Friday, February 13, 2009
Fancy a Trip to Twickenham, Sir Humphrey?
Yesterday afternoon I did an interview with Carolyn Quinn on PM on the fact that a list has been published about the jollies and freebies enjoyed by senior civil servants. It seems Sir Brian Bender, Permanent Secretary at BERR enjoyed a 'jolly' every week last year. It is easy to be puritanical about these things. I tried to make the point in the interview that just because you are taken out to lunch, it doesn't mean that your complicity is bought. At least we have a system now where these things are made transparent and people are able to judge for themselves. The problem is where to draw the line. At one time it was quite usual for civil servants to enjoy a three day jolly to Monte Carlo. That would never happen today. Public servants are well aware that perception is just as important as reality. It matters how things look, however innocent they may be.
But I do have to question why a company considers it necessary to invite civil servants or politicians to sporting events, or the theatre. How can you discuss an issue while watching a theatre production? There is nothing wrong with trying to influence the passage of legislation. It's what democracy is all about. Why shouldn't a trade body have lunch with the civil servant in charge of a bill? Should they, however, invite him or her to Wimbledon, or the Chelsea Flower Show? Proably not. It just looks bad, even if it isn't.
Then of course we come to the vexed question of foreign trips. I copped a lot of flack last year for going to Israel at the invitation of Conservative Friends of Israel. They paid for the travel and the hotel, something which I openly declared at the time. I went because I wanted to increase my level of knowlede. I was careful to ensure that we would meet the PLO and go to a refugee camp on the West Bank. I didn't need to declare a thing - I am, after all, not elected to anything. However, many people decided to believe the worst and assumed that my loyalty to Israel had been "bought", as if I don't have a mind of my own. Had I been an MP, would I still have gone? You bet I would. MPs and public servants who live in a cocoon learn nothing.
If one wants to be completely puritanical, we would abolish the fantastic Industry & Parliament Trust, which sends MPs on secondment to companies to work on the shopfloor and learn more about industry in general. In theory it stands to reason that if an MP spends three weeks working with the Port of Dover, it naturally follows, so the logic goes, that if there is legislation affecting the Port of Dover he might be more favourably disposed towards it. This assumes that politicians are incapable of rational judgement. That may be the case, but if we always think the worst of our public servants, we will end up with the worst public servants.
UPDATE: There was a discussion on this on TODAY with Lionel Zetter and Matthew Parris HERE.