Examination of Witness (Questions 320-339)
MR MARK THOMAS
THURSDAY 18 APRIL 2002
320. Do you think the Nolan Rules are actually working and if they should be reformed, in what way would you like to see them reformed?
(Mr Thomas) The rules should be very clear. It needs to be mandatory. The rules need to not just list potential conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest but should be completely open. They should mention shareholdings, they should mention partners' interests.
Just returning to that issue, if you look at Lucianne Sawyer, Michael Meacher's wife, she is actually involved on one of the committees and she does not list her spouse's interest. Now she should list it. You could say "Maybe it is because there is a culture where this is not the case and where it is just accepted you do not have to do this" or maybe there is something that says "Well, let us not put down property interests because it will only inflame the situation" but those are things that need to be looked at about enforcing people to put down the shares, the property interests, they need to put down their directorships, it all needs to be out there, that is the point. You cannot have this ad hoc basis. We came across four bodiesthe Advisory Committee on Consumer Products and the Environment, the Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment, the Competition Commission and the MRCwhich effectively had no registers of interests. The Competition Commission was very interesting because once again we were in a position where we had to make quite a few phone calls to try to find out. On March 27 we were told "We do not know where the register is, it is somewhere". On April 3 we were told "We are in the process of putting one together". Yesterday I was told "We do not need one". I find it incredible that the Competition Commission thinks that it does not need a register of members' interests. Now today I find that we are actually being threatened with legal action from the Competition Commission. They have actually written some rather fearsome letters to us. I find that attitude general which says "it is an ad hoc thing" which was another phrase we came across, "it is ad hoc, we investigate these things as they come up", it is simply not good enough. I think what you need to do is to look again at making these things compulsory and making them fully transparent.
321. What about the rules for getting people on to the list from which people are appointed?
(Mr Thomas) The rules to get people on to the list?
322. And then from that these people are selected on to the various bodies.
(Mr Thomas) Once again it comes down to the fact that people should not be able to serve on more than one committee. It seems to me that if public service is your intent then part of that public service has to be to encourage democratic participation. For that it means you should cut down your workload and let other people have a go. I am really a believer in this idea of bringing people in by ballot. We have a National Lottery machine and the balls, they are all ready, we could borrow it. We could select people quite easily. I would think that it is through the fundamental changes that you are going to get rid of any potential wrongdoing and also get rid of the perceived notion of this.
323. You would have a central list where people write in and say they want to be on there and you do it purely the way we do jury list by random selection?
(Mr Thomas) I think you do need to find a way to get the relevant expertise on the committee, I think that is quite important. To that extent, a central list might be beneficial for that.
324. My understanding, there are about nine people in the Cabinet Office who sit and maintain a hard copy register of people who want to be on various bodies and most of those people will get nowhere because they are not one of us.
(Mr Thomas) Yes.
325. Is not the danger of what you are suggesting that we will create another bureaucracy which may look open but actually still appoints the same people?
(Mr Thomas) There is a danger there, you are absolutely right, but surely part of that is redressed if you can get the chair people before Select Committees. If you have the power to say "no" to someone, if you could say "No, we do not want you, you are the wrong person for the job. You have been put there for the wrong reason" that is quite a lot of power, is it not? Surely that would add part of that redress to the idea that the list will just perpetuate this.
326. One of the things which came up recently was I think it was Norman Warner who was everybody's choice to be the next Chair of the Audit Commission and then people, Brian Gibbs and the LGA, objected. I will not mention which party it was. The LGA objected to it. Because of his backgroundhaving been open about being a special adviser, being a Labour peerhe was turned down because the Government felt as somebody had objected they could not then proceed with that. So a perfectly good candidate for the Audit Commission's Chair was not appointed because of this assumption "Somebody has objected therefore there must be something wrong". Does that not actually cause as much of a problem as the kind of things you have identified?
(Mr Thomas) I am trying to remember the exact incident. Could you tell me the gentleman's name again?
327. Lord Warner.
(Mr Thomas) That is right. He was connected with the Home Office, was he not?
328. That is right. He was Jack Straw's special advisor.
(Mr Thomas) That is right. Just out of interest, the remuneration is quite a lot because he sits on another committee, does he not?
329. He went on to head the Youth Justice Board.
(Mr Thomas) That is right. I am trying to get my own thoughts in order on this.
330. The point I am trying to make is that it is very easy to throw mud at somebody and whether it is right or wrong then for them to go away and you lose out then on the appointment of what cross party people assume would be a good person to do the job.
(Mr Thomas) That might be the case, that might crop up every now and again. There is no guaranteed way of making sure, to my mind, there probably is one but I have not thought about it. I think for me, the way in which you find the expertise is not through finding the usual suspects but by bringing people along and widening that and hopefully they gain that expertise there.
331. If you widen it, one of the accusations of that list is that it is all SW1 postcode dominated. How do you get people from outside London to participate if the organisations are still London dominated?
