Is the Health Secretary trying to put distance between himself and NHS England?

This morning Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told NHS leaders that the service must undertake a ‘fundamental rethink’ of how it spends its £110bn budget.

He has warned that the NHS needs to save £10bn a year by using fewer temporary staff and management consultants.

Just how much NHS leaders are spending on, for example, management consultants is something that Hunt knows, but we don’t... yet. 

NHS England, unlike all other government agencies, does not make public how it spends our money. 

A petition launched this week, which has so far been signed by 68,000 people, is demanding that NHS England publishes its spending data without delay. (It said it would publish its receipts in September, then October. It has yet to). This would reveal how much of NHS funds are going on management consultants, lawyers, accountants, PR campaigns etc. 

Is Hunt trying to distance himself from NHS England by calling now for a “fundamental rethink” of how it spends our money? 

Hunt cannot absolve himself of responsibility, however. It was the reforms brought in by this government that created NHS England, stewards of the NHS budget. The policies it has since pursued have been set out and encouraged by the Coalition.  

Whatever NHS England is doing with our money is Hunt’s responsibility. We just now need to find out what Hunt knows and we don't. Sign the petition here. 


Wednesday, 12 November 2014 01:44

BICOM airbrushes Simon Barrett

Howard Condor, founder of Revelation TV
Howard Condor, founder of Revelation TV

Last week Spinwatch reported on the appointment of Simon Barrett as the new communications director of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). The following day the lobby group's website was updated with Barrett now listed as its head of media. The staff page now carries this description of their newest employee:

'Simon Barrett has more than ten years’ media and journalistic experience specialising in issues relating to the Middle East. He has organised high profile conferences on security issues and worked on significant news stories in the national and international press. As a broadcast journalist he produces and presents his own TV programmes such as The Middle East Report in which he has interviewed Ministers of State, MP’s, Ambassadors, Middle East experts and high profile Israeli guests. He also hosts a monthly political discussion programme from the European Parliament called The European Report.'

The description fails to mention that Barrett's Middle East Report programme appears on Revelation TV - an evangelical Christian channel founded by 'Britain's first televangelist', Howard Conder. The channel's website carries a statement on the recent conflict in Gaza declaring that:

'The Scriptures tell us that the Jews are the "apple of God’s eye"... In these end times, God is working out His purposes in the Middle East. We are seeing Bible Prophecy fulfilled before our eyes and the State of Israel is right at the centre of it.'

Of course, Barrett is not responsible for the views of the founders of Revelation TV, but these comments chime rather well with his description of the occupied West Bank as: “the Biblical heartland of the Jewish people promised to them by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. In a visit to Israel in 2013 Barrett remarked that: 'You really sense that God's hand is upon this nation... He loves this people, he loves this land – he's fighting for it. And it [Israel] is a beacon of light in the Middle East.'

In August this year we noticed an anomaly. NHS England, the government agency charged with overseeing the £95bn NHS budget, had never made public how it was spending our money.

Since May 2010, government departments and their agencies, like NHS England, have been required to publish regular monthly reports on all their spending over £25,000. This was so we could all become 'armchair auditors' and hold the government to account for how it spends taxpayers money.

NHS England never has. 

We asked NHS England why. Initially, it directed us to its accounts (a different set of figures, which do not give a breakdown of how it spends its budget). NHS England then said it was ‘working towards’ publishing its receipts, and that these would be available in September. This then slipped to ‘by the end of October’.  

With bonfire night now behind us, there is still no sign. Are they kicking the can down the road?

Sign Spinwatch's petition at 38Degrees to encourage NHS England boss Simon Stevens to follow through on his promise of transparency and make public how they spend our money. 

Monday, 03 November 2014 14:10

BICOM's new spokesman Simon Barrett

Simon Barrett, new director of communications at BICOM
Simon Barrett, new director of communications at BICOM

The Israeli-occupied West Bank is 'the Biblical heartland of the Jewish people promised to them by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob' - these are the words of Simon Barrett, the new director of communications for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).

A committed Christian Zionist whose 'Middle East Report' broadcasts on Revelation TV, an evangelical Christian TV channel, Barrett has been involved in an array of pro-Israel and alarmist anti-terror organisations. Employing a common trope of the pro-Israel lobby, he has warned of the threat posed by the 'new anti-semitism' and even claimed, earlier this year, that the current treatment of the European Jewish population is reminiscent of the 1930s.

