Examination of Witness (Questions 300-319)
MR MARK THOMAS
THURSDAY 18 APRIL 2002
300. I do not want to go over ground that we have already covered but given the extent of the alienation that is felt out there for this place and MPsyou keep reminding us in what low regard we are heldand given that you are not going to compel people to join public bodies in the way that people are compelled to have jury service, and given the fact that a lot of people just do not give a fig about the wider public interests and are concerned about their own particular position, how do we get new people to give up their time, even if we pay them?
(Mr Thomas) I disagree with you slightly when you say that people do not give a fig. I meet people who care very passionately a lot of the time. They might not be people who come into the orbit of Parliament but they are certainly out there. How do you engage with people? How do you get people involved in this process? The fundamental point is that you have to start by putting the building blocks of change in place so that these committees do not become an extension of people's CVs. They do not become the ladder to knighthoods and OBEs. They are not something that you clock up like brownie points to be the great and the good. There are lots of people who serve on a whole range of committees. They should only serve on one. If you have all these other jobs, surely one committee is enough? We can start by simple measures of limiting the number of committees that people are on. You can start with using the principle of getting people to draw names from lots literally and approaching people like that. It will only be through biting the bullet and saying, "We do risk a level of embarrassment"
301. What percentage of the adult population out there might willingly give up their time to do the kind of work that you are talking about? Are we talking about five per cent?
(Mr Thomas) If you are lucky, it will be five per cent.
302. It would be self-selected people, would it not, because there is no compulsion?
(Mr Thomas) It would not be self-selecting in the sense that it should be drawn out by lots.
303. People could refuse?
(Mr Thomas) They could refuse but it is self-selecting only at that end of it rather than from the beginning, which is what it seems to be here. If you are going to say, "We compel you to serve on a committee", you are up against some really dodgy stuff.
304. I am trying to figure out where your politics are coming from here. Are you in favour of direct action?
(Mr Thomas) Yes, absolutely. I am a director of the Illusu Dam Campaign.
305. There are no boundaries to direct action? You talked about the squatters in Brighton.
(Mr Thomas) Of course there are boundaries. Violence is a boundary.
306. We have one boundary but there are advisory committees on the planting of GM crops and so on. You would say, "Sod the committee. Let's just go and pull up the crops"?
(Mr Thomas) If people want to do that, I do not have a problem with it.
307. You said at the very beginning that there were discrepancies.
(Mr Thomas) Can I just return to that because you try to paint a picture here of people saying, "We ignore any due process", which is not the case. Is it not the case that due process has ignored people's wishes? People do not want these things. People have protested about the fact that GM crops are next to crops that could be contaminated by cross-pollenisation and this has not been taken into account. You cannot say that it is that one sided.
308. We all here believe in due process. What if due process comes forward with an answer that some people are not prepared to accept?
(Mr Thomas) I think that is entirely up to the people who
309. They go and pull up the crops.
(Mr Thomas) That is entirely up to the people in the way the powers and the process are being exercised. You know as well as I do we are talking about patronage here. You have studied this stuff. You have had people here; you have talked about it. You know how patronage works. You can have a committee and they can sit there and publish what would appear to be
310. I do not want to talk across you but I am going to. You are talking about getting people involved in a system, due process, and there has to be an outcome that everyone buys into and accepts. I am trying to establish that some people may not want to get involved because they think the whole process is tainted, the outcome is predetermined and they might as well go and do direct action.
(Mr Thomas) Unless you start to work on this stuff here, that will continue to happen. Unless you start to say, "We will get rid of this stuff. We will try and get people in who are representative of the public. We will not have the political class. We will not have the ruling elite just doing what they normally do. We will not have them collecting these committees like badges", you are going to be stuck with that constantly.
311. At the very beginning, you said that there were discrepancies in your report and I found some myself. It did not necessarily represent wrongdoing. Then you spoke about Anthony Cleaver and so on. Are there cases where there is clearly wrongdoing happening, not just inadvertence, not people forgetting to declare an interest, not putting an interest down because it is so widely known? It is in Who's Who? It has been reported on the television and what have you. I am talking about people who are on the make and on the take. Do you have evidence that this is almost systemic, because that is the implication from what you said.
