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Lobbying (Whitehall/Westminster)

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009

Thank you, Mr. Williams for calling me, as my colleagues leave for the imminent vote. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting this debate, and I shall put my cards on the table straight away.

I want a mandatory register of lobbyists, as do my friends on the Select Committee on Public Administration. We published a unanimous report, “Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall”, on 5 January, before the terrible revelations in The Sunday Times. The last time Parliament reported on lobbying was way back in 1991—a lifetime ago, before mobile phones, e-mail and the internet.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I am grateful that we are able to resume the debate, Mr. Williams. I will canter through my speech as quickly as I can.

Before we were interrupted, I was drawing attention to the Public Administration Committee report that was published on 5 January. It calls for a mandatory register of lobbyists. It was published before the dreadful revelations in The Sunday Times article, “Labour lords change laws for cash”. It is worrying that people out there think that Parliament is a den of thieves. Revelations and allegations of sleaze are a spreading stain that contaminates Members of Parliament and peers alike. Something must be done.

The House of Lords Committee for Privileges is looking at the allegations. However, what I have heard with my own ears—not mediated by the media—is appalling, such as the comment that rules are meant to be bent. The Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Royall, talked of the possibility of suspending or even expelling peers who are guilty of wrongdoing. She was right in saying that the revelations were “deeply shocking”. Sam Macrory of The House Magazine—our internal journal—said:

“Cash for questions is one thing; cash for changing the law scrapes a new low in the annals of political scandal.”

Why did the fake lobbyists target the Lords? In the same article, Sam Macrory quotes Professor Robert Hazell of the constitution unit at University college London:

“Since 1997 the government has suffered four legislative defeats in the House of Commons, and nearly 500 in the House of Lords”.

I know colleagues who have been lobbied by bona fide organisations such as housing associations to press an amendment in the House of Commons. They have been told by Ministers that hell will freeze over before the Government will accept the amendment. The same amendment goes to the other end of the Palace and is accepted in the House of Lords. That is where legislation is changed. Lobbyists understand that. Professor Hazell goes on to say that

“it is no surprise that lobbyists and interest groups focus on the Lords: the prospects for getting legislation changed there are so much greater.”

According to the Financial Times, more than 40 peers have given passes to people who work for lobbyists, PR firms and other organisations such as the National Farmers Union and the TUC. That list can be accessed at the website, FT.com/lobbyists.

My friends on the Public Administration Committee and I take the view that transparency is essential. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has changed everything. It has changed the way in which we think about information and our rights to it. For Parliament and its procedures still to be shrouded in mystery is anomalous in this day and age. I think that we need a mandatory register, and so does Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who is at the apex of the ethical pyramid. Yesterday, he told the Public Administration Committee that he agrees that there should be a mandatory register of lobbyists.

The report has its critics. I think that it is good, but it has not received universal acclaim. Lord Bell said:

“It is an incompetent report which contributes nothing—either in its analysis or in its recommendations—to help people who are concerned that the Government comes under undue influence.”

At the other end of the spectrum, George Monbiot told The Guardian that our proposals were “timid and dated”. I do not know which planet George is on at the moment, but it is not planet Earth. Our proposals are radical and quite revolutionary.

The report recommended that there should be changes to the ministerial code. The independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Philip Mawer, cannot initiate inquiries into ministerial conduct and must wait for a direction from the Prime Minister. Sir Christopher Kelly told the Select Committee, and stated in his annual report, that it is a serious weakness that the independent adviser cannot initiate inquiries. Until that is possible, newspapers will continue to run stories about members of the Cabinet meeting Russian oligarchs. Such stories will not go away.

The Prime Minister is committed to constitutional reform, so I would like to see him change the ministerial code and consider a mandatory register of lobbyists. I was given some encouragement today when I raised the matter at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I get the sense—I am looking at the Minister as I say this—that we are pushing at an open door. The climate of opinion has changed. Lobbying is not always bad and can be very good. It is an essential part of our democracy. People want to influence decisions, and doing so can be malign or benign. My views are influenced all the time by people who lobby me. My views on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill changed after I read material from the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association and others. Lobbying can be positive, but those on both sides of the argument must have equal access. We are being lobbied on the third runway at Heathrow; we should hear the arguments against the third runway. We are lobbied on genetically modified foods. Is that a good thing? We should be lobbied on the alternative viewpoint. There should be a level playing field.

