Downing Street has been compelled to admit that a Labour donor met the prime minister at a sensitive time when he was seeking to win a lucrative contract from the government.
Dr Paul Drayson [head of the BioIndustry Association - motto: Promoting UK Biotechnology], who donated GBP100,000 to Labour, provoked controversy when the government awarded his company PowderJect, without any competition, a GBP32m contract...
Downing St forced to reveal secret meetings
Rob Evans and David Leigh
Tuesday March 16, 2004
In a victory for freedom of information, the parliamentary ombudsman has forced Tony Blair to reveal his pattern of meetings with commercial lobbyists. This has been a fiercely preserved Downing Street secret, which critics argue has long tainted democratic government in Britain.
Ann Abraham, the ombudsman, has found No 10 guilty of unjustifiably keeping secret contacts between ministers and commercial companies who are seeking to influence them. Her ruling follows separate complaints from the Guardian and the Liberal Democrats.
As a result of the verdict, Downing Street has been compelled to admit that a Labour donor met the prime minister at a sensitive time when he was seeking to win a lucrative contract from the government.
Dr Paul Drayson, who donated GBP100,000 to Labour, provoked controversy when the government awarded his company PowderJect, without any competition, a GBP32m contract to produce smallpox vaccine.
What was never disclosed was that Dr Drayson was one of a select group of businessmen invited by Mr Blair to a private Downing Street breakfast on December 6 2001. At the time, the government was deciding which company should be awarded the contract, and within weeks, decided that there should be no tender.
Dr Drayson refuses to comment on the meeting. A Downing Street spokeswoman refused to detail what was said, claiming it would amount to an invasion of Dr Drayson's privacy.
In the past two years businessmen have been invited to breakfasts with Mr Blair on at least six occasions.
At the private meeting in December 2001, Dr Drayson and chief executives from 15 companies lobbied Mr Blair and the trade secretary, Patricia Hewitt, about matters of direct commercial benefit.
Paul Carvell, the chief executive of Business Post Group, pressed Mr Blair to open up the mail market as his company is seeking to win a slice of this business to deliver letters.
Frank Chapman, the chief executive of oil and gas company BG Group, lobbied the prime minister on the liberalisation of energy markets.
Alan Parker, managing director of Whitbread's hotels division, wanted the government to do more to revive the tourism industry after September 11.
Other companies included engineers Alstom, pub managers Pubmaster, car services group Inchcape, gas and electricity suppliers Scottish and Southern Energy, engineering company Mowlem, Marks & Spencer, and EasyJet.
Releasing the information after the ombudsman's ruling, Downing Street said the breakfast had been "held as a private event".
"The prime minister holds such events on a regular basis to discuss issues with a range of people, such as health workers."
The government had always insisted that it was not "normal practice to release details of meetings with private individuals or companies".
The Guardian requested under the open government code a list of contacts between the prime minister and the BioIndustry Association, the trade body for the biotech industry, which was headed by Dr Drayson at that time. The request was rejected.
The ombudsman ruled that such blanket secrecy was unacceptable, saying information should be released unless there was a good reason not to. She criticised officials for frustrating her investigation of the Guardian's complaint through excessive delays in responding.
She did not find "persuasive" Downing Street's argument that releasing the information would damage the work of the government, adding that officials had "given no detailed reasons" for this belief.
She also dismissed another Downing Street claim that listing the contacts would betray the commercial secrets of the BioIndustry Association and hurt its competitive position.
On the contrary, she found that "rather than keeping such contacts secret, the BioIndustry Association are more likely to advertise them openly". She pointed to a press release issued by the association describing one of its meetings with the home secretary. "Such a disclosure is not surprising. Lobbying has long been a part of this country's democratic system."
"In this light, the BioIndustry Association can only be expected to advertise the contacts it has had with ministers and the attempts that they have made to influence their policy decisions."
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, hailed the ombudsman's verdict as a milestone of democracy. "For the first time, the public has a right to know who in government is meeting whom from organisations with a vested interest in influencing policy."
The ombudsman's ruling has created a precedent throughout Whitehall that the existence of such meetings should be disclosed. But officials are continuing to take an obstructive attitude, despite their defeat.
Rather than release details of other such meetings with lobbyists on request, the Cabinet Office has circulated guidance to other ministries insisting each application be considered on its merits, and made the subject of a prolonged and formal open government request.
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