Get a grip, Lord Pickles

A flattering letter from two former Cabinet ministers inviting me to participate in the ‘Parliamentary Review’, was not all that it seemed. I ended up feeling scammed and wondering how politicians can be so out of touch with the concerns of business owners.

A few weeks before Christmas, I received a letter (dated 23 November 2018) from Lord Pickles. Pickles is a Tory Peer, a former Chair of the Conservative party and a former Cabinet minister.

The letter told me that I was one of a number of company owners who had been chosen to contribute to this year’s Parliamentary Review, a publication showcasing businesses across the UK, large and small — and which, last year, featured a preface from the Prime Minister. If willing to contribute and write a 1,000-word article about ‘the challenges you have faced’ and ‘your hopes for the future’, Lord Pickles explained that I would also be invited to an evening gala in September to launch the Review, with a line-up of high-profile speakers. The letter added that the invitation was also on behalf of Labour Peer and former Home Secretary Lord Blunkett, with whom Pickles shares responsibility for the Parliamentary Review.

I feel foolish admitting this now but, at the time, I was actually quite excited to receive the letter. I was feeling a bit down at the end of a difficult year, and the letter’s arrival was a pleasant surprise, given that my mail usually consists of correspondence from my bank, HMRC and money lenders. I told my wife and we talked about a trip to London for the gala event. I told my parents, and they were pleased for me.

A couple of days later, I rang the number on the letter and spoke to a very polite and helpful chap who talked me through what was required. He seemed to have a good awareness of what White Light Media does, and even mentioned our office dog, Angus. In retrospect, he was probably just Googling me while I was on the phone, but it came across well. It was all going so swimmingly… until the end of the call. It was at that point that I was gently informed me that I would be charged £3,200 to participate. Yes, £3,200. To write my own article.

I was gobsmacked. I’d gone from thinking that there was a genuine Parliamentary interest in my business, to realising I was just another mug being sold a space for a Westminster vanity project. And for a relatively small business such as mine, operating in a sector badly affected by the ineptitude of both the Government and Parliament over Brexit, that was a bitter pill swallow.

I was tempted to voice my frustration on social media at the time but thought it only fair to write to Lord Pickles and give him the opportunity to respond privately. I sent him a polite letter setting out my dismay at his approach and the reasons why I would not be taking part. The letter was posted on 11 December. He and his minions have not bothered replying.

If the intention of my proposed participation in the Parliamentary Review was to make me think well of messrs Pickles, Blunkett and their Westminster colleagues, it has had the very opposite effect. All it has achieved in my case is to demonstrate how out of touch many politicians are with the realities of running a small business.

If the Parliamentary Review would still like me to write 1,000 words for their publication, I’ll happily oblige. But the fee will be £3,200. Plus VAT.

UPDATE — Friday 11 January 2018
The above blog caused a minor stir on social media (particularly on Linkedin) with a large number of business people putting up posts or contacting me directly to say that they too had received the Lord Pickles letter and were not impressed. At the last count, the blog had received 502 ‘reads’.

The ensuing social media discussions also revealed more about the true intentions behind the letter. It transpires that The Parliamentary Review is an independent project published by a company called Westminster Publications. Despite the name, neither the Review or the company have any official connection with Houses of Parliament. The Review is a commercial project designed to make money from businesses paying to participate and attend the gala event. Nothing wrong with that of course. But what is controversial is that they have recruited Lord Pickles to introduce a sales process that gives the undeniable impression that the Review is a Parliamentary project and that participation is free.

After posting the blog last Saturday, I received a long direct message on Twitter from an unnamed person at Westminster Publications. It defended their business model and hinted at the possibility of legal action against me. On Monday morning, I then received a long email from one of their directors. It offered a very brief apology for “the confusion caused thus far” and went on to again defend the business robustly and point to the many happy participants in the Review that had made it a successful publishing project. It also said: “Some of what you have said online is defamation of this organisation and these tweets/blog posts are being carefully looked at by our legal representation.”

Of more interest to me (given that I have only described what has happened) is the fact that the email did not address my three key concerns. I have therefore emailed them along the following lines:

1 The suggestion of Parliamentary endorsement
The letter from Lord Pickles is misleading because it gives the clear impression that he is issuing a personal invitation to participate in what is implied to be an official Parliamentary event. This could be tackled by simply stating in the letter: “The Parliamentary Review is an independent project published by Westminster Publications and we have no official connection with the Houses of Parliament.” They choose not to do this. I wonder why.

2 Failure to explain costs
The letter also makes no mention of the £3,200 fee I was asked for when I rang the number on the letter (others have said the fee quoted to them was £3,500 so it’s possible that I misheard when I fell off my chair). In the email to me, the director says: “We would never contemplate sending a letter to someone out of the blue that asked them for money. This would be wholly inappropriate and unconscionable.” I suggest it is far more “unconscionable” to send a letter to someone out of the blue seemingly offering them something free and encouraging them to ring a telephone number, only then to tell them that they will be charged thousands of pounds. Again, a business operating transparently would simply include a line in the letter saying: “There is a fee for participating in the Financial Review.”

3 Reflecting poorly on the Houses of Parliament
Westminster Publications is not doing anything illegal and they are entitled to secure sales however they wish. If I were them, I would be concerned at the negative impact their sales process is clearly having on a large section of potential customers who receive their letters (see the comments on Linkedin), but that’s their business. More troubling is the way their tactics reflect upon Lord Pickles (presumably a willing and remunerated participant in this process) and the Houses of Parliament. It doesn’t look good.

I help organisations with their content and communications, produce the Scottish Business Network podcast and curate social media for the Library of Mistakes.