Freedom Of Information: Businesses must disclose what they tell ministers

Secret deals between industry players and politicians have long been part of government business. Now, says Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, they will be subject to scrutiny

The role of lobby groups in influencing government policy by holding private meetings with ministers has long been a bone of contention among those who want to see more transparency in the corridors of Westminster. Unless there is proper disclosure about the comings and goings of corporate bodies and campaign groups to Downing Street and the Palace of Westminister, there will be always a whiff of prejudicial dealing surrounding such meetings.

Those representing vested interests take a very different view, arguing that real business can only be done in conditions of locked-down secrecy. It has taken the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act to settle these two opposing views.

Last week the Information Tribunal ruled in favour of greater disclosure and ordered the Government to release records of meetings between the CBI employers' group and the former Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The decision, upholding a previous ruling by the Information Commissioner, was a victory for the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth.

Few campaigning organisation have grasped the potential of freedom of information measures as thoroughly as Friends of the Earth. Since the introduction of the legislation three years ago, its legal team has devoted huge resources to considering how the new law can be used to open up government to public scrutiny.

In July 2005, Friends of the Earth requested details of lobbying meetings between the CBI and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) that had taken place shortly after the last general election. The information included records of monthly meetings between the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alan Johnson, and the Director General of the CBI, Digby Jones (Lord Jones of Birmingham).

In 2007 the Information Commissioner ordered the DTI to release most of the information requested by Friends of the Earth. However, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) – where Lord Jones is now a minister – appealed to the Information Tribunal to overturn that decision.

In a four-day hearing, the court heard evidence from a number of business lobby groups which supported greater transparency, as well as from a senior BERR civil servant and from John Cridland, Deputy Director General of the CBI.

BERR and the CBI claimed that if records of their lobbying meetings were disclosed, it could prevent such meetings happening in future, which could damage the Government's policy-making. Mr Cridland claimed that if the tribunal ruled in favour of disclosure, lobby meetings might have to take place by the lake in St James's Park with dark glasses and a rolled-up newspaper; and that government might be brought to a standstill.

In a ruling published on 1 May, the tribunal ordered that nearly all of the disputed information must be released because there is a strong public interest in understanding how lobbyists influence government.

The judgment sympathises with the idea of the BERR having a private thinking space for formulating policy, with the aid of external consultants. But it has "more difficulty" applying this to "influencers" such as the CBI, which wear two hats – as lobbyists and providers of neutral information.

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