(Mr Thomas) There are two parts to this answer. One is the fact that I hope to clarify those questions with the second report. When we have hopefully spent another week to two weeks on this and talked to people and said "Is there an explanation here", there may be very, very legitimate reasons why people's interests were not declared; there may not. Firstly, we hope to clarify that with the second report. Every now and again, as you will be aware, you get big post bags, you get people writing to you saying "I demand that you look at these things" and some of the things people demand that you look at are a little bit kind of off the beam and maybe are not worth looking at. I tend to think of things that have the word "masonic" and that kind of word in it where you have to put it to one side slightly. There are instances where people have written where I have followed it up. When we were working on the story with regard to Michael Meacher we did get evidence that there were other MPs involved in purchasing property who had not declared it. This evidence was from people who were involved in the property industry, in buying and selling. It was evidence that we took to Elizabeth Filkin and she said that she could not act upon it. There was an allegation made that a senior Labour minister did in fact have property off-shore and had not registered it. We asked if Elizabeth Filkin could investigate that, she said she did not have the power to do that. At that point we felt there was nothing we could do, we had exhausted all avenues of inquiry, other than breaking the law which we were not prepared to do, you will be happy to hear. Really at that point you have this incredible frustration because you have evidence that senior Labour people could be involved in property scandals and yet there is nothing that anyone can do to follow it up.
312. I was just going to say, what was in my mind really was wrongdoing in all these other advisory bodies. I am quite happy if MPs who are not declaring things they should for the press to publish this fact and so on. Everyone around this table would be totally relaxed about that.
(Mr Thomas) Good.
313. My question really was aimed at alleged wrongdoing by the people in bodies such as the Medical Research Council, you mentioned Anthony Cleaver, that sort of thing.
(Mr Thomas) You can see that there may not be per se breaches of the Nolan guidelines but I believe what you need is a mandatory set of guidelines that say "Do not just list what you think are going to be conflicts of interest, list everything and let the public make up their mind what is a conflict of interest". It is for our benefit that these lists are here, at least give us the benefit of the doubt and assume that we have got the intelligence to make up our own minds on this. It may be that companies like Bermuda Asset Management is fine, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, more than likely that is the case but you have those impressions that are left. It is those impressions that do as much damage as actual wrongdoing.
314. Okay. My final cheap parting shot, should journalists and media journalists declare an interest?
(Mr Thomas) Yes. I am quite happy to if you want.
(Mr Thomas) I have got £500 worth of shares in the Ethical Property Company. I am a director for the Ilisu Dam Campaign which is a company limited by guarantee and is a campaigning group. I am a director of Privacy International which is similar. I am a patron of Transform.
316. You are a busy man. You have got more than one job.
(Mr Thomas) I have got more than one job. I have a few shares also in companies like BAe Systems or Balfour Beatty, AMEC but they are one to four shares and they are mainly intended so I can get access to the annual general meetings and ask some questions.
317. One footnote question to Gordon. We need you to do the uncovering that you do and it is a shame that committees here are not doing it and all kinds of other people are not doing it as well. Just one question I want to ask you from listening to the exchange with Gordon just now. Does it occur to you at all that if a sub-text of a lot of this is basically people are on the make, basically there is all this sleaze out there which has to be identified, that people if they are not declaring these things on public bodies it is clearly because they are up to no good. MPs are a trail of slime. If the conclusion from that is "Oh, of course, people are pretty pissed off with politics, are they not", is it any wonder they are if people like you are going around feeding that stuff all the time?
(Mr Thomas) I hesitate to use the phrase "don't shoot the messenger" but the people that I work with and the people that are my friends really do not need me to tell them this stuff. Often it is the case that they are telling me things. What is important here, and what we have talked about, is the perception, it is about being seen. It is not just being whiter than white, it is being seen to be whiter than white, I forget who said that. That is what is important. If the committees are not seen to be whiter than white then they will be judged as covering things up, they will be judged as potentially committing wrongdoing and being on the make. To an extent I think you can say that there are people on the make, there are people who use these committees to advance their own career and social advancement, they do, quite simply. Whether there is actual corruption on it, I do not know. The point is if you do not come forward and say "We are going to be completely open" then you will always be open to those charges.
318. I just want to know if part of you thinks that you might just, in the tone that you adopt, be contributing to the problem that you say you want to solve?
(Mr Thomas) Part of what I write is about reflecting not just what I feel but the people that I know feel so in that respect I regard some of it as being representative. Basically you are saying is what I write and what I say inflaming the situation and creating the impression that MPs and public bodies are on the make, does part of me feel that, no I do not feel that at all. I do not feel that the public have enough access to power and I do not think that they have enough access to scrutiny, to see that things are done fairly. Anything that can be done to urge that forward I think is sensible.
Chairman: Okay. Thanks. Brian.
319. One of the reasons that you were asked to come here is you are not one of the usual suspects although I suspect, given your performance this morning, you might become one of them.
(Mr Thomas) Oh dear. I am sorry to hear that.