Friday, 17 October 2014 10:11

Crosby, lobbyists and Labour


 A round up of the week's lobbying news

'Dear World's Greatest Campaign Manager'

Further evidence this week that Lynton Crosby lobbied the government over tobacco regulations. 

Last month it was revealed that Lynton Crosby, the Conservative Party’s election campaign manager, lobbied Lord Marland, then Intellectual Property minister, against the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. Crosby had shared documents with Marland making the case that such a policy had no basis in law. The move by Crosby came just days before it was announced that he was to become the Tories’ election guru. 

Crosby's London-based lobbying firm, Crosby Textor Fullbrook (CTF), was hired by Philip Morris International (PMI) in the autumn of 2012 as it sought to derail the government’s plans, which are designed to deter younger people from taking up smoking. The deal is reported to be worth up to £6 million.

The latest revelations show that Marland wrote back to Crosby to let him known that his staff were working hard to make sure the “legal position” on plain packaging and intellectual property rights was clear. Marland signs off his letter to Crosby: “I remain your humble servant.”

Marland addressed his letter to “the world’s greatest campaign manager”.

Lobbying register unravelling

Representatives of lobbyists have issued a clear warning to the Cabinet Office: the “flawed” register of lobbyists introduced by the government to increase transparency will do the opposite if they’re not careful. 

The Association of Professional Political Consultants, the commercial lobbyists’ lobby group, has warned that it will be "simple for any organisation to avoid the need to register" if they wish to. 

Tuesday, 07 October 2014 08:37

Jonathan Hill: keeping schtum


Jonathan Hill, the man put forward by Britain for the job of EU Commissioner in charge of financial services regulation, has refused to answer MEPs' questions about his former financial sector lobby clients.

The slight comes after Hill was grilled last week by a group of Members of the European Parliament charged with scrutinising his suitability for the job. Having failed to impress, Hill was given a week to come back with better answers. Most were testing his grasp of policy, but one question in particular concerned his past as a lobbyist. The MEPs asked for: 

“a complete list of the financial services clients you personally, or the companies in which you held directorships or shares, worked for?”

Hill had a 20 year career in lobbying before entering the UK Parliament, including co-founding one of London’s top-end lobbying firms, Quiller (with offices a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace). He sold Quiller in 2006, but retained shares in the new owners, lobbying group Huntsworth, until he was appointed commissioner-designate in July this year. 

Hill’s response to the MEP’s reasonable request that they know for whom he lobbied in the past, is this: 

“The information on financial services clients in the past that you request is not in my possession... This information belongs to companies in which I no longer have any role and which have also changed ownership a number of times.”

Instead Hill pointed to Quiller’s published list of clients going back to March 2010, when the firm signed up, rather late in the day, to the lobbying industry’s flawed voluntary system of disclosure. This leaves the MEPs, and the public, in the dark over who Hill lobbied for in the previous 12 years. Hill is also quick to point out that he has no directorships or shares in any financial services companies. 

Hill appears to be willfully missing the point. 

Lobbying is a business of insiders whose stock-in-trade is access to decision-makers. Hill, if appointed, will become one of Europe’s most powerful decision-makers. Anyone with a direct line to Hill will benefit enormously, especially Quiller’s financial sector clients. This is how lobbying works. 

So, it matters to the City of London Corporation, the City’s most powerful lobbying group, that its lobbying firm, Quiller, is founded by the soon-to-be commissioner for financial regulation. It should come as no surprise that The Corporation warmly welcomed Hill's nomination. It would also matter to HSBC, another long-standing Quiller client, that its lobbyists have a direct connection to Hill. PWC, another recent client of Quiller, may also be rubbing its hands at the prospect. 

How many other financial sector firms will join Quiller’s roster of clients if Hill’s appointment is waved through? 

As Corporate Europe Observatory notes, the financial industry spends €120 million a year lobbying Brussels and employs more than 1700 lobbyists. It operates via 700 plus organisations, totally outnumbering civil society organisations and trade unions by a factor of more than seven. Hill would be the icing on the cake.

