[Relevant documents: First Report of the Public Administration Committee on Lobbying: Access and Influence in Whitehall, HC 36-I, Session 2008-09, and the Government Response, HC 1058, Session 2008-09.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela E. Smith.)
I wish I could say that the House is clearly galvanised by this issue, but sadly it is not. I also suspect that many of us feel the need to depart this place as soon as we can, to reach further parts of the kingdom.
None the less, it is a great pleasure to introduce on behalf of the Public Administration Committee our report, “Lobbying: Access and Influence in Whitehall”, to which is attached the Government response, and a further report that the Committee produced in December 2009. We first reported in January 2009 and the Government, for a variety of reasons, were not able to reply to that report until October 2009. It will be noticed that that is rather longer than the normal two-month reply period, but we understood some of the reasons for that, not least that Ministers changed during that time, which is always a difficulty. I just want to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I know that today is her birthday and I feel particularly bad about detaining her, when I know that she wants to go out and celebrate this great day. So I will try not to detain her too long. Then, in December 2009, the Committee produced a further report commenting on the Government’s reply and taking the issue forward.
I want to start by explaining why the Committee thought that it was a good idea to look at lobbying. It was not because we were in the middle of a scandal; sometimes, that is the reason why we decide to look at a particular issue. In this case, there was not a pressing contemporary scandal, but we thought that there was an issue that needed attending to.
I pay particular tribute here to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who I see has now been promoted to honorary Parliamentary Private Secretary for the afternoon. As he just said to me, it is the highest accolade of his political career and I must say that it is well-deserved and indeed long overdue. He had been concerned for some time about a particular issue, which was the failure of multi-client consultancies to disclose their clients. He talked to me about that issue, I then talked to the Committee about it and we thought that it was an issue worth exploring. However, we thought that the way to do so was to have a more general look at the lobbying industry itself, which had not been done in modern times. It had not really been done at all inside Parliament for 15 years, and at that time it had been done only in relation to Parliament itself and not in relation to Government. So we wanted to take a step back and look at what lobbying was, how it organised itself, its interaction with Government and whether there were issues that required attention.
Now we all know that lobbying makes the world go round. We all lobby. As Members of Parliament, we are both lobbied all the time and we lobby all the time. We are vigorous lobbyists on behalf of all the interests and causes in our constituencies and indeed on behalf of many interests and causes beyond our constituencies. Everybody— every interest and cause in the land—lobbies, either directly or indirectly. We know that Prince Charles lobbies and we know that he does so regularly and assiduously.
I am in favour of all this lobbying. I think that good lobbying helps to make good government, for two reasons. The first is that people in a democracy are entitled to express their views, to have their interests recognised and to press those views and interests on public policy and on government. The second is that, on the other side, the Government benefit hugely from their contact with the world of lobbying, because they need to know the things that lobbyists know. The Government need to have the detailed knowledge that comes from knowing every area of life and activity.
I am actually quite ambivalent about that. I say that as a great man for openness, freedom of information and so on. However, if I was Prince Charles—there is a thought—and the heir to the throne and I thought that I had a role of advising, encouraging and warning, which is part of what a monarchy does, then I would probably want to exercise that role, certainly not in areas that were party contentious but over a wide terrain. I would write vigorously to Ministers about all the things that I was concerned with and I would probably write less vigorously if I thought that those letters were going to be published. That is the reason for my ambivalence. The easy answer would be to say, “Yes, of course, they should be published”. However, the older I get, the more old-fashioned I get, and I quite like the idea of monarchs writing to Prime Ministers, Prime Ministers writing to monarchs and all that kind of thing, but no doubt that is just a sign of ageing.
Anyway, lobbying is intrinsically a good and necessary thing. So why should we be concerned with it? Why on earth should we investigate it and inquire into it? Of course, it is because lobbying carries with it, as well as intrinsic goods, some intrinsic dangers too. Those dangers are pretty obvious; if some people have privileged access to power, policy and Government, that creates disadvantages for other people. So, as far as possible, we need to know who is lobbying whom about what. If we do not know that, of course people will draw all kinds of conclusions about the policy process. When Governments take decisions, unless we know something about the process by which those decisions have been taken openly, it can simply be asserted that they have been taken because certain interests have had their way with a Government in a manner that is not open and that has not been challenged.
So, on that basis, we set out a number of principles that we thought should inform lobbying. We said in our original report that we needed measures that would do three things:
“to promote ethical behaviour by lobbyists, with the prospect of sanctions if rules are broken…to ensure that the process of lobbying takes place in as public a way as possible, subject to the maximum reasonable degree of transparency…and to make it harder for politicians and public servants to use the information and contacts they have built up in office as an inducement to other potential employers.”
That third and last principle relates to the issue of the so-called “revolving door”.
In pursuing those principles, which I think would receive wide assent, we wanted to take an approach that would be effective in ensuring that the principles were actually safeguarded in some serious way. However, we also wanted to approach this subject in a way that was proportionate. We did not want to set up a bureaucratic structure that would be completely out of kilter with the nature of the problem. Those were the two aims that we brought to our approach.
We wanted to consider those who lobby and those who are lobbied. To take up a point that I mentioned at the beginning, we decided that we were concerned not just with the industry, and certainly not just with multi-client firms, but with all those who lobby regularly. Most lobbying is done by in-house lobbyists, not firms. I am always interested, by the way, by people who do not want to describe themselves as what they are. Lobbyists usually like to describe themselves not as lobbyists but as something else, usually people concerned with public affairs or Government relations. We know that they are lobbyists. If they think that lobbying is a good thing, they should say that they are lobbyists. They should set up lobbying companies and advertise themselves as lobbyists. They should not be coy about it.
We wanted to consider the whole activity of lobbying, wherever it came from, and not single out certain bits of the industry. In relation to those who lobby, although this was not our primary concern, we began to consider the industry. There are other issues that I will not touch on about whether it is worth spending large amounts of money on lobbyists to do a variety of jobs. Some people who spoke to us certainly did not think so, but that is not our concern.
We were struck by the fact that there was no single and effective system of regulation for the lobbying industry. There are three major industry associations or bodies that, although they all claim to have principles in common, are run in different ways. We know that industry is important to Government, but it does not have a single regulator to maintain ethical standards, so when issues blow up, the ability to deal with them depends on whether someone belongs to a particular association and whether it has standards that bite and can be enforced.
We took the view that we needed an umbrella regulator for the industry to approach the issue from the side of ethical regulation. The Government agreed with us in their reply, saying that they want a “single and credible” system of regulation—self-regulation, if possible—for the industry. We will discuss whether the industry is making progress towards a single, effective regulator.
What I have said so far relates to those who lobby, but our prime concern was those who are lobbied within the policy process and within Government and what we should be doing about them. We discussed the need for records of meetings between those who lobby and those who are lobbied, and we considered the provisions for declaring outside gifts and hospitality in relation to Ministers and civil servants.
Our central proposal involved a register of lobbying activity. In our report—I will not repeat it now, but it is worth reading for those who are interested—we have set down what principles we think should inform such a register and described what we think its content should be. We seek to show that it can be done both effectively and proportionately, and we give examples of different jurisdictions, showing what registers are like in the United States, Australia, Canada and parts of Europe. By the way, that indicates that the need to move towards a registration system is becoming common in many parts of the world. It is becoming common in Commonwealth and European systems and at the European level, and the United States has detailed provisions. One of the first acts of the new Administration in the United States was to introduce more effective lobbying regulation.
