House of Commons
Friday 1 February 2013
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Commercial Lobbyists (Registration and Code of Conduct) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I would like to begin by thanking the Clerks for their assistance in drafting the Bill. I know that you are a fan of our Clerks, Mr Speaker, and it is important to place on the record my thanks to Kate Emms and Simon Patrick for their help in drafting this Bill—and one or two others on today’s Order Paper. I am also grateful to the Minister for taking the time to meet me to discuss this issue. Without wishing to damage her career, I want to say it was a productive and useful conversation; I hope the Whips were not paying too much attention to that comment!
I shall address each clause in turn, and will be happy to hear any observations or questions from colleagues. I would observe, however, that a number of other Bills are on the Order Paper, so I hope that we can have a productive and focused discussion, bearing in mind the serious issues to be dealt with later.
The Bill became available in the Vote Office only a couple of days ago, as the hon. Gentleman will know, and when I asked about it, I was told that there were no explanatory notes. I hope that he will bear that in mind as he goes through the Bill.
The Bill is simple enough, but I commend to the hon. Gentleman both the Public Administration Committee report and the Library note.
On the question of what a lobbyist is, I think we sometimes get things back to front. We have tended to try to define what a lobbyist is, rather than lobbying. For the purposes of the Bill, the groups of people and organisations we are trying to capture are those that are paid or receive financial recompense for carrying out this activity.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. If he will bear with me for a couple of moments, I will explain exactly how the Bill makes the distinction, and again I would commend to him the PASC report, which talks about that very issue.
A high-profile Bill on equal marriage is coming before the House next Tuesday. Like many Members on both sides of the House, I have received a number of letters from constituents and organisations about it. I will take one example. If my local parish priest were to write to me, either as a constituent or on behalf of his congregation, expressing a view either way, he would not be captured by this definition, because he would not be getting paid to undertake that activity. It would be in addition to his remunerated post. If, however, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church or any other Church were to employ a public affairs officer to draft a letter or organise meetings, he or she would clearly be getting paid to organise, either directly or as an adviser, that lobbying activity.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to explain the distinction. I will give him another example. The noble Lord Mandelson is in receipt of a European Union pension and as a former commissioner is under an obligation to campaign for the EU. He has recently started a lobbying campaign against the UK leaving the EU. Is that commercial lobbying? It is certainly driven by the noble Lord’s financial interest as a former EU commissioner. Should that be registered as well?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that example. He will see that we talk about peers in later clauses. With his indulgence, I would like to return later to the issue of peers undertaking lobbying activities later. On the principle, however, if we were to leave the European Union, the pension of the Deputy Prime Minister, for example, as a former euro civil servant, would not be affected. In the same way, that consideration would probably not apply in the case that the hon. Gentleman raises.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind the fact that EU pensions are forfeitable, unlike most other pensions. However, let me return to the point I raised initially. Where a managing director of a small business, perhaps in my constituency, took on a number of roles because of the nature of that business and one of them was explaining to the local Member of Parliament exactly what was necessary for the livelihood of his business, would that constitute lobbying for financial gain—it would clearly be in the financial interests of the company—and would it thereby be captured by the Bill?
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Perhaps I could present two separate examples and then he can tell me whether I have answered his question fully. If a local business person is the chairman or chairwoman of a local chamber of commerce that meets regularly on behalf of its members to lobby on issues of concern, they would not be covered by the Bill, nor should they be. However, if a Member of this House voluntarily or, as occasionally happens, involuntarily loses their seat and sets themselves up as a sole trader or limited company for the express purpose of being a lobbyist—like, I am sure, many Members, I have had the opportunity to meet former Members who are engaged in that profession—they would be covered by the Bill. The Association of Professional Political Consultants is the largest trade body for third-party lobbyists. A large number of its members are small businesses that are sole traders or perhaps employ only two or three people.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of former Members having to comply with “any code”. Why did he exempt former Members from the passholder requirements? Clause 3(3) says: “Any code shall provide”, and so on—it basically constrains the number of people with passes to this place who can lobby—but exempts former Members of either House of Parliament. That seems unfair.
The Commission is examining that matter, through the Administration Committee, and I did not wish to cut across the work of the Commission, for which I have the highest regard. My personal view—I think I am on record as having said this to the Administration Committee—is that former Members should not be allowed to have passes. I hope we can examine that in the Committee stage of this Bill. I would certainly be receptive to the idea of making alterations to remove the reference to former passholders, but I am mindful that this issue is on the Administration Committee’s agenda and I did not wish to prejudge anything. I hope that has provided some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, because he has led me on nicely—perhaps he read my mind—to the registration of lobbyists, which is dealt with in clause 1. As set out in the Bill, those who undertake this activity—I hope we have had a good discussion and have now established what the definition is—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I am not entirely sure that we have clarified the definition. I would like to return to his example of the priest who lobbies on behalf of his religion. For proselytising religions, surely lobbying is part of the function for which they receive remuneration, even if, in the case of a Catholic priest, it is only a modest income to allow them subsistence.
I have an incredible amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have the privilege of serving on the Procedure Committee, but I do not share his analysis of the role of a Catholic priest or, indeed, any other person of the cloth. It is not in their job description to be lobbying on public policy issues. I am sure that on another day the hon. Gentleman might be tempted to start the debate about the Reformation and the limitations placed on the Church of England to prevent interference in the monarch’s role in legislating, but I know that he is saving that for another day.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for amending his Bill in relation to former Members of Parliament, but I must agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). The definition of “lobbying” is totally inadequate. Not only that, but the word “commercial” has been bunged into the long title without any definition whatever. One can make assumptions about that, but where do trade unions or voluntary organisations with commercial arms fit into this? The hon. Gentleman might have an idea of what “commercial” means, but he does not define it in the Bill or leave it open to the Government to define, subsequent to the Bill becoming an Act.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. I would say gently to him that this is not the definition that I drew up; it is the definition from the Public Affairs Council’s website and its evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee, and it was accepted by the Committee as a reasonable definition. However, he may wish to take the matter up with the Public Affairs Council, which represents all lobbyists.
The term “commercial” has been used to distinguish those concerned from those working in a voluntary capacity. I return to the example raised by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). This is not about an individual constituent, such as the chair of the local chamber of commerce or the chair of a residents’ association, who will understandably wish to lobby their Member of Parliament or local councillor about issues that affect them, but in respect of which they receive no remuneration.
It sounds as though the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) is keen to serve on the Bill Committee. He could probably be accommodated, because he might bring an interesting perspective to some of our forthcoming discussions on the Bill. Indeed, some of the issues he raises could be dealt with in Committee.
I am more than happy to serve on the Committee. However, I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and, from my initial parsing of the Bill, I think that despite its being drafted by a very excellent Clerk of the House, Kate Emms, it is fundamentally flawed.
I am more sympathetic to the Bill than my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) is, but there is a grey area that has not been satisfactorily defined. That involves people who, within their paid work, end up doing a bit of lobbying. It would be hard to explain that they were being paid to work 39 hours a week and that for one hour a week they were volunteers. I do not see how we could make a legal definition along those lines.
The hon. Gentleman has made a significant point. I served as a lobbyist, both in-house and as a third-party consultant, for a number of years. He is right to suggest that someone could undertake what most people would define as lobbying activity on a part-time basis. For three years, I worked in the nuclear industry, for British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. My official title was press and public affairs officer, and, in effect ran BNFL’s operation in Scotland. I was responsible for working with the local community on a range of stakeholder issues, I drafted the press releases for the Chapelcross and Hunterston sites, and I looked after Sellafield’s inquiries in Scotland, which involved going to the Scottish Parliament. I also recall spending two or three wonderful days in the Western Isles making a presentation to the council on technetium discharges into the Irish sea.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that someone can undertake lobbying activities without that being their sole purpose. Any relatively reasonable individual—I can think of no better description for the hon. Gentleman—who looked at a job description and saw lobbying activities among the core functions, or the outcome of lobbying as a measure related to pay, would draw a reasonable assumption from that.
I must remind the House that the definition I have used is the one used by the UK Public Affairs Council in its submission to the PASC inquiry on this subject. I have met representatives of a wide range of organisations, including the Association of Professional Political Consultants and Unlock Democracy, and they have been satisfied that the definition is suitably robust. The Bill tries to strike the right balance by using a definition that goes as widely as is reasonable without inadvertently drawing in the kind of individuals that Conservative Members have mentioned, such as members of the local chamber of commerce or people who come along to make representations to their Member of Parliament or local authority.
