Lobbying official turned down reform meetings

 

The official in charge of drawing up plans to regulate lobbying met industry officials four times in the run up to the publication of the Government's controversial consultation paper but refused to meet campaigners calling for reform once, it emerged yesterday.

Eirian Walsh-Atkins stood down as head of constitutional policy at the Cabinet Office on Friday after posting a message on Twitter saying she hoped a group fighting for better regulation of the industry "would die".

It emerged that, while she had met representatives of the UK Public Affairs Council (Ukpac), a lobby industry body promoting self-regulation, four times since September 2010, she refused meetings with Unlock Democracy and the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency.

When asked why she had posted the message on Twitter she said: "I don't like them," and hung up. The Cabinet Office also rejected a Freedom of Information request to disclose details of its contacts with the lobbying industry.

The disclosure is deeply embarrassing for ministers who have insisted that they have an open mind on lobbying reform. It suggests that, while the Government has listened to the views of the industry, it was not interested in hearing the opinions of groups who want the new rules to go further.

The revelation comes as a new analysis for The Independent reveals that government ministers have declared fewer than 10 meetings with professional lobbying firms in their first year and a half in power. Of the 4,358 declared ministerial meetings recorded by the Government, seven only were with registered lobbying firms, which suggests some are not being fully declared.

It will increase pressure on the Government to go further in its plans for a register of lobbyists. In proposals released last week, ministers said they did not intend to copy America where firms have to reveal what policies they were seeking to influence on behalf of which clients. Instead, all lobbying firms would have to do is list their clients on a quarterly basis. Campaigners warn this would do nothing to increase accountability.

The analysis of official records by the website whoslobbying.com also reveals the lack of transparency surrounding the meetings. More than 700 are simply reported as "introductory" meetings and 350 are described as general "catch-up" or "discussion".

But it does show that a number of private-sector companies have met ministers on a significant number of occasions. Nowhere do they declare what the meetings were about, what they wanted to achieve or whether lobbyists were in attendance.

Tamasin Cave, of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, said: "A credible register must require them, as a minimum, to disclose what they are lobbying for, including government business." Ms Cave, who was also refused a meeting, will raise Ms Walsh-Atkins's behaviour when she appears before the Parliamentary Political and Constitu- tional Reform Committee this week.

Ms Walsh-Atkins has written to Peter Facey, the director of Unlock Democracy, to apologise, stating the tweet was not her "considered view". She has stood down from her job as head of the Constitutional Reform unit pending an internal investigation.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the only reason she had met Ukpac on so many occasions was to understand how the voluntary register currently worked. On the Twitter comment, he said: "The official has personally apologised without reservation. The comments were obviously unacceptable and in no way reflect the views of the Cabinet Office or the Government."

Ms Cave added: "This illustrates the problem with lobbying. Mark Harper, the minister in charge of shining a light on lobbying, gives privileged access to the industry, then attempts to keep discussions secret, all while refusing to listen to campaigners. That Mr Harper can come out with a proposal which he says is about making sure that lobbying is out in the open, but which he knows full well would not expose lobbying of this sort, is a scandal."

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