Examination of Witness (Questions 268-279)
MR MARK THOMAS
THURSDAY 18 APRIL 2002
268. Can I call the Committee to order and welcome our witness this morning. We are delighted to have you here. My note here describes you as a comedian and activist. You are uncovering things that people do not want to have uncovered, are you?
(Mr Thomas) On a good day, yes.
269. You have been very kind enough to give us some written material on some of the work which you have been doing that relates to the inquiry that we have on the whole patronage and public appointments area. We would like to ask you some questions about this but would you like to set the scene with a few words?
(Mr Thomas) First of all, thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you here. The report that we have given to you: I would like to explain how we came to do that work. It is really a snapshot that was taken as if a lay person had approached the public bodies and said, "We would like to know about the register of members' interests for your particular body." When we approached them, we would phone and ask them for information. Some of these bodies said they did not have a register. Some said they would have to look for it. Some said it was not around, they had left it on the bus or something. Some said they did not need one at all; some said, "We have one. Here it is." There was a whole range of different responses. In some cases, we did not get a register of interests so we had to compile one from the annual reports and from information from the public bodies' websites. We then went to Companies House, did a search on the people involved on those bodies, the members, to look at what directorships they had. We did not look at their shareholdings. We did not look at their partners' interests. These are two areas that we left to one side. We then compared and contrasted which directorships were excluded from the register of members' interests or from publically available information. What we have come up with are those discrepancies as are in the report. That report is not to say that those discrepancies represent any wrongdoing and it is not to say that they do not. It is merely is that these are registrations that are not mentioned. Over the next couple of weeks, in making the television show, we hope to follow up these discrepancies that we have found and to inquire further into them to find out why these directorships were not registered and if there are perceived conflicts of interest we hope to publish a second report which, if it is all right with you, we would like to hand over to you in the next couple of weeks. That is by way of saying that there may be one or two errors in the report. If we have had to go and look at things on a website, for example, it may be that there are sections of that website that we have missed. We have done as much as we could in the time we had. We looked at 50 public bodies. 45 were still functioning. Roughly on average, we found on each public body two or three people with incomplete declarations. That does not necessarily mean that they have committed any wrongdoing; it just means that there were other directorships which are not listed here. One that I would like to draw your attention to very briefly is the Medical Research Council. We made four phone calls to the Medical Research Council to try and get the register of members' interests. When we phoned up, we were greeted with, "Why do you want it? What do you want it for?" which is hardly a welcoming attitude. After the fourth phone call, we were eventually e-mailed a piece of paper where a press officer had culled the information that she had, cobbled it together and sent it over to us. It is incredibly incomplete. I phoned up and said, "It is Mark Thomas from Channel 4" and their attitude changed somewhat.
270. For better or worse?
(Mr Thomas) A bit of both. They did say, "We have a register of interests which we will send over to you. We will fax it over." What they faxed over were the forms that they had asked the members to fill in, which smacks to me of trying to cobble together a register of interests after they had produced this where there was hardly any information at all. We then went round to see them and very kindly the deputy chief executive said they would talk to us. It was a very interesting time because there are people on that committee who have not registered. Professor Fitzpatrick, for example, has not declared that he is a director of the BUPA Foundation. What was interesting here was that the deputy chief executive of the MRC, Nicholas Winterton, was saying he did not believe that was a perceived conflict of interest. I am sure you know you could go out there now onto the street and ask anyone, "Do you think that a directorship of a private medical foundation represents a conflicts of interest if you are working with the Medical Research Council?" The answer would be, "Yes." Yet he said it was not a perceived conflicts of interest. The same with ISIS, which is the research and technology development wing out of Oxford University. There were incredible examples of inconsistencies where Sir George Rada, the chief executive of the MRC, it was deemed, did not have to register his interests because he was a staff member and yet he is a board member as well. Any other board member has to register their interest but he is exempt for some reason. It failed to mention that he was employed by BTG and was paid £17,000 last year which is surely an interest. It failed to mention Sir Anthony Cleaver who is the chairman. The chairman has not only allowed these non-declarations to occur when the non-declarations here exceed over half of the committee; he is also on the Committee for Standards in Public Life. What is someone who is on the Committee for Standards in Public Life doing to allow this to happen? He has then compounded this by not registering many of his own interests. If you look at his register for the Committee for Standards in Public Life, it is completely different from the entries that he puts for the Medical Research Council. He does not mention his shareholdings. We know he has shareholdings. We know that he has at least £30,000-worth of shares in AEA. They are not mentioned here. It does not mention that he is a director of Bermuda Asset Management. The very name itself conjures up images of something offshore. When we inquired, we were told by Nicholas Winterton that this was a property group, an off the shelf company which Sir Anthony Cleaver was using for his freehold for his house, but if you go to Companies House there are no assets listed in Bermuda Asset Management. There is some very fishy stuff going on here. If you are saying that there is an asset and you are not declaring that asset in your declarations to Companies House, to my mind, that is illegal. That is breaking company law. There is a whole set of questions which come with just that one example of the Medical Research Council. There are discrepancies. There is no compulsion for people to be completely transparent. They interpret the guidelines to their own needs and whims. There is a complete disregard for the public. When I asked, "Why are not these things registered?" like the BUPA Foundation, I was told, "Well, we all know about it on the MRC. It is all okay." That is not good enough. This is about public accountability; it is about transparency; it is about perceived conflicts of interest. With all due respect to yourselves, these people can shape government policy. The people on these public bodies can steer and determine what is government policy which is often more power than many backbench MPs will have, and yet who are they accountable to? Where is the transparency? Where is the scrutiny on this? It is simply not here. If this mis-declaration had occurred within Parliament from MPs, this would be all over the front pages. People would be going hell for leather. It would make the Hinduja inquiry look relatively tame, I would suggest. That is how we approached the report we have given you. That is one of the examples that we found there. I think it illustrates the fact that, when it comes to accountability and transparency, public bodies are rotten to the core on this issue.