However, we did not want simply to copy those systems. We thought it important to devise a scheme appropriate for our political system. For example, when we went to the United States, we talked to lobbyists and those who were lobbied, and most of us returned with a feeling that the scale, volume and detail of what was legislated for there were not appropriate for our system. We went to a lobbying firm and met the lawyer whom it employed, whose job was to circumvent all the provisions to regulate who people can have a cup of coffee with and what contacts they can make. Due to the role of campaign finance in the United States, it is more pressing to regulate any contact between politicians and money people and outside lobbyists. Our system here is rather different. That is the point about combining effectiveness with proportionality.
Is not the problem in Britain twofold, more so than in perhaps any other polity? We have a higher degree of secrecy in government and more centralisation of power. Therefore, we might need lobbying to be more exposed and made more public and transparent than many other countries.
That certainly has been the traditional picture here. Fortunately, things are improving. They have improved enormously as a result of freedom of information legislation, which this Government introduced and in which our Committee played a major role, if my hon. Friend remembers.
We can just say it quietly to each other here. If my hon. Friend remembers, when the draft Freedom of Information Bill came before our Committee 10 years or so ago, we noticed that it did not include Parliament. It was put to us that that was a strange omission, and we recommended that Parliament should be included. The Government, in the shape of the current Justice Secretary, took that on board, and without dissent or demur, the House of Commons agreed to insert Parliament into the Act.
We are responsible. I pause to reflect on the implications.
Things have changed. The Government took steps, and they have taken more steps since our report on lobbying, to make transparency requirements relating to Ministers’ interests. They have agreed to produce quarterly online records of meetings between outside organisations and Ministers. We would like them to go further still—we say that they should include civil servants, too—but progress is being made, so I do not want my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) to feel too downhearted. His life has not been entirely in vain.
Where are we now, all that having been done? The industry has responded. It is surprising, because the industry was concerned about our activities last year. Indeed, in some respects, they were preoccupied with them. What was striking was the industry’s broad acceptance—I will not go as far as to say welcome—of the need to make changes. A meeting was convened in the House of Commons last year by the industry. I thought that we were being invited to be castigated and was surprised when major industry figures lined up to say they accepted that change had to come. They wanted to progress with the kind of approach that we had outlined.
Since then, the industry has taken steps to set up a public affairs council and move towards a single industry regulator. We have serious reservations about how serious that process is and how far it has gone. We reproduced a letter that came to the Select Committee from the person presiding over that initiative, from which it is not clear that the industry is moving towards a universal, compulsory system that brings in the whole industry. Unless that is done, we will not have the kind of regulatory body that we have for other areas of life. Anything less than that will not be satisfactory.
The Government response, although it took some time to come, was broadly positive. The Government signalled that they wanted the industry to move in the direction that we had suggested:
“The Government urges the industry to embrace the opportunity provided by the Committee’s Report.”
That was a pretty clear steer to the industry that it was not just a parliamentary Committee that had popped up and said these things, but that there was a general feeling in the Government that the time had come to put the lobbying industry on a different basis.
The Government thought that could be done on a voluntary basis. We were not so sure, although we wanted to give the industry time to do so and suggested a time frame of six months. We would now like to know what the Government think about the process so far. Do they think that it has met the requirements that we set out? We are doubtful about that. Some serious nudging may be required.
I have welcomed the Government’s extension of the transparency arrangements for hospitality and gifts to Ministers and on their private interests, but there is room to go further. There could be published records of the meetings between outside groups and civil servants, as there are for Ministers. Civil servants’ private interests could also be published. We welcome the online quarterly reporting of meetings between Ministers and outside groups.
The outstanding issue is that of a register and whether it should be introduced on a voluntary or statutory, mandatory basis. Our report made it clear that unless the register was statutory and mandatory, it simply would not be effective. That was the overwhelming tenor of the evidence that we received from people in this country and those who drew on overseas experience.
The Government reply is rather gnomic on that point:
“The Government agrees that any system of regulation, whether it is voluntary self-regulation or statutory regulation, requires a register of lobbyists to ensure that lobbying activity is transparent. The Government agrees with most of the elements for such a register outlined by the Committee.”
With great respect to the Minister, that evades the issue of whether a register must be required, as opposed to voluntary. The volume of evidence on that point is compelling. In the last few days, we have received representations from the Law Society and others stating that they could operate only with a statutory register because of the requirement that solicitors have under the regulatory body for that profession.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has received the same intimations as I have. Before the Government response was published, there were hints that they might go further than they did and be much more positive. It is suggested that they rowed back from that. Did he receive any such intimations? Does he know whether the Government rowed back and, if so, for what reasons?
As always, my hon. Friend knows far more about the inner workings of government than I do. I yield to his superior knowledge of such matters. I know only what I am told, which is what the Government write in their responses.
I have tried to describe briefly how the Select Committee got into this issue and the work that we did. I give huge thanks to the members of the Select Committee for the work that they put in on this and every other inquiry. We are a persistent and durable Committee. I also express huge thanks to our Clerk, Steven Mark, and his team for their work in assisting us. Many things are wrong with Parliament—some of us spend a lot of time talking about them—but one thing that is not wrong is the service that we get from our officials, which is exemplary. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Indeed, it is almost too good for us at times. That service was indispensable on this report.
I have explained why we got into this matter and the argument that we made. We came forward with a set of proposals that is sensible, doable and not over the top. It deals with an issue that systems in every country are having to deal with in some way. Where does that leave us? Our argument is that it is much better to put such reforms in place at a time of relative calm, when there are no scandals or crises. The next time there is a scandal, crisis or report about impropriety in the lobbying industry, there will be instant demands that something be done and we will probably do something that is completely inappropriate. It would be much better to take some time to stand back from the issue and then come forward with a set of sensible proposals that prepares us to deal with such issues or, better still, prevents them. That is what we tried to do.
I have spoken of developments elsewhere that show the direction of travel. It is not plausible to suggest, when lobbying regulation is a normal part of almost every other system, that we do not need it. It should be part of the furniture of government and we should do it in a way that is consistent with and appropriate to our tradition.
This issue will not go away, and it would be best to deal with it now. I do not know whether some in the industry think that it will go away once this Parliament, this Select Committee and perhaps this Government have gone. I read in a newspaper that a vast number of Conservative parliamentary candidates come from the lobbying industry. Perhaps they think that they will be able to take care of the issue by effective lobbying from inside. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, I do not know such dark secrets, but simply what I read in the newspapers. However, I am pretty sure that the issue will not go away. It is unfinished business that we must turn our attention to. Not for the first time with some of our reports, it is only subsequently that people decide that something is worth turning to and implementing in full or, at least, in part.
The core proposition is simple: in a democracy, people are entitled to know who is lobbying whom about what. It is as simple as that. If we accept that core proposition, it is worth spending some time thinking through what kind of arrangements and procedures would secure the achievement of that principle. That is what we have tried to do in our report, and I hope that it will come to be seen as the basis for some sensible action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. After the debate, like you, I have to repair to the frozen north before the next snowstorm, although I appreciate that Luton is not quite as far north as Bootle.
