UK: Doing it for Tony.

UK: Doing it for Tony. - Blair has been in bed with the business community ever since he came to power - but how happy is the marriage? asks George Parker.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Blair has been in bed with the business community ever since he came to power - but how happy is the marriage? asks George Parker.

It all started so well. Tony Blair, anxious to prove that his was a listening, business-loving administration, decided to bring the boardroom to Whitehall to help his fledgling ministers develop policy.

Suddenly company bosses were popping up everywhere, sitting in on a slew of new task forces, advising ministers on issues from construction to the music industry. And business loved it: never before had a government taken so much trouble to find out what corporate Britain had to say.

The task-force cast makes interesting reading for those seeking illumination on the identity of the real movers and shakers in Blair's Britain. A survey by the Cranfield School of Management has found that about 350 business people are involved, holding places on most of the main bodies, as well as the chair and majority of places on those groups looking at industry issues.

Recruitment has come from across the spectrum, although the majority of business appointees are from senior management and from FTSE 100 companies.

Sir Peter Davis from the Prudential, Ian McAllister from Ford, Anthony Greener from Diageo and Walter Hasselkus from Rover are among the most eminent names involved. And as business involvement grew, so did the Government's obvious pleasure.

But then the sniping began. Left-wing critics claimed the Government was allowing the country to be run by a group of (mainly) men, whose interest was more in the bottom line than the public good. Some businessmen started to get disillusioned, claiming the task forces were simply a charade, which gave ministers the fig-leaf of 'business approval' for their schemes.

Civil servants started to wilt under the pressure of an endless stream of 'policy reviews', many of which stood little chance of leading to legislation in the short term. The Conservatives described the situation as a 'farce'.

In the end, Tony Blair decided to put the brakes on the task-force revolution.

Even before the first 100 days were up, Sir Robin Butler, the cabinet secretary, issued instructions from the Prime Minister that there would be a moratorium on the creation of new review teams.

In a letter to all ministers, Sir Robin wrote: 'Mr Blair has asked that reviews should be established only where one of two conditions has been fulfilled: either an explicit commitment has been made in the Labour manifesto, or there is collective ministerial agreement that the Government wants to make changes in a particular area, and has a realistic prospect of doing so.'

That was in June 1998. But by the time of the edict most of the new task forces had been set up and reviews set in train and many of them continue to this day.

Government by task force looks set to be an enduring feature of this Labour government. The question is whether the system has any merit, either for the ministers who create these bodies, the businessmen and others who sit on them, and for the public at large.

The task-force revolution is very much a Labour creation. It may have been Margaret Thatcher who brought the term into the British vocabulary when she dispatched a Royal Navy 'task force' to the Falklands, but the concept was not widely picked up by ministers in the more peaceful corners of Whitehall.

Mrs Thatcher had a few arm's-length advisory bodies, on issues such as food and energy, but there was no wider commitment to bringing in industry, the unions and other pressure groups to advise on policy.

John Major may have been more consensual, but that did not mean he wanted to formalise a relationship between Whitehall and the corporate sector.

The Tories had been in power long enough to know what they wanted to do, and how they were going to do it.

Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street in May 1997 having assiduously cultivated and neutralised the business community. But there was nothing in the Labour manifesto to indicate he was about to draft in large numbers of Britain's bosses to help him run the country.

Indeed, the task-force revolution was a bit of an accident. Ministers knew they would curry favour with Blair if they actively involved businessmen in shaping policy, but there was no grand plan at work. Individual departments announced policy reviews and new advisory task forces without any reference back to the centre. The Cabinet Office, which was supposedly responsible for co-ordinating Whitehall activity, did not realise the extent of this review culture until it was too late. New Labour in government, it was said, had 'hit the ground reviewing'.

Cranfield School of Management calculates that, within the first nine months of Labour taking office, it had announced around 200 policy reviews, ranging from silicone breast implants to fishing vessels. At the same time, more than 75 task forces or policy forums had been set up, taking in such diverse subjects as the private finance initiative, disability rights and football. Around 350 business people were suddenly propelled into the stuffy world of Whitehall to offer their wisdom, alongside pressure groups, trade unions, voluntary groups and Martin Bell - the only MP with a place on a task force.

