Hidden Meetings

When the government introduced its sham register of lobbyists, it only covered lobbyists-for-hire, and excluded three quarters of the industry that work ‘in-house’ for corporations.  

The government’s justification was that it was already clear to the public which companies are lobbying it, through the official, quarterly meeting logs of ministers and high ranking civil servants.

These lists of meetings are part of the government’s promise to show us who is lobbying it for contracts, changes to policy, corporate welfare and the rest.

But do they give us the whole picture? Are all the meetings officials hold with companies made public, as government insists?

No, it turns out. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade tested out their accuracy by comparing the official disclosure log of one key civil servant - the Ministry of Defence’s then ‘equipment’ chief, Bernard Gray – to data received through freedom of information law.

Comparing the data for one month, it found:

  • Three undisclosed meetings held by Gray with major US corporations

  • Numerous undisclosed meetings with US management consultants

  • Meetings between Gray and former colleagues who had passed through the ‘revolving door’ and were now working for major corporations.

The ‘missing meetings’ included one in March 2014 with Fluor, the Texas-based construction giant, which holds billions of pounds of nuclear decommissioning contracts in the UK. A second undisclosed meeting was held with another US engineering company, KBR, which is involved in the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Gray also met CH2M Hill, another US engineering firm contracted by the Ministry of Defence.

The role played by management consultants in government business is also downplayed in the official meeting registers. McKinsey & Co. for example, are listed as holding only one meeting with Gray. In fact, four were held with the US consultants in just one month, suggesting a much deeper relationship than revealed publicly. Similarly, Deloitte officially held one meeting with Gray, whereas in fact it attended three.

The full list of meetings also reveals that meetings were held with ex-Ministry of Defence officials now working for industry. Of all the government departments, the MoD experiences the most ‘traffic’ through the revolving door, with contractors regularly employing senior officials who bring with them valuable insider knowledge of, and contacts in, government.

These ‘revolvers’ do not show up in the official meeting logs. Only using FOI laws, can you see, for example, that Fluor sent a recent recruit – Robert Walmsley, formerly Chief of Defence Procurement at the MoD – to meet Gray.

How many more meetings across government are going undetected? Many, we suspect. Like the government’s register of lobbyists, the official logs of ministerial and officials meetings are an exercise in box ticking, not a serious commitment to transparency where the public has a right to know who is lobbying our government and for what.

Neither Fluor, nor KBR are on the government’s lobbying register, so we have no information on their lobbying. CH2M Hill appear only as a client of a lobbying firm, and no other information is given of its lobbying activity.

A robust register of lobbyists, like the one being debated in the Lords on September 9th, would make public the influence of these US giants. It would disclose who is talking to whom, about what, and whether they are employing former government insiders.

It would also reveal the kind of investment these companies are making to ensure decisions are made in their favour. Lobbying is a tactical investment: one that delivers a return. With billions of pounds of government contracts up for grabs, the investment in lobbying will be substantial. The cost to the public – whether that’s wasted taxpayers money, or poor policy-making – is even greater.