The dangers of Reform - lobbying and the UK

Who really drives policy at Westminster, the unions or the big commercial lobbyists who appear to operate without any democratic process whatsoever, and with "charitable" status to boot?

Mel Kelly
19 July 2013

Nick Seddon, who moved from Circle Health to Reform before joining David Cameron as an adviser on health. Flickr/M. Holland. Some rights reserved.

The Liberal and Tory parties have been calling for Ed Miliband to reduce the influence of trade unions within the Labour Party. As a result, he has obliged by declaring he will “Reform” the party. Is it the unions that act as a threat to democracy, or is it another body with far greater influence that the unions ever seem able to achieve?

While it was made illegal in 2001 for any foreign company or foreign based individual to donate money to a British political party, companies and individuals external to the UK are still contributing money to one organisation which appears to have a considerable influence on political debate in Britain. The organisation, Reform, is a “charitable” establishment, set up by Tory MP Nick Herbert and the former head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department, Andrew Haldenby.

Unlike political parties, Reform and other think tanks can accept foreign funds. This is a loophole that was originally left open by Tony Blair’s government and is yet to be addressed by any political party. As a result, a number of foreign companies are now “Partners In Reform”, where an annual donation, which now stands at £8,000, allows these companies to find representation in Britain’s policy hubs. 

“[Our partners find] that a close collaboration with Reform helps them to achieve their own objectives, as well as bringing them into a new and high level network” (Reform)

Reform uses the ‘charitable’ money donated to convene private policy conferences on Health, Education, Social Care, Criminal Justice and Policing, Armed Forces, Welfare and Public Service reforms.  Through this, the corporate-funded body appears to have gained a high degree of influence over a number of important debates that are central to Britain.

On the 8th July, there was a “Reform Private Policy Lunch with Neil Churchill, Director of Improving Patient Experience, NHS England – supported and funded by Novo Nordisk – a global healthcare company based in Denmark.

It is now commonplace for government ministers to arrange policy discussions via Reform. Their website states: “Reform will convene a major policy conference with Rt Hon Damian Green MP, Minister of State for Policing and Justice, to explore the challenges and opportunities that this outlook will present across police and criminal justice services.” This event is “supported” by G4S and KBR, a private military contracting group and an American engineering and construction company respectively.

Reform’s policy lunch with Mark Rowley QPM, Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Crime and Operations, Metropolitan Police Service, will bring together a group of 18-20 high-level guests from across the police debate to discuss the UK’s strategy for this matter.. For those individuals and companies who wish to pay Reform’s joining fee it appears they provide substantial access to UK policy makers.

And if the future of Health, Policing and the remainder of the public services being decided in often private meetings funded by foreign money is not bad enough, there will be a conference this week, “in partnership with HP” to decide the future of the “defence workforce”. This is the new Reform term, coined for our Army, Navy and Air Force.

 “Reform will convene a policy summit with Rt Hon Mark Francois MP, Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, to explore the challenges and opportunities that this outlook will present to Defence.  The audience will be around 80-100 policymakers, Ministry of Defence officials, senior members from the Armed Forces, industry leaders, academics and press in the debate.”

Reform has organised that their agenda for “New Thinking On The Welfare State” will be put forward at all three major party conferences this September. They plan to propose this via Steve Webb, Liberal MP at the Liberal Conference, Anne McGuire, Labour MP at the Labour conference and unelected Lord Freud will present the reforms at the Conservative conference –  all “in partnership with the Association of British Insurers”, with Reform Scotland co-ordinating for at least 3 years with the SNP regarding “reforming public services”.

With all this in mind, it must be asked: why are the party leaders, including Ed Miliband, so concerned about union influence while Reform seem to facilitate extensive access to policy makers, including for overseas firms, for anyone willing to pay their joining fees?

The extent that the Labour shadow cabinet is involved in Reform is not clear. It does, however, pose important questions as to why they would want to be involved with a Conservative-linked think tank that is funded in such a way.  In May, Labour’s John Cruddas, the Chair of Labour’s policy review, held his “Preparing For The Next Election” private dinner, an event which was by invitation only – not organised in conjunction with the union leaders, but with Reform.

And then we have Labour’s Stephen Timms, shadow minister for employment along with Tory MP Mark Hoban speaking at the major Reform policy conference: “A team effort: the role of employers in closing the protection gap” – “kindly supported by Unum”. Unum is an American based private insurance company specialising in disability, life and financial protection benefits”. In this way, the event was advertised as Tory and Labour MPs acting in a team effort with an American Insurance company, regarding “reform of the welfare state”.

In April, Andy Burnham held a private dinner at Reform, again by invitation only, to discuss “Whole person care: time to integrate health and care”. Again this was “supported and funded by Novo Nordisk” who “have a particular interest and expertise in the merging models of integrated care as solutions for long term conditions”.

This is just a small selection from the Reform think tank events page, where the Labour Shadow cabinet are advertising their policy events funded by private corporations and organised by Reform; there is no mention of union involvement.

In light of this it must be asked, who is the real threat to democracy: the unions, or lobbyists like Reform and the corporations whose influence they facilitate?


In the process of editing it was noted that Reform’s website claimed that “none of our research is funded by either companies or individuals”. Seeking clarification from Reform, Andrew Haldenby has confirmed that ‘none’ in fact means ‘all’ – though specific funds do not fund specific research. Andrew courteously contacted us by phone to discuss and Reform's website will likely be corrected shortly. (OH) 

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