Lobbyists register to be debated next year

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Indy Politics

Legislation to create a register of Westminster lobbyists is not likely to be tabled in Parliament before next year, Downing Street said today.

Constitutional reform minister Mark Harper has already announced that there will be a consultation on the proposal, which forms part of the coalition agreement, and a new law is likely to be debated by MPs during the 2012/13 session.

A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters that the process was not being accelerated in response to the furore surrounding Liam Fox, who quit as Defence Secretary last week after his close links with lobbyist Adam Werritty became public.

Mr Cameron is expected to receive a report into the Werritty affair from Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell later today, with publication pencilled in for tomorrow.

The PM's spokesman said it had not yet been decided whether any parts of the O'Donnell report would be redacted, or whether the document would be published in full.

Sir Gus is not expected to make recommendations on ministers' contacts with lobbyists, as his remit was limited to establishing the facts about Mr Werritty's activities.

The lobbyist, who was Dr Fox's former flatmate and best man, is known to have met the ex-Defence Secretary on at least 40 occasions at the MoD in Whitehall and on trips overseas, despite having no official position.

"We will be transparent about this," said the PM's spokesman. "We have asked Gus O'Donnell to establish the facts and we will be clear about what those facts are.

"Gus has not been asked to make recommendations. He has been asked to establish the facts and that's what he will do."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in a speech in November 2010 that a Bill on political and constitutional law, including a statutory register of lobbyists, would be introduced "next year" - 2011.

But Mr Harper told the House of Commons on October 11 that legislation would be introduced in the second session, which begins after the Queen's Speech in May 2012, following a consultation exercise over the coming months.

The PM's spokesman said: "It has always been our policy to move to a statutory register. It was in the coalition agreement. That work is ongoing, as Mark Harper has said, and the next stage is a consultation.

"If there is anything in the Gus O'Donnell report which is relevant, then obviously that will be taken into account."

Police and the Electoral Commission have been asked to probe allegations that the former Defence Secretary and Mr Werritty committed offences by misleading donors and failing to declare funding.

Venture capitalist Jon Moulton is understood to have approached the Cabinet Secretary to complain about being "misled" by Dr Fox.

Mr Moulton said the Cabinet minister asked him to donate to Pargav, a not-for-profit company set up by Mr Werritty.

He was apparently told the firm helped provide "security and analysis" and was unaware it was funding Mr Werritty's travel to meet Dr Fox on official trips.

The millionaire has also complained to the Conservative Party about the way he was treated.

There are reports that those giving money to Pargav had been promised anonymity, which could breach tough laws on declaring donations.

Bassetlaw Labour MP John Mann said he had written to police asking for a fraud investigation to be launched.

"Mr Werritty gave out business cards saying he was an adviser to Dr Fox," he said.

"If that is not the case and he was getting money - for whatever purpose - by misrepresenting his relationship with the Defence Secretary, that cannot be right."

Dr Fox's actions should also be scrutinised by the force, he added.

A City of London Police spokesman confirmed the force had received an allegation of fraud.

"Officers from the force's economic crime directorate will consider the matter and establish whether or not it is appropriate to launch an investigation," he said.

An Electoral Commission spokesman said it was considering a complaint that Dr Fox had breached donations legislation.

The ex-defence secretary is also still facing a potential inquiry by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner into claims that he let Mr Werritty live rent-free in, and run a business from, a taxpayer-funded property.

Mr Cameron's spokesman this morning said he was not aware of any approach by police to Downing Street in relation to the Werritty affair.

Labour leader Ed Miliband backed moves to greater transparency in dealings between politicians and lobbyists.

"I think we do need a register and we do need transparency," he told Boulton and Co on Sky News.

"We need to be transparent about our contacts with lobbyists. You don't want to create a bureaucratic nightmare, of course, and that would be the concern of civil servants.

"But there does need to be greater transparency. People have a right to know who we meet and how we meet them, and I'm happy to do that going forward."

Mr Miliband added that Dr Fox was right to resign because he had broken the ministerial code.

"You can't have one rule for Government ministers and another rule for the rest of the country, and I'm afraid that's the position Liam Fox got himself into."