The last point my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) made was that as and when things go wrong—when a crisis arises—he is rather pessimistic that the Government of the day might do the wrong thing. Perhaps he could then say, “We told you so. Here’s our report; just implement it.” He perhaps should not be too clever about it, but he could at least offer the report and say, “Here’s one we made earlier. This is what you should do.” I would like to think that we are ahead of the game and that, at a future point, the report that we recommended will be adopted, rather than the Government’s inching towards that position. We have made progress, however, and that is good.
I wish my right hon. Friend the Minister a happy birthday and hope that she is not delayed too long by our debate. The Chamber is not too crowded, so she might get away fairly soon.
The report is absolutely splendid, and although I put my name to it, the credit goes to the whole Committee and, indeed, to those Officers whom my hon. Friend the Committee Chairman praised so fully and appropriately. I should also say—he would not say this, and he has perhaps heard me give such compliments before—that his chairmanship of our Committee is absolutely first class. In my 13 years in the House, the most enjoyable and worthwhile thing I have done is to be a member of the Public Administration Committee for the past seven years. At least for the next six months, I hope to continue to be a member of it. The Committee has a splendid group of members and produces first-class reports, as it has done over several years.
My fellow Committee members present will have heard my arguments before, so I apologise for raising them yet again. My concerns were always about the power of lobbying at the very centre of the Government. I have drawn a spectrum of lobbying, or perhaps a division between its two types, one of which I call altruistic lobbying—indeed, that is the sort of lobbying that I do. I represent the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—I have mentioned that organisation before in the House. It does not pay me any money; I support it because I believe in its aims and objectives. It is a matter of personal belief, rather than a question of interest.
I also sponsor the National Pensioners Convention lobby of Parliament every year. As I am above pensionable age, I should declare an interest, but I also believe in what that organisation is doing. There are a number of other organisations that we support, in a sense, because we passionately believe in their objectives, and that is what I call altruistic lobbying.
Moving along the spectrum, one then has the professional organisations. I have personal associations with the trade union Unison, the Association of Colleges—as co-chair of the all-party group on further education and lifelong learning—and million+, which is an organisation of new universities, the chairman of which is vice-chancellor of my local university. Again, there is no financial interest involved. We do these things because we happen to agree with what such organisations stand for and what they are doing.
We then get to the more serious end of the spectrum, which is where large sums of Government money and contracts are involved. Those are invariably dealt with at the highest level of Government, and that is what my concerns relate to. The links between the defence industry and the Ministry of Defence are well known. The contracts concerned are literally worth billions, not just millions. As far as is reasonable—as long as one is not giving away national secrets that would be advantageous to an enemy—such contracts should be transparent. There have been scandals in the past about the defence industry and its relations with not just the British Government but foreign Governments.
I am also very concerned about the extent to which the previous Prime Minister had visitations at Downing street from big business interests, particularly those of the health industry. Time and again, there were reports in the journals about meetings at Downing street involving large numbers of American health corporations that considered the rich pickings they could get from the national health service. That process is still taking place, and it worries me greatly. We should not be privatising the health service under the disguise of commissioning or whatever. The drive that has come from American health interests, in particular, is very unhealthy and unwelcome. That is all done at the level of Downing street, not even at the level of the Department of Health. That should be exposed and made public. We get leaks in the press, but that is not anything like enough.
Another area that I know a little about is dealt with by the Department for Transport, which is talking about ordering rolling stock from different companies. Many of us were very concerned about the Government’s decision to place a big order with Hitachi rather than with companies in Britain that have productive capacity, particularly because the Department for Transport now has its own in-house ROSCO—rolling stock company. That has been an advance, but the ordering process and the links between the companies and the Government ought to be much more transparent. I want them to be made public.
Something that worried me perhaps more than anything was the gambling interests and the American gambling corporations that went into Downing street and pressed the previous Prime Minister to drive forward a large number of giant casinos across Britain. In fact, we saw them off through a combination of Back-Bench lobbying by myself and others. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) also felt that the matter was deeply unhealthy. We did not want the legacy of a Labour Government to be a nation left with increasing levels of gambling addiction and more large casinos. The idea that an economy somehow has to be based on a giant casino, particularly in a poor area, is really reprehensible. However, as a result of parliamentary pressure and lobbying against the gambling corporations, they were seen off to a large extent. That was very healthy.
I understand, again from leaks in the journals, that the American gambling corporations were very disappointed in the previous Prime Minister because he did not manage to get through what they wanted, which was for Britain to become an offshore Las Vegas. My opinion on the matter is not just a result of my puritanical ancestry. It would have been deeply unhealthy for Britain to go down that route and we should not have done so. Again, lobbying was done at a central level, and that was unacceptable.
It is interesting to note from the Government’s response to the report that they have apparently agreed to publish details of ministerial meetings with outside interests. That is very welcome. However, at the last minute, they showed reluctance to publish information about lobbying activity involving the most senior officials. The Government are therefore saying, “Yes, you can know everything, except that which is most important.” I want to know what the senior officials are doing with these big companies. That is what really matters and that is what I want to see exposed.
Many years ago, I was a supporter—the constituency chair—of Brian Sedgemore, who at that time was the Labour Member of Parliament for Luton, West. I was his party chair and campaign organiser when he was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Tony Benn. He and Tony Benn went to have dinner with the warden of, I think, All Souls—certainly the warden of an Oxford college. Brian Sedgemore put forward the view that government ought to be open and public so that all these things would be known. The warden turned to Tony Benn and said, “Mr. Benn, do you know that your Parliamentary Private Secretary is mad?” Brian Sedgemore was perhaps ahead of his time, but I agreed with him then and do so now.
We have some way to go. The report is a tremendous advance and I would like to think that a future Labour Government will implement it in full so that we have the statutory register and reach the healthy state of affairs in which such things are known publicly and the electorate will know what senior officials and Ministers are doing in their offices regarding big contracts with wealthy corporations, meaning that they no longer have that hidden from them. I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say.
It is a great pleasure to make a brief contribution to the debate. As the Select Committee Chairman said, I have a dual role this afternoon. It is truly the highlight of my political career to be the Minister’s acting PPS for a few minutes. I have just begun to realise how much power I have in that role. I have a lot of notes, and could pass the Minister the wrong ones—or pass the wrong ones back and forth—but I shall try to perform both my roles correctly.
In 1869 the American magazine The Nation defined a lobbyist as
“a man whom everybody suspects…and whose employment by those who have bills before a legislature is only resorted to as a disagreeable necessity.”
That is one view of lobbying—not the one that I take. Some of my best friends are lobbyists. I agree with the Chairman of the Select Committee that they are a vital part of our democracy and can articulate the case of not just business but charities and all sorts of organisations about legislation. They can make sure that a diversity of voices and opinions is heard in our democracy. However, the central principle that the Chairman referred to about the declaration of clients by multi-client lobbyists is fundamental. It is no accident that, as he pointed out, nations across the developed world have been changing their rules on the matter in recent years. In the United States there is a long tradition of transparency, dating back to the quotation I gave, and before. In the European Union there is a voluntary register in operation. In France, only this month, the French Parliament has adopted such a declaration of clients—the decision of the Senate has probably to come.
