The Government is to delay moves to clean up the lobbying industry until 2013 despite growing calls for a clampdown after the controversy which triggered the resignation of Liam Fox.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg came under fire after it emerged that plans to set up a register of lobbyists, to be published next month, will not become law until 2013. In November last year, the Deputy Prime Minister promised legislation in the current parliamentary session, which ends next spring. But it has been delayed until the following 2012-13 session by a rearguard action by some lobbying firms and a range of other political reforms.
The official inquiry into the shadowy role played by Adam Werritty, the friend and self-styled adviser to Mr Fox, will be published today. Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, who was asked by Mr Cameron to clear up the "unanswered questions" over the affair, will conclude that the former Defence Secretary did breach the ministerial code. Mr Fox resigned on Friday amid growing signs that he would be forced to quit when Sir Gus delivered his verdict.
The Cabinet Secretary, who presented his report to the Prime Minister last night, is thought likely to criticise Mr Fox for soliciting funds for Mr Werritty's globe-trotting at Mr Fox's side from wealthy businessmen whose companies could be affected by the minister's decisions. However, Sir Gus will say that there is no evidence that Mr Fox benefited financially from these contacts. He is also unlikely to confirm claims that Mr Fox pursued a parallel foreign policy from the Ministry of Defence. Some of the donors shared his staunch Atlanticist, Eurosceptic, pro-Israel views.
The Cabinet Secretary may propose that the ministerial code is tightened to prevent ministers' friends as well as their spouse, partner or close family deriving any benefit from their public role.
The tone of today's report may determine whether Mr Fox can make a comeback to frontline politics after spending some years in the parliamentary sin-bin. But it may not be the end of the story for the former Defence Secretary. He faces a possible investigation by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner and the Electoral Commission, while Labour MP John Mann has asked the police to launch a fraud inquiry into Mr Werritty's use of a business card saying he was an adviser to Mr Fox.
Mr Mann said the former cabinet minister should hand back the £17,206 severance pay, three months of his ministerial salary, to which he is entitled. "It's outrageous that a shamed and discredited ex-minister gets such a huge payout. It's for Mr Fox to now take the honourable route and immediately re-pay this money to the Exchequer," he said.
Ministers are portraying Mr Werritty as a "one-off" and playing down the need for a range of new controls. "You can have as many rules as you want, but sadly there might always be someone prepared to break them," one said.
Similarly, the Government made clear it would not fast-track the Coalition's pledge to put regulation of the lobbying industry on a statutory footing by creating a list of lobbyists. Insiders admitted the process had taken longer than originally expected. Ministers still face opposition from some lobbyists. Jane Wilson, chief executive of the CIPR which represents the public relations industry, said: "Informal lobbying of ministers by undisclosed interests through opaque networks of party backers, former ministers and political friends will not be eliminated by registering or regulating public affairs professionals."
A Labour spokesman said: "The Werritty scandal has shown the need for transparency is urgent. Ed Miliband is ready to put on record all meetings with lobbyists. David Cameron must act immediately."
But Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, said: "Ed Miliband's sudden interest in getting to grips with lobbying is mere opportunism, not least as he and his Shadow Cabinet voted against Liberal Democrat proposals for greater transparency on this very issue when they were in government."