David Clark, Cabinet Office minister during the first year of the Blair government, recalls that many of his colleagues were setting up task forces simply to give the impression that they were doing something. 'In many cases, it was a desperate attempt to buy time,' he says. 'We wanted to give a sense of momentum.'

Ultimately, he believes, too many reviews were being set up, which meant that ministers did not have time to focus on the ideas being generated by the outside bodies.

'There is a real role for them but I'm not sure the Government has learned how to use them yet,' he says.

Kenneth Clarke, the former Tory chancellor, watched with amusement as Labour ministers fell over themselves to announce new reviews. 'Setting up a task force is a way of making an announcement without actually doing anything,' he says. 'I think the Government likes them because they can put out a dynamic press release, while deferring decisions by months or even years.'

While admitting that ministers were perhaps a little over-zealous on the review front in the months after the election, the Government vigorously denies that it has been engaged in a cynical public-relations stunt.

'It is a long time since we had a new government, and ministers wanted to take a long look at the issues before acting,' says the Cabinet Office.

'After three or four years, a lot of these task forces will have done their work and will probably disappear.'

Those who have been involved in the operation of task forces see merit in them. Even the Civil Service, which might have felt aggrieved to see policy-making hived off to supposed amateurs from the world of commerce, has warm words to say about the initiative.

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the Civil Service First Division Association, says the process is useful because it allows interested parties to air policy differences at an early stage before ministers have to take a view.

'It helps the Civil Service because you get ideas and inputs from a different source,' he says. 'It is more than a cosmetic exercise.' Working relations between task-force members and the civil servants who act as their link with ministers are good. 'We are happy to adapt to the new working methods, so long as final decisions are taken by ministers,' he says.

It is easy to see what ministers get out of task forces. They provide a useful sounding board for ideas, and bring together 'stakeholders' on a given policy issue to hammer out their differences in advance - and in private.

Task forces, which typically meet once or twice a month, encapsulate Blairite words like 'pluralism' and 'inclusion'. When they finally produce a report, ministers can pick up the proposals they like and unleash them into the wider world - knowing that any likely opposition has been squared in advance.

There are pitfalls. Very occasionally, they say things which embarrass the Government. Alan McGee of Creation Records, a member of the creative industries task force, denounced Labour's plans for welfare reform as 'incredibly naive, unfair and draconian'. Stella McCartney, from the fashion house Chloe, staged a high-profile walkout from the 33-member Panel 2000 group, set up to advise on the rebranding of Britain. Her defection illustrated the growing dissatisfaction in the creative industries towards the Blair government. But those voices of dissent are rare in the task-force world.

That is at least partly explained by the fact that ministers are not normally inclined to appoint task-force members with a track record of criticism of the Government. The allegation of them being 'Tony's cronies' is often made by the Tories.

Steve Platt, former editor of the New Statesman, concluded in a study on task forces for the think-tank Catalyst: 'Anyone joining a policy review group in the expectation that they would be given free rein to develop their own views on what policy ought to be would be very much mistaken.'

But the generally positive outlook of task-force members also reflects the fact that most feel pleased to have been asked to join, and feel that their voices are being heard. John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, is among those in the union movement who feels the task-force initiative has been worthwhile - even if some bodies have been less influential than others.

'He was a bit frustrated with the competitiveness task force when it was set up,' says Phil Wyatt, head of research at the GMB, who helps to provide the union's input. 'It wasn't at all clear what its role was going to be - the first meeting seemed to be an excuse for the chaps to get together for a nice meal.' Edmonds still believes the competitiveness group, chaired by Peter Mandelson, Trade Secretary, has been less influential than the other body he sits on - the Skills Task Force, which reports to the Department for Education and Employment.

Surprisingly, there is little resentment among the unions at the business bias on the task forces. 'Until Labour came along, we were barely involved in anything like this at all,' says one senior union official, who declines to be named. 'We are happy with our level of involvement - anything more would probably overstretch our resources.'

One can easily understand why unions and pressure groups should want to put across their view at task-force meetings, which typically take place once or twice a week. But what motivates so many business people to give up their time to help ministers develop policy?