I will make some progress now, as I am conscious that other Members wish to speak in the debate. A registration process exists at the moment. The largest single organisation is the Association of Professional Political Consultants, which has been in existence for about 18 years. It is made up of most of the well-known lobbying and public affairs companies and many small companies, as well as political consultants—that is, third-party lobbyists. The association has a membership of about 50 companies and individuals who work as sole traders. They all sign up to the association’s register, and they have to abide by its code of conduct. They also have to publish on a quarterly basis a list of their clients, including those for whom they are doing paid work and those for whom they are working pro bono. It is interesting to note that a number of companies undertake pro bono work. They do so for various reasons, and I dare say that some of them do it to get some good PR for themselves.
In 2009, when the then Cabinet Office Ministers were considering their response to the previous PASC report on this issue, a number of the leading players in public relations got together. They included not only APPC members but representatives of the law firms that have public relations arms and of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. They decided that they had a choice, and that a statutory body would be set up if they took no further steps and failed to recognise the significant problems that the PASC report had identified, which Ministers were considering. That was one of the clear outcomes of the PASC report. They therefore set up the body known as UKPAC—the United Kingdom Public Affairs Council.
I was the secretary of the Scottish branch of the APPC for a while, and I attended one of the meetings in the summer of 2009 at which the APPC board discussed UKPAC. I remember counselling the board that a voluntary system would not work, and in the two and a half years since it was set up, it has not worked. I will explain more about that later. It is interesting to note that there was agreement on this issue among those in the industry. It is important to remember that it is an important, multi-billion pound industry.
Lobbying is a healthy part of our democracy. We have already heard some examples of the roles that it can play, and no one has criticised them. We have heard about local businesses or religious organisations being involved, as well as companies being employed by individuals. In a parliamentary democracy such as ours, it is every citizen’s right to lobby their Member of Parliament, and I believe that it is their right either to lobby their MP themselves or, if they feel that they do not have the time or the skills to do that, to employ someone else either individually or collectively to do it for them. That is not to say that those who are so employed and who make a financial gain from lobbying should be allowed to do so unchecked, without any rules whatever. Registration is an important step in the right direction.
A journalist from a relatively august newspaper—not quite The Times; it was an almost august newspaper— phoned me yesterday to ask me how many people worked in lobbying and public affairs. I have taken a close interest in this issue, both before I entered the House and since, but I did not know how many people were working in that field. I think it was the Library briefing note that estimated that only 1% of those working in public affairs were third-party lobbyists—that is, consultants—and that 99% worked in-house. It is therefore vital that registration should cover not only third-party lobbyists but all those who undertake commercial, paid lobbying. Both PASC reports have acknowledged that, as have the industry players and Unlock Democracy—not, perhaps, a natural ally of the lobbying industry. Indeed, everyone—bar one important group of people—believes that any register or code of conduct should cover all those who undertake commercial lobbying.
To use a made-up example, it would be ridiculous if “Landmines R Us” were not required to register its multi-million pound public affairs operation because that operation was in-house, while those whom it employed as third-party consultants were required to be registered even though they accounted for only a tiny proportion of the time and money the company spent in that area.
A Member asked me a question this morning in the Tea Room. I am always loth to give away Tea Room secrets—[Interruption.] To be fair, as I recall it, he was heading out of the door, so I take that into account. He asked me why the Bill did not deal only with third-party lobbyists, and the answer is that they are such a small percentage. It would be strange if it dealt only with the third-party lobbyists and not those who work in-house. We need a level playing field. That was the conclusion of PASC and Unlock Democracy, and it was the conclusion reached by the industry itself. I am not sure that the Cabinet Office is there yet, but I know the Minister is considering the matter carefully. Perhaps she will be in a position to comment either today or in the near future.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the point of registration. The point is not simply to put people’s names on to a register, which is why the code of conduct is so important. The PASC report said that having a register that is not backed up by a code of conduct is, in itself, pointless. The hon. Gentleman is therefore entirely correct to suggest that a having a register for its own sake does not do anything. If no offences can be charged against the people on the register and there are no rules of behaviour, the register will be pointless. I do not know whether what I am going to say will be worse for his career or for mine—
Will the hon. Gentleman explain what exactly is being registered? Will it be a company or an individual? In the example mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the head of public relations or public affairs for Asda will clearly be involved in lobbying, but surely we would also expect the finance director to be involved in lobbying in some shape or form. Would they have to register separately, or would a kind of group registration apply? I am also concerned about the fact that individuals come and go in organisations, as there will be a heavy bureaucratic cost in registering every individual if it is not the group that is registered as a whole.
Because I think the finance director of any organisation should take a strong interest in the taxation arrangements and in the regulatory burdens imposed by the state on the individual company. All that is a broader aspect of being on a company board. On this basis, one would expect the full board to register individually. Quite frankly, if it is not trying to influence the Government, it is not doing its job.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his clarification. I see where he has gone with that point, and I apologise if I have not articulated the position clearly enough. Let me try to explain it again. The finance director, in and of himself, would not be—and is not at the moment—a lobbyist according to anyone’s definition. If a company secretary or executive officer has a job description that includes a reference to being a director of internal communications or to company relations, for example, that individual would need to be on the register. The hon. Gentleman is right about that. On the other hand, an individual who has an interest in those areas in the course of carrying out their normal duties, but whose job description does not refer to lobbying activity as part of their paid role, would not need to be on the register. He is entirely right to raise these questions, but I refer him to the two Select Committee reports produced in this Parliament and the previous one, as well as to the Cabinet Office discussions on this matter under this Government and the previous one. I also refer him to the discussions with the industry and with champions of more transparent behaviour, none of which said there was a problem. I hope that that provides some reassurance.
I hope to make my own speech later, so perhaps I can drill down in more detail then. The hon. Gentleman has been clear about people more senior than a public affairs director, but what about more junior posts? A director of public affairs and a senior manager will, as the hon. Gentleman has explained, need to register, but what about other people within those teams? How low down in the organisation does it go? Could this prove to be a disincentive to be employed as a secretary in the public affairs team rather than the finance team?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I would like to answer it before responding to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).
There are three different organisations at UK level that keep various registers, and there is an organisation in Scotland called ASPA—the Association for Scottish Public Affairs. Let me give a further example to explain the position. My wife, who is currently on maternity leave, works for Age Scotland. Age Scotland has a public affairs or public relations operation and is a member of ASPA. It declares to ASPA the people who in the public affairs or public relations team; indeed, its head of public relations is this year’s convener; for those who have not had the benefit of a Scottish education, a convener is a Scottish version of a chairman or chairwoman. Because my wife has no direct link to the comms operation, she is not registered. The fact that a relatively small charity such as Age Scotland is able to comply with those requirements shows that this is not an unreasonable burden.
As Conservative Members may know, I am something of a free marketeer and I do not always agree that regulation is the best way forward. What this Bill seeks to do is place a reasonable burden on those organisations for which there is a financial reward from the activity of lobbying. As I say, this goes no further than the Association of Professional Political Consultants already requires its members to do—members that are as large as Weber Shandwick and Bell Pottinger, and as small as some sole traders.
I am getting more and more confused, which you might say is not difficult, Mr Speaker. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) could be on to something with his examples of the finance director and board members. The hon. Gentleman’s own definition of lobbying does not seem to match what he thinks should be covered. The Bill defines lobbying as
“any activity carried out in the course of a business or employment which are undertaken for financial gain and are designed to influence the Government of the United Kingdom.”
That seems absolutely to meet the criteria set out by my hon. Friend when he talked about the role of the finance director, for example.
I am always happy to engage in a lively debate, and this has been quite an informative one. As I say, there is a danger of trying to second-guess two Select Committees, UKPAC, the APPC and Unlock Democracy, all of which have concurred on what is an acceptable definition of lobbying. Nevertheless, there was a genuine question—I apologise for not yet addressing it—about who within an organisation would be expected to be registered. That brings me back to the proposals of the last Minister for the Cabinet Office. We do not know yet what revised proposals may emerge.
The question posed by the APPC for the purpose of its register is “Do you have a public-facing role in which you articulate a policy on behalf of the client?” That applies to companies large and small. When I was an account director and wanted to lobby a Member of Parliament, it would not always be me who telephoned the Member’s office or drafted a letter to the Member, although it would be me who signed the letter. It might be an account manager or an account executive who did the chasing up or issued the request for a meeting, as is the case in many organisations, and because that person would be dealing directly with the Member’s office, according to the APPC’s own definition he or she ought to be registered. The person who came in to clean the office in the morning, or the security officer, would not be performing a public-facing role or trying to influence public policy. I see one or two puzzled faces—
I am always happy to give way, but let me finish my point first.
As I was saying, I see one or two puzzled faces, but everyone who works in the industry, either in a third-party role or in-house, considers the definition that I have given to be reasonable. I would never suggest that Opposition Members know less than those who work in the industry, but I am myself slightly puzzled about why some of them, who I know are phenomenally intelligent, cannot get their heads around that fact.
