The Vampires Get the Bloodbank

Lord Sainsbury’s conflicts of interest should disqualify him from government

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 30th September 1999.

I think Lord Whitty, the environment minister, was trying to reassure us when he told the BBC on Tuesday that by sponsoring the Labour Party Conference “you don’t buy access to ministers. You buy access to the whole party”. His claim can’t be faulted: the conference now looks more like a trade fair than a political meeting, as delegates fight their way through corporate stalls to get to the speeches.

But in the New Britain there need be no conflict between the private good and the public good. As long as all contributions are declared and no brown envelopes change hands, then what is good for B&Q is good for Britain.

This is the theme of Lord Sainsbury’s lament in the Observer on Sunday. Allegations that he is ensnared in conflicts of interest, he argues, are misguided and unfair. All he has been doing is promoting science and science-based industry for the benefit of Britain. Since his shares in several biotechnology companies were placed in a blind trust, he has had “no idea whether the people managing my financial affairs have retained my interests in certain businesses”. He has “no responsibility for GM food whatsoever”. “Calls for my resignation,” he maintains, “are never linked to any decision I’ve made as a Minister.”

Only Lord Sainsbury knows whether the first of these three claims is true, but the last two are evidently false. Since he became a minister, he has travelled to the United States with a lobby group representing companies involved in genetically modified food, including one of those he has helped to fund, called Diatech. He has met Monsanto to discuss, among other issues, GM crops and food. He oversees a government programme to “help scientists and policy makers understand the attitudes of the general public” towards genetic engineering. He has called for a “supportive policy environment” for biotechnology and has publicly defended the Government’s position on GM foods.

His office also controls the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which allocates government money for GM crop research. “Ministers”, Lord Sainsbury claims, “have no influence over where and how research councils spend their money.” This may be true, but the BBSRC is in safe hands: its chairman is Peter Doyle, an executive director of the biotech company Zeneca. Both Zeneca and Lord Sainsbury have funded research into genetic engineering at the John Innes Institute in Norwich, which also benefits from major BBSRC grants.

Let us be generous to Lord Sainsbury. Let us assume that he is among the few informed British people who are unaware that his “blind trust” still owns a substantial part of Diatech. Let us assume that he doesn’t know that Diatech stands to make a fortune from the technologies it has patented if it encounters a “supportive policy environment” in places like Britain. Let us assume that he played no role in completing the arrangements for the loan he made to Diatech eight days before he became a minister. Let us assume that he had no idea that Diatech helped pay for repairs to his country house, several months AFTER he became a minister. Let’s be more generous still and predict that his shares in biotech companies might all be sold before he relinquishes his post. If all these assumptions were true, would Lord Sainsbury’s position then be tenable?

It plainly would not. Lord Sainsbury has only counter-qualifications for an engagement in democratic politics. Corporations such as those he has funded and chaired have to be undemocratic: they have a legal duty to represent the interests of a small group of people – their shareholders – against those of everyone else. They claim to engage with “consumer democracy”, but if this is a political system, it is one in which some people have more votes than others. Could the unelected Lord Sainsbury really have been expected to forget all he had ever learnt on the day he took office, and distinguish, when he makes his decisions, between the public interest and the private interest? The government has asked him to place not only his shares but also his identity in a blind trust, and this simply isn’t possible.

On Tuesday, Tony Blair claimed that he would “set the people free”. What he actually proposed was more repressive legislation. While he has distanced himself from the Tories in several important respects, in one at least he has stuck firmly to the previous administration’s line: the deregulation of business, coupled with increasing regulation of the citizen. Through his ministerial appointments, through restrictions on protest, by undermining workplace, consumer and environmental protection rules at international fora, Mr Blair has set the corporations free to rule over us. Does he really believe that there’s no conflict between this and his demand for a new century of progressive politics?