Page last updated at 08:28 GMT, Wednesday, 23 May 2007 09:28 UK

Labour and the nuclear lobby

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Nuclear power has battled to overcome an image problem

Anti-nuclear campaigners like to portray the government as being in the pocket of the nuclear industry.

How else, they argue, do you explain the return to favour of an industry once written-off as dirty, dangerous and prohibitively expensive?

The picture put forward by some critics is certainly a powerful one. It suggests the image of hapless ministers being schmoozed into submission by smooth-talking former party grandees now in the pay of nuclear multinationals.

In the background there would be briefings with sympathetic scientists, fact-finding missions to exotic locations, dubious statistics advanced over the brandy and cigars.

But how much truth is there in all of this? And how much influence do lobbyists on both sides of the nuclear debate actually have on government policy?

Most industries and large organisations, including the BBC, use lobbyists. They are often former ministers or senior journalists, who have contacts in government and offer advice on how to influence policy.

I don't believe Tony Blair has been influenced by lobbying
Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner

The industry has tried to clean up its act since 1998's cash-for-access scandal, which saw Peter Mandelson's spin doctor Derek Draper fired over his links with lobbyists, but it remains controversial.

Lobbyists working for the nuclear industry, which employs 40,000 people in the UK, have always been well-funded, but since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster were widely assumed to be fighting a losing battle.

Sophisticated campaign

But as the debate about Britain's future energy needs has intensified, the industry's reputation has been rehabilitated, with Labour politicians at least.

Alan Donnelly
Nuclear lobbyist Alan Donnelly is a former Labour MEP

"There has been a very sophisticated public relations campaign by the nuclear industry, using climate change, using energy security, saying that nuclear is now cheap and safe, and a few years ago the technology was dead in the water," says Andy Rowell of Greenpeace-funded Nuclear Spin website.

There are certainly no shortage of links between the nuclear industry and the New Labour establishment.

Former energy minister Brian Wilson is now a non-executive director of Amec Nuclear, a client of BNFL, the government-owned nuclear reactor operator.

Since 2004, BNFL has used lobbyists Weber Shandwick to help it push the case for new nuclear plants.

Fast-track planning

Weber Shandwick's UK arm is headed by Colin Byrne, the Labour Party's former chief press officer.

French energy giant EDF has also been at the forefront of the campaign to change perceptions of nuclear power.

Lord Cunningham
Lord Cunningham was Tony Blair's 'Cabinet enforcer'

The company, which operates 58 nuclear reactors in France and is already a big player in the UK electricity market, has said it is ready to invest in a new generation of plants in the UK, provided it gets the go-ahead from government.

It has successfully lobbied ministers to introduce a fast-track planning process to make it easier to build new plants without lengthy public enquiries.

Chancellor Gordon Brown's brother, Andrew, is EDF's head of media relations in the UK.

Yvette Cooper, housing and planning minister, and wife of Mr Brown's closest political ally Ed Balls, also has links to the nuclear industry.

Her father, ex-trade union official Tony Cooper, is the former chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, and is currently a director of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

He has been one of the most vocal champions of the industry's green credentials.

One of the most well-connected nuclear lobbyists is Alan Donnelly, former leader of the Labour group in the European Parliament.

Mr Donnelly's company, Sovereign Strategy, represents US engineering giant Fluor, one of the world's biggest nuclear contractors, which is currently vying for a slice of the UK's £70bn nuclear clean-up market - but like other US firms, such as Bechtel, also has an eye on future nuclear build.

Kitchen row

On its website, Sovereign Strategy, offers among other services, "pathways to the decision makers in national governments".

Its board members include Tory peer Lady Maitland and pro-nuclear Labour peer Lord Cunningham, Tony Blair's former "cabinet enforcer" and the ex chairman of the Friends of Sellafield campaign.

Lord Cunningham is also "legislative chair" of the Transatlantic Nuclear Energy Forum, an organisation founded and run by Mr Donnelly, that aims to foster "strong relationships" between nuclear power companies and governments.

Tony Blair has spoken at events organised by Sovereign Strategy, including 2005's North East Economic Forum in his Sedgefield constituency, where he was reportedly introduced by a Fluor executive.

It was nonsense, but that's the way it goes
Alan Donnelly

Mr Donnelly's links with environment minister David Miliband have also come under the spotlight after the Sunday Times ran a story about the lobbyist paying £2,000 towards the refurbishment of Mr Miliband's constituency office.

