Anger at Tories over lobbying 'whitewash'

PM attacked for ‘nonsense’ plan to regulate lobbyists

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Senior Conservative ministers blocked plans for the reform of Britain's discredited lobbying industry, The Independent has been told.

After over a year of deliberations, the Government published its consultation on proposals to create a statutory register of lobbyists yesterday.

But campaigners said the plans were "fundamentally flawed" and would do nothing to clean up the industry's reputation in the wake of revelations about the unhealthy links between senior politicians and leading lobbying firms. Under the proposals, companies that employ lobbyists directly will not be required to register their work on a new statutory register of lobbyists.

Neither will lobbyists have to declare which areas of policy they are hoping to influence or declare how much they are paid for their work, because this would provide "too great an administrative burden".

Ministers will not be required to declare why they are meeting lobbyists or which firms or groups they are representing. Instead only third-party lobbying firms will have to declare their clients on a register and record which former ministers and government officials they have on their books. There would be fines for failure to comply.

The Independent understands that when the proposals were put to the Cabinet last Tuesday objections were raised by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, but these were ignored by David Cameron and other Conservative ministers.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was unable to take part in the debate because his wife works for a firm involved in lobbying. "It would be fair to say that Tory ministers were not filled with a desire to have a clean sweep," one senior Liberal Democrat source said. But this was denied by the Conservatives. "No one in Cabinet said this did not go far enough," a spokesman said.

Outlining the proposals yesterday, Mark Harper, the Constitutional Reform minister, said he did not want the new rules to be overly bureaucratic. "What we don't want to do is do something that means that legitimate businesses find it all so restrictive that they don't end up talking to Government," he said.

The proposals were broadly welcomed by the lobbying industry itself but campaigners criticised the measures, saying they were deeply disappointed by the lack of ambition.

"They are a nonsense," said Tamasin Cave from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, an organisation representing a number of charities, unions and campaign groups. "They are fundamentally flawed and have the lobbyists' fingerprints all over them.

"We need a statutory register to require lobbyists to reveal who is lobbying whom, what they are seeking to influence and how much money they are spending. Anything less and we can assume the Government is putting the interests of their friends in the influence industry above public demands for full transparency."

Mark Adams, a lobbyist who runs standup4lobbying, a group set up to improve the reputation of the industry, condemned the consultation as "shameful". "This is a massive wasted opportunity for the Government. There is a real danger that the Government's approach will weaken lobbying regulation, not strengthen it."

Of particular concern are plans to include trade unions among the definition of lobbyists – but not multinational companies.

Bob Crow, the general secretary of the transport workers' union the RMT, said: "The idea that trade unions should be bracketed in with the chancers and schmoozers from the shadowy world of lobbying is an insult to men and women fighting for a fair deal in the workplace."

Jon Trickett, Labour's shadow Cabinet Office minister, said he was in favour of anyone who lobbied being included in the register. "These proposals really are unacceptably loose and woolly," he said.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "The Government has done a lot to increase transparency, and transparency is what will help raise people's confidence in the political system. This is another step in that, but it is important we get it right.

"We look forward to hearing what people have to say on this issue."

Lobbying reform: What we wanted – and what we got

What we wanted

A statutory register of all lobbyists who try to influence government policy.

Have we got it?

No. Only third-party-agency lobbyists will be included under the Government's proposals. In-house lobbyists (who make up three-quarters of total practitioners) will be excluded.

What we wanted

The register to include details of who the lobbyist is, whom they work for, the area of policy they are hoping to influence, and which government department or agency they are trying to influence. This is how the register in the United States works.

Have we got it?

No. The register will include only details of the lobbyists and the names of the clients they work for.

What we wanted

A statutory code of conduct for lobbyists that addresses what is and what is not acceptable behaviour.

Have we got it?

No. The Government said it would be over-bureaucratic.

What we wanted

Politicians to be obliged to register meetings with lobbyists – be they in their office, a restaurant or a reception – where their clients' interests are raised.