Peter Agar, deputy director general of the CBI,thinks it is probably a combination of the wish to advance their company's interests, a sense of public service and a desire to get closer to the centre of political power. He says even traditional Tory supporters were intrigued by the possibility of shaping Government policy.

Members of task forces deliberating on issues like urban policy, skills and better regulation all believe their work will have (or already has had) a bearing on Government decision making. But on other bodies, there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction that the members are there under false pretences. It is particularly clear on the New Deal task force, set up under the auspices of Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett to advise on the delivery of the £5bn welfare-to-work programme.

'There is a sense that we are being asked to be toadies,' says one committee member, who does not want to be named. 'Officials don't tell us what's going on and we don't feel we are really involved in policy decisions.

'The business people seem to be there simply for PR reasons, to say the whole thing is a good idea. I would expect there to be a big shake-out when people's terms on the committee expire - a lot of people will want to leave.' Other company bosses, used to brisk business meetings, have reported their frustration at sitting in lengthy meetings, listening to extended diatribes from pressure-group representatives. 'Being on bodies like this is their raison d'etre, but we've got other things to do,' said another task-force member. 'It is a good opportunity for them to let off steam and they can get very emotional; one person burst into tears at one meeting.'

Clearly, the effectiveness of the task-force approach varies widely from body to body. And some task forces are expected to become permanent, including the ones on the PFI, competitiveness and better regulation, while others - such as the tax and benefits task force - have already been wound up.

Indeed, with many of the bodies due to report by the end of the year, you might think that 1998 was the high water mark for the task-force revolution. However, Blair is certain to find further uses for task forces in the future. At the next general election, he will be seeking to lure as many big names into Labour's 'Big Tent' as possible. l

George Parker is a political correspondent for the Financial Times

SECRETT'S GOVERNMENT

While most task-force members believe they are involved in a benign exercise in consultative democracy, a minority fear they have become involved in a subversive Blairite plot.

Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth and a member of the Sustainable Development round table, claims that task forces have become 'an unmanageable beast ... They are changing the whole democratic decision-making process, by giving power to secretive undemocratic quangos which aren't held accountable by parliament,' he argues. 'It is about Tony Blair trying to take the politics out of policy-making.' Secrett's views echo the conclusions of a report by Catalyst, the left-of-centre think-tank which suggests that the exercise is dangerous.

'Behind the rhetoric about pluralism and inclusion, and all the talk of creating a new national consensus, there lies an older reality: government by elite,' says the report.

As well as having a heavy business bias, the report found that 72% of advisory body members were men. Less than 3% of the membership was Asian or black, and the ethnic minorities were not represented at all on more than half the bodies.

Catalyst argues that a white business elite is effectively framing policy behind closed doors and out of sight of elected parliamentarians.

Only Martin Bell, Independent MP for Tatton, has a place on a task force: the Panel 2000 body, advising on the rebranding of Britain.

The Government argues that ministers remain responsible for policy development and are answerable to parliament, and that the task forces are only involved in an advisory role at an early stage in policy development. But Catalyst says the effect of the task-force revolution is to remove MPs from involvement in shaping policy, and to hand it over to an unelected array of supposed experts.

Secrett, despite his reservations, continues to sit on the Sustainable Development body, and, in his own words, to take part in 'New Labour's equivalent of the Tory quango culture'.

HASKINS' AGENDA

Chris Haskins might appear, at first glance, to be a classic example of how 'Tony's cronies' are being drafted into government. Recently created a Labour life peer, the chairman of Northern Foods and Express Dairies, has been given places on three task forces.

The softly spoken Irishman may have enjoyed Blair's patronage, but that has not stopped him attacking Government policy from his platform as chairman of the Better Regulation task force.

The man credited with inventing the ready-made meal in the late 1960s is a lifelong Labour supporter. But in the past year he has fervently opposed the Government's 'nanny state' tendency.