Why does it matter? Partly it is because the websites of the multi-client lobbying firms and the pitches that they make claim great influence. They claim that they shape policy and that they have done over decades. If that influence exists, it should be transparent. Some firms have been holding out against the declaration of clients. Bell Pottinger, chaired by Lord Bell, is one in particular. Down the years there has been an occasional burst of publicity suggesting the importance of declaring all one’s clients. For example, a few years ago, during the gambling debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) referred to, Bell Pottinger had two sets of clients—an American gambling company and the British Amusement Catering Trade Association, a trade association covering gambling machines and so on, in Britain. BACTA decided that that was a conflict of interest, and that it would seek representation other than that of Bell Pottinger. If the client list is not published, one cannot be sure that such conflicts of interest do not exist.
I know from my own dealings and inquiries in the matter that that was not the only case in which Bell Pottinger represented completely different interests. I went to a dinner organised by Bell Pottinger at which one interest was being argued. A few weeks later I saw the same Bell Pottinger personnel—there were not even Chinese walls in operation—representing exactly the opposite interest. I cannot imagine that the clients would have been happy with those non-existent Chinese walls. The matter is clearly one of public interest.
In recent years some firms have changed, and have begun to declare their clients, and it has not been the end of the world. Life goes on and the firms continue to thrive. Sovereign Strategy and Finsbury were originally very doubtful about publishing lists of their clients. Finsbury, with its influence in the financial world, thought that hedge funds would not be happy about the declaration of clients. Roland Rudd, to his credit, published his clients a couple of years ago and is making massive profits. He is still best buddies with Lord Mandelson and I think he has entertained the Leader of the Opposition to dinner at his house, so there is life beyond declaring clients. That is clearly something that the industry should make universal, as many people have suggested.
I was pleased that the Government acknowledged and encouraged some of the suggestions in the Select Committee report. I, too, have heard rumours about changes in the drafts of the report. I even heard that it was so important that it went to Lord Mandelson himself, and that he made comments. I do not know whether it is true that it achieved such elevated heights, but it is interesting that the industry was a little disappointed that the Government perhaps did not find the words—I hope that the Minister will find them today—to be a little more assertive about the need for the declaration of clients. The chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, Robbie McDuff, said
“we are somewhat disappointed that the Government has not sought to encourage those who choose not to follow the self-regulatory route”.
I, indeed, asked the Library for comments of Ministers in the past decade supporting self-regulation, if that is the policy on the declaration of clients by multi-client lobbyists. The Library reply was that Ministerial comments on the subject were elusive.
Today’s debate is a chance for the Minister to avoid doubt. To be fair to the Opposition Front Bench, the shadow Cabinet Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), has said:
“Public affairs firms should publish all client lists and their full-time and part-time staff. If this is not undertaken across the whole industry by a process of effective self-regulation, Conservatives are warning that pressure will mount to subject the industry to statutory regulation.”
I hope that we can get unity on the Front Benches today and that the Minister will issue similar declarations. I shall make some practical suggestions about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), the Chairman of the Select Committee, mentioned the role of lawyers, in the firms that bring them together with public affairs. There is much merit in his suggestion that there is no other way to approach this matter than by a statutory register. However, let us not let the DLA Pipers of this world get off the hook by saying that they cannot sign up to a voluntary register because of Law Society rules. They can clearly do that, should they choose to. I wrote to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is the regulatory body in this instance, and asked whether firms such as DLA Piper could, if they wanted to, sign up and declare their clients on a voluntary basis, and quoted the European Commission’s voluntary scheme. It wrote back:
“We do not think a lawyer’s duty of confidentiality presents an automatic bar to lawyers being included in the initiative.”
It continued by saying that
“provided that membership imposes no requirement which conflicts with a solicitor’s professional duties (such as, for example, a retrospective obligation to publish clients’ names) there is nothing to prevent a solicitors’ firm becoming a member of the APPC”—
or presumably the public affairs council—
“or a similar organisation. The member firm could meet the disclosure requirements of that Association, and therefore the requirements of transparency, by making the client’s consent to the disclosure a pre-condition for acting.”
Thus, all that firms such as DLA Piper need do when they take on new clients would be to say, “In future we are going to declare all our clients.” They could not do that retrospectively, but they could do it in future, and happily remain members of the Law Society and sign up to the code. It is making an excuse and hiding behind the Law Society, when it will not do that. I hope that that firm, and firms such as Bell Pottinger, will review their position and sign up.
We are where we are, as they say, and are coming up to a general election. We have very few weeks left. I hope that Ministers, and the Opposition, can give a further boost to the campaign for all multi-client lobbyists to declare their clients. There are certain things that they could do. For example, the public affairs council is being set up. There all sorts of weaknesses and hesitancies about the organisation, as it is formed, as there are with any new organisation.
Sir Philip Mawer, who I understand is responsible for the new body, and an independent figure of some repute, has said on the record that self-regulation works only if everyone is involved. I have confidence in him and believe he wants to do a good job, but it is difficult to weld together a multitude of organisations. In the first instance, it appears that each organisation will be responsible for its own disciplinary code, but I hope that in future there will be one code.
I also hope that the public affairs council will look carefully at those firms that divide themselves. Bell Pottinger is an example, as it is a member of the Chime group of public affairs companies. One member of that group, Good Relations, declares its clients and is a member of the various self-regulatory bodies, but Bell Pottinger is not. If a company is to be a member of a self-regulatory organisation, the whole organisation should sign up to its principles, not just one arm of it.
Another group that falls into that category is the Huntsworth group, which has a variety of public affairs firms under its wing. Of those, Citigate and Grayling declare their clients, but Quiller does not. A gentleman called George Bridges recently left Quiller to work for the Conservative Front-Bench team, and one of the public relations newspapers has argued that, because he was one of the main reasons for many people signing up to Quiller, the company would suffer from that loss. Clearly, if one part of a group is signed up to declaring its clients, all should be. I challenge the public affairs council, if it is to be credible, to insist on that. It cannot have part of a group declaring its clients and another part not.
I urge the Minister to consider whether it is beyond the pale for her to commit to writing to all major public affairs companies, urging them to declare their clients. Is it beyond the pale for her to write to the FTSE 100 companies and urge them that the next time they contract a public affairs company they do so with one that publicly declares its clients and is involved in the public affairs council? I offer the same challenge to the Opposition: would the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) be prepared to write such letters to the top lobbying companies, and to the FTSE 100 companies to urge them to employ lobbyists who adopt the highest ethical rules?
If we are serious about self-regulation, which both the Government and the Opposition are committed to, we have to take further action. We in Parliament must look at a report produced by the Committee on Standards in Public Life a couple of years ago, which stated that consultancies that service all-party groups should adopt those standards. There are probably things that Parliament can do to encourage that.
I am in a particular position this afternoon—I do not know whether Lord Mandelson is watching, but if he is, the Minister knows that I can just lose any note he sends. This is a decision that she can make on her own, but I hope that she will at least consider the suggestion. I hope that the likes of Lord Bell and Peter Bingle of Bell Pottinger, and Alan Parker of Brunswick, who are in danger of becoming the Arthur Daleys of the public affairs industry if they hold out against the declaration of clients, will also heed the call from the Opposition Front Bench. I am sure that the Treasury Bench will today call on those companies to join the modern world and declare their clients.
