Are top ministers avoiding meetings with NGOs?

Tom Watson has shared a treasure trove of information about who’s getting meetings with the new government on his blog

Publishing documents previously available only to those with access to the House of Commons library. It shows who advice is being sought and who’s being locked out.

The first few months of a governments matter, because they set the tone, it’s a time when departments are being bombarded with requests for meetings, so only those whose views are really wanted are invited in.

The information from the three of the ministries of state (No 10, Foreign Office and Home Office) makes for unhappy reading for civil society groups, despite the focus on the ‘Big Society’ their hasn’t been a lot of space created for meetings with representatives from CSOs.

The PM has held just one meeting with civil society, a roundtable with 16 organisations to discuss the ‘Big Society’. The only other non-business or media interest was a meeting with the TUC in July and Bob Geldof to discuss ‘development issues’ in June (presumably ahead of the G8) although many NGOs will remember with horror the way the Geldof threw away the script and fell out with many involved in the Make Poverty History after the G8 summit in 2005.

Compare that to meetings with Rupert Murdoch, Phizer, Facebook and Wikimedia, amongst others that the PM has had and it shows more of an enthusiasm to meet with foreign companies and representatives of News International.

Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, seems to have done a little better, attending the same meeting with Cameron to discuss ‘The Big Society’, and also receiving petitions from ‘Take Back Parliament’ and the Maternal Mortality Campaign, along with holding meeting with The Elders, Gates Foundation and the British Overseas Aid Group (a group of the biggest 5 development NGOs).

The same patterns seems to be repeating itself across at the FCO, William Hague hasn’t found time to meet with any campaigning organisations, although he made space for BAE Systems, delegating to junior minister meetings on a whole range of issues including elections in Burma, human rights and Zimbabwe.

The Home Office appear to have done better, with Home Secretary Thresea May holding ‘Introductions’ with Stonewall, Hillsborough Family Support Group, Migration Watch UK and a large group of equalities organisations. Other minister in the department also appear to have been busy meeting with a whole range of campaigning groups, like Refugee Watch, NSPCC and Women’s Aid.

As an aside my favourite entry from the Home Office is a meeting in July that Human Rights Watch held with Baroness Neville-Jones, the purpose of the meeting ‘Discuss report no questions asked’. It raises interesting questions about how the meeting was conducted, and if a cup of coffee was offered to those attending!

Meetings held by other departments are, as yet unavailable, although Tom Watson has promised to publish them if they are. It’ll be interesting to see if the pattern of senior ministers not meeting with CSOs has been happening at other departments, and if this trend continues in the coming months.

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Lists of people who matter

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of lists. Although I’m not a natural Daily Telegraph reader, their annual profiles of the top 100 most influential people in each of the political parties is an invaluable resource when it comes to planning routes to influence.

100 Most influential Left-wingers – 1 to 25, 26 to 50, 51 to 75 and 76 to 100

100 Most influential Right-wingers – 1 to 25, 26 to 5051 to 75 and 76 to 100

Top 50 Lib Dems – 1 to 25 and 26 to 50

Other lists produced in time for Conference season include;
Left Foot Forward – most influential left-wing thinkers
New Statesman – 50 people who matter

Has anyone else found any useful lists?

How are new MPs adjusting to campaign tactics?

Parliament rose for the summer recess this week, and it’s been interesting to see how the new (and some returning MPs) have responded to all the campaigning actions that they’ve been on the receiving end of.

Exhibit A is an Early Day Motion (EDM) from the new Conservative MP for Weaver Vale, Graham Evans, who ironically used an EDM to criticise the effectiveness of them. Evan’s argues that;

this House regrets the continuing decline in importance of Early Day Motions which have become a campaign tool for external organisations; notes the role of public affairs professionals in drafting Early Day Motions and encouraging members of the organisations they represent to send pro forma emails and postcards to hon. Members; further notes the huge volume of correspondence that this generates and the consequent office and postage costs incurred; believes that the organisations involved derive little benefit from Early Day Motions, which very rarely have any influence on policy;

Only 22 MPs signed onto it although many of them are from the new intake of Conservative MPs, which might signal a disinterest in using them as a tool to register their support for an issue in the future.

Many campaigners have long discussed the effectiveness of EDMs, described by some MPs, who refuse to sign onto them viewing them as a form of ‘parliamentary graffiti’, but others see them as a useful way of demonstrating support for an issue, and a way of giving MPs a specific action to take to demonstrate support for an issue. ConservativeHome has more on the EDM and a counter one from another Conservative MP, plus an interesting case study of how an EDM started a campaign to keep the General Election Night Special, although this came as a result of a campaign that was initiated and of particular interest to MPs.

