Today, two government consultations have, to put it mildly, been brought into disrepute. Firstly, the Taking Liberties blog exposes the sham consultation by the Department of Health on restricting even further the rights of smokers. It appears that they doled out taxpayers' money to the anti-smoking lobby group ASH, which then organised a huge response to the consultation.
But the second case is even more worrying, and involves Gordon Brown's favourite pollster, Deborah Mattinson, and her company Opinion Leader Research. Guido notes that she has in the past been paid £150,000 by the taxpayer for running a one day seminar. She also organises the Citizens Juries events. I'm not going to put any spin on today's news. I will simply post a press release put out today by Greenpeace (and that is a sentence I never thought I would write on this blog!)...
OFFICIAL RULING - BROWN’S POLLSTERS FIXED SECOND PUBLIC CONSULTATION ON NUCLEAR POWER
GORDON BROWN’S public consultation on nuclear power was fixed by the market research company which carried out the polling, according to the official trade body.
In an explosive ruling with profound implications for energy policy, the Market Research Standards Board has found that in the consultation conducted by Opinion Leader Research, “information was inaccurately or misleadingly presented, or was imbalanced, which gave rise to a material risk of respondents being led towards a particular answer.” The ruling follows a comprehensive 33 page complaint from Greenpeace.
The Board said in its ruling that the public consultation was in breach of the official industry Code of Conduct which provides that market research companies “must take reasonable steps to ensure that Respondents are not led towards a particular answer.” The Board concluded that “this was not a minor or trivial breach.” OLR are now required “to take corrective action with regard to the process that resulted in the breach in this case” – a development that leaves energy policy in disarray.
OLR has pocketed millions of pounds from the Government, and the OLR boss responsible for the conduct of the consultation - Deborah Mattinson - is an advisor and the leading private pollster to Gordon Brown.
The Government itself is fingered for blame in the ruling, with the MRSB noting “that drafts of the materials” which were found to be misleading “were reviewed at various stages by COI and BERR officials.” COI is the Central Office of Information.
The polling took place at a number of venues in September last year after the original, first consultation was found by the High Court to have been fixed. In the second consultation – required by Mr Justice Sullivan - selected members of the public were asked their views on nuclear power. One document given to attendees claimed that nuclear power “is substantially cheaper than wind generation”. Yet the Government’s own figures from the Energy White Paper in 2003 show the opposite. The full 33 page Greenpeace complaint detailing the many DBERR and OLR misrepresentations can be found here:
Some participants apparently saw through the second fixed government consultation. One contacted Greenpeace to say that she “left the event in Edinburgh feeling furious with the government’s blatant marketing of nuclear power” and the “participants of ‘Talking Energy’ were pushed up against a wall so they had no choice but to support a new generation of nuclear power plants.” Greenpeace boss John Sauven today said:
“It’s now official, another nuclear consultation was fixed. The process was a sham and an insult to the people who took part. You have to ask where this leaves government energy policy after this politically explosive ruling. The case for building new nuclear reactors is so weak that Brown’s personal pollsters tried to rig the process. Ministers claim this was just a small part of a big process, but that only holds water if you think the public is a small part of a public consultation. Gordon Brown recently committed the UK to generating around 40% of our electricity from renewables by 2020. If he means it, Britain could become a world leader in clean energy, powering our homes and offices while slashing emissions. Yet his blind pursuit of nuclear power risks blocking the delivery of the real solutions to climate change.”
Last year Greenpeace won a High Court ruling which overturned an earlier consultation on nuclear power. Mr Justice Sullivan called the first consultation “manifestly unfair” and “unlawful”, adding that it was “seriously flawed” and “manifestly inadequate” because insufficient information had been made available by the Government for participants to make an “intelligent response”. Now we know the second consultation was also fixed.
The MRSB ruling has been 13 months in coming. In May this year Greenpeace made a Freedom of Information request to DBERR asking for release of documents and correspondence relating to the Greenpeace complaint. The aim was to ascertain whether John Hutton’s department had attempted to exert any undue pressure on the MRSB while the sensitive EDF takeover of British Energy was being negotiated. So far DBERR has refused to hand over any such documentation – citing “Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, which applies where disclosure of information would or would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.” Despite subsequent letters from Greenpeace lawyers, DBERR will still not release the requested documentation.
Greenpeace lawyers this week sent another email to BERR requesting details of any pressure the department put on MRSB in relation to content or timing of the Board’s ruling. Greenpeace is now demanding the immediate publication of any such documents so any question of undue pressure being applied can be addressed and, presumably, discounted.
OLR demonstrated its faith and trust in the judgement the MRSB when it entered the trade body’s awards for this year.
And it goes on. But I think you get the picture. Obviously, I do not share Greenpeace's views on nuclear power, but that is beside the point. They were quite right to draw attention to this consultation sham. It demonstrates breathtaking arrogance on the part of the government to think they could get away with this, and breathtaking incompetence and chicanery on the part of OLR.
At the very least, OLR should now be banned from bidding for government polling, focus group or consultation contracts.