Lord Mandelson, whether or not he is watching the debate, will know what my friend the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said this afternoon.
I shall be brief and have only two or three points to make, the first of which is about the context in which we are discussing the matter. We need more transparency in our politics. People’s trust in politicians is at an all-time low. We have all, collectively, been seared by the MPs’ expenses business. I had a debate in this Chamber on this subject in February 2009, which was just about the time that we were reading about Lords for lobbying: peers who had been approached by fake lobbyists and asked to do their bidding. Two of those peers were suspended from the House of Lords, which was unprecedented. That has never happened before, and I hope it will never happen again.
We pick up our newspapers and read about former Ministers. One of yesterday’s plotters has a £60,000 to £70,000 contract with Alliance Boots, and she used to be the Secretary of State for Health. Any number of former Ministers are doing two jobs, and we should know more about that. There is a public interest imperative in having the greatest transparency possible. We need to know where power lies and how it is exercised.
In February’s debate, which took place nearly a year ago, I reminded colleagues about Derek Draper’s famous claim in 1998—he used to be very close to Lord Mandelson and perhaps still is—that there were 17 people in the new Labour Government, that he knew them all and that he could introduce people to them. That was disgraceful, and something should have been done about it. We can only deal with the Derek Drapers of this world by making lobbying open and transparent.
The Committee’s report calls for a mandatory register. My friend the Member for Selby mentioned the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I put the question of a mandatory register to Sir Christopher Kelly at the meeting we had back in February, and he agreed that there should be one. There is no other way of addressing the issue.
My friend the Member for Selby mentioned the position of solicitors and the Law Society. Any number of law firms have a lobbying branch. DLA Piper is one such firm, and its lobbying branch is Global Communications. Eben Black from DLA Piper appeared before our Committee—I dare say he has written to colleagues—claiming that the solicitor’s code, which prohibits the publication of client details, also covers people, such as him, who are not solicitors. The Law Society has also been in touch with the Committee to say that client confidentiality will prohibit the disclosure of client names. The only way around that is to go for a mandatory register in statute: a statutory register. Eben Black and the Law Society are in favour of that.
My friend the Member for Selby mentioned some kind of compromise, but I do not think that it would be workable to tell solicitors that new clients have to be disclosed while existing clients could not be. That would put older clients, if I may so term them, in a more advantageous and privileged position than newer clients. It is just too complicated. It will never fly, so we need a statutory register.
Colleagues have mentioned examples from overseas. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. The United States, which was mentioned by my friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), is a bad example. Politics in the United States is polluted by the need to raise millions and millions in campaign finance. A better comparator for us is Canada. It is unfortunate that we did not visit Ottawa when we were in north America to discuss how lobbying is managed there, but we have the advantage of the annual report of the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada.
I have said many times that Canada is a sister democracy. Its system is probably the closest anywhere to what we have in Westminster. The Canadians first legislated on lobbying back in 1989, and they have progressively tightened the rules. The commissioner makes four points on the front page of the annual report:
“Free and open access to government is an important matter of public interest;
Lobbying public office holders is a legitimate activity;
It is desirable that public office holders and the general public be able to know who is attempting to influence government;
The system for the registration of paid lobbyists should not impede free and open access to government.”
That is simple; there is not a huge bureaucracy. A new Lobbying Act in 2008 created the post of Commissioner of Lobbying. Everything is in the report, which can be accessed on the web pages. It states that lobbyists have to put in monthly returns to say who they are lobbying. Such transparency is testimony to the health and vibrancy of Canadian democracy.
My friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) has a part-time job with Boots the Chemist, but in Canada, there is five-year prohibition on designated public office holders taking such positions, although it can be waived by the commissioner in certain circumstances. Five years—here, people move seamlessly from Whitehall and Westminster straight into commerce in a matter of months.
In addition, our system is not policed. The Advisory Committee on Public Appointments will tell ex-Ministers, perhaps Defence Ministers who have been responsible for billion-pound budgets, that they should not lobby for six months or 12 months, but that is never policed, and we do not know what whisperings go on behind the curtain.
In view of that, I was disappointed by the Government response. No disrespect to the Minister, but I thought that it was limp and feeble—words that were used by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. When the Government published their response in October 2009, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency stated:
“The Government has dropped the ball on political reform—and ignored public concerns—by refusing to force lobbyists to operate in the open.”
That is what we are talking about.
This nation spends £79 billion of public money in the commercial sector every year. The lobbing industry is worth £2 billion, but we do not know who is influencing whom, and that is wrong. It runs against the whole current of opinion. I cannot understand for the life of me why the Government took this decision, which runs counter to what I believe that we as a Government have been trying to achieve.
I do not know where this leaves us. We are at the fag end of this Parliament, and many of us will not be here for the next one, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. We could have a new Government, but I share the view of my friend the Member for Cannock Chase that the issue will not go away. I predict that within four or five years we will have a statutory register of lobbyists and we will bring this practice out of the shadows and into the open.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Benton. On behalf of the packed ranks of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I wish the Minister a very happy birthday. One is not 30 every day, as I think you know, Mr. Benton, so I hope that she puts on her dancing shoes tonight.
I congratulate the Select Committee on its report. The Committee matters, because it has a habit of picking on important subjects a little ahead of the curve and applying itself to them with considerable incision and persistence. The report does it a great deal of credit. I certainly learned much from it, not least about possible lessons to be learned from international spheres of regulation. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke well on that.
I congratulate the Chairman, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), on the elegant way in which he framed this debate and on his typical modesty in the words that followed his comments on being heir to the throne.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on stepping up to the plate and playing the role of a speaking Parliamentary Private Secretary to such effect. I understand that there are 12 PPS vacancies in the Administration, such is the reluctance of Labour Back Benchers to serve the current Prime Minister. I can only assume that after today’s performance, the number is down to 11. I hope so, not least because of the robust position that the hon. Gentleman took with his own Minister.
I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the proactive part that he has played in triggering the interest of the Committee in this important issue, because there clearly is a risk here. He and the Chairman were very clear on the risk of a blow-up. The Chairman was right about how this place operates: if something must be done, a mentality takes over, and there is the risk that we will probably do something entirely disproportionate to what has occurred. Therefore, it is important to try to look at this proactively and relatively calmly.
The context is exactly as the hon. Member for Pendle described: we are operating in an atmosphere of low—arguably, zero—trust. We have, in effect, destroyed confidence in Government institutions at a time when the country needs to have confidence, and we are engaged in the painstaking process of rebuilding it.
This is not just about MPs’ expenses. I do not know what the experience of colleagues has been, but certainly in my constituency, I hear a voice of anxiety—anger—about how decisions are taken. In part, it is about the remoteness of decision making, and the feeling that communities are not involved or listened to. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) spoke about the effects of centralisation in the process. There is also anxiety about the way in which the Government make up their mind on things and then consult. In my part of the world, the words “public consultation” and “sham” are synonymous.