That’s the hon. Gentleman’s career over, then.
I am going no further than the Government in this regard. I am arguing—and I suspect that the Minister agrees, although I must wait to hear what she says—that introducing a statutory register that simply replicates the voluntary register that already exists will involve no cost to the taxpayer other than the initial costs of the Bill’s publication and a small amount of Cabinet Office time. Now that the House of Lords proposal has been defeated, the Cabinet Office has a lot more time on its hands. There will be no cost to the taxpayer, because all the fees associated with the running and maintaining of the register and the council will be met by those who work in the industry, as happens at present.
I think that there is always a cost to the taxpayer in these cases, one way or another, but may I return the hon. Gentleman to the issue of the definition? He has talked about industry standards, the way in which lobbying is defined by existing lobbying groups and so forth, but we are talking about the definition in clause 4, which is the definition that will go into the black letter of the law. It seems to me that the black letter of the law is very wide in this context, and that it would include the finance director and the chief executive. I believe that the definition needs to be tightened up in legislative terms, although it may be more appropriate to deal with that in Committee.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has always been a passionate supporter of debates on the clause 4s of this land. As he suggested, the issue that he has raised could be considered in Committee—and I think that I am seeing a volunteer for the Committee, if he can fit us in with his various other important roles in the House.
Even if we accept that there will be a marginal cost to the taxpayer in connection with the work of the Cabinet Office, surely the benefits of a transparent and cleaned-up lobbying industry will far outweigh it.
Let me now say a little about the composition of the lobbying registration council.
I have started, so I will finish. I have always wanted to say that.
Organisations such as Unlock Democracy have argued that the council’s membership should consist entirely of people who do not work in the industry. That is a reasonable argument, but others advance the counter-argument that the council needs people with a professional understanding of the industry, as is the case with ASPA. At the risk of sounding like a Liberal Democrat—or perhaps more like Tony Blair—I seek a middle way. I believe that there should be a mix, just as there is on the General Medical Council, whose membership includes both people with a background in medicine and people with no association with the profession. Before becoming Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) served for many years on the GMC’s disciplinary committee in the latter capacity. Getting that balance right is a long-established convention in the professions.
I do not wish to prescribe the precise composition of the council. I therefore propose that Parliament should have an absolute right to determine its composition, but that the Minister should introduce delegated legislation in the form of an order to establish it. I hope that the House will look favourably on that proposal.
Let me now reply to another question. Again, I apologise for not answering it earlier: so many lively questions have been thrown at me today. I was asked what interests companies and individuals would be required to declare. I consider it vital for not just companies but individuals to be registered, for a very simple reason. It is a relatively rare occurrence, but, at present, if an individual who is not registered breaks the code of conduct, that individual can simply move to another company, in which case—if I may use a colloquialism—there will be no comeback. That is why I think that not just companies but the individuals within them should be registered.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, although this is not the point that I was going to raise when I tried to intervene earlier. The Bill does not actually contain even a draft code of conduct. Could the hon. Gentleman give at least some flavour of the provisions that he would expect the code of conduct to contain?
As ever, the hon. Gentleman has anticipated what I am about to say. The question of the code of conduct goes to the heart of the issue. At present there is, dare I say, some divergence between my starting point and that of the Minister, but she is an entirely reasonable Minister, and I know that she is reflecting on the matter.
The code of conduct is crucial, because without a code of conduct a council registration is entirely pointless. If we do not define an acceptable activity, what is the point of spending time on maintaining a register? Let me say a little about what the code of conduct should include and what it may include, and, perhaps, give the House an example of appalling behaviour on the part of someone who has repeatedly failed to sign up to such a code.
For the same reasons that I articulated about the composition of the council, I have tried today to avoid prescribing the full terms of the code of conduct. Some of it will be self-evident; we all know what is and is not acceptable behaviour. I have referred, however, to the specific example of parliamentary passes, which the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East touched on earlier. I believe it is entirely legitimate for an individual to own shares in a company. I am glad we have a free market, as I believe in the capitalist system—I am probably doing my cause with my party no good at all by saying such things.
Oh good; I have always thought that the residents of Somerset are sound people, and their cream is pretty good as well.
I have no problem at all with an individual making a comfortable living by any reasonable means, and the fact that someone holds public office should not prevent them from holding shares in companies. At present there are specific rules about how Ministers must conduct their financial affairs. I recall a meeting I had with a Conservative Minister—regrettably, he has now left the Government. I had not heard of him before, so before meeting him I looked up his register of interests. He was appointed by the current Prime Minister to the House of Lords, and he had a vast number of interests, some of which were fascinating. For example, he was director of “Wisden”, which is a very sound organisation. Although he had a long list of interests, however, we all had confidence that he had placed his shares into a trust. It is entirely appropriate that Members of either House should be able to own shares in any company, provided they have no direct influence on it.
However, I do not think it is acceptable—and I think the public agree on this—for serving Members of either House, in addition to their remuneration for their work at Parliament, to be paid by outside organisations to lobby. There were some very regrettable incidents in the last Parliament and in previous Parliaments. A very small number of Members—I will not say hon. Members, because they clearly were not that—undertook activities of which the House and the country greatly disapproved.
There is currently a significant loophole in the other place, as Members there can receive significant remuneration from outside organisations for lobbying—under the definition of that term as set out, and which is accepted by everyone. I will not name the individuals concerned, but I have given the Minister a couple of examples that have caused some controversy. Under the Bill, serving peers—indeed, any passholder—would not be able to receive remuneration from outside organisations for seeking, for financial gain and in addition to their parliamentary activities, to influence public policy.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I am concerned that there may be a pedantic loophole in clause 3. A Member of Parliament who is married to another Member of either House might be exempt from the requirement set down. Is that the case, or is there to be a hierarchy of passes?
I think we all agree that the hon. Gentleman comes at the top of any hierarchy in this House, and I bow to no one in my admiration for his ability to find pedantic loopholes, but I do not think he has done so on this occasion. I am happy to talk again to the Clerks who drafted the Bill, however—and it is again clear that the hon. Gentleman wants to serve on the Committee. To answer his question, the other person will not have received their pass because they are a spouse; they will have their pass because they are a Member in their own right. I hope that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
I shall return to the broader point on the code of conduct. For the same reasons that I have not prescribed the membership of the council, I have tried today to avoid prescribing the full terms of the code of conduct. Other than stating some of the broad principles, I think it is for the Cabinet Office, following a full consultation, to draw up the contents of such a code. However, I would draw the House’s attention to the codes of conduct that do exist in various forms. Some of them are a bit motherhood and apple pie, but they give an indication of the type of behaviour to be covered.
If this Bill does not complete its stages but the Government introduce a Bill on lobbying, will the hon. Gentleman encourage them to publish the code of conduct alongside the draft Bill and publish the details of the lobbying registration council, so at least we have some idea of the detail? This discussion feels more like a general debate on lobbying than a Second Reading debate, largely because we are not addressing the details, and the devil is in the detail. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to give us some further information.
I am surprised that Ministers are reluctant to have a code of conduct, and I hope the Minister responding to this debate will set out why they are reluctant. The hon. Gentleman is right that it would be helpful to have a code of conduct. If it helps provide reassurance, perhaps I should give a guarantee that I would bring forward a draft code of conduct prior to any Committee stage of this Bill.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing this Bill. Does any other country have the kind of lobbying code of conduct that he wants to see implemented here?
There is already a voluntary code for the Association of Professional Political Consultants and for the UK Public Affairs Council, and I understand that a number of countries around the world have codes of conduct. Perhaps it will be helpful if I write to the hon. Gentleman after this short debate, sending him a full list. He raises the valid point that this is not a ground-breaking revolutionary idea.
That is a valid question. I am nervous about answering, however, because I fear we might end up in a cul-de-sac. Under the current European rules, the employees of companies who operate in the UK would be open to sanctions, even if the company is not based in the UK. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not getting drawn further into that cul-de-sac today, however.
One of the reasons why I am so passionate about the need for statutory regulation is that voluntary regulation has not worked. Let me give an example of poor behaviour, which I hope will illustrate why it has not worked. One could see it coming a mile off. The vast majority of individuals and organisations involved in public policy lobbying, particularly of Parliament, are credible and honourable, have strongly held views and enjoy the political process. It would be better if there were more people who were interested in the political process.
Let me take as an example the Bill before the House next Tuesday—the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. There has been a good and lively debate, with representations overwhelmingly made by individuals and organisations in sensible and moderate terms. I know that many colleagues would agree that the language in that debate has been much more appropriate than many of us feared it would be, and the people lobbying on both sides of the debate have conducted themselves in the way that I think we would all want to see. There are, however, some individuals who do not conduct themselves in an appropriate way. I want to talk about one individual and one company of whom I have some knowledge—a company called Invicta Public Affairs and an individual called Mr Mark Cummings.
