Through a network of unbalanced, almost-invisible committees, the government gets what it wants.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 13th March 2012
“From any single perspective”, Bertrand Russell said, “power always seems to be elsewhere”(1). This article is about one of those elsewheres. It is about the network of unelected committees, boards and commissions, operating below the public radar, through which governments pursue the aims which weren’t disclosed in their manifestos. The people they appoint are an index to the interests they serve. To list them is to expose the gulf between what a government claims to be and what it is.
It would be misleading to suggest that the process I’m about to discuss is new. Blair and Brown began the abuses that the coalition government is refining: purging countervailing voices from public bodies and stuffing them with the representatives of business(2).
But Cameron and his ministers are extending this project to serve what seems to me to be their core aims. These are to marketise and covertly privatise what remains of public provision and to create a welfare state for corporations and the ultra-rich, whose income will be sustained by public contracts and captive markets for essential services.
I’ll begin with the government’s “reform” of the National Health Service. The body charged with breaking an integrated, coordinated system into warring kingdoms whose commercial interests discourage collaboration is called Monitor. Its role will be to enforce competition, ensuring that “any qualified provider” can enter the NHS(3).
The current government made two new appointments to Monitor’s board, including the chair, who is also the body’s chief executive. Both were previously senior partners at the consultancy company McKinsey(4). Of the six members of Monitor’s senior management team, two previously worked for McKinsey (including the chief executive) and two at a similar company, KPMG(5).
As an investigation by Spinwatch, carried in the Mail on Sunday, shows, both board members and executives at Monitor have been lavishly entertained by McKinsey, which, like KPMG, is already picking up fat contracts from NHS reforms(6,7). The company, the Mail reports, drew up many of the proposals in the health and social care bill, which were “included in the legislation wholesale.” Both McKinsey and KPMG have been major beneficiaries of previous privatisations or private finance schemes.
Other health agencies are similarly unbalanced. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is the body which failed adequately to regulate breast and hip implants, with grim consequences for some of the people using them. While the board contains retired senior executives from AstraZeneca and Merck Sharp & Dohme it includes no one from a patient group or any other body representing people whose health could be damaged by its decisions(8).
The Medical Research Council, which disburses research funds for the preservation of life, is chaired by a man who ran a company specialising in weapons technology. Sir John Chisholm was the civil servant in charge of privatising the government’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. While doing so, he bought a £129,000 stake in the company. The value of this stake rose to £26m when the new defence firm, QinetiQ, was floated. This was described as “obscene” by the former defence minister Lord Gilbert(9) and “greed of the highest order” by the agency’s former managing director(10).
The other council members include executives or directors from Pfizer, Kardia Therapeutics and Microgen Ltd, but no one who makes their primary living working for a medical charity or any other public interest group(11). It seems to me that the direction of publicly-funded medical research is being set by a weird and unbalanced board.
You can see something similar across government. The Office of Rail Regulation, for example, is supposed to ensure that the railways are safe, efficient and “meet the needs of passengers and freight customers”(12). Yet its board contains no members from passenger groups, unions or transport campaigns. The government did, however, find room for current or former executives of National Express, BAA, Rolls Royce, National Grid and Thames Water(13).
Soon after this government took office, it set up a Farming Regulation Task Force. It was chaired by the former director-general of the National Farmers’ Union. His deputy was another NFU official(14). The other members consisted of two more farmers, three corporate executives, one county council official and someone from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which claims to defend wildlife but gives advice on setting snares and spring traps(15,16). There was no one representing groups protecting the environment, landscape or animal welfare.
Its report was titled, with crashing irony, Striking a Balance(17). It insisted that “government must trust industry”. Among its recommendations were that the government should relax the rules on the stocking density of chickens reared for meat, that new pesticides should be approved more quickly, that farmers should be given 24-year water abstraction licences (madness in view of the fluctuating pattern of droughts) and that “industry representatives (both trade associations and farmers)” should have special, confidential access to the government’s draft legislation(18). The body the government has set up to implement the task force’s proposals will be chaired by the same man(19).
This is just a snapshot of the committee nobbling in which successive governments have engaged. As well as excluding people who represent the wider public interest, Cameron’s government has snuffed out the bodies which might have balanced these one-sided boards, such as the Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Its bonfire of the quangos was in fact a bonfire of dissent, as committees which told it what it didn’t want to hear were selectively purged.
I am not arguing that there should be no corporate representation on government bodies, but that it should be one strand among many. For every corporate executive on these boards there must be someone who represents an opposing interest; otherwise they become gentlemen’s clubs for crony capitalists, feather-bedding their industries, acting against the public good.
The web of unelected bodies functions as a kind of shadow government, drafting and enforcing policies, disbursing money, regulating – or failing to regulate – business, quietly, unobtrusively, without effective public scrutiny or restraint. When it is unbalanced, crawling with conflicts of interest, it makes a nonsense of democracy. This is how governments get what they want, regardless of what the voters might think.
1. I heard this quote in the 2000 Reith Lecture, but I have been unable to trace it to source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/events/reith_2000/lecture3.stm
2. See George Monbiot, 2000. Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. Macmillan.
4. David Bennett (chair) and Sigurd Reinton. http://staging.monitor.precedenthost.co.uk/home/about-monitor/who-we-are/the-board
14. The list was published here, but the government has since taken it down: http://ww2.defra.gov.uk/files/2010/07/090709-farmreview-members.pdf