Sir Sydney Chapman
271. You mentioned Nicholas Winterton. In what context?
(Mr Thomas) He is the deputy chief executive of the Medical Research Council. It is not the same person.
272. There is a Nicholas Winterton who is an MP.
(Mr Thomas) I am aware of that. I did feel that if he was moonlighting on the MRC we should be aware of it, but he is okay.
273. As a matter of information, when you say "we", I know from reading you on the royal funeral that it is not a royal "we" we are talking about. Which is the "we"?
(Mr Thomas) It is myself and the team that work on the television show. We have people who are researchers and assistant producers who go to Companies House and get the information out, who compile directorships and put a report together as a team.
274. As you have been trawling through all this stuffand we are very glad that you have; it is good for us to have itis your conclusion from this that there needs to be a much better, tighter system for making sure that all this is out in a standard form so that everybody can see it? Who would do that?
(Mr Thomas) That is a conclusion. As to who would monitor whether public bodies had been open and transparent, that is a really important question because this Committee is looking at patronage and it is very important that any body that scrutinises the mechanisms of government avoids any conflict of interest or the potential of patronage itself. You have a very real sense of someone like Elizabeth Filkin, who people perceive was edged out of her job because she was doing it too well. The ability of MPs to appoint that person was something that was detrimental to that job being fulfilled. It is very important, when you look at who will monitor and scrutinise public bodies, that that body itself is not subject to patronage and pressure. Quite how you do that I am not entirely sure, to be honest with you. I tend to think that we have two potential methods open to us on how we select people from that body, if that is where you are heading with the question. We have direct elections or the possibility of drawing people's names out of a ballot. You could mix and match the pair of them. Anything that studiously avoided having political pressure brought upon it is the way we should be looking at this.
275. We have someone called the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie. Presumably, we could have a regime where if someone like you uncovered the fact that there was not proper registration going on according to the guidelines you could go to this Commissioner.
(Mr Thomas) No, you cannot.
276. We could devise a system so that you could go to that person and have that person see what is going on.
(Mr Thomas) As you are aware, if I went now with these complaints, she would not be able to examine them because the decisions here do not directly affect me and, to my understanding, that is the remit of Dame Rennie Fritchie. You could look at extending her powers and saying, "Yes, you can now examine the transparency and accountability", but we have a much bigger problem here. We have a really big problem. I am sure you are aware of it. It is about public trust in government and in government institutions. The people that I work with, people that I regard as my peers, are intelligent; they care passionately about a whole range of social issues. They are incredibly knowledgeable. They will go out of their way to find out information. They will set up alternative means of distributing information. They believe so much in human rights and individual rights of people within the environment that they are prepared to be arrested often for these issues. There is a real belief as well as knowledge here. People I regard as my peers, no offence, but they do not trust you. They do not want anything to do with you. They do not want anything to do with the government and if you extend the powers of a government body to investigate itself, as far as they are concerned, you are merely perpetuating that exclusion from the parliamentary, democratic process. You will perpetuate that feeling that they are not involved in this. It does not matter what happens here. It does not touch their lives in any real, tangible way. If you look at the back of the report, in the last few pages you can see the number of jobs and the types of jobs that people have. You are looking at a whole load of people here on the Committee on Standards in Public Life. You can look at the type of people here. This is no disrespect to them but they all come from a similar political class. They represent a ruling elite, if you like. They are members of the Bar; they are governors or codirectors of the Governors of Scotland Board; they are chairs of the Community Planning Task Force. You can read this list. The one thing that you do not have here is a member of the public, a person who forms the basis of political power, which is democracy, the corner stone, the very person who will vote. They have not been invited into groups like this but they are walking away from the parliamentary process and from democracy. That is a really big problem. If you just extend the powers of Dame Rennie Fritchie, you are not looking at how you tackle that particular part of the problem.
277. I am not entirely sure where this is leading us. If the argument goes that there is a problem but the solution would also be a problem, we seem to be going round in circles. If the system is so discredited from this approach and any attempt that you might make to make things better is by definition unworkable or undesirable, I wonder where we are going.
(Mr Thomas) That is not quite what I am saying, to be honest. What I am saying is that particular solution would throw up more problems. We have to try and be imaginative on this. We have to say, "Can we pull people's names out of a ballot and can they choose like they do for jury service?" Remember, the jury service often has very complex issues that people have to weigh up and analyse and they have to come to a conclusion. They will have people's lives in the balance in those decisions. Are we really saying that people are not capable of serving on committees like this? Are we really saying that they are not capable of forming part of a body that scrutinises these committees?
278. A few public bodies are beginning to experiment with selecting people in that way by lot and we have taken evidence from some people on that. I have to ask you if you are a current affairs programme. The reason for asking that is that if you say yes the tape of these proceedings can be used.
(Mr Thomas) Yes.
279. In the Budget yesterday, the Chancellor announced a big increase in spending on the National Health Service in the coming years, to be paid for out of direct taxation. He also announced that, in order to make sure that the money was spent effectively in order to improve the health service and make it work as it was meant to originally when it was founded by Bevan, there would be a body set up to monitor how the money was spent and whether it was being spent effectively. If you were in charge of setting up that body from scratch, choosing the people to go on it, monitoring their performance as well, if you were given that job, how would you go about it?
(Mr Thomas) What you have to do is balance up expertise with public involvement. That is the crucial thing here. Interestingly, what you need are some accountants who have committed fraud, because they know the ropes. You need to find people who know the loopholes to go in there and look for this stuff.