New laws forcing large lobbying firms to reveal their meetings with MPs and Lords and disclose the companies they are representing would be introduced under a government plan to clean up Westminster.
Ministers are considering the crackdown on the lobbying industry after pressure from senior MPs, who believe its attempts at self-regulation have failed. They are also concerned that revelations about meetings between lobbyists and parliamentarians – in particular the "cash for laws" Lords scandal – have further undermined public trust in the political process.
Next week, senior Cabinet Office figures will meet representatives from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which monitors the regulation of lobbying around Europe. They will be briefed on how laws could be used to create greater transparency.
The crackdown comes after an influential group of MPs called for a compulsory register of lobbyists in January. The report by the Public Administration Committee (PAC) said the register should include all lobbyists, a list of their clients and a record of all meetings held with MPs and Lords. The register would be overseen by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas.
But senior government figures are keen to create specific laws that "cut and dice" the lobbying industry and target big, commercial firms rather than people running small and unpaid campaigns, which form an important part of the democratic process. A well-placed government source said: "There is no doubt that there will be reform in this area. We want to make sure we target the right companies, so have to be careful on the specifics of the legislation. The public have particular concerns over who these commercial firms are working for, and that is an area we are very concerned about."
The new rules could be added to the Constitutional Renewal Bill being drawn up by the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said the Bill would be introduced "as soon as parliamentary time allows".
The Government's determination to take action has prompted the lobbying industry to make frantic efforts to create a workable system of self-regulation. Firms are in talks to form a single umbrella industry organisation. The new body would force members to publish lists of their clients in a last-ditch attempt to stave off government legislation.
But ministers wanting to take tough action against lobbyists believe the continuing failure among some firms to disclose the names of their clients will be enough to gain the support necessary to introduce compulsory rules.
Robbie MacDuff, chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, said that singling out particular companies would be unfair. "Multi-client lobbying firms make up a very small percentage of the industry and the Government will have to be clear on its definition of what criteria it uses to judge which firms will be covered by any regulations," he said.
Last night, campaigners were encouraged that legislation could be on the way. "The lobbying industry will not get its house in order until it is forced to get its house in order," said Professor David Miller, from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency. "Self-regulation is no regulation."
Gordon Prentice, a member of the PAC, said the Government should "seize the moment", rather than allow its inaction on the issue to roll on any longer. But he warned that limiting the new laws could leave the door open for abuse. "Simply targeting big firms may not go far enough as in some cases, small but very targeted lobby firms have the potential to be far more effective than large firms," he said.