Fox & Werritty: The Middleman Who Wasn’t There

[First published in the Morning Star, 22/10/11.]

“When is a lobbying scandal not a lobbying scandal?,” asked spin doctor Gill Morris in a Huffington Post blog earlier this week.

Ms Morris, whose firm Connect Public Affairs bills everyone from Age UK to health workers’ union Unison, was adamant the Werritty affair of the last fortnight simply didn’t count.

“The fact is, Werritty is not a lobbyist, nor is he like any lobbyist I know,” she wrote. “So why the usual knee jerk reaction?”

It’s certainly true that the way Adam Werritty cultivated his relationship with former defence secretary Liam Fox was fairly unorthodox: a “personal friend” who dropped in on Dr Fox at work 22 times since he took office, accompanied him overseas on 18 known occasions – several of which involved government business, during which Werritty organised private meetings with foreign politicians and senior officials – and even bandied around faux-House of Commons business cards describing himself as “Advisor (sic) to the Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP.”

Meanwhile Werritty, whose three companies managed a return of just £20,000 between them, maintained to maintain this jet-setter lifestyle with a whopping £147,000 in donations of indeterminate purpose. These donations came from G3, a private intelligence agency with projects in Sri Lanka – the destination of several of these trips – and several backers of BICOM, a British-Israeli lobby group whose calls for sanctions against Iran mirror Fox’s own rhetoric on the subject and whose founder Poju Zabludowicz happens to have interests in a string of developments in illegal Israeli settlements.

Of course noone will ever know what was took place in those friendly chats but Dr Fox and Werritty himself. And Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell has apparently taken it on faith that Werritty was “neither a special adviser nor an official unpaid adviser, but a personal friend.”

But the fact remains that a small group of very, very wealthy people with a pressing interest in foreign policy gave Werritty a lot of money for a remarkably low-profile and ill-defined “charity”, with an equally remarkable lack of interest until recently in where that money went. It is simply a matter of public interest to ask the questions O’Donnell’s report didn’t: how much did they pay into Werritty’s accounts, when, and why?

But to return to Ms Morris’ spirited defence of ‘real’ lobbyists, even some of the most prestigious and influential agencies in Westminster have been found to muddy the waters on occasion.

Take for instance the case of Hume Brophy earlier this year: a PR firm which has been lobbying hard against a ban on tobacco retail displays — ostensibly on behalf of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, but it turns out the firm also touts for British American Tobacco.

Hume Brophy’s spin doctors strangely forgot to mention this when they wrote to MPs warning of the ban’s ”devastating effect on the small business sector”, nor did they mention that British American Tobacco was actually bankrolling the Newsagents’ campaign.

By the time the news came out, the government had already redrafted the legislation to grant newsagents an 18-month exemption — Parliament had unknowingly tweaked legislation in the tobacco industry’s favour as a direct result of covert lobbying.

It’s also worth noting that this scandal has apparently not prompted Hume Brophy to join the UK Public Affairs Council’s voluntary register, launched at the beginning of this year to stop exactly this sort of thing from happening. The Council continues to claim however that the register “promotes and upholds effective self regulation.”

Or consider the words of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chairman Peter Bingle. Bell Pottinger is the largest lobbying consultancy in the country — and to their credit they have joined UKPAC’s register, listing weapons developers BAE Systems, Imperial Tobacco and the Sri Lankan government as clients. But back in 2009 when a Commons select committee investigated calls (even then) for a statutory register, Bingle told the MPs point-blank that the public had “no right to know” who their clients were.

“What we are saying is that there are instances when sometimes a company has a global policy for their suppliers not to make public that they work for that company. We respect that.”

Perversely, Bingle argued that forcing all professional lobbyists to sign a statutory register “would find law firms developing public affairs practices because they would not have to disclose their clients.” For the record Bingle currently maintains, like Morris, the Werritty affair had “absolutely nothing to do with lobbying.” [Postscript: Bingle’s blog, The Dispatch Box, mysteriously switched its access settings to invite-only within three days of this piece being published.]

So what of this statutory register — hopefully expanded in light of Werritty’s weirdness to include pretty much anyone who isn’t a civil servant?

The government is not exactly making great headway at the moment: even their existing commitment to publish quarterly reports of ministers’ external meetings is running seven months behind schedule.

Meanwhile the register itself was supposed to be introduced next month, and the aforementioned Cabinet Office records note just a single meeting last July between Parliamentary secretary Mark Harper and the Public Affairs Council.

Asking whether Werritty’s exploits count as a lobbying scandal misses the point: the scandal is the state of lobbying itself.

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