Writing about conflicts of interest and unbalanced accountability

George Monbiot’s piece in The Guardian about Britain’s ‘shadow government‘ is a perfect illustration of the importance of looking at the groups of people that are supposed to monitor, regulate and otherwise exert power in the public interest. Not only does Monbiot highlight the potential conflicts of interest – a process which always suffers from the problem of proving any effects of that conflict – but he outlines how the makeup of these groups contradicts what they are supposed to be there for. In other words, how it illustrates “The gulf between what a government claims to be and what it is”.

This, for me, has a stronger impact. And Monbiot does it at length. If you’re investigating any area which is supposed to be held accountable to the public through a board, council or committee, this demonstrates how you might look at its makeup along the way:

MHRA, the medicines and healthcare products regulatory agency, is the body that has been criticised for failing adequately to regulate breast and hip implants, with grim consequences for some patients. 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.

The Medical Research Council, which disburses research funds for the preservation of life, is chaired by a man who runs 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 and “greed of the highest order” by the agency’s former managing director.

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. 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 instance, is supposed to ensure that the railways are safe, efficient and “meet the needs of passengers and freight customers”. 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.

Soon after this government took office it set up a Farming Regulation Task Force. It was chaired by the ex-director general of the National Farmers Union. His deputy was another NFU official. 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. There was no one representing groups protecting the environment, landscape or animal welfare.


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