Mr Donnelly insisted he was acting in his capacity as the chairman of Mr Miliband's constituency Labour Party in South Shields. Both men have firmly denied any impropriety.

Writing in trade magazine Public Affairs News, Mr Donnelly said the money had been declared - and he had given it because he has been a Labour Party member for 32 years "and the party workers needed the kitchen fixing".

He wrote: "The crux of the story was this: That David Miliband would be so ecstatic with the £2,000 spent on his constituency kitchen that, were he fortunate enough to become environment secretary one day, he'd pull out all the stops to award one of our clients the contract to build a whole raft of nuclear power stations.

"It was nonsense, but that's the way it goes."

Peers' payment

Sovereign Strategy has been criticised by the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) - of which it is not a member - for having parliamentarians on its payroll, something the trade body prohibits in its code of conduct.

"We pay them for their work because they deserve to be paid for their time," Mr Donnelly wrote of the two peers who sit on his board.

Labour has often castigated the old boy network, the public school tie and so on, but they have a similar network. It depends who you know in the unions or ex-Labour ministers
Jean McSorely

Lobbyists such as Sovereign and Weber Shandwick rely on their contacts in the corridors of power to impress potential clients and bring in new business.

Green lobby

But how much influence do they actually wield over government policy?

And what about the role of the anti-nuclear lobby - groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - less well-funded, perhaps, but arguably no less well-connected, and with a canny knack for grabbing headlines?

There are many links between the government and the green lobby - although several former advisers are now firmly opposed to its policies.

Greenpeace executive director Stephen Tindale, a former special adviser to Labour ministers Chris Smith and Michael Meacher, has been highly critical of the government's nuclear policy.

Stephen Hale, director of the Green Alliance, who was a special adviser to Margaret Beckett when she was environment secretary, has also attacked what he called Tony Blair's "obsession" with nuclear power.

And the government's independent Sustainable Development Commission, chaired by ex-Friends of the Earth chief Jonathan Porritt, has also been sceptical about nuclear.

'Old boy network'

Because it is made up of voluntary organisations or charities, the green lobby can claim to have a certain amount of public support, which can help open doors in Whitehall.

But it is not enough for green campaigners just to be seen as "nice people", argues Greenpeace's Jean McSorely - they must also have the stronger arguments.

The pro-nuclear lobby has been clever in using environmental arguments, on climate change, and the security of supply issue, to push its case, she says.

She believes Greenpeace has a stronger scientific case, but, she argues, it does not always get a fair chance to make it.

"The access industry gets is just phenomenal compared to green groups," she tells the BBC News website.

"Labour has often castigated the old boy network, the public school tie and so on, but they have a similar network. It depends who you know in the unions or ex-Labour ministers.

"People may accept that as the way things are, but there needs to be more transparency."

Blair advisers

Having said that, she does not believe Mr Blair has been made to change his mind by the efforts of the pro-nuclear lobby - he was already a convert.

It was Mr Blair, she argues, who in 2003 insisted on the door being left open for nuclear in the government's energy white paper, which proposed a large increase in renewable energy.

Tony Blair at CBI dinner in May
Tony Blair used a CBI dinner to say nuclear was back with a vengeance

"I don't believe Tony Blair has been influenced by lobbying. Both he and the industry have just been waiting for the right time to make their move", says Ms McSorely.

Where the lobbyists come in, she argues, is in "shoring up" support among other Cabinet ministers, MPs and the general public, and smoothing away potential opposition.

The role of the trade unions has also been crucial, with the GMB and TGWU being particularly active in pushing the pro-nuclear case. Five trade unions have also banded together to fund a nuclear workers' lobby group, Nuklear21, to push the case for new nuclear plants.

Industry voice

Mr Blair is thought to have made the decision to hold an energy review - paving the way for the return of nuclear - after a meeting in September 2005 at Chequers with his advisers and representatives of the nuclear industry.

Those close to the debate believe it is these advisers - such as former BBC director general Lord Birt, industry adviser Geoffrey Norris and the government's chief scientific adviser Sir David King - who have most influenced the prime minister's thinking.

Insiders argue that Mr Blair is more than capable of making his own mind up based on the available evidence and the nuclear industry also rejects the suggestion it is given special access to ministers and other decision-makers.

With the industry employing 40,000 people in the UK, nuclear has a right to make its voice heard in government, argues John McNamara, of the Nuclear Industry Association.

He adds: "It should not come as a surprise that we do as much as we can to represent the interests of our industry, like any other large industrial sector."


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