Hill’s statement acknowledges none of this. He ignores the context and focuses on the personal (“I have no incentive or reason to give anyone any kind of preferential treatment,” he says in his statement). But this is to ignore the nature of lobbying; the importance of having an inside-track to decision-makers; the underlying values and assumptions that someone like him, whose old firm has long represented the interests of big finance, adopts in the course of their work. Indeed, just this summer (and before Hill ditched his shares), Quiller was helping to promote a new code of practice to drive up standards of behaviour and competence in banking, which critics have rightly pointed out has no teeth because it is voluntary.

The MEPs, who Hill will face again today, should reject Hill’s weak response that he cannot lay his hands on a list of Quiller’s back clients. They understand that Hill's appointment would matter to those clients. They also understand that it matters to the people of Europe.  

Thanks to Corporate Europe Observatory.

Thursday, 11 September 2014 13:12

Good luck to the new lobbying tsar


The Coalition has at last found someone to take on the poisoned chalice of lobbying registrar; the final stage in a tortuous, and under this government, fruitless process to shine a light on the murky world of lobbying. 

The government's preferred candidate for the job is businesswoman Alison White, who was quizzed by MPs this morning. From her performance in front of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, White is confident of her ability to act as an independent regulator of lobbyists. She described herself as 'a very resilient and determined person'. She will need to be. 

By her own admission, White is new to lobbying. She has no previous experience of working as a lobbyist, nor of dealing with lobbyists. This should be seen as an asset. Here is someone truly independent of the industry, ready to take them on. However, her lack of experience and knowledge, as members of the committee were quick to point out, could be a serious disadvantage. 

Did she appreciate, as Paul Flynn MP put it, that "lobbyists are some of the most skilled, the most devious, the most persuasive people in the parliamentary family. You’re going to take on some very tough customers…  What is there in your background to suggest you can take on these monsters?"

Ignore his language if you want. Flynn is making an important point. So much time has been wasted in the past five years since the coalition government promised to bring transparency to lobbying with a register of lobbyists. Its been a masterclass in lobbying, watching the commercial industry endlessly argue, shape-shift, distort and distract in a bid to hold back meaningful regulation of lobbying. They are professional persuaders. 

Tracey Crouch MP asked whether White, given her lack of previous experience of the industry, might not notice any subtle changes made by lobbyists to avoid disclosure. Would she, for example, be able to call out those who relabelled their lobbying as more general 'communications', which would exempt them from the register. Crouch is a former lobbyist. She knows how they behave.

Just as crucially, did White understand the limitations of her role as registrar, asked Mark Durkan MP. That is, did she understand the limitations of her role as overseer of a register so limited in scope that it may not be workable in practice? Was she surprised by the limited role she would play, regulating such a tiny fraction of the lobbying industry? The past frustrations of the committee of MPs was palpable. In the past 18 months, they have gone all out to expose the serious failings of the government's proposed register. 

What about the registrar's role in providing guidance on precisely which lobbyists must register? White quite rightly said it was early days and that she would be listening hard to the industry and others before determining exactly who would be covered by the transparency rules. However, she may find she has been left an impossible task. Will the register capture enough lobbyists-for-hire to provide meaningful information to the public? Will sufficient numbers of lobbyists be signed up in order to cover White's operational costs (the government's register being industry, rather than state, funded)? Will it cover law firms, like DLA Piper, and management consultants, like McKinsey, and force them to reveal their clients (I admire her optimism here)? Will it include think tanks, many of which provide the exact same services as lobbying agencies? White said her approach would be to positively 'motivate and encourage' lobbyists to sign up. She'll also need a massive stick. 

Finally, what happens if the register fails? What if it doesn't reveal all that much, which is likely; or if its obvious failings are exposed when a lobbying scandal hits the headlines, which is also likely. Will White be prepared for her Newsnight interview to defend her register? From her answers, it is clear the government has presented the role of registrar as more of a behind-the-scenes, low-key office job than perhaps the Committee envisaged. It says a lot about the quality of the legislation. It's nothing to shout about. 

This was a good introduction to the arena Alison White may soon find herself in (if her appointment is approved). For five years (and the rest), the policy has been dogged by misinformation and dishonest argument, attempts to stave off regulation by the industry, and by a complete lack of political will and seriousness about tackling the excesses and secrecy surrounding the UK's £2bn commercial lobbying business.

