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Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Comic blasts 'rotten' public bodies
Controversial TV comedian Mark Thomas issued a withering attack on public bodies, describing them as "rotten to the core" when it comes to members registering their outside interests.
He told MPs he had found a number of instances where members had failed to declare seemingly relevant business dealings during research for an episode of Channel 4's The Mark Thomas Project.
He also said he had found evidence that a senior Labour minister had an undeclared property offshore - and that some MPs had failed to disclose property purchases.
Mr Thomas was called to give evidence to the House of Commons public administration inquiry into the way in which public appointments are made.
He said his investigations had forced him to conclude: "There is some very, very fishy stuff going on."
Mr Thomas presented a report to the MPs of a probe to find out which members of 50 public bodies had registered their outside interests.
"Some of these bodies said they didn't have a register. Some of them said they would have to go and look for it, it wasn't around, they had left it on a bus or the dog had eaten it," he said.
He said there were people on the Medical Research Council - the government-funded body that promotes research into medical and related science - who had not registered, including its chairman Professor Ray Fitzpatrick.
But a spokeswoman for the MRC said: "Our members only have to register an interest where there is a potential conflict between what we do and the organisation in question.
"There is no conflict with any of the companies that Mark Thomas has listed."
In his evidence Mr Thomas said: "[Prof Fitzpatrick] has not declared that he is a director of the Bupa Foundation.
"The deputy chief executive of the MRC, Nicholas Winterton, was saying actually he did not believe that was a perceived conflict of interests."
Sir George Radda, MRC chief executive, was another example of alleged "inconsistencies".
"It was deemed that he didn't have to register his interests because he is a staff member and yet he is a board member as well," he told MPs.
"Every other board member has to register their interests, but he is exempt for some reason.
"It fails to mention the fact that he was in fact employed by BTG and was paid £17,000 last year, which is surely an interest?"
Mr Thomas said MRC chairman Sir Anthony Cleaver's membership of the committee for standards in public life was not included, nor were the interests of half the MRC.
Sir Anthony had failed to mention his shareholdings, including at least £30,000 of shares in AEA.
"It doesn't mention that he is a director of Bermuda Asset Management - the very name itself conjures up something off-shore," said Thomas.
There no assets listed in the Bermuda Asset Management at Companies House, he said.
"If you have got an asset... and not declared that asset in your declaration to Companies House, to my mind that is illegal - that's breaking the law."
He argued: "There is no compulsion for people to be completely transparent. They interpret the guidelines to their own needs and whims. There's a complete disregard for the public.
"These people can shape government policy; they can steer and determine what is government policy - yet who are they accountable to?"
Conflicts of interest?
Mr Thomas said Euan Baird, a member of the Council for Science and Technology had not declared that he was chairman and chief executive of Scottish Power.
Scottish Power later pointed out that Mr Baird is not the company's chief executive and chairman, but a non-executive director.
The Competition Commission dealt with possible conflicts of interest on an "ad hoc" basis, the committee was told.
Mr Thomas said he was interested by how Labour's Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General, had sold some offshore shares in Coventry City Football Club to Derek Higgs, a fellow director in a tax-free deal.
Mr Robinson then appointed Mr Higgs six months later to head a government taskforce looking at privatisation issues.
The taskforce later became Partnerships UK, a Treasury-based advisory committee concerned with privatisation advancement, that then privatised itself, meaning declarations of interest no longer needed to be declared.
"If the committees are not seen to be whiter than white, they will be judged as covering things up, being on the make.
"There are people who use the committees to advance their own career and for social advancement. Whether there is actually corruption, I don't know."
Mr Thomas called for members of the public bodies to be paid and chosen by ballot rather than from the usual source of the "great and the good".
He also claimed that when he approached former parliamentary sleaze watchdog Elizabeth Filkin about allegations that a senior Labour minister had undeclared property off-shore, she said she did not have the power to investigate it.
"Really, at that point you have this incredible frustration because you have evidence that senior Labour people could be involved in property scandals and yet there is nothing that anyone can do to follow it up."
He received evidence that other MPs were involved in purchases of properties that were undeclared, but that could not be acted on either.
The Mark Thomas Project seeks to expose hypocrisy and wrong-doing in high places with a mix of comedy, stunts and investigative journalism.
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