I first knew Mr Cummings because he was head of the office of the public affairs company where I started working in 2007, so he was technically the chap who hired me to come and work at that company. Mr Cummings left the company about five weeks later under rather a large cloud, partly because it was discovered that he was trying to set up his own business, which is a perfectly legitimate thing for someone to do, and partly because it was becoming apparent that he believed that lobbying should be conducted in a way that perhaps was not appropriate for a company with a long-standing ethos, such as the company I worked for. Let me give the House a couple of examples.
Some of the comments are a matter of public record. On some I have kept my council until an appropriate opportunity. Of course, it is always a privilege to speak in the House.
Mr Cummings specialises in planning applications. Anyone who reads Private Eye—which I know many members of the Government are caught reading furtively on the tube on their iPads—will be familiar with the section “Rotten Boroughs”. I was talking to an hon. Friend of mine about the Bill a couple of weeks ago. He recounted that when he was a councillor, he once had a meeting with a developer about a planning application and at the end of the meeting the developer said, “Oh, by the way, here’s something for you to read,” and left an envelope on the desk. Some Members can see where this is going. When the developer had left the room, the councillor turned to his officials, packed the meeting up and opened the envelope to find a number of sheets of paper, each with a common theme of £20.
That would probably be covered by the Bribery Act, although the Minister may wish to clarify that when she responds. That was an isolated case involving a developer, but the problem is still too widespread. I know that many hon. Members have served in local authorities and know that a small number of developers and practitioners of lobbying think such behaviour is acceptable. I want to talk about one such type of behaviour.
Mr Cummings specialises largely but not exclusively in planning and has worked for a number of companies. It is interesting that on his website, invictapa, he does not list who his clients are. This goes back to the lively debate we had earlier on registration. It is important that people are able to see who public affairs lobbyists are working for, and I will come to that in more detail later.
There is a good debate to be had about what happens if someone phones and purports to represent, say, Taylor Wimpey, and you agree to meet them because you are, for example—because he happened to catch my eye—the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson). If someone phones and says, “My boss works for Taylor Wimpey. He would like to have a meeting with your boss regarding a possible development on the outskirts of Carlisle,” and the researcher says to the hon. Member for Carlisle, “I think it would be interesting to meet this person,” we would all expect that when the hon. Gentleman meets that individual, he is clear whether the person works for Taylor Wimpey directly and therefore can answer questions about Taylor Wimpey more widely, or whether the person is employed as a third-party lobbyist specifically on that project. That is not unreasonable.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Let me segue slightly into that. For the benefit of hon. Members, “segway” is a type of transport that is currently fashionable with many younger people who work outside the House. More and more planning companies are setting up public affairs arms to lobby on planning applications. That is particularly true in Scotland under the new Scottish planning policy, where for a development over a certain size—say, 50 houses—a public consultation must be undertaken.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that if a planning consultancy is directly undertaking the lobbying to influence and shape the policy of the councillors, it should be covered, but if a planner attends a meeting to provide technical answers, that is factual, in the same way as architects and transport consultants would provide technical answers. To return to my example of retailers, if Sainsbury’s brings its head of sourcing along to answer technical questions, nobody outside the House believes that they should be captured by the legislation. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Let me return to the example of Mr Cummings. There is an assumption that a person who is going to meet someone should be transparent about their status and the purpose of the meeting. So the hon. Member for Carlisle has agreed to meet someone because they purport to be an employee of a company that he would trust. Trust is an important factor. I know that many hon. Members have a principled view that they will not meet third-party lobbyists. I respect that viewpoint; they are entitled to it. It is vital that both in-house and third-party lobbyists are registered, so that others can go on to the company’s website, type in such-and-such a name and see if they work for Taylor Wimpey, in this example, or if they work for a third party. The hon. Gentleman may not have agreed to the meeting if the person was a third-party lobbyist.
Once the hon. Gentleman has agreed to a meeting about a particular planning application—he might serve on a Select Committee and be approached in that role, or he might be a Front Bencher with a particular policy responsibility and a company might approach him and say, “That is within our bivouac. I am keen to meet to make our points to you,”—it is crucial that the hon. Gentleman is comfortable that he knows who that individual actually works for. What should not happen is for the first 45 minutes of the meeting to be spent on the subject matter on which he has agreed to meet, but then he is ambushed for the last 15 minutes because the person says, “By the way, I also happen to represent another completely different company—“Landmines R Us” in my made-up example—and while I’ve got you here, I just want to say a few words about it.”
That is inappropriate behaviour. Under the APPC code, which to an extent is motherhood and apple pie, but none the less is a step in the right direction, that is not allowed. When a meeting is requested, it must be clear whether a consultant works for the company that they purport to represent or is employed as a third party on its behalf, and the meeting should be on the agreed subject matter only. If an hon. Member wishes to raise a further matter, that is for them, but Members should not be ambushed.
When Mr. Cummings is pitching to clients or has a client, he will often play off his contacts. To use a legal analogy, we would expect that in advocating a case the success of those who are fortunate enough to be lawyers—I use my brief loosely—would be based on the strength of the argument, not on whether they know the judge. If a lawyer told a constituent that he should hire him because he knows the judge and has another case in front of the same judge and so can have a bit of a word with him, I think the Minister would probably agree that that would not be acceptable. It is unethical and immoral to both clients falsely to purport to have a level of influence or access to a Member of Parliament or councillor on one case and to use it for another case. Having spoken to colleagues on both sides of the House, it is probably fair to say that if they were aware that people such as Mr Cummings were using their access to raise other issues, they would be horrified.
Some colleagues will recall that the Cabinet Office introduced a Bill earlier in this Session to reform the House of Lords. For a reason that I never fully understood the Government dropped that, regrettably. I spoke in the debate and said that I thought that the Lords Temporal should be removed in a reformed House of Lords.
I am grateful, as ever. Lords Spiritual. The following day, on the chair in my office was a brochure from the National Secular Society. I thought it had come in the post and did not think much about it. It went into the round filing cabinet shortly afterwards. Later my researcher asked if I had seen it and told me that it had been on the desk when he came into work. I should probably confess to the Serjeant at Arms that I had not locked my door overnight. A lobbyist employed by the NSS had been given a pass to the House of Lords by a peer, whom I shall not name. It turns out that he was using his pass to walk up and down the corridors of the House of Commons, dropping off materials to Members. He knocked on my office door two or three times, just dropped by, without any invitation at all, looking to have a word with me because I had spoken in the debate. I think you would probably agree, Mr Speaker, that that is unacceptable. Here was somebody with privileged access to the House in a way that other individuals did not have, and used it to obtain undue influence. I hope that you will look carefully at this issue of peers providing passes to lobbyists outside. I know that you have established a commission of inquiry under my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and you will be aware that APPG passes are being considered by the Administration Committee.
There is a broader issue here about Members of the House of Lords handing out passes, ostensibly for research purposes, to outside organisations who then use that access to come down to the House of Commons to hand out materials and try to catch Members of Parliament without appointments.
I felt slightly guilty when the hon. Gentleman used that example, because it occurred to me that many of us may have done something similar when canvassing, trying to get into blocks of flats that were locked. Perhaps people in glass houses should not throw too many stones.
My house is made of bricks and mortar. Perhaps it is not as fancy as those of other hon. Members. I am not sure how many tenements there are in North East Somerset; probably slightly fewer than there are in central Fife, where the hon. Gentleman was not quite so successful when he stood for election. However, there is an important difference in that any member of the public can buzz on the tenement trade services door—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman does not often do so, although he might for canvassing purposes—but any member of the public cannot simply have access to the corridors of Portcullis House, Star Chamber Court or the Upper Committee Corridor.
I think the hon. Gentleman agrees. The House authorities should discuss that matter with the House of Lords. I hope that satisfies the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East on why passholders should not undertake paid lobbying.
To return to the example I was describing, it is not just a matter of the unethical behaviour of purporting to represent one client and seeking a meeting with another. We would frown on that and it needs to be stamped out, but in itself it is not Mr Cummings’s worst offence. The House will be aware that particularly in local government there are rules about what councillors can say publicly and privately during a planning application. That is true throughout the United Kingdom and there are good reasons for it, but there are also reasons why a Member on a Select Committee or considering a matter before the House may wish to keep their counsel on a particular matter. From time to time, we receive phone calls from journalists seeking our views—some more than others, I suspect. It is not unnatural to be happy to provide some background briefing to journalists on a non-attributable basis in order to be helpful, and I know that all hon. Members are always helpful to the media.
