Covert lobby groups for business to be exposed

Plans to make lobbying fully transparent will force 'front' groups to reveal true backers
  • @oliver_wright

Campaigning groups and charities which seek to influence government policy may have to declare themselves as lobbyists under plans to be unveiled by ministers today.

The Government is concerned that some of the groups are being used as "fronts" for industries seeking to influence policy covertly. There is particular concern over single-issue health charities – often funded by the pharmaceutical industry – that have pressured the Government to back drugs and treatments provided by their sponsors.

Campaign groups may also have to reveal any relevant funding from industry relating to issues they are campaigning on as part of the new statutory register of lobbyists, which will be announced by the Political Reform minister, Mark Harper, today.

The long-delayed proposals come in the wake of revelations in The Independent about the extent of the influence claimed by lobbyists.

The lobbying firm Bell Pottinger was secretly recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism boasting about its contacts in Downing Street who could be used on behalf of its clients. The investigation highlighted concerns first raised by David Cameron when in opposition that lobbying is "the next great political scandal".

Government sources said the consultation paper would steer clear of making firm recommendations but raised the prospect of significantly widening the definition of what a lobbyist is.

"There is a concern that if we make too narrow a definition of what a lobbyist is then companies will get round the rules by using front organisations to act on their behalf. There is evidence that this is happening already and we need to make sure that it is transparent," said one source.

Among recent examples of industry using front groups was the charity Toast (The Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust), which claimed to be "completely independent" and "derived its income from individual donations and membership fees".

However, an investigation revealed that almost all of its funding came from a dieting company called LighterLife. In Scotland, it emerged that a single-issue group called the Coalition Against Raising the Drinking Age in Scotland was being funded by the drinks industry.

The consultation is also likely to force companies and groups which employ internal lobbyists – rather than agencies – to declare what work they do. It is believed to contain a proposal to bring trade unions within the definition of lobbyists and force them to declare the public money they receive.

This will prove controversial with Labour and lead to claims that ministers are using the new rules to crack down on legitimate union activity – under the guise of cleaning up politics.

Tamasin Cave, from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, said she would welcome moves to include unions, charities and pressure groups under the definition of lobbyists.

She said: "What is important is to ensure that we do not push lobbying underground where lobbyists seek to get round the rules by setting up front organisations. There is broad agreement among charities themselves that this should happen and we look forward to seeing how the Government intend to address this."

Ministers intend to invite submissions on their proposals from the public and interested groups before drawing up legislation later in the year.

A Downing Street spokesman said legislation would be introduced to bring the register into force in time for the next election. "It is in the Coalition Agreement. So yes, that's what we're going to do," he said.

Lobbying: What campaigners want

What is being called for:

* A statutory register of lobbyists who seek to influence the Government. This would include who the lobbyist is, who they work for, the area of policy they are hoping to influence and which government department or agency they are trying to influence.

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

* Politicians should also be obliged to register their meetings with lobbyists – be they in an office, a restaurant or at a reception – when clients' interests are raised. Currently only official meetings have to be registered.

Oliver Wright