There is also real anxiety about undue influence on the decision making of the Government. That came home to me when I was speaking to a conference of voluntary organisations, as the Minister does regularly as well. I remember vividly a lady shouting at me from the back, full of anger, about her perception of the influence that pharmaceutical companies had on the Government. I have no means of knowing whether she was right or wrong, but she had strong feelings and influenced the audience.
I recognise such passion and anger because it is what my constituents and most of the residents of Hillingdon feel about the decision on the third runway at Heathrow. The process was inflamed by a perception that the Department making the decision was far too close to BAA—the major beneficiary of the decision. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was extraordinarily useful to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) in exposing that unhealthy proximity in that process.
I cannot prove or disprove that. I am trying to get across the public perception that the decision was over-influenced by BAA’s access to and privileged relationship with the Department for Transport. The reality is one thing. However, I am more concerned about the perception and how it compounds public unease about the way that decisions are taken by those who govern in their name.
I congratulate the Committee, because we need to look at this issue more closely. The balance of the report looked at those doing the lobbying, notwithstanding the powerful statements made by the hon. Member for Pendle on the need for greater policing of what happens, for example, to Ministers once they leave office with their freedom to pursue gain elsewhere, and the need to look again at the system of regulation there.
I found the report persuasive in its message that the current system of self-regulation is not effective, for the reasons stated, including a lack of consistency and the lack of one trusted body. Although it has not been picked up so far in the debate, the point was well made about it being difficult for the three organisations to combine the role of being effectively a trade association that is dependent on members and a regulator of those members. That dynamic and tension is unsustainable.
The third point made by the report, which was persuasively argued, was about there being no evidence of an effective complaints process in this system.
The report was clear, and the line of the Committee was clear, about the need for a new body to enforce standards and a mandatory register of contacts. I found the Government’s line less clear, when it eventually came—we will return to that. The hon. Member for Pendle described the Government’s response as limp and feeble, and I agree. I was certainly disappointed with it. The Government’s line seems to be that they prefer to focus on those who are lobbied, rather than on those who are doing the lobbying. In that context, I welcome the move to produce quarterly publications of information about ministerial meetings, which is a welcome development. I share the view of the hon. Member for Luton, North that that should be extended to senior officials as well, because as the hon. Member for Pendle said, the move to greater transparency is inevitable and we must go with it.
I was less clear about the Government’s view in respect of the need for a register. They have clearly come down on the side of more effective voluntary self-regulation, which is our instinct as well, but the Committee Chairman described their response as “gnomic”—not a word that I would ever use to describe the current Minister; certainly not on her birthday—and I agree. The response is unclear in that regard. The Committee Chairman cited the following quote:
“The Government agrees that any system of regulation …voluntary…or statutory…requires a register of lobbyists to ensure that lobbying activity is transparent.”
But a few pages earlier, a large section is given over to expanding on the possible risks of mandatory registration, as outlined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The message from the Government is not clear enough in this respect. I should like to press the Minister to be clear, because if we are to go down the path of more effective voluntary self-regulation, which is our instinct, we need to send a much stronger signal to the industry than the Government’s response delivers, particularly on the need for greater transparency. The hon. Member for Pendle was powerful in that regard, but we endorse that principle.
The hon. Member for Selby kindly quoted my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who said:
“Public affairs firms should publish all client lists and their full-time and part-time staff… The Solicitors’ Code of Conduct should also be amended so solicitors’ firms who engage in public affairs work can disclose their lobbying clients”.
I should like the Government to be clearer on their position. I get no sense from their response about a big stick being waved in the direction of the industry and no sense of urgency. In fact, they have taken a long time to say very little indeed.
I close my remarks with three questions to the Minister. First, why the delay in responding? I am not a member of the Committee, so I am not privy to the correspondence or the explanations given, but a change of Ministers is not a sufficiently good response in respect of a delay of nine months in responding to such an important report—seven months more than the parliamentary protocol dictates. I should like the courtesy of some explanation for that unusual delay in responding.
Secondly, if the message is, “We want to see more effective self-regulation,” what will the Government do to assess the response of the sector? The Government response is silent on the process from here on and silent on a timetable. This is an opportunity for the Minister to place on the record a much stronger message to the lobbying industry, saying that if it fails to self-regulate effectively, it should be prepared for intense pressure from Parliament to legislate to ensure greater accountability.
Thirdly and more specifically, we are concerned about a trend within lobbying for public sector organisations to hire lobbyists effectively to lobby the Government. We published a dossier called “Government Lobbying Government”, which identifies some £10 million of public money being used apparently in this circle of public sector organisations—predominantly quangos—lobbying Departments for funds or legislative action. That strikes us as unhealthy and quite wrong in the current climate of concern about public expenditure. We draw the Government’s attention to the action in the United States, where the Byrd amendment of 1996 prohibits the use of federal contracts, grants, loans or moneys to influence, or attempt to influence, the Executive or legislative branch. The Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 states that moneys derived from Government contracts in excess of $500,000 cannot be used to fund the influencing of legislative action, directly or indirectly.
I should like the Minister to place on the record her position on the Government’s approach to clamping down on public money being used by public sector companies to lobby the Government.
I congratulate the Committee on an excellent report that throws some useful light into some potentially dark corners.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr. Benton, and I welcome you to the Chair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and the Committee on securing this debate and on the work that they have done preparing the report, which all hon. Members agree is timely and useful. I assure my hon. Friend that there is nowhere else I would rather be on my birthday, particularly because this is the warmest place in the House of Commons at the moment. I also thank my temporary honorary Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who has done great service today, both in his comments and his efforts on my behalf.
The Select Committee on Public Administration has conducted the first parliamentary inquiry on lobbying for almost 20 years. The word “timely” has been used several times, as the work was needed. The Committee produced two reports on this issue, the most recent coming before the Christmas recess.
Before I go any further, it is appropriate that I apologise unreservedly for the time that it took the Government to respond to the Committee’s original report. As I said when I provided the Government’s response and when I went to the Committee last July, no discourtesy to the Committee was intended. I had hoped to get the response to the Committee prior to recess. Another week before recess and that would have happened. I am sorry that that delayed it further. I will ensure that the Government’s response to the further report will be with the Committee shortly.
I should perhaps confess an involvement in this issue, as before I became a Member of Parliament, I lobbied MPs, including members of the Committee—my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). I think that I was what my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) would call a good lobbyist. I worked for the League Against Cruel Sports, but I did not call myself a lobbyist at the time. I was a parliamentary officer, and I did various work around Parliament, and political work in general, lobbying for the abolition of hunting and wildlife protection.
The Committee’s inquiry into lobbying took a broad look at the contact between those working in the public sector and those attempting to influence their decisions. The Government’s response to the Committee’s original report stated:
“Lobbying is essentially the activity of those in a democracy making representations to government on issues of concern. The Government is committed to protecting this right from improper use”.
The Government agree with the Committee that there is still more to do in order to provide the public with greater reassurance that when lobbying takes place, it does so within a framework that upholds the highest standards of propriety and prevents improper influence or access. That includes the need to ensure that appropriate rules and measures are in place to govern the acceptance of outside business appointments by Ministers and Crown servants on their leaving office. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is an independent committee that deals with such matters, and I will return to its work later in my comments. I am aware that, in November, the Public Administration Committee held a pre-appointment meeting with Lord Lang of Monkton, who is now the chairman of the advisory committee.