Mr Cummings employs someone to phone up politicians or councillors, including Members of the Scottish Parliament, because he operates largely in Scotland, and that person claims to be a freelance journalist interested in retail development in Fife. The caller asks for 10 minutes, off the record, to get people’s thoughts on the provision available and whether there are too many Tescos in the area. The politicians do not know that that is a complete pile of cobblers. This is an employee of a lobbying firm who is trying to establish the views of politicians, either during or before the lodging of planning applications for a major supermarket, for some housing developers. The problem is that it is not a crime to impersonate a journalist. I am not sure why someone would want to impersonate a journalist in particular, but that is the kind of behaviour that the House would regard as completely unacceptable. Many developers are not aware that Mr Cummings is using that tactic, but it needs to be brought to the public’s attention. I hope that the Minister will accept that that is why a code of conduct is so important.
Mr Cummings also seems to revel in bullying. He likes to intimidate people who disagree with his clients’ views. He believes that it is perfectly acceptable to plant employees in public meetings, to support his projects. He does the same if there is a rival project. If two supermarkets or house builders are going for the same development in a town, for example, and the council has only a limited allocation to grant, he will put plants into meetings to heckle those who oppose his clients’ schemes or to whip up opposition to other people’s schemes, often on unfounded grounds.
Mr Cummings also has the interesting habit of putting up candidates for community council elections. For the benefit of those who do not have the privilege of living in Scotland, I should say that a community council is a body of statutory consultation that, unlike town and parish councils, has no levying powers, although it will often get small amounts of money from local authorities to spend on flower beds and clean-up-the-village campaigns. It is a statutory consultee on any planning application. Mr Cummings will find supporters early in the planning process and at the next community council election, which is often uncontested, will stand four or five people to get them the jobs of chair, secretary and planning secretary, to make sure that his clients receive favour.
Such behaviour is utterly unacceptable; no one in the House would regard it as appropriate. It needs to be stamped out, which is why a code of conduct to underpin the register is so important. Without that, Mr Cummings would simply register and then carry on with his utterly reprehensible behaviour.
I hope not to cause the hon. Gentleman too much trouble, but I advise him gently to take a look at the Invicta website and circulate his speech more widely to some of his colleagues, so that they can consider their relationships with the organisation.
That is helpful. I might well take that opportunity and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for suggesting it. One or two members of the Press Gallery might look at the Official Report as well. I keep my website updated with copies of speeches, and after today I hope to place at least a couple of Second Reading speeches on it. The hon. Gentleman has been helpful, and I will take up his suggestion.
I have detained the House for quite a while.
The hon. Gentleman is, as ever, courteous and kind, although perhaps mischievous on this occasion.
There has been a genuine discussion about the principles of lobbying—what we think is acceptable and unacceptable. Let me close with an anecdote about something that affected me personally. As a parliamentary candidate, I opposed one of Mr Cummings’s planning applications for 2,000 new houses in my constituency, in the north of Dunfermline. I supported the local residents near that wonderful greenfield site, which was open for recreation and well used. I should say that Mr Cummings’s client had every right to bring forward an application, and I will not mention their name; I think they were innocent in this matter.
Two things happened that the Minister might want to reflect on. Mr Cummings was organising workshops for the local residents. He portrayed them as an opportunity for an independent mediator to listen to the residents’ concerns. He said that that would allow him and his client to listen constructively to those concerns and to go away and adjust the plans. He did not tell the residents who turned up for the meeting that the so-called independent facilitator was his live-in girlfriend, who was being paid by Invicta to conduct the so-called independent facilitating meetings that were supposed to allow proper feedback.
Any reasonable person would think that a live-in lover who was being paid to hold the meeting would be unlikely to be entirely independent. That is why a register of every employee involved in lobbying is important.
That goes back to the quarterly register. For the quarter during which the person had been employed, they would be on the register. That is why the register must be updated regularly. It is reasonable for a member of the public who goes to a policy or planning workshop to want to see the employees of the company in question and to expect the relevant website to be updated regularly.
The issue is about reasonable balance. Most planning and public policy processes take several months. If the register were updated every quarter, people could see the information in retrospect and say to the developer, non-governmental organisation or commercial company, “Hang on a second—you told me this person was an independent facilitator. It turns out they are an employee of the company.”
Let me be clear. What I have described was not a one-off event, but what Mr Cummings was doing with all his controversial proposals; he would bring in the so-called independent facilitator who supposedly had no links to him or his business. He portrayed her as an academic who specialised in bringing together opposing parties. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point.
Let me give the final part of my example, because I have detained the House for far longer than I had envisaged. With the local community council, I was mounting a campaign against the size of the development. I have worked in property and believe we need more houses, but the sheer size of this development was the issue. My campaign, in July, about nine months before the general election, was quite effective; the local council was coming under pressure to mitigate, at least, the size of the development. One Saturday evening at about half-past 6, I received a text message. I had known Mr Cummings so I had his name in my phone. I am aware that I am not allowed under “Erskine May” to use unparliamentary language even in quotations, so I will not push my luck on this. Those who are vaguely familiar with sectarianism will know of a thing called the “Famine Song”, which is sung by the more illiterate of those who claim to support Rangers football club and says some fairly nasty things about Catholics, suggesting in particular that they may wish to “go home”. I cannot go into the content of the lyrics of the song without breaching “Erskine May”, but it is hugely offensive.
Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I think that a charitable person would say that this anecdote is tangentially related to the Bill and an uncharitable person would say that its relationship to the Bill is non-existent? In his presenting this anecdote, I am inclined to err on the side of charity, and I feel sure that he will do so most pithily.
I am most grateful, Mr Speaker. You are, of course, one of the most charitable people one has the privilege of serving with. My apologies for having forgotten to wish you a very happy 50th birthday a couple of weeks ago. Last time I was here on a Friday with a private Member’s Bill, it was your birthday, and it was remiss of me not to take the opportunity to place that on the record—I apologise.
I think that every day is a birthday for us when we are in the company of Mr Speaker, but perhaps I will leave it there before I get sidetracked from what is a genuinely serious point.
When I received the text message I was pretty shocked, because it was incredibly offensive. I texted Mr Cummings back and said, “Why have you sent this to me?”, and he said, “Because you are one.” It was clear to me and to others in the community that the only reason I had received this offensive and, frankly, intimidatory text message was that I was opposing a planning application that he was pressing for. I am not alone in receiving intimidatory behaviour from Mr Cummings, who is well known for bullying and becoming aggressive, particularly towards women opponents of schemes. He sends people into meetings to heckle those who oppose him. The police took the text very seriously, and Mr Cummings was questioned. He denied that he had sent the text, claiming that it must have been sent by somebody else, and the police ultimately did not press charges. However, I am certain, as were local residents and the police, that it was the result of my opposing a planning application that he was promoting and being paid to promote.
If for no other reason that is why we need a code of conduct that says, “You cannot intimidate those in public life as you conduct your affairs.” Lobbying is a legitimate and respectable activity that is an acceptable part of our democratic process, but there must be standards of behaviour. I commend the Bill to the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate. I was chatting to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) earlier and he asked me to be brief in my comments. I had intended to be so, but I am now not quite sure what “brief” really means following a speech of an hour and half; however, it had very good content.
I support the concept of a register but oppose this Bill. This is a very complicated issue, and, in all candour, the Bill sidesteps all the important aspects and all the controversy by kicking that into the long grass and leaving the Government to do the hard work on the nature of the lobbying registration council and what should go into a code of conduct, if there is one, as that could form part of a broader piece of legislation. The hon. Gentleman gave examples from elsewhere around the world which, laser-like, address some of the issues that this Bill fails to go into. The devil is truly in the detail, and the Government are right to go slowly. It is better to do the right thing very slowly than do the wrong thing, or the flawed thing, in haste. We have seen that far too often here in the Chamber.
Transparency and open data alongside lobbying are at the heart of the Government’s reform agenda. They are committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. I welcome that commitment, despite there being opposing ideas from other individuals in the House and in Select Committees. I am pleased that the Government have stated that they will regulate lobbying by introducing a statutory register and ensuring greater transparency. Transparency in lobbying is important for building the public’s trust. Where lobbying is not transparent, it can erode public confidence in the political process—a problem we have seen time and again across a range of issues. Politics works better when legislators listen to the opinions not just of constituents but of interested parties such as businesses, charities, and a wide range of other organisations. That is why I intervened on the hon. Gentleman to probe him on the use of the word “commercial”. The world is more complex than a simple division between “commercial” and “non-commercial”, because several organisations fit within neither category.
Perhaps it is my fault for not being clearer. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the reason for using the word “commercial” rather than “financial” is that there is a very specific group of people who lobby on financial matters around the Treasury. Perhaps “professional” is a word that we could consider in more detail in Committee.
