE
Former business and education minister Chris Skidmore has been cleared to take up a paid senior advisory role with Public Policy Projects (PPP). The job will have a “heavy international focus,” according to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which imposed the usual restrictions on lobbying old colleagues.
More post-government commissions for ex-No.10 comms chief Lee Cain’s new outfit Charlesbye. He’ll be doing work for Orcadian Energy and the Premier League, according to ACOBA releases.
Adam Short has joined Portland as a health partner from Weber Shandwick.
Johnny Shilton is joining the British Transport Police as head of external affairs.
Promotions for Hanbury’s Iain Carter, a former CCHQ political director, and Emily Fermor, former media manager for Jo Swinson’s leadership campaign. They have both been made partners.
Freddie Martyn is moving on up to serve as POLITICO Europe‘s marketing director.
Jobs jobs jobs: Agency SEC Newgate is looking for a capital markets associate director … The City of London Corporation needs a strategic relationships manager … Schools inspector Ofsted‘s on the hunt for a head of external affairs … Tory HQ wants a digital content manager … The Adam Smith Institute is searching for a head of communications … The Centre for Policy Studies is recruiting for a communications manager … The National Academy for Social Prescribing has a few comms roles posted here … NHBC is looking for a government and policy adviser.
Events horizon: Lobby group TechUK‘s government-focused Cyber Security and Data Protection Summit kicks off on November 10 at 9 a.m. … Think tank Bright Blue asks whether hydrogen’s all it’s cracked up to be, November 9, 11 a.m. … Onward digs into populism with authors Eric Protzer and Paul Summerville plus ex-No.10 chief of staff Nick Timothy, November 16, 9 a.m. … the Electoral Reform Society is hosting Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, with authors Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones on Tuesday at 6 p.m …
Thanks: To Ian Geoghegan for making sure I dotted the is and crossed the ts in this newsletter, and to Matt Honeycombe-Foster for his wisdom during our transition period.
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