What conclusion has my hon. Friend reached on the evidence that hon. Members, particularly ex-Ministers here and in the other place, seem to be acting for large sums of money as paid stooges to outside interests? Does he think that it should be one MP, one job?

I thank my friend for that intervention. I believe that being a Member of Parliament is a full-time job. I shall return to that point later, because a large number of MPs, many of whom will retire from the House at the next election, have taken well remunerated posts. I do not mean £5,000 or £10,000, but £50,000 or £70,000—in one case as much as £110,000. Such sums completely dwarf the parliamentary salary.

What is the problem with lobbying? It is unregulated, it cannot be accounted for and it is largely out of sight. That is the view of the non-profit charity Spinwatch, which monitors public relations, spin and lobbying in society. It says—and I agree—that lobbying is secretive and that it leads no evidence trail. At the moment, insofar as there is regulation, it is conducted by the three main umbrella bodies. They have codes of practice, but sanctions are rarely employed. During the past decade, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations has formally reprimanded only two of its members; the Association of Professional Political Consultants last used its procedures in 1998—11 years ago; and the Public Relations Consultants Association has never received a formal complaint that required the involvement of its professional practices committee.

So there we go. It is not as if the industry is so squeaky clean that the absence of references to the Standards and Privileges Committees could tell us something. That is why the Public Administration Committee is calling for transparency and disclosure. Indeed, we go further: we want details of the person being lobbied and the minutes of meetings. Lobbying happens overseas. People here recoil in horror at the thought of senior civil servants’ diaries being open to the media, the press and hon. Members, but it happens overseas. The Committee visited Brussels last year or the year before, and in June last year, the European Commission introduced a voluntary register of lobbyists. Later this year, probably in June or July, the Commission will decide whether to go for a mandatory register. In the United States, President Obama is red hot on transparency and is a great backer of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. Of course, there have been scandals in the US; people who are fraudulent or corrupt are inventive and will exploit loopholes, which must be closed. That is how to deal with the problem.

Our sister democracy in Canada has regulated lobbying by statute for more than 20 years. Its system focuses on improper access to decision makers. It therefore knows the identity of the lobbyists, on whose behalf they are lobbying, the issues on which are lobbying, and the targets of the lobbying. That is happening in Canada, but why do we need it here? Power is concentrated in the United Kingdom. We all remember the Drapergate affair. In 1998, Derek Draper worked for Lord Mandelson, who is now Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I believe that Derek Draper is now a psychotherapist. In 1998, he famously said that there were only 17 people who exercised real power in the new Labour Government, that he knew them all and that he could introduce lobbyists to them all. After that, the Government acted, and properly so. They brought in new guidance—“Guidance for Civil Servants: Contact with Lobbyists”—which said that they should not do anything that would place them under an obligation to the lobbyist. That was good guidance, but it has not been updated since 1998.

What do we want, and do we want it now? We want a mandatory register of lobbying activity to be provided for by statute, we want it to be independently managed and enforced, and it should include information provided by lobbyists and those being lobbied. We want the names of the individuals carrying out the lobbying activity and the organisations that employ or hire them, and in the case of multi-client consultancies, we want the names of the clients. We want information about any public offices previously held by lobbyists—for example, if they were former MPs. Such information would come from their career history, and there is no great secret about that. We also want a list of the interests of decision makers in the public services—I think of Ministers, senior civil servants and senior public servants—and summaries of their career histories outside the public service. Finally, we want information about contacts between lobbyists and decision makers, especially diary records and minutes of meetings. That is what we want, and we want it now.

I turn now to the revolving door, which was mentioned by my friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). Lobbying is about identifying and influencing those who exercise power and make decisions. Lobbyists buy access. The Government spend around £79 billion every year buying services from the private sector. Over the past 20 or 30 years, first under Margaret Thatcher and then under Tony Blair and the current Prime Minister, whole slabs of the public sector have been privatised. The private sector now has a foot in the door of the health service, and as I speak, the House is debating the Royal Mail and the Government’s proposal to part-privatise it, with TNT, a Dutch company, being a preferred partner. A decision has not yet been made, but Lord Mandelson has said that TNT is in the frame. Just imagine what TNT would give for inside information on discussions within the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about giving a private-sector company a chunk of Royal Mail.