I am happy to serve on the Bill Committee if we get to that stage. I will follow this process whether it be through this Bill or a Government Bill.
I think Members in all parts of the House feel that there is a need to have legislation on this subject, but also to get it right, because putting the wrong legislation in place that does not do the job could be more damaging than not acting at all. I am not sure that either “commercial” or “financial” is right. Probably, looking at international examples, we need to go into specific detail and potentially exempt organisations rather than define them in relation to the Bill. Sometimes when we go backwards and forwards in debating these issues in the Commons, we intuitively think, “No, those people shouldn’t be included”, but struggle to find a definition that excludes them. Instead of struggling with that problem, perhaps a better way forward is to exempt people, in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests lobbying MPs should be exempted.
Lobbying has a clear function. It allows the concerns of businesses, charities and voluntary organisations to be expressed, and it is perfectly acceptable in a modern democracy. It is not fair to say, as some do, that lobbying benefits only the advantaged. The hon. Gentleman referred to a fictional company, “Landmines R Us”, that we could all rally against. Equally, though, there are powerful lobby groups that represent the disadvantaged, Shelter being an obvious example. There are also charities that represent the third world and developing countries, not only helping them directly but lobbying Government for financial gain—not for themselves but for people in those countries. That is perfectly legitimate, and we would not want to exclude them or to put additional costs on to them as a result of this Bill.
There is much debate about the definition. The hon. Gentleman has prayed in aid the consensus among lobbyists on the definition, but I gently say to him that if we took the consensus of lobbyists on all issues we would not need this Bill. Lobbyists historically have got this issue wrong. They have not behaved well, as the hon. Gentleman’s example has ably demonstrated.
The hon. Gentleman would be right if it was purely the lobbyists who want this, but, having met earlier this week representatives from Unlock Democracy—which has been one of the harshest critics, and rightly so, of lobbyists—I know that they are also satisfied with the definition of lobbying.
I am not desperately familiar with Unlock Democracy, but I remember the name and having a disagreement with it over policy substance, so I suspect that the organisation does not share my views in totality. I am not sure that it is effective to pray in aid that organisation, among others.
I know that Labour Members have a deep background in socialist as well as Labour history, and I appreciate that some of them also have a deep background in and understanding of communist history, which certainly brings something to the House.
This debate has been well received. I was going to point out, slightly more aggressively, to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife that Labour did not undertake anything to deal with this problem in 13 years of government, but that is unnecessary because we are building a broad consensus. However, those 13 years, as opposed to the timely debate on this Bill and the proposed Government legislation, put in context the time it has taken this Government to come up with some details, particularly considering that we are mindful of wanting to do the right thing slowly, rather than the wrong thing quickly.
I want to outline the background to the situation. I am sure there are many other examples like Invicta, but I do not want to go into them. Members of Parliament need to be very careful when dealing with such organisations. I was particularly interested to hear about Invicta’s manipulation, for want of a better word, of the political process by putting up candidates. I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at whether Government or Opposition Members contribute to the Invicta magazine and consider whether it is appropriate to share that information.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Public Administration Committee, which produced an interesting report. It was kicked off in 2007 and published in January 2009, and the fact that it took so long is itself an indication that this is a complex subject. That is an exceptional amount of time to take over a report. I am not suggesting that the Committee was in any way tardy, but that this is a complicated subject and that the Committee took appropriate time to consider it.
The Committee identified five principles for the register of lobbying activity. The first is that it should be mandatory, and the report goes on to describe what that would mean. The report also says that
“it should cover all those outside the public sector”,
and defines exempt organisations, but even there we have to be careful. Under the previous Labour Government, commercial lobbyists were employed by quangos to lobby central Government. This Government feel that that is inappropriate for a financial reason. It may well also be inappropriate for reasons of transparency. If future Governments were to do as the previous Government did and used lobbyists to lobby other parts of the Government, surely they should be defined as being within rather than outside the public sector, so I disagree with the Committee in that respect, although the principle of defining people outside the public sector is a good one.
The Committee’s idea that the register
“should be managed and enforced by a body independent of both Government and lobbyists”
is also a good one. I reel with discomfort at the idea that the body should involve only lobbyists. It is important for corporate structure and governance to involve a wide range of people. I would encourage the body to include people not only from outside, but from within government, by which I mean from the civil service or, perhaps, the House of Commons, to give their perspective. One of the anecdotes used by the hon. Gentleman was that of someone roaming the corridors with a pass for one thing but lobbying on another. I do not think that anyone outside this place would envisage that type of problem, even if it is not too dissimilar from gaining entry to a tenement block. I think that a Member of Parliament, alongside a policy-related civil servant, would add an awful lot of value. When we set up these rules, we need to think about how a lobbyist or organisation would try to get round them. We have examples of organisations that have tried to get round the current best practices and rules and regulations.
The Committee also suggested that the register should include
“information of genuine potential value to the general public”.
Who should define that? I believe in open government and in the production of as much information as possible. Often, from the open-source viewpoint, the most valuable information produced is that whose value the Government have no idea about. It is for people outside this place and outside lobbying bodies to decide. I would be inclined to make the production of information as large as possible.
Earlier we debated who should be registered—whether it should be the body corporate or individuals. I was not convinced by the argument deployed by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife that things have been sufficiently thought through. The examples of the finance director or board lobbying at a more senior level and a secretary or someone who had non-contact time but who worked in public affairs were not considered adequately. The hon. Gentleman spoke of some Members of Parliament accepting meetings with organisations directly, rather than lobbyists. I must admit, however, that when I go through my invites I am much more inclined to meet someone with a solid business title, such as a chief executive, a finance director or a regional head of a business, than someone whose title relates to public affairs or corporate affairs. Inadvertently, I suppose I am pulling those individuals into the lobbying sphere. I would worry if this Bill progressed and the code of conduct remained as defined by the hon. Gentleman. That would make it less likely for those chief executives and business leaders to be prepared to lobby me, because they would need the protection of having to go on the register, which would be very costly. They could not be fleet of foot. I had a meeting arranged with a chief executive earlier this week to discuss an issue. They wanted to lobby me and I wanted to hear about their industry, but their plane was delayed. They are based overseas and, according to the method that has been described, could not have sent someone else if they had not been on the register.
I am also unsure about individual registration—giving a “get out of jail free” card to some of the senior management. If someone lower down the organisation who is not registered inadvertently or purposefully lobbies, who is responsible? Is it the most senior person in the company who is on the register? Is it the company’s chief executive? These are not insurmountable problems; they can be overcome, but there are a few issues with the Bill.
The Public Administration Committee also proposed that certain information would need to be provided by lobbyists and by the target of their lobbying, in order to abide by the principles. The information includes
“the names of the individuals carrying out lobbying activity and of any organisation employing or hiring them”.
When I looked at the job titles at a couple of lobbying organisations, I found them a little confusing. I understand the titles “account director” and “senior manager”, but a lot of organisations are proud to hire “consultants”. I am not sure whether that is because they do not have the critical mass required or because they bring in additional people for certain clients. However, it is essential that we look at the consultants who work through such organisations. That is particularly relevant to the planning example.
I am not convinced that publication every three months is sufficient, because a lot can happen in three months. From my experience of lobbying, although an issue may be long standing for those in the relevant industry, it can crop up quite quickly. For example, the House of Commons can have an Opposition day debate that is announced only 48 hours in advance. We will receive a plethora of publications, some of which are produced not by full-time employees, but by a so-called consultant—somebody on the lobby firm’s books—whom they phone up. Such consultants are often people who are well connected to this place and who could lever that relationship for the most nefarious of purposes.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman attentively and he is making a lot of valid points. Does he agree that when Members of this House receive e-mails, for example from Mr Joe Bloggs, it would be appropriate for the person who sends them to be absolutely clear about who he is, whom he is representing and which company he works for? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and you, Mr Speaker, have noticed that such details are often misleading at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is tempting. However, the detail might make it problematic. I would not want to do anything that put barriers between me and my constituents. Most of my constituents are good and proper people who are not trying to lobby me for commercial gain. I would not want to put barriers in their way by setting a higher test in order to guard against the activities of commercial organisations.
Let me explain briefly what I mean. If a member of the APPC sends an e-mail on behalf of one of their clients, they have to put on the e-mail not only the client’s name, but their name, job title and company. Although most of us do not take the time to read the bottom of the e-mail, at least the information is there. It will say something like, “Timothy Bell, Weber Shandwick, Account Director” and give the address. In that way, Members are not confused or misled about whom the correspondence comes from.
