Presenting the ‘Fracktured Accountability’
report and ‘The Frackogram’to the police
outside Downing Street, March 2015
Paul Mobbs & MEIR:
Fractured Accountability represents the outcome of just over two years research on the the Government’s role in promoting unconventional gas and oil in Britain; specifically, whether their actions are ‘legal’. More importantly, it is not a report about ‘fracking’ per se, but rather the highly questionable relationships between policy-makers in Government, the industry developing fracking, and the finance and PR industries supporting them.
‘Fracktured Accountability’ consists of three separate parts, each outlining a different aspect of the issues raised by the report – click the links below to view each section:
‘Fracktured Accountability –
A study examining decision-making by the Government in relation to unconventional fossil fuels.
An infographic which depicts the highly questionable relationships between policy-makers in Government, the industry developing fracking, and the finance and PR industries supporting them.
‘Arrest the Cabinet’
Sometimes, as an environmental researcher, there are things which you come across which are completely awful. Events or incidents for which knowing, or telling through reports is not enough… they require action.
In 2016 I was commissioned to update some of the research within the Fracktured Accountability report, to produce a new study – entitled Whitehall’s Fracking Science Failure – specifically on the Governments case that shale gas was a ‘low carbon bridge’ for the UK economy. That work, ultimately, led to the quashing of the Governments planning policies which supported fracking.
There is also a related report, entitled ‘Frackademics’, which investigates the Government’s attempts to get business interests reflected in academic research.
Fracktured Accountability – The Report
This study examines decision-making by the Coalition Government in relation to unconventional fossil fuels (also known, imprecisely in the UK context, as ‘fracking’). It could as easily be a study of decision-making in relation to the replacement of the Trident nuclear warhead system, or state surveillance, or of health service funding. What is important is not so much the specifics of the subject, but of how that set of issues, the evidence supporting them, and the decisions associated with them have been dealt with by the Government.
After nearly six years of working on this issue, I came to realise that the greatest difficulty in assessing the policies for unconventional fossil fuels technologies in Britain is not the nature of the technology, nor the impacts it may create; it is the dysfunctional nature of the decision-making process itself. Specifically, how decision-making in Britain has become dominated by partisan interests, and politicised to the extent that objective evidence is often dispensed with as part of policy and decision-making process.
a graphical representation of the complex policy,
political and financial links between politics, lobbyists, and the oil and gas sector in Britain.
What distinguishes unconventional fossil fuels from other aspects of public policy is the lengths that the Coalition Government has gone to support this policy, in seeming total ignorance of the evidence available which poses questions about those decisions. And in the case of unconventional fossil fuels, as compared to other issues, the question arises as to whether that decision-making process has become (in a legal sense) so 'unreasonable' that it breaches the law.
The difficulty is that the present Government has deliberately sought to amend the law so that the public cannot challenge decisions of the Government in the courts – both through making the judicial review of Government decisions harder to obtain, and removing legal aid to support review cases. This raises the question as to whether the political executive can, any longer, be held to account by the general public; or whether political accountability is now only a privilege for the wealthy few and large corporations.
The report begins with a brief introduction to unconventional fossil fuels in Britain, and the evolution of policy over the last decade.
As the report looks at decision-making within Government, specific issues are then considered from a top-down viewpoint – considering the role of different Government departments:
- The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) – who, given they are the heart of energy policy, have arguably only had a minor role in driving the policy on unconventional fossil fuels. In particular this section looks at the role of Energy Secretary Ed Davey, as well as junior ministers Michael Fallon and Matthew Hancock, and the evidence used to make decisions on unconventional fossil fuels policy.
- The Treasury – and in particular the role of George Osborne in driving policy on unconventional fossil fuels. Though the practical action on policy has been taken by DECC or the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), these policy initiatives have been driven from the Treasury, blurring the lines of accountability for policy.
- The Prime Minister’s Office/The Cabinet Office – and in particular the role of the David Cameron. Given the oversight for the conduct of business that the Prime Minister has, the conduct of ministers and departments should be subject to scrutiny to prevent irregular and unlawful action. The issue at the heart of the conduct of the Prime Ministers Office and the The Cabinet Office is the role of special advisers, and whether corporate interests now have an undue influence over public policy – to the extent that it circumvents the democratic accountability of the executive to the public.
A summary of the issues covered, and their implications for the public, is provided in the 'conclusion'. Finally the 'references and further information' section lists the key information sources cited in the report. Links to other information and material are contained in page footnotes.
Put simply, what does all this mean?
During the first two years of the present Government, there was a great emphasis on reforming laws and procedures to 'get things done'. I believe that the question arises as to whether those reforms have enabled Government to function more easily, or have they in fact allowed the abuse of power – and in particular, whether the granting access to decision-making for special interest groups directly attacks the democratic principles which should guide civil administration.
That “fracking” has become an issue of public debate and protest is a mark of the controversial nature of this technology. From national campaign groups to local communities, many view the Government’s case, and contrast it with evidence from other states where these technologies are under development, and conclude that there is a clear failure in decision-making. Significantly, both Scottish and Welsh governments have now moved to institute moratoria to halt development.
What many have missed – in particular the media who have covered this issue – are the failures of our constitutional processes in relation to decision-making on these policies; failures exacerbated by recent reforms to the public’s right to object and seek judicial review.
For the average citizen, what issues such as unconventional fossil fuels and the recent reform of the legal system highlight is that age-old problem of accountability – who can watch the watchmen? There is a weak separation of powers within the British constitution. Parliament has sovereign power – exclusive of control even by the courts. But if the executive exceeds its powers, and the figures at the heart of the executive also control the business of Parliament, then who is to prevent these excesses taking place? Who is accountable to whom?
Unconventional fossil fuels raise serious issues related to energy policy, environmental pollution and the regulatory oversight of complex hazardous technologies. However, whilst those issues require serious consideration, we must not avoid tackling the systemic failures that the recent implementation of Government policy have brought to light. In particular, the inclusion within democratic processes of partisan industrial and financial interests within policy-making, and the arguable unreasonable nature of the policies that are the result of this process.
We will be unable to resolve the difficulties of present and future ecological and economic challenges, irrespective of the specifics of the case, unless we also resolve the conflicting interests at the heart of our constitutional processes.