It was Lord Haskins' concerns about the government's proposed Food Standards Agency which helped to persuade ministers to drop legislation from this year's Queen's Speech. The Government's proposal for a flat-rate fee on all food premises to fund the agency was 'a tax by any other name'. He once said memorably, 'Some people think the only thing that stands between them and immortality is the food industry.' The Government's beef-on-the-bone ban was also called unnecessary.

Haskins spends two to three days a week on the better regulation task-force. 'I would like to think it was one of the better ones,' he said.

'We take issues which are controversial, then we go and investigate them.'

Unlike some task forces, Lord Haskins says his body gets involved at an early stage in framing policy. He believes the key to an effective task force is being given information by officials before it is too late.

'Once you have a bad regulation on the statute book, it's hard to get it off,' he says.

In the coming months, Haskins will be looking at how the Government evaluates and addresses risk. Also on the agenda is the question of self-regulation and exempting small businesses from some regulations.

'There is a lot of transparency in what we do, because we publish all our reports,' he says.

COMPETITIVENESS

TASK: to explain business needs to government

Peter Mandelson, DTI

- CK Chow, GKN

- Terry Leahy, Tesco

Sir Terence Conran

- Adair Turner, CBI

- John Monks, TUC

INVESTMENT

TASK: to increase quality and quantity of business investment

Sir David Barnes, Zeneca

- Prof Kumar

Bh/attacharyya, Warwick Manufacturing Group

- John Melbourn, 3i

- David Watson, BP

- John Rose, Rolls-Royce

- Roger Lyons, MSF

NEW DEAL

TASK: to advise on the delivery of New Deal

Sir Peter Davis, Prudential

- Ian McAllister, Ford

- Shami Ahmed, Joe Bloggs

- Victor Adebowale, Centrepoint

- Rodney Bickerstaffe, UNISON

- Lord (Chris) Haskins, Northern Foods

FINANCE

TASK: to identify and remove barriers faced by hi-tech companies

Peter Williams, Oxford Instruments

- Keith McCullagh, Ex-British Biotech

- Peter Agar, CBI

- Peter Meinertzhagen, ABN Amro Hoare Govett

- Geoff Lindey, JP Morgan

- Derek Higgs, Prudential Portfolio Managers

URBAN

TASK: to find innovations in housing on developed land

Lord (Richard) Rogers

- Tony Burton, CPRE

- Phil Kirby, BG Properties

- Ann Power, LSE

- Sir Crispin Tickell

- Lorna Walker, Ove Arup

CREATIVE INDUSTRIES

TASK: to maximise the economic potential of the creative industries

Chris Smith, DCMS

- Richard Branson, Virgin Group

- Waheed Alli, Planet 24

- Alan McGee, Creation Records

- Lord (David) Puttnam, Enigma Productions

- Gail Rebuck, Random House

PANEL 2000

TASK: to develop a positive image for Britain

- Derek Fatchett, FCO

- Baroness (Tessa)

- Blackstone

- Martin Sorrell, WPP

- Zeinab Badawi, ITN

- Martin Bell MP

- Lord (Colin) Marshall, BA

CONSTRUCTION

TASK: to improve efficiency in the construction industry

- Sir John Egan, BAA

- Ian Gibson, Nissan

- David Warburton, GMB

- Sir Brian Moffat, British Steel

- Sir Nigel Mobbs, Slough Estates

- Alan Parker, Whitbread

CLEANER VEHICLES

TASK: to promote environmentally friendly vehicles

Ian McAllister, Ford

- Sir Trevor Chin, Lex Services

- Neil Johnson, RAC

- David Lea, TUC

- Walter Hasselkus, Rover

- Keith Taylor, Esso

BETTER REGULATION

TASK: to improve the effectiveness of government regulation

Lord (Chris) Haskins, Northern Foods

- Peter Salsbury, M&S

- Stephen Alambritis, Fed. Small Business

- Sir Simon Gourlay, NFU

- Sue Slipman, Camelot

- Robert Purry, Grant Thornton

BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT

TASK: to encourage business to develop good environmental practice

David Davies, Johnson Matthey

- Anthony Greener, Diageo

- Sir Brian Moffat, British Steel

- Stuart Sweetman, Post Office Counters

- Vic Cocker, Severn and Trent Water

- Peter Doyle, Zeneca.

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