I accept that absolutely in relation to pure lobbying firms. However, I have been lobbied by individual constituents, but have been a little suspicious about whether their letters were written by an individual or an organisation because of the level of complexity and technical detail. On some occasions, the same individual has written with a level of detail and complexity on a number of issues. When I have sat down with those constituents, it has turned out that they have been encouraged to write by their employer or their employer’s organisation. We must differentiate between professional lobbyists and such people who represent an organisation and want to lobby us. I would accept the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion if we could do it in a way that did not disadvantage our constituents.
I am interested by this line of argument. I wonder whether there should be a general exemption for constituents, because it would be quite hard for a lobbying organisation to find 650 people, one in each constituency, to lobby MPs individually, but nothing should be put in the way of constituents having direct access to their Member of Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend. I think that that is the first intervention that I have taken from him and I look forward to many more.
There is a great deal of complexity in this matter. The Royal Society of Chemistry has a great way of lobbying Members of Parliament. It does identify an individual who is on its membership for each Member of Parliament. My constituent came and had tea with me in the Pugin Room and said, “I do not want to lobby you on anything in particular, but hopefully you will be here for a few years—maybe four, maybe longer—so this is the beginning of an ongoing relationship.” That is a kind of hybrid example.
We need to consider these matters in a lot more detail. We have talked about considering the Bill in Committee, but there seems to be an increasing list of things that we must consider in Committee. I wonder whether the Bill has more flaws than can be resolved in Committee.
As my hon. Friend knows, I agree with him on most issues, but I am in danger of parting company with him on this. I do not see the distinction that he sees between a constituent who works for an organisation and has been asked by it to lobby their local MP, and the public affairs manager for the same organisation who lobbies as many MPs as agree to see them. I do not see the great distinction that we should be so troubled about.
The fact that this matter has driven my hon. Friend to disagree with me is evidence enough that it is complex. It is a criticism of the Bill as a whole if there is no shared understanding of how we should proceed on these matters.
The lobbying industry responded to the report of the Public Administration Committee in March 2010. The three main lobbying organisations were involved in that. I shall not repeat their names because the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has given some background on them. There was an agreement to maintain a register of those engaged in lobbying and of the organisations and clients on whose behalf they lobby.
It is right that there is clarity on who the lobbyists are working for, particularly given the issue of what might happen in the last 15 minutes of the meeting. Lobbyists will sometimes start the meeting on a nice warm and cosy issue, and then hit the Member of Parliament with the landmines issue or, dare I say it, the nuclear issue—a harder subject that the Member of Parliament might be less likely to accept a meeting on when pressed for time.
The promoter of the Bill made that point and my hon. Friend is repeating it. Surely a Member of Parliament is free to say, “I am sorry, but that issue is not the purpose of this meeting and I will end it there because I have other things to get on with.” They can then get up and go.
My hon. Friend is right. However, he has as much experience of constituency meetings as I have, and will know that quite often, lobbyists come to meetings with constituents. If it is a meeting with somebody who is purely commercial, the Member of Parliament can say, “Sling your hook! We agreed to have a meeting for an hour on this subject and you are going off the subject and abusing the office and the time that I gave you.” However, I have occasionally found myself, perhaps wrongly, allowing an issue to be raised because a constituent is there and is happy for it to be discussed.
To probe my hon. Friend further, will he tell the House what is the problem with listening to a point of view on a subject other than the agreed subject? It is as if lobbying is a bad thing. Surely lobbying is a good thing if it helps us to understand a point of view a bit better. What is the harm in listening? We do not have to agree or sympathise with a given point of view.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. However, the promoter of the Bill was referring to systematic abuse. He was not talking about somebody saying, “While I’m here, can we discuss X or Y, rather than arrange a second meeting?” He was talking about the sole purpose of the original meeting being to gain entry into the MP’s office to raise an issue that they had not agreed to discuss.
I prepare quite heavily for meetings with constituents or lobbying organisations, because I do not want to be bamboozled by special interests, but want to be sure that I have an independent view on the subject. If the meeting is hijacked, there is no time for such preparation or to give a good view. When I have meetings, I want to be able to summarise the matter and take a view, rather than saying, “Let me go away and think about it.”
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s courtesy. He and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) are both courteous individuals, but such courtesy is part of the problem and many Members of the House might feel uncomfortable in being as robust as they have suggested that they would be. Some might feel trapped into the last 10 or 15 minutes of a meeting because they would not want to say—to use a colloquialism—“sling your hook!” That is the point; people should not feel trapped or ambushed.
With the House’s permission, I will accept that comment and move on. This is a broad Bill, and having criticised the House for moving to a general debate, I want to focus specifically on the Bill.
The proposed register does not intend to capture or deter any range of activities essential to a vibrant democracy. I fear, however, that too much bureaucracy will lead people not to come forward to discuss issues with Members of Parliament. In fact, some of the most useful lobbying is very informal. For example, if an issue is raised in the House about the health service, I might be more likely to have a chat to my local GP or those at the local primary health trust, because I know their capabilities and biases and can filter those as appropriate, than to go to a lobby organisation directly. Some of the most effective lobbying will be totally off the register and therefore outside the remit under discussion.
The costs of the consultation have been mentioned and I am deeply concerned about those costs and their impacts. Just because something is of moderate cost to the Cabinet Office, it should not be brushed aside as insignificant. There is a direct cost to the Government that must be funded by the taxpayer, and even more importantly I am concerned about the cost to business. That is not because I am particularly pro-business for the sake of it, but businesses employ people and have consumers. At the end of the day, business cost must be transferred in some way, shape or form, either to shareholders—that is our pension fund and nation’s prosperity—or to consumers. The price of a packet of bourbon biscuits will go up at Asda, however marginally.
We must remember that lobbyists are business people as well. We have said that lobbying is a legitimate activity, but the provisions represent a big barrier to entry. A small business owner who, for argument’s sake, acts in a consultancy in a particular sector, might find that they are increasingly asked for public relations advice by the press. That might not be their core competence, although they might do a bit of it. Where does the barrier between public relations and public affairs end and start? I want people who run small businesses to be able to evolve their business over time. We need some type of de minimis threshold for a business to be allowed to operate within a public affairs arena.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way once again. He is absolutely right on this issue. A compulsory levy for an organisation is a hypothecated tax, but a tax none the less, and we are therefore talking about a tax on business. This House should be very wary about increasing the burden of taxation in this country.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend and I cannot evidence in the Bill any thought or consideration of different sizes of businesses. There is a massive difference between Asda or the might of a FTSE 100 company that might be involved in lobbying, and one or two individual businesses. There is no consideration of whether the fee should be fixed for all businesses, fixed per person, or be a threshold to allow businesses to move into the sector without signing up. There is no consideration of corporate structures. Gone are the days where we have one simple limited company or one simple plc. Many companies have subsidiaries, are wholly owned, separately floated or floated in different jurisdictions. There is a whole level of complexity that will make some details of the Bill difficult to iron out.
There are also difficulties in relation to an organisation that is trying to get round some of the proposed rules. People are not always well meaning and will look for holes in the legislation and see whether they can register offshore, have consultants or separate out the lobbying into a subsidiary area. They will see whether they can disguise what they are doing and define their lobbying activity by way of a consultation or public relations, rather than public affairs.
The consultation said that a number of questions had been raised, such as the definition of lobbying and lobbyists. I am concerned about that and about who will be included and excluded in the register. It strikes me, for example, that trade unions should form part of the provisions. One clear role of a trade union is to lobby organisations and the Government for better working conditions, pay and arrangements, and that is quite proper and a healthy part of democracy. Clearly, trade unions are lobbyists, but they are certainly not commercial and nor, on the other end of the scale, are they charities. They do not belong to those two categories and are neither one thing nor the other. We need to define that, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that we have not done that.
Absolutely, and I would not want to see the Bill go into Committee without such a definition. I would want the Government to define what a lobbyist is—perhaps the way forward is to define a lobbyist by what it is not, rather than by what it is, so that we have absolute certainty that certain organisations will be exempt from the provisions. I am sure that we will have a debate; I am sure Labour Members will want trade unions to be exempt from the register, although I would quite like them to remain on it. We might wish to give preference to and exempt some trade organisations, but we will want others to be very much part of such a register so that we have the transparency sought by the Bill.
I was glad that the consultation received more than 260 responses. Lord Wallace of Saltaire from the other place has eloquently summarised the feedback. At one point, the Government summary of replies to the consultation document states
“in effect, a lot of those consulted regard themselves as a legitimate part of the political process but regard everybody else as lobbyists”.
That is spot on, and quite often people who come to us talk in similar language. Lord Wallace said that although there is need for reform,
“there is a quite remarkable dissensus among respondents”
I was unfamiliar with the word “dissensus”, but I can work out what he means and I broadly agree with his conclusion.