Perhaps I can touch on the issue of transparency. When responding to the Committee’s original report, the Government took further steps, which were welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, to ensure that appropriate and proportionate measures were in place for those who are mostly in discussion with lobbyists—Ministers and civil servants. For Ministers, the Government accepted three key recommendations. First, information about hospitality received by Ministers in a ministerial capacity and valued at more than £140 will be published quarterly and online by Departments. Information for the period between 1 October and the end of December last year is being collated and will be published as soon as it is ready. When providing that information, the Government have decided that the threshold for Ministers should be the same as that currently set for the declaration of gifts—both given and received—which is £140. That is considerably lower than the threshold for both MPs and peers, for whom registration would normally be required for hospitality valued at around £650 for Members of the House of Commons, and about £1,000 for Members of the House of Lords.
Secondly, information about Ministers’ meetings with outside interest groups will be routinely published by the Department—again, I am pleased that that is welcomed by the Committee. It will be published quarterly and online, and information for the period of the three months to the end of December is being collated and will be published as soon as it is ready. That information will include the name of the Minister holding the meeting, the date of the meeting, the organisations present and the principal subjects discussed.
Thirdly, in response to the Committee, the Government have committed to updating and publishing online the list of ministerial interests by the Cabinet Office every six months. The list is not an account of all the interests held by Ministers or their families, but it contains interests that are—or could reasonably be perceived to be—directly relevant to a Minister’s public duties. The first ever list was published in March last year, and the process has already increased transparency and confidence in the application of rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest.
I turn to the recommendations concerning civil servants. Last February—again for the first time—the Government published a list of hospitality received by members of departmental boards. That was taken a stage further when, in response to a recommendation by the Committee in its original report on lobbying, the Government agreed to extend the coverage of the list to include hospitality received by senior civil servants at director general level and above. Extending the hospitality publication to cover the most senior officials, and also to include their official expenses, is an important part of the Government’s commitment to account to the taxpayer for the use of public money.
I appreciate that the Committee wanted the Government to go further in relation to senior civil servants. In its further report, the Committee recommended publishing information about meetings between the most senior officials and outside interest groups, and publishing the relevant private interests of the most senior civil servants—director general and above—and the equivalent employees of public bodies. The Committee did not consider that that would place a disproportionate burden on Departments and agencies, but the Government took a different view and considered that, in respect of meetings with outside interest groups, publication of such information would be disproportionate. There are more than 4,000 members of the senior civil service, and around 210 at director general level and above. In respect of relevant private interests, the interests of board members are already publicly available as part of a Department’s annual report and accounts. I assure my hon. Friends that the level of disclosure will be kept under review and we will continue to bear in mind the recommendations of the Committee.
In response to another recommendation by the Committee, the Government have produced and circulated to Departments guidance that sets out best practice for compliance with the principles-based approach for the receipt of hospitality, as set out in the civil service code and the civil service management code. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said that he was glad that the Government had accepted some of the Committee’s proposals to increase transparency in areas directly involving Ministers and civil servants. Accepting the recommendations made by the Committee in respect of Ministers and civil servants clearly demonstrates that the Government are committed to greater transparency.
I would like to mention the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. In November, the Public Administration Committee held a pre-appointment hearing with Lord Lang of Monkton, who was the Prime Minister’s preferred candidate for the post of chairman of the advisory committee. Although the Public Administration Committee had some criticisms about process and the issue of business interests, it subsequently reported that it was
“satisfied that Lord Lang has the professional competence and personal independence required for the post of Chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments as it is currently constituted.”.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and for the Olympics, and Paymaster General, has been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase in relation to the appointment process for that post. The Committee’s recently published further report makes a number of observations about the make-up of the advisory committee’s membership.
The Government continue to take the view that the advisory committee’s unique remit, which is narrowly focused and confined to individual casework for a relatively small number of people, calls for a membership with first-hand experience and understanding of the business appointment rules and procedures, in order to have credibility in the areas on which they advise. The Government have committed to reviewing the outcomes of the recent refreshment of the advisory committee, and we will work on that with the commissioner for public appointments. The commissioner has welcomed that review, and as part of it we will include consideration of the points that the Committee has made on the appointments process.
In consultation with the advisory committee, the Government are reviewing and revising the detail of the business appointment rules for Crown servants, and the parallel rules for former Ministers, to ensure that they are effective and clear for applicants and Departments. I reassure the Committee that there is no question of the Government having prejudged the outcome of that exercise, and the Committee took that view in its recently published further report. The Government are clear that the business appointment rules should continue to reflect the high-level principles set out in the seven principles of public life, which were drawn up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan.
Today’s discussion has centred largely on the regulation of lobbyists, but I would like to touch on the further report that was published before Christmas. Members of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) sought further clarification from the Government about the process they are establishing for reviewing progress made by the lobbying industry on voluntary self-regulation, and particularly on how the Government intend to assess whether the progress is adequate and the likely time scale. I would like to summarise the position so far. The Committee is aware that three representative bodies are involved: the Association of Professional Political Consultants; the Chartered Institute of Public Relations; and the Public Relations Consultants Association. Under the umbrella of the public affairs council working party, they published an issues paper last May that set out options for the creation of a new system of voluntary self-regulation. The working party subsequently proposed a stronger system of independent—but still voluntary—regulation of the industry, based around a voluntary register and an enforceable code of conduct.
Following that, in November, the three representative bodies consulted their respective memberships on the proposals to form a public affairs council. The working party’s letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, which is published as an appendix to the Committee’s further report, makes clear that the three representative bodies not only have consulted widely on proposals for the establishment of a new voluntary self-regulatory regime, which would operate under the oversight of the proposed public affairs council, but have also set up a public affairs council implementation team to take forward those proposals.
The public affairs council implementation team is independently chaired by Sir Philip Mawer. I know that the House and the Committee regard Sir Philip as a person of the highest integrity who will do his utmost to ensure that the lobbying industry takes the opportunity to make a success of the proposed voluntary system of self-regulation. Although we talk about voluntary self-regulation, it is important that there is also an independent element in all this work.
My friend may be coming on to this point, but I would like her to address the issue of law firms with a lobbying arm. Eben Black, whom I have mentioned already, says in his letter to me that his firm
“cannot sign up to a voluntary regime requiring disclosure of clients, as suggested by the ‘Public Affairs Council’”
because of the duty of confidentiality set out in the solicitors code. How does the voluntary register work when legal firms will be outside it?
I think that Sir Philip Mawer will look at this. I am not convinced that there is a legal obstruction to such firms signing up and joining. It seems to me that with the Law Society, for example, it is the code of conduct that says that. I think that we need to consider this further. We are in dialogue with the Law Society to consider the issue, and we must keep those channels of communication open. I shall come on to this point in more detail, but I would want to see a wide spread of people signing up to the council.
What I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, which may be helpful, is that Sir Philip has accepted the position only because he believes that there is a genuine will in the lobbying industry to ensure that a new and more effective system of regulation is created. He has asked for all those involved in the implementation process to agree by Easter the arrangements to implement the new system.