The government's register is designed to provide minimal transparency. We wish the new registrar luck in achieving this. The best place to start would be to listen closely to this committee of MPs.  

As Martin Kettle writes in today’s Guardian: nothing else matters now in British politics. Yesterday’s poll showing that Scottish independence could be a reality in less than a fortnight is finally being given the space it warrants among London’s political commentators.  Thus, yesterday’s revelation that Lynton Crosby lobbied a Conservative Minister on cigarette packaging just days before taking up his role as Tory election guru, has passed almost unnoticed. Crosby must be breathing a sigh of relief.  

For Crosby-watchers – which includes anyone with concerns about the influence of tobacco and alcohol companies on policy, fracking firms on the UK’s energy strategy, and private healthcare lobbyists on the NHS – having concrete proof that Crosby lobbied the government is, though, significant.

Until yesterday we have had to accept both Crosby and David Cameron’s denials that he has been meddling in policy. We have been able to connect the dots – from Philip Morris International hiring Crosby’s lobbying firm to derail plans to sell cigarettes in unbranded cartons, to the government kicking these plans into the long grass – but never managed to see the full picture. 

Crosby has always insisted that accusations that he used his position as Tory campaign director to influence the policy were “false”. In a carefully worded statement last summer, he said: "At no time have I had any conversation or discussion with, or lobbied the prime minister, or indeed the health secretary or the health minister, on plain packaging or tobacco issues.”

Now we have hard evidence that in late 2012 – just a fortnight before the Tories announced Crosby's appointment as their election strategist – Crosby lobbied his friend, Lord Marland, then minister for intellectual property and a former Conservative party treasurer, against the introduction of plain packaging.  

Which casts doubt on the Prime Minister’s assurances just six months later that "Lynton Crosby does not lobby the government, he does not lobby me, he gives political advice and I think that’s a very clear situation.” If David Cameron had said that “Crosby has recently lobbied the government, but doesn’t anymore, now that he’s working at the heart of government,” that would have been clearer. As it is, the Prime Minister’s statements – which include an insistence that the furore over Crosby’s lobbying was a "media invention" – appear at best highly misleading. 

What other policies might Crosby have been influencing? We know that his firm, CTF Partners, works, or has worked, for companies in alcohol, banking, property development, the oil industry, and private healthcare, as well as tobacco. But, unlike most agencies in the UK, it chooses not to voluntarily disclose the names of its clients. Nor does it need to, according to Cameron: "[Crosby’s] work, his lobbying, the lobbying business is a matter for the lobbying business," he said. 

This, of course, runs counter to Cameron’s previous statements on the need to shine a light on lobbying and “force our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence”. "We all know how it works,” said Cameron of lobbying. “The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.... I believe that secret corporate lobbying goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics,” (an issue Owen Jones alludes to in his discussion on what lies behind support for Scottish independence). It is absolutely in the public interest to know who is influencing which public servants and public policies.

CTF Partners has amassed a staff with considerable connections to achieve this aim. They include Mark Fullbrook, ex-head of campaigns for the Tories who deputied on Boris Johnson’s successful 2012 London Mayoral campaign and is married to Tory MP Lorraine Fullbrook;  David Canzini, who has a 20 year career working for the Tories including director of party campaigning; Sam Lyon, former spokesperson for Boris and a large number of other Boris campaigners, including Isabel Mackay and Robin Knight.

The chances of Crosby being forced to reveal his clients under the government’s new rules for lobbyists are almost nil. The register of lobbyists, introduced in the much criticised Lobbying Bill, which was supposed to shine a light on who was influencing whom and about what, is a sham. But, Crosby may yet have to come clean about which commercial interests have hired his lobbying firm.  

When he was first appointed as Conservative Party election supremo, Lord Ashcroft warned Crosby against “becoming the story” in Westminster. “I’m sure you’ll get on with the job and stay out of the limelight,” the Tory donor wrote. Crosby has largely managed to contain the story of his lobbying so far. 

How much longer he will stay behind the scenes – and how much more of his lobbying will emerge – remains to be seen. 

The past two days has seen the UK's education reform movement gathered in London. The Education Reform Summit 2014 was co-hosted by the Department for Education and a small think tank called the Education Foundation. Some on Twitter have been curious about this organisation, so here is a short extract from the 'education reform' chapter of our recent book, 'A Quiet Word', which takes a look at the extensive lobbying activities of the 'education reform movement' on both sides of the Atlantic. 