What can we do to prevent that? We already have a sort of quarantine system. When Ministers and senior civil servants leave office, they have to notify the advisory committee on business appointments. If there is a connection between someone from the public services subsequently profiting from the knowledge and contacts he or she acquired, the committee is supposed to blow the whistle—but it is a very quiet whistle. Lord Warner came before the Select Committee. He used to be the Minister with responsibility for health service reform, and he now has seven or eight consultancies. They are all above board and have been declared. He told the Select Committee that the advisory committee on business appointments had told him:

“The main thing…I could not do for the first year after being a Minister was to lobby Ministers, whatever that means”.

We know from the Mayhew report that the system is not policed—that is a huge lacuna—and it needs a complete overhaul.

It is a huge problem, and it is impossible to condense it into 10 or 15 minutes, but I have done my best. I finish on this note. I have been talking to my colleagues in the Labour party, and they say if people outside knew what was happening and the money that was involved, they would recoil in horror. It is not advertised. About a year ago, some of my friends proposed changing the standing orders of the parliamentary Labour party so that if a Member of Parliament or Lord wanted to take a second job, perhaps in consultancy, they would be obliged to write to the party stating the time commitments, remuneration and how the job would advance the party’s aims and objectives. That is what is required to drag lobbying into the daylight.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this new landscape. Things have changed in the past few weeks, and I hope that he will tell us that the Government are committed to introducing a mandatory register for lobbyists along the lines that I have set out.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on securing the debate; not for the first time he has made parliamentary history by changing the terms and conditions by which we conduct our debates in this Chamber. He has also shown his customary dogged determination for change, for which I commend him.

My hon. Friend wants a mandatory register for lobbyists. I do not know whether we will go down that route yet. The Public Administration Committee published its report on 5 January, and I am committed to responding formally on behalf of the Government by 5 March. He is right that the world has changed in the past month, and the Government accept some of the valid points raised in the report’s analysis. I shall go through some of those points.

The report probably surprised everyone in the industry, and it has already had an effect. However, let me place the debate in the context of where we have come in the past 10 years, partly as a result of the work of the Select Committee. When considering the case for change, it is important to remember how far the Commons has come in the past 10 years. Lobbying became a concern after the famous “cash for questions” debacle in the 1990s when a compelling case was made that two Conservative MPs had been accepting cash for questions. On the back of that, the Government changed the way that things were done. Business appointment rules were extended to apply to former Ministers; we introduced an automatic waiting period of three months before Cabinet Ministers could take up posts; advisory committees were given the power to publish advice to former Ministers and civil servants where it was not followed; and Departments began maintaining records of gifts accepted by Ministers. We have now gone even further by publishing the annual list of gifts received by Ministers. Similarly, Departments began keeping records of hospitality accepted and the ministerial code now sets out the circumstances in which it is acceptable to receive hospitality. Furthermore, guidance is now available for civil servants accepting hospitality.

Interestingly, the Nolan Committee did not see the need for Ministers’ financial interests to be recorded separately from interests declared as an MP, but now all Ministers notify their permanent secretary on appointment of the relevant private interests, and for the first time the Government will be publishing that information. The Government also accepted the recommendations in the 2000 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It recommended that details of all ministerial and official meetings with external interests be properly recorded by Departments, and guidance to Departments now states how that should be done. The recommendation to issue guidance on consultation was accepted, and clear rules and guidance on how Governments should consult, including a Government code on consultation, are now in place.

The Committee also developed the seven principles of public life that now underpin the ministerial and civil service code and govern everything that we do as public servants. Of course, as my hon. Friend said, we must not forget that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has had a huge impact on the way that the Government do business. I hope he acknowledges, therefore, that we have made great and incremental change over the past decade, which has made the system more transparent and led to a culture change in the way in which people go about their business in government.

I accept absolutely my hon. Friend’s point that we can go further. He made some sensible recommendations for tightening the rules.