(Mr Thomas) There are a number of ways you can do that. It is very interesting that when you look at these public bodies, when they have their annual open days when people can come along and ask questions, they always hold them when most people are at work. Why not do this at the weekend when people will actually be involved in it? It is the same thing with the question you are asking. What stops people from outside London becoming involved in these bodies? Well, paying for their train fare, getting their employer to give them the day off, making sure they are remunerated and possibly moving the bodies up to where it is appropriate, they seem to me the most obvious answers. Why does everything have to be based in London, I think it is a very good question, why not move it around. This is Parliament, you can do that, you have quite a bit of power.
332. I want just to think about the culture of institutions in society. Oviously you are touching at a very important area, and I would not undermine that but is this not happening because we have this underlying culture of secrecy and privacy in this country and we do not want our neighbours to know what we are doing? Does that begin to make it all acceptable?
(Mr Thomas) I am not sure that I have understood your question fully. If I have I would suggest that the culture of privacy and secrecy is on the part of the state rather than the individual, that we are still waiting for an effective Freedom of Information Act. A huge amount of the work of MI5 and MI6 has only recently been recorded as being questioned by the committees. That notion of secrecy and privacy is, I would suggest, on the state side rather than the individual.
333. I just put it to youbecause I must say I think I had always assumed that it actually filtered downif we look at the reaction of some town and parish councillors who have to declare their interest, in fact the supply is drying up. Within my constituency we have got four people coming forward for 11 places in the village for the parish council and allegedly it is something to do with the declaration of interests. It has made me wonder a bit if there is something much deeper here. Certainly that sort of evidence is not very encouraging, that ordinary people are not going to come forward unless we actually change everything. It is almost as if there will be a big bang to get through this. I am just trying to put to you, it is so easy to blame politicians and the Government but I think it is actually something going right through.
(Mr Thomas) I think you are right to an extent here. There needs to be a fundamental change which goes back to the House of Lords, which goes back to how people are involved in the process of being involved in these committees. It is not just one small part, it is about democracy, it is about accountability and how you involve people. When you say "Is part of the problem individuals? Are we reticent to come forward and say `These are my interests, I wish to be involved'"? I will be honest with you, I do not know, I really do not know. You could be right, maybe there is a reluctance for people and they say "No I do not want to come forward if it is going to involve that much scrutiny". Generally I do not think ordinary people have as much to declare as our friends here.
334. That is fine. I think I see this at all layers of society. We see the great and the good sitting on lots of bodies, we do, but even with the type of projects at community level that you describe, you must have seen a bit of wheeling and dealing, the calling in of favours. Is it not only just a matter of degree "I know a builder who will do that" and so on. It happens in some really worthwhile projects locally.
(Mr Thomas) I think there is a very important difference here which is if a friend of mine is getting involved in a project to set up a trials bike scheme for car thieves and young offenders which hopefully will stop them reoffending, if he goes to someone and says "I need X amount of motorbike helmets, can you help out? Can you give us them as a favour?" or if he goes to someone and says "I need so many car tyres to act as barriers, can you help provide them?" that is completely different from working from a public body of this magnitude. There are public sums of money involved here. There are decisions which are being made not at a basic community level but at a Government level which will direct Government policy and which people could enrich themselves from if they took advantage of conflicts of interest. I think the two things, whereas there might be an initial comparison, I think the magnitude of working on one of these bodies really does not compare with a few favours that are given to a voluntary scheme.
335. I just wondered if you saw similarities. Actually what you are doing is pretty laudable here but it just seems to me a much bigger approach is needed to make fundamental changes. Just to put it to you another way: is it not totally incomprehensible that a politician can forget to declare a holiday? How on earth can people say they forget?
(Mr Thomas) I am not quite sure where the reference of the holiday is aimed at but I am sure it is aimed. I tend to agree with you that you have an obligation not to forget. You have an obligation to make sure that if you are a politician what you put down on the Register of Members Interests is accurate and it is correct, absolutely.
336. In regard to this, could you not, as a journalist, actually be leading this? A lot of journalism is attracting big readership and I suppose reporting on private matters, is it not, to get the big sales of some of the newspapers. Is there not a case for absolutely everything being declared? If a journalist is writing an article should they have a declaration which says there have been some favours in it?
(Mr Thomas) Yes, I think there is actually.
337. If politicians are expected to give leadership, in some ways you are giving leadership by taking the lid off but in what way would you get leadership to change and to change the culture because actually it is only the media that has the most powerful way of changing the culture in society?
(Mr Thomas) I am not sure I would agree but it does have a role to play certainly. Actually, I have no problem with that at all, that is quite a good idea. If you have a newspaper and you are going to publish an article, your interests of the ownership should be transparent, you are absolutely right. That is part of the problem that Piers Morgan got into with The Mirror over what was happening with his share tipsters. I do not have a problem with that. It would be quite interesting. In fact, I think we should do that on everything, including television programmes. We should list people's interests with the credits. I think that would be very interesting.
338. Longer on the programme.
(Mr Thomas) Not on our one.
339. Just to tell you, when Sky was trying to take over Manchester United and The Sun and The Times and the Murdoch papers were all running stuff saying "This is brilliant", I did approach the Press Complaints people and say "Could you not have a rule which says `When newspapers have a financial interest in the story that they are reporting, that financial interest should be recorded as part of the story'?"
(Mr Thomas) I think it is an excellent idea.