Exhbit B is this recent report in Third Sector magazine from a Media Trust event at which Charles Walker MP, a backbench Conservative MP commented that ‘Charities often write to MPs asking us to write to ministers to express their disquiet. They assume their concerns must be our concerns. That’s almost bullying, to be honest. Lots of the lobbying MPs are subjected to is blunt and cackhanded’

Going on to say that some charities, such as Macmillan Cancer Support and a local hospice charity in his constituency, were very good at communicating with him. Inviting him to events they are holding locally and saying “It’s almost impossible for an MP to turn down an invitation from a charity that is doing good work in his or her constituency.”

It’s too early to tell if the new batch of MPs are going to be more or less receptive to popular campaigning, but these two examples should perhaps challenge campaigning organisatons to think afresh about the tactics and approaches that are going to use to influence the new (and old) intake.

‘Your Freedom’ and better campaigning

The new coalition government seems to have gone a little crazy when it comes to website consultations. In the last few weeks we’ve had them announce ‘Spending Challenge‘ and ‘Your Freedom‘, with no doubt more to come in future weeks.
They’d say its all part of their new agenda of engaging with the public and moving away from a top-down approach, although the cynic in me says that it’s a good PR opportunity. No doubt time will tell if they provide good opportunities for campaigners, or if they’re just a diversion to provide some semblance of consultation but ultimately to ignore what people are saying.
However one process that campaigners should be interested in is ‘Your Freedom’ where the government is asking for what laws and regulations they should get rid of. High up on my list would be parts of the Serious and Organised Crime Policing Act (SOCPA for short).
Much has been written about the restrictions placed on campaigning by SOCPA, the need to give 6 days  notice to register to protest in Westminster, the arbitaroty 1 mile limit around Parliament and the way that its systematically made it harder to protest.Comedian Mark Thomas has shown the absurdity of much of the law, but the ‘Your Freedom’ consultation provides another way to reduce much of its impact.
Looking at the draft legislation, it repeals some of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) 2005 including the restriction of protests close to parliament. It also restricts CCTV use to investigation of serious crimes, repeals the 2005 Terrorism Act and restores the definition of a public assembly to 20 people rather than 2.
However, the draft does not as yet provide protection against the myriad other laws used to restrict campaigning – such as the Public Order Act (1986) which can be used to move the site of a protest, trespass laws used against people collecting petitions in shopping centres, harassment legislation that which bans “seeking to persuade someone not to do something that he is entitled or required to do” and terrorism legislation of 2006 which categorises non violent activists who damage property as terrorists.
The recent NCVO ‘Future Trends in Campaigning‘ publication highlighted the ‘marginalisation of dissent’ as a emerging trend for campaigners to address , so engaging with this consultation (whatever you think of its method) and also supporting the work of groups like BOND and NCVO in engaging on this should be hight up on the ‘to do’ list for campaigners to remove some these absurd laws to prevent this trend coming true.
Going forward it’ll be interesting to monitor the opportunities that the consultations provide to actually influence government policy. Campaigners should be watching to see how many of the most popular suggestiosn get acted upon, or just  to see if it goes the same way as the Downing Street petition site which attracted some really pointless suggestions. As campaigners, they’re going to present both challengs and opportunities. New ways of inviting campaigners to use their voice, but formats that can be difficult to engage in (the Spending Challenge doesn’t have an option to let people say what they think should be kept for example) and are untested in terms of impact on government policy.

Getting to know the Conservatives

Whatever happens in the upcoming General Election (and as a personal disclaimer at this point I’m doing what I can to get as many Labour MPs elected) it’s clear that while many campaigners have got comfortable working with a Labour government, but know less about how to effectively influence the Conservative party.

Here are my 3 suggestions to campaigners wanting to get to know the party that might form the next government.

1 – Get the daily lowdown on what’s happening
Signing up for the Conservative Home daily e-mails is the best place to get the intelligence on what MPs, councillors and activists are thinking and doing.
A day doesn’t seem to go by without the site featuring an announcement from a front-bench minister or the release of a new report or study. A valuable investment of 5 minutes each day and it costs nothing.
For other useful Conservative blogs to look at have a look at the top 100 right-of-centre blogs as voted by the readers of Iain Dale.

2 – Get to know the key players and who influences them
Being able to do an effective power analysis is central to good campaigning, and once again the people behind Conservative Home have excelled themselves producing this excellent wall chart which helps you understand who’s who in the Conservative Party. If you’ve got more money to spend, they’ll also provide you with a whole host of other useful resources.
Useful books to read include the very accessible ‘Cameron and the Rise of the New Conservatives‘ by Francis Elliot, the more academic ‘The Conservatives under David Cameron: Built to Last?‘ edited by Simon Lee and ‘Cameron on Cameron‘ by Dylan Jones.