From 'A Quiet Word':

Set up in 2011, The Education Foundation is described by its co-founder Ty Goddard as a think tank and reform organisation. It has, however, a particular focus on technology as a driver of reform. It hosts an ed-tech incubator programme, for example, to bring classroom products to scale. Google and Facebook are both advisers to the project.

The Education Foundation does not publish its financial backers, although it says it is funded by charitable foundations and leading businesses through its research, sponsored events and specific projects. Those named on its website include Google, which sponsored its first birthday bash, McKinsey, for which it hosted an event, and a collaboration with Facebook and the Gates Foundation on an education-centred ‘hackathon’, aimed at building experimental apps for schools.

The group has ties with the reform lobby in the US, from whose experience it is keen to learn. Goddard, for example, was visited in London by American lobbyists to discuss strategies on ‘growing the UK education reform movement’. Among those visiting was a lobbyist from US reform group, the Foundation for Excellence in Education. 

This is an organisation that aggressively promotes online schools. It is financed by, among others, Gates and others in the billionaires’ club, as well as Pearson and Amplify, News Corp education arm. In 2013, Michael Gove, on one of his many trips to the US, delivered the keynote speech at the foundation’s annual conference. Topics discussed included ‘extreme choices through digital learning’ and ‘the art of communicating education reform’. 

The Foundation for Excellence is run by Jeb Bush, brother of George. Bush is a keen advocate of virtual schooling, which has been pioneered in his home state of Florida. His foundation has come in for criticism, primarily for working with US public officials to write education laws that could benefit some of its corporate funders. It has also been accused of providing ‘a dating service for corporations selling educational products – including virtual schools – to school chiefs’. Goddard, though, sees Bush as a ‘pioneer’. The US delegation spent their time visiting UK academies and meeting with senior Department for Education officials. They even had a policy discussion in Number 10.

The Education Foundation also hosted a meeting of twenty-five education reform lobby groups in Washington, part-funded by the British government. Again, the purpose was to learn lessons from their US colleagues on how to secure system reform and introduce more ‘innovation’ to schools. It included some familiar names in the US privatisation / reform lobby: Democrats for Education Reform, StudentsFirst and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. 

To find out more about the lobbying activity of these and other groups in the education reform movement, both in the UK and US, read Chapter 9: 'Reform: Opportunities to Profit' from 'A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain', published by Random House, March 2014.


The exclusive Hurlingham private members club, where Tories and wealthy donors dined
The exclusive Hurlingham private members club, where Tories and wealthy donors dined

On the eve of the Conservative Party’s annual fundraising dinner, the Guardian today reveals last year’s secret guest list and, with it, the murky world of political donations and lobbying.

The Conservative Party intended the list to remain private. Despite promises by this government to be 'the most transparent in the world', the public aren’t to know the company that they keep. 

But, as the final preparations are made for tonight’s fundraiser at the Hurlingham private members’ club in west London, documents passed to TBIJ show the web of bankers, businesspeople, foreign interests and lobbyists that twelve months ago pressed the flesh with Conservative politicians. 

Among those that David Cameron and members of the Cabinet spent the evening with are:

  • Howard Shore, a banker with interests in shale gas who sat on a table with David and Samantha Cameron and who hosted another table with the energy minister Michael Fallon.
  • Russian business men tasked with improving the country’s reputation in the UK, including Vladamir Putin’s judo partner, Vasily Shestakov.
  • Former Goldman Sachs banker and onetime Conservative donor, Richard Sharp, who sits on the Bank of England’s independent finance policy committee.
  • Nineteen lobbyists and PRs, most of whom don’t reveal their clients, but who are known to have represented Gulf states, fracking firms, oligarchs and banking giants.

Buying a seat at a minister’s table provides these already influential and advantaged individuals – there was an estimated total wealth in the room last year of £11bn – with an opportunity to forge relationships with our politicians, demonstrate their support for the party, and crucially open discussions with Ministers about their concerns.

The consequences of such a system – one that provides private access for the wealthy and well connected, while everyone else is excluded – are all around us. 

To find out more: A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell is published by Bodley Head. 

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