Have we got it?

No. Only official meetings with civil servants present will be registered.

Our campaign

The Independent, along with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, last year secretly recorded conversations with senior Bell Pottinger executives boasting about their access to the heart of Government. They claimed to have got David Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their clients within 24 hours and boasted about access to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, to Mr Cameron's chief of staff Ed Llewellyn and closest adviser Steve Hilton. As a result of the investigation a Parliamentary Inquiry into lobbying has been launched and lobbying reform has taken centre stage.

Transcript of an interview with the Political Reform Minister Mark Harper on lobbying reform

The Indepedent:  The lobbying industry has welcomed this paper in its entirety. Job well done?

Mark Harper: “I don’t really see that the lobbying industry has anything to fear from transparency. I think reputable lobbying companies who are representing their clients don’t have anything to fear from transparency.” 

On the other side the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency has described your proposals as “a nonsense”. What do you say to that?

Mark Harper: “Well it depends why they describe them as a nonsense. I mean they have been calling for lobbying to be transparent. Well our proposals will ensure that it’s transparent.”

But if I was a member of the public who was concerned about Tesco lobbying the government to prevent it from bringing in minimal pricing for alcohol how would these proposals help (to provide greater transparency)?

Mark Harper: “At the moment if ministers meet with Tesco ministers will disclose that they have met with Tesco.”

But will they disclose why they have met with Tesco?

Mark Harper: “Well at the moment ministers disclose they have met with companies and depending on the type of discussions say why…Sometimes you meet with organisations to discuss a whole range of subjects.”

But will these new measures provide any more information whatsoever about what companies (like Tesco) are lobbying for?

Mark Harper: “The gap that there is at the moment around transparency is that if ministers are meeting individual companies to discuss issues that they have concerns about people already know about that because ministers already say that we’re meeting with them. People can then go and ask those very questions.”

(But) there are some companies who have multiple interests and just because they have a meeting with a minister – (you won’t know) in what area of policy they are seeking to influence. These proposals don’t seem to do anything to address that.

Mark Harper: “Your point is one that has been put forward and we’ll see what people say in the consultation responses. But we don’t want to create something that is so bureaucratic and burdensome that people who have legitimate points of view to make don’t make those views known. We think we have got the balance right.”

If a minister met with a lobbying company (under the new rules) would you say which client they were representing?

Mark Harper: “If you met the client you would disclose who you met but the gap at the moment is that if a minister meets a representative of a lobbying company they would disclose that and nobody would know who the client was.”

But what happens if that lobbying company represents more than one client. (ie Will they have to disclose the individual client) ?

Mark Harper: “No, but they will have to disclose the client list.”

But some of these firms have 40 or 50 different clients.

Mark Harper: “Just from your questions you have illustrated the complexities of this which is exactly why rather than rushing off and bringing forward a piece of legislation we’re doing a consultation because we want to get it right.”

America has a much more detailed register (which requires all lobbyists to declare who they lobbying and what they are lobbying for). Why do you think we need less openness than America?

Mark Harper: “We have looked at what we are intending to do and we have set out what level of disclosure we think is appropriate. But these are initial proposals. If you look around the world different countries do this in different ways. There are pros and cons of doing it different ways. We have a different system in the UK than the US.

…Remember we have tightened up the ministerial code to make sure who ministers who have left Government cannot lobby ministers for at least two years…

What are the sanctions for breaking that rule?

Mark Harper: “Well ministers have to obey the ministerial code.”

But what are the sanctions if they don’t?

Mark Harper: “Well, any ministers in this Government who become ministers they say they are going to abide by the ministerial code.”

But after they’ve left. What are the sanctions?

Mark Harper: “Well they’ve signed up to the ministerial code at the beginning. To my understanding I don’t think any ministers have not followed the rules.”

But what are the sanctions?

Mark Harper: “Well they have followed the rules.”