Thursday, November 29, 2012

A rotten civil service

The UK is about to publish its energy bill, widely expected to contain whopping subsidies for nuclear energy. It will be a deeply unpopular move - nuclear power is about as popular as cancer, and subsidising it even worse - so the government will have to work hard to convince the public that this really is the best policy and not, for example, the result of some corrupt jack-up to support an uneconomic industry. But that's exactly what it appears to be:

Senior civil servants responsible for ensuring the building of the UK's new fleet of nuclear power stations have been extensively wined and dined by nuclear industry lobbyists, documents released under freedom of information reveal.

A hospitality register (.zip) released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) show that the three most senior officials at the Office for Nuclear Development (OND) have received hospitality from nuclear industry representatives on dozens of occasions since the office's formation in September 2009. Many of the meetings have taken place at some of London's most luxurious restaurants, hotels and private members' clubs.


Asked why so many of the meetings take place at such luxurious venues, the Decc spokesman said: "Industry meetings are hosted at our offices as well as at external events. The choice of location for external events is a matter for the hosting organisations." He added that such meetings are considered to be "informal" and that, as a result, minutes of conversations are not kept by the department. Ministers are not routinely informed of the meetings, he said, as all hospitality is recorded in accordance with Cabinet Office policy.

Yes, its just a coincidence that all of those meetings involved expensive dinners in luxurious surroundings rather than, say, coffee at someone's office. I guess the technical details of policy just flow so much better over lobster and champagne than they do over a desk. And its not as if the Minister needs to be told that their key policy staff are being bribed in this way - if he wants to know, he can just look it up in the register! (which is of course hidden in a locked filing cabinet in the dark basement of a disused building with a "beware of the leopard" sign on the door).

But this is just modern Britain: Parliament is rotten, and its no wonder that the civil servants are too.

But apart from being odious in and of itself, this sort of corruption undermines belief in government, and undermines the policies purchased by it. Pretty obviously, it is going to be a lot more difficult for Ministers to sell this policy, with the stench hanging around it, than if it hadn't been so obviously produced by corrupt lobbying. If the UK was democratic, that would be a strong practical reason to outlaw such practices. But with an unfair voting system which limits the ability of the public to hold governments accountable, Ministers have no real incentive to do anything.