3 – Find out about the fresh intake of MPs
Lots has been written that one of the defining features of the next Parliament will be the large number of new MPs. The Conservative website has a decent list of all its PPC, and a number of polling companies have put together reports profiling those that are most likely to get elected, like this one from Insight PA.
Even better more and more are embracing social media and have their own blogs, facebook pages and twitter accounts (here is a list from tweetminster). A quick search and you can find out all sorts about what they think on your campaign issue.

Ministerial Correspondence

It has long been believed that getting an MP to write to minister is a more effective than sending postcards directly to a government department. Why? Because protocol dictates that a letter from an MPs requires a ministerial response, but how many items of correspondence are government departments getting?

This ministerial statement from last month gives details of the number of ministerial correspondence (letters from MPs and Lords) each department receives in 2008.  The top 10 departments and agencies are;

1. UK Border Agency – 51,905
2. Department of Health – 20,242
3. Department for Children, Schools and Families – 15,810
4. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – 14526
5. HM Treasury – 14,057
6. Foreign and Commonwealth Office – 10,334
7. Department for Communities and Local Government – 10,227
8. Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – 9,875
9. Department for Transport – 8,393
10. Child Support Agency – 7,313

A couple of others to note included DECC which received over 2,500 letters in the few months after it was created, and DFID which recieved 3,100.

Many of the letters recieved by agencies (like the UK Border Agency where a large number of the enquiries will be individual imigration and asylum requests) from MPs won’t ever be seen by a minister so will have little or no political impact.

Taking out agencies the average government department receives just under 7,000 letters per year. When you divide that between 4 ministers (an average number of ministers per department based on a quick look at this Cabinet Office list) it means that each minister is dealing with about 34 letters each week but many will be signing many more.

This is a useful briefing for civil servants about how to draft responses to ministerial correspondence.

The life of a junior minister

I’ve be reading the very enjoyable diaries of Chris Mullin MP over the Easter weekend, entitled ‘A View from the Foothills‘ they’re a great look at life somewhere down the ministerial pecking order.

Mullin was a junior minister at the Department for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), DFiD and the Foreign Office. It’d be fair to say that Mullin isn’t a great advocate of the lower rungs of ministerial responsibility, but reading the book provides some useful insights into what the work of junior minister is like. Something of tremendous use given that much of the engagement campaigners and lobbyist often have is with junior ministers.

A few key lessons stand out;

1. Junior ministers aren’t often particularly interested in the brief they have. Mullin, who before becoming a minister was a influential chair of the Home Affairs Select committee, implies he knew next to nothing about the environment when he started in that job, and kept up simply from reading the briefs provided to him.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when they’re not especially interested, Mullin seems to infer at times that the best issues to deal with are the ones that are trouble free, uncontroversial and mean that they won’t cause any embarrassment. Some lobby for the post they really want but most don’t get it.

2. Ministers sign lots of letters. Mullin talks about spending hours at the office often late at night signing letters from MPs. Few get mentioned, although he does despair when thanks to a Friends of the Earth campaign he has to sign over 500 letter. A good way to make a point, but perhaps a quick way to loose good will?

3. They spend lots of time giving speeches – part of the life of a junior minister is to go out and about around the country and give speeches to organisations which have some link. Mullin suggests most aren’t very well written and he was often embarrassed to deliver them. So the next time you hold an event and the minister doesn’t give the barnstorming speech you expect after watching too much West Wing, it probably isn’t their fault.

4. They don’t have huge amounts of access to the Secretary of State or the PM. This obviously depends on the department they’re posted to (so access seems to be better at the Foreign Office under Jack Straw than at DETR under John Prescott) but most seem only to have access to the Secretary of State at weekly departmental meeting and occasional rushed conversations here and there. Generally Mullin doesn’t give the impression that they get to  set a departments agenda, this comes from the Secretary of State (or often even higher up government).

5. They are advised to pick a few issues to change policy on – Mullin while at the environment and region chose try to deal with leylandii hedges, rent paid to absent landlords and getting away without a ministerial car. All valuable but hardly groundbreaking, and even then it was hard work navigating between special interests, civil servants and government priorities to make progress.

6. So much of politics is informal – from the diaries you get the impression that many decisions are made through quiet conversations in tea rooms, chats in the lobby, a call to a friend who is a friend with another minister or a written note slipped into a box.

7. MPs spend lots of time on the train! Mullin is often talking about catching the 20.00 back to Sunderland and bumping into this or that MP.  I think my next campaign strategy is going to map the MPs my target might catch the train home with!