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UK Politics

Councils sidestep ban on lobbying

Pickles accuses local authorities of wasting public money when they could talk to ministers directly

Local authorities are spending tens of thousands of pounds on lobbying every year at the same time as making cuts to frontline services, the Government claimed last night.

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, accused town halls of indulging wasting taxpayers' money by hiring lobbyists when they could just talk to ministers directly.

Councils have spent the money despite a ban – introduced by Mr Pickles last March – on local government expenditure on lobbying to influence MPs or the Government. However, many authorities have sidestepped the ban by claiming they have taken on consultancies for strategic advice and general PR work.

The figures are disclosed on the eve of the publication of detailed plans for a statutory register of lobbyists, amid widespread outcry about the influence of public affairs consultancies following the Adam Werritty-Liam Fox case.

The Cabinet Office plans, set out in a consultation document, will include examining the definition of lobbying, what details lobbyists will have to make public, and the sanctions to be employed if the law is broken. It is also expected to propose forcing trade unions with political funds to be included on the register – a move that would alarm Labour, which relies heavily on such funding.

Mark Harper, the minister drawing up the proposal, has insisted that the register must not prevent people putting pressure on their MP or curb the work of campaigning charities."We must be careful to take these matters forward sensibly, and that we do not inadvertently stop our constituents and others raising important issues with us," he told MPs last month.

While attention has focused on lobbyists in Whitehall, documents released under freedom of information rules reveal the extent to which local authorities also use public affairs consultants.

Labour-run Sunderland council paid £102,434.43 to Weber Shandwick, and £10,640.02 to Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, two of London's leading lobbying firms, between March 2010 and August 2011, for "public affairs strategic advice and support". Council documents, drawn up shortly before the 2010 general election in anticipation of a Labour defeat, show officials wanted to raise the "profile and influence of the city at Westminster and in Whitehall". While the cost is a tiny part of Sunderland's £700m-plus budget, the council is cutting jobs and services at three leisure centres. A spokesman declined to comment.

The City of London Corporation is spending £120,000 between February last year and January next year on Quiller Consultants for "strategic advice and guidance". A spokesman insisted the authority did not employ consultants to contact politicians on its behalf.

The current registers for both the Association of Professional Political Consultants and the Public Relations Consultants Association show that 11 authorities have employed lobbying firms in the past few months. Since the coalition was formed, 58 authorities have used public affairs consultancies.

Mr Pickles said last night: "Why these councils feel the need to indulge in vanity lobbying when they could simply pick up the phone is beyond me. This is a waste of public cash and undermines public confidence in the political system. These councils owe their voters an apology."