Yes, absolutely. If the organisations wish to change their code of conduct, it is open to them to do so. As I said, it is not a legal obstruction at all.
The aim of the implementation team is to resolve the issues that need to be dealt with to set up the public affairs council. One of those issues is to oversee the appointment of an independent chairman for the council. In its further report, the Select Committee said that the council should be chaired by a
“senior independent person of stature”.
I agree. I understand that the chairman of the council will be appointed on merit through open competition and that the post will be advertised. I am sure that, in appointing the chairman of the council, the lobbying industry will wish to ensure that there is also an independent element in the selection process.
I understand that the memberships of all three representative bodies are being consulted and the indications are that they will be broadly content with the proposals to form the council. The three representative bodies anticipate announcing shortly a detailed and agreed framework for voluntary self-regulation, and putting in hand by Easter arrangements to establish the council.
In its latest report, the Committee picks out two aspects of the arrangements surrounding the proposed public affairs council: the desirability of membership of the council being open to as wide a range of people involved in lobbying as possible—that would include the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle about solicitors—and the desirability of a single set of ethical standards applying to all those who come under the umbrella of the council. Again, I agree. I consider that one of the main tests of the proposed new system will be universality—whether the vast majority of those involved in lobbying are taking part. That view is shared by Sir Philip Mawer, whom the Committee quoted in its original report as saying in April 2007 that
“self-regulation only works if it is of general application throughout the industry”.
I think that that is the quote that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby sought.
I understand that the organisations working on the establishment of the public affairs council agree that membership of the council should be as open as possible and that a set of ethical standards should be applied—in my view, those are essential. It is for the industry to make a success of a system of voluntary self-regulation and to ensure that a single set of ethical standards are applied and quickly implemented.
The Government remain of the view, as set out in response to the Committee’s original report, that any system of regulation, whether voluntary self-regulation or statutory regulation, requires a register of lobbyists to ensure that lobbying activity is transparent. The Government believe—this might help the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood on the clarity point—that the industry should be given the opportunity in the first place to produce and maintain such a register. The industry ought to ensure that the register should, as a minimum, be publicly available and contain the names of individuals and organisations carrying out or advising on lobbying and the details of any third-party interests that they represent, as my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North and Selby said.
I appreciate that there was not a universal welcome for all aspects of the response from the entire Committee, but I welcome the general comments made and the broad welcome for it from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. I appreciated the tone of his response. My general impression, as someone who has been on both sides of the fence, even though in a slightly different capacity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North acknowledged—
Could I ask the Minister to be a little stronger? Is she urging all lobbying firms—all multi-client lobbyists—to publish their clients’ names, and is she urging them all as firms, rather than just as individuals, to get involved with the new public affairs council, a condition of which will be to publish all their clients’ names? Does she urge, in particular, Bell Pottinger to publish its clients’ names, and indeed all of them?
That is jumping a little ahead of the game, as that will be a matter for the public affairs council. I would have thought, though, that any firm would be happy to publish its clients’ names. I do not see what the objection would be from any firm to publishing its clients’ names when that is in the interests of transparency, but that will be a matter for the public affairs council to take forward. It is one of the issues that we have raised—the register containing the names of individuals and organisations carrying out or advising on lobbying.
The Minister tempts me. There was a suspicion that the response was watered down with the change of Minister. With the greatest respect, I urge her to say—the words have not passed her lips as they have passed the Opposition’s lips—that all multi-client lobbyist firms should declare their clients and do so forthwith. Surely such a pronouncement, from such a senior Minister, is possible.
As tempting as my hon. Friend’s invitation is, what I have said is on the record. The register should be publicly available and contain the names of individuals and organisations carrying out or advising on lobbying and the details of any third-party interests that they represent. That is the minimum that we would expect of the register. As I move on, the other comments that I make may be helpful. As I said, I have been on both sides of the fence on this issue, and I am convinced that the majority of lobbying takes place in a legitimate and beneficial way. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase made the point that MPs are themselves lobbyists for their constituents on issues of concern. However, we must do significantly more to ensure that lobbying takes place in an appropriate framework and to provide the public with greater reassurance that that is the case.
This is just on the back of what my friend the Member for Selby said. I do not want to labour the point, but I am told that the Solicitors Regulation Authority will not change the code of conduct that prevents legal firms from disclosing client lists, so will the Minister urge the authority to examine that issue and perhaps amend its code to allow for the publication of clients?
I do not really understand why, if the solicitors body thinks that it is appropriate for it to sign up to the register, it thinks that it needs legislation to do so. In fact, I see no objection to it changing its code of conduct. I cannot understand the reluctance to change a code of conduct to sign up. I hope that it would want to sign up. That will be one of the issues that I want to discuss with Sir Philip Mawer as well.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood asked that I employ a big stick. I sometimes prefer a carrot to a stick, but both can be employed when required. I think that hon. Members would agree that it is very important that, whatever we do, we do not exclude the rights of individuals, charities and others individually to lobby Members of Parliament or Ministers. The lobbying industry is aware that I am keeping a very close eye on the progress that it is making in respect of establishing the council and a publicly available register of lobbying activity.
I am not sure whether this is a carrot question or a stick question, but it is just for the purposes of clarity. My right hon. Friend is being very helpful in describing what she thinks the necessary ingredients of any serious self-regulatory structure are. When we reach the point at Easter when we see the shape and details of what is being proposed, we shall have to make a judgment about whether it meets those tests. What will the Government do if we arrive at an unsatisfactory position, which does not have universal scope, the right amount of coverage, enforcement or a register that satisfactorily includes everybody?
That is one of the biggest questions on the issue. If we do not get this right, the Government have not said that there will not be an opportunity for a statutory register in future, but the industry should be given the opportunity for voluntary self-regulation. There is now an opportunity for the industry to meet that obligation. Between now and Easter, I shall meet with Sir Philip Mawer and the implementation team to ensure that we reach that point. If at Easter we are not satisfied that adequate progress is being made, the Government will think again and review the position. I will obviously discuss it with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase if we get to that point. I share something of Sir Philip’s confidence that there is an indication from and real will in the lobbying industry to make such change. I hope not to be disappointed and will be monitoring the position to ensure that I am not.
My fear, which I am afraid the Minister has not reassured me on, is that the big fish I am interested in will just get away. We may get 99 per cent. of lobbyists such as the ones that I am associated with; some of them might like to be on a voluntary register as it would give them higher status. I am sure that CND would be very pleased to be on a register of lobbyists—“We’re lobbyists, we’re doing a good job”. However, the big fish, the big contracts, the money and the global corporations will find their way through and not be caught.
That is why I said that universality was so important. We do not want people slipping through the net. We want universality in signing up to the register.
I think that I have been really clear on this. It is really helpful if all organisations declare all their clients. It is very helpful to have universality. Universality is essential. Those are the kind of issues that I will discuss with Sir Philip Mawer when I see him next week. I had hoped to satisfy the Committee, but I fear that I cannot satisfy everyone, even on my birthday. I hope that the meetings that I have with Sir Philip and representatives of the lobbying industry will ensure that speedy and effective progress is made to establish the public affairs council to take the issue forward in the way the House wants.
Question put and agreed to.