Civil servants raised fears about minister’s ties with consultant Miriam Maes while leaked emails reveal messy contract dispute
The relationship between civil servants and outside advisers has long been a thorny one, especially when the external consultants have direct access to, and links with, ministers who are outside the control of the department.
Senior civil servants warned the then defence secretary Liam Fox over his ties with the lobbyist Adam Werritty months before details of their working relationship surfaced and eventually cost him his job in October last year, and No 10 staff often complained of the power and autonomy given to special advisers working for Tony Blair’s government.
Documents released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) (pdf) show tensions frequently rising over ties between the minister of state, Greg Barker, and Miriam Maes, an energy consultant appointed as an adviser to the department.
Maes, who has worked for multinationals for 30 years, was given an advisory role on a specific Decc programme and was issued with business cards and a staff pass.
In the course of her time at the department, she attempted to secure meetings for Air Products, a company for which she acted as a consultant, and also sought direct ministerial intervention to expand her role, often leading her into direct conflict with civil servants.
Some of them politely cautioned Maes that she needed to be careful to keep separate her Decc functions and her consulting role – she is chief executive of the energy efficiency adviser Foresee, whose clients include BAA, Morgan Stanley and British Gas.
She was also pressed to give civil servants the chance to sit in on her meetings.
In an email, the national climate change director Colin Church wrote: “Your offer to provide a weekly review and look forward of meetings and activities you are engaged in is very welcome – it is vital that the team get the option to sit in on these meetings, especially in relation to MoD work, and to help make clear the separation of your Foresee/Matrix position and your contract with Decc.
“There is one other issue I wanted to mention. I know the team are keen to share the full range of our work with you to maximise their use of your experience. However, we are of course speaking to a range of outside contacts, where the parties concerned may have concerns on the level of disclosure of commercially sensitive material.”
The weekly updates were initially welcomed as “very useful” by civil servants, but stopped within months. Maes also continued to have direct contact with Barker without civil servants being present or copied in to emails.
Barker asked Maes to lead or advise on issues outside the remit of her Decc contract, which then led to debates with civil servants over payment. “[Redacted] is also aware and has agreed to help clarify for all when Ministerial requests are within contract or not,” one email sent in November 2010 noted.
By March 2011, officials objected to conflicting advice from Maes reaching ministers without their knowledge and attempted to get more information on her activities and advice: “I would ask if you could restart your short weekly emails of what you have been doing,” said the email, from an anonymous official. “Secondly, it would be very useful to be copied your advice to Greg in same we share our advice with you.
“I trust you would agree that it is not efficient, effective or indeed fair, for me or my team to be in meetings where we are basing our support to GB [Greg Barker] or SoS [secretary of state] on one briefing, if they are working to another briefing we have not seen before … Besides providing clarity we do need to watch the ‘audit trail’ for decisions as it will be me and my management answering challenging select committee questions!”
Maes was evidently not happy with the requests made in the civil servant’s email and quickly brought the matter directly to Barker’s attention, saying that the communications were “really getting to me” and that sending officials weekly updates was “out of the question, in particular as I am doing a lot of confidential work for you and not getting paid any more”.
She continued setting out details of extension payments to her contract that she was attempting to secure – noting: “The next extension can only be £10k” – and concluded by saying: “I really appreciate your personal support in trying to solve this issue.”
Barker replied three and a half hours later: “I am sorry about the continuing aggro with your invoice, I really am going to bang the desk about this today.”
Barker continued to be asked to involve himself in the contractual dispute between Maes and officials. “Please find below the email regarding the outstanding invoices to Decc. Thank you so much in advance for dealing with this painful situation,” Maes wrote. “I greatly appreciate your personal support in this.”
A separate email from Maes drafted a reply for Barker to send to civil servants telling them Maes should head a particular Decc programme and asked: “Could you please also figure out a way in which I could be paid for this work?” Soon afterwards, Barker sent an email based on Maes’s draft to civil servants.
Maes eventually won a contractual extension for the additional funds, but then needed to secure a new role after the end of her time at the department. She drafted a note to Barker asking: “Can you get a new contract under Whitehall District Scheme for example whilst the Chairman Energy Efficiency role is being sorted or just sort the Chairman role now?”
The note to Barker continued: “You are reviewing the option of Chairman of the new Office for Energy Efficiency with Phil and Moira. You are also possibly discussing for me to temporarily take on the role of leading this unit.”
Soon after, she was appointed as an external adviser to Decc’s energy efficiency deployment office.
On Tuesday night, Maes defended her Decc role and said she took on unpaid work even though her consultancy Foresee employs just her and her personal assistant.
“I declared the clients I had in Foresee, of which Air Products was one. Air Products was also mentioned on my CV and Decc was aware of my commercial relationships in my consultancy as part of the recruitment process and beyond,” she said. “Decc contracted with Foresee as an adviser to the department because of my expert knowledge on energy efficiency, decentralised energy and transmission and distribution . In addition, I provided views to Decc and the minister on a pro bono basis.”