Official ruling - Brown's pollsters fixed second public consultation on nuclear power

Last edited 17 October 2008 at 8:46am
17 October, 2008

Gordon Brown's public consultation on nuclear power was fixed by the market research company which carried out the polling, according to the official trade body. 

In an explosive ruling with profound implications for energy policy, the Market Research Standards Board has found that in the consultation conducted by Opinion Leader Research, "information was inaccurately or misleadingly presented, or was imbalanced, which gave rise to a material risk of respondents being led towards a particular answer." The ruling follows a comprehensive 33 page complaint from Greenpeace.

The Board said in its ruling that the public consultation was in breach of the official industry Code of Conduct which provides that market research companies "must take reasonable steps to ensure that Respondents are not led towards a particular answer." The Board concluded that "this was not a minor or trivial breach." OLR are now required "to take corrective action with regard to the process that resulted in the breach in this case" - a development that leaves energy policy in disarray.

OLR has pocketed millions of pounds from the government, and the OLR boss responsible for the conduct of the consultation - Deborah Mattinson - is an advisor and the leading private pollster to Gordon Brown.

The government itself is fingered for blame in the ruling, with the MRSB noting "that drafts of the materials" which were found to be misleading "were reviewed at various stages by COI and BERR officials." COI is the Central Office of Information.

The polling took place at a number of venues in September last year after the original, first consultation was found by the High Court to have been fixed. In the second consultation - required by Mr Justice Sullivan - selected members of the public were asked their views on nuclear power. One document given to attendees claimed that nuclear power "is substantially cheaper than wind generation". Yet the Government's own figures from the Energy White Paper in 2003 show the opposite. The full 33 page Greenpeace complaint detailing the many DBERR and OLR misrepresentations can be found here.

Some participants apparently saw through the second fixed government consultation. One contacted Greenpeace to say that she "left the event in Edinburgh feeling furious with the government's blatant marketing of nuclear power" and the "participants of 'Talking Energy' were pushed up against a wall so they had no choice but to support a new generation of nuclear power plants."

Greenpeace boss John Sauven today said:

"It's now official, another nuclear consultation was fixed. The process was a sham and an insult to the people who took part. You have to ask where this leaves government energy policy after this politically explosive ruling. The case for building new nuclear reactors is so weak that Brown's personal pollsters tried to rig the process. Ministers claim this was just a small part of a big process, but that only holds water if you think the public is a small part of a public consultation."

He continued:

"Gordon Brown recently committed the UK to generating around 40% of our electricity from renewables by 2020. If he means it, Britain could become a world leader in clean energy, powering our homes and offices while slashing emissions. Yet his blind pursuit of nuclear power risks blocking the delivery of the real solutions to climate change."

Last year Greenpeace won a High Court ruling which overturned an earlier consultation on nuclear power. Mr Justice Sullivan called the first consultation "manifestly unfair" and "unlawful", adding that it was "seriously flawed" and "manifestly inadequate" because insufficient information had been made available by the Government for participants to make an "intelligent response". Now we know the second consultation was also fixed.

The MRSB ruling has been 13 months in coming. In May this year Greenpeace made a Freedom of Information request to DBERR asking for release of documents and correspondence relating to the Greenpeace complaint. The aim was to ascertain whether John Hutton's department had attempted to exert any undue pressure on the MRSB while the sensitive EDF takeover of British Energy was being negotiated. So far DBERR has refused to hand over any such documentation - citing "Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, which applies where disclosure of information would or would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs." Despite subsequent letters from Greenpeace lawyers, DBERR will still not release the requested documentation.

Greenpeace lawyers this week sent another email to BERR requesting details of any pressure the department put on MRSB in relation to content or timing of the Board's ruling. Greenpeace is now demanding the immediate publication of any such documents so any question of undue pressure being applied can be addressed and, presumably, discounted.

OLR demonstrated its faith and trust in the judgement the MRSB when it entered the trade body's awards for this year.

Dr Paul Dorfman, spokesman for the Nuclear Consultation Working Group (NCWG), a consortium of senior UK academics from 17 universities said: "It is clear that the Government has failed to consult the public in any meaningful way on key issues such as radioactive waste, security and nuclear proliferation, and funding for reactor decommissioning and waste disposal, whilst neglecting to fully consider the benefits of alternative electricity generating technologies, energy distribution, and true renewable and energy efficiency modelling".

"Poor consultation practice wastes people's time and can seriously undermine people's trust in government".

The Public and Commercial Services union, who are the UK's largest civil service trade union with over 300,000 members in government agencies and supported Greenpeace in their successful legal challenge to overturn the Governments earlier consultation on nuclear power, believes the Government should be pursuing renewable energy as a legitimate option for the UK's energy needs.

PCS assistant general secretary Chris Baugh said: "The government's attempt to fix the consultation on nuclear power so they could go ahead regardless of public opinion has spectacularly backfired. It exposes the government's attempt to deceive the public on the nuclear issue including the false promise of new UK jobs.

"The government should be investing in renewable technologies and new green collar jobs rather than seeking to bolster the profits of multi-national companies who alone stand to benefit from billion-pound contracts to build new nuclear power stations."

ENDS

For more information, contact the Greenpeace press office on 020 7865 8255.

The ruling can be found here (pdf).

MRSB covering letter can be found here (pdf)

A full timeline of the government's public consultation and the Greenpeace challenge can be found here.

Notes:

1) The Nuclear Consultation Working Group's purpose is to provide clear information on the issues and challenges that were not transparently presented to the public during that consultation. The Working Group comprise many of the leading experts in the fields of environmental risk, radiation waste, energy policy, energy economics, political science, social science, environmental justice, and democratic involvement. The NCWG 2008 Report on the recent consultation can be found at www.nuclearconsult.com

2) The original FoI request was as follows:

Sent: 16 May 2008 11:51
To: FOI Requests
Cc: Julie Corney; enquiries@opinionleader.co.uk
Subject: FAO: Ann Phillips. Greenpeace FOI Request

Dear Ann,

I am writing to you on behalf of Greenpeace UK to request the following information under the Freedom of Information Act legislation and the Environmental Information Regulations.

1. Whether Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) was informed by the Market Research Standards Board (MRSB) or by Opinion Leader Research (OLR) about the Greenpeace complaint against Opinion Leader Research (OLR).

2. Whether DBERR has been involved in any submissions to the MRSB made by or on behalf of OLR and whether it is made any submissions on its own behalf.

3. Whether DBERR has made any representations to OLR or to the MRSB about the timing and/or publication of any decision about Greenpeace's complaint.

4. Details of any meetings between DBERR officials and OLR or the MRSB, and minutes of any meetings.

5. We request copies of communications and correspondence between the DBERR and Opinion Leader Research (OLR), Deborah Mattinson, co-founder of OLR, and / or MRSB from September 2007 to April 2008.

6. We also request any internal correspondence or documentation regarding the Greenpeace complaint to the MRSB concerning OLR's facilitation and polling of the Talking Energy public consultation.

As a matter of courtesy I am sending copies of this email to both the OLR and MRSB.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

John Sauven,
Executive Director
Greenpeace UK

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