I look forward to seeing the Government response to the consultation. I believe that some of the inputs to the consultation have been published, but I could not find that, so I assume the Government have not yet responded, given that the consultation was in January 2012—[Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) is kindly passing me a document, but I am unclear whether it is a summary of responses or the Government position. Flipping through, it seems to be the summary of responses, rather than the Government response to those responses.
My hon. Friend nods and I am grateful to her. I have looked at part of those responses, although not at them all. Perhaps in her concluding remarks she will indicate when the Government will respond to the consultation as that would be helpful for the House. I would certainly find it interesting to read the Government’s response alongside the summary of responses to the Cabinet Office consultation document, “Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists”. The majority of respondents welcomed the Government’s commitment to achieve greater transparency and were supportive of a statutory register of lobby interests. However, there was a definite overlap between the responses on definition and scope; the definition presented a particular issue for many respondents and there was a widespread recognition that arriving at the right definition would be fundamental to the register’s effectiveness. The Bill completely sidesteps that issue, despite making an attempt to define lobbying.
The overarching theme that emerged from the consultation was that the proposed definition was narrow, and a number of respondents stressed that until the definition was clear, it would be difficult to determine other factors raised by the subsequent questions, especially scope. There was also considerable support for consistency in application to ensure equal treatment of all parties. In keeping with the emerging theme on definition, the predominant view expressed under the question of scope was that a wider scope was preferred but that that should not result in disproportionate burdens. That is very difficult to do; I suspect that a balancing act will be needed in relation to scope, and what is in the code and who should be subject to it.
There was general consensus among respondents that it was difficult to address the question of the information to be provided without clarity on definition and scope. The majority of respondents favoured the disclosure of financial information alongside other information. Such an approach is entirely right; it is insufficient simply to say, “You are lobbying on behalf of A, B or C.” Although I said that more information should be available, people can become bogged down by information if we are talking simply about volume over a small number of categories and they might not be able to see the bigger picture. One can imagine lobbyists listing client upon client and our then finding that they are billing some of them only a few thousand pounds, whereas they might be charging some of the bigger clients £1 million. Such information allows us to estimate the size of the work that they are doing, which then allows people to track things down. They can ask, “Why are X, Y and Z companies getting £1 million? Why are they on a £1 million retainer for this?” People would be able to examine the marketplace, see what lobbying activity they have said they have done and see press speculation. If there is any gap, people could investigate further, so that information would be very useful.
We have already discussed when the register should be updated. The idea of a formal publication quarterly could work, although we could force people to register slightly earlier and put things on the internet. The idea that we should have a quarterly written publication that is produced and pumped out to all interested parties is somewhat old-fashioned. It would be quite possible to have a rolling register on the internet. That may be more appropriate, even if it were to contain only a rolling number of names of individuals and amounts, prior to a formal publication each quarter, if indeed that were needed. In the case of some of the specific examples discussed today, it would be essential—this is more than a preference—for us to have that information on a regular basis.
We have already discussed funding, so I will not detain the House any longer on that. Interestingly, there was support for strong sanctions to apply to those on the register, so we must ask what happens when things go wrong. We have not debated that at great length, but it goes to the heart of the matter. If someone could carry on acting in the same way, there would be little point in the register. This is not a monitoring exercise. We should not feel better about ourselves just because we catch people doing wrong—or what we perceive to be wrong. That is what we legislate for; this should be about improving the quality of democracy. We need to consider the sanctions. We need to consider how we fine people and whether it is purely a matter for the lobbying registration council or whether the state should take a greater view. Are we going to say that in some cases it is a criminal offence to do certain things in respect of lobbying rather than saying that it is an offence against the lobbying registration council that will be punished internally? Are we saying that the law is sufficient at the moment? This matter is crucial and, as on the code of conduct, it will be incumbent on the Government when they publish a draft Bill to give us a copy of the documents that they are proposing, even if some of the detail is not included and even if the documents are only in draft. Without that information it will be very hard to see from the Government Bill whether it is indeed the appropriate way forward. Cross-party support would be encouraged by the publication of as much information as possible, particularly on the issue of sanctions, which has not been touched on during this debate.
I was going to go into more detail on the definition of lobbying, but I do not wish to do that now as we have covered a lot of that territory. However, I would like to caution against accepting the lobby industry’s definition of lobbying. Clearly, if the industry had been operating well, properly and transparently in the interests of democracy, we would not be here today. So it is somewhat ludicrous simply to say, “Well it is agreed by the industry” and then move forward.
Clause 4(2) exempts the activities of Members of Parliament from the definition of lobbying, and I very much welcome that. Clause 3(3) deals with the issue of passes, and I was disappointed that the words
“or former member of either House”
found their way into the Bill. I listened to the reasons that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife gave, and I think he disagrees with that provision but left it in the Bill out of courtesy to other Committees of the House that were considering it. It would be wholly inappropriate if the duties we put on a lobbyist—someone trying to lobby this current House—were less for a ex-Member of either House than for a member of the public. Someone is either a Member of Parliament or an ex-Member of Parliament, and I do not think we should blur the lines on lobbying.
I have outlined the case for caution, and I wish to discuss the arrangements in other countries. However, for the sake of the debate, before I do so I shall touch on issues in the United Kingdom. The UK has a specific problem with commercial lobbying in the House of Commons, and it relates to all-party groups. We have not discussed this matter in detail, but we have touched on it tangentially. I am sure that many of us here are members of all-party groups, which provide a strong function for the House of Commons, despite confusion among the public as to what an all-party group does and what a Select Committee does. Sometimes, these groups are sparsely attended by MPs and Lords, but are very professional operations, and sometimes at their heart are industry lobbyists.
I was once surprised in Parliament to bump into an old friend with an interest in politics, because I thought they worked in outside industry. They were not of an age at which I would have expected them to be an intern, and neither were they one of the more senior staff members. I could not see their pass, so I asked, “What brings you here?” They turned it around, and it was a blue pass. I am not sure if you are familiar with blue passes, Mr Speaker, but they are for all-party groups. This individual was paid by an external lobbying organisation and had a House of Commons pass not issued by an MP. I am not sure who issues them.
I will not be tempted down that line, because I suspect I take a different view in relation to MEPs. It would be an interesting but fruitless tangent to this debate.
It is shocking that people can get passes as staff of all-party groups. If I was a chair or senior officer of an all-party group and had a spare pass—we are allocated three or four passes—and, in my name and on my authority, granted it to an individual working for an all-party group, that would be fine. I would be taking personal responsibility for their behaviour on the estate; such people would be representatives of parliamentarians. It is wrong, however, that paid lobbyists have passes not signed off by an MP. Our passes are rationed, as we can issue only three or four, so I have to decide, for instance, whether to issue one to my caseworker who occasionally comes up from Southend. As well as rationing, there must be a proper analysis of what passholders are doing here.
On 2 January, The Times published an interesting investigation into the funding of all-party groups that again raised the issue of defining lobbying. In some cases, organisations have good reasons for funding all-party groups; for instance, they might want a genuine debate on their broad subject area. I am sure, however, that we have all felt uncomfortable about the dominance of funding in certain all-party groups or about what the secretariat was doing—who is it representing, is it genuinely representing the Lords and MPs or the people who pay the secretariat?
Having said that, it would be inappropriate to throw out all the secretariats and financial relationships. For instance, I spend a lot of time on African issues, many of which cannot easily be funded by commercial organisations or the countries themselves, and in those cases it is entirely appropriate to have academic institutions funding secretariats. I am less comfortable, however, with big businesses funding such arrangements. The Times thought that at least a dozen all-party groups had received funding or benefits from outside organisations in the past 12 months, with the amounts involved totalling more than £1 million a year.
I think that Members might be sleepwalking towards potential problems. A couple of times, I have been asked to sign up to an all-party group of perhaps tangential interest to me or my constituency. On those occasions, I have lent my name to the group with the intention of attending perhaps only one or two meetings a year, but these groups meet regularly and churn out reports that are perceived to carry the authority of the House of Commons. Quite often in the morning, Radio 4 will mention a report from the House of Commons. Sometimes, it refers to a Select Committee report, but sometimes I think, “That’s a little odd; the Committee wouldn’t have said that,” and it turns out to be an all-party group funded by outside support. Given our limited resources for members of staff, it is often only with outside support that we can produce an extensive paper.
I would therefore like the Bill to take account of all-party groups. I have raised the issue of blue passes and have tabled a few probing written questions about the number of people involved.
I will certainly discuss it with the PAC, but I think it odd when MPs give evidence to other MPs; there are more eloquent ways to do it than through formal evidence. If a written submission would be helpful, however, I would be more than happy to make one.
The hon. Gentleman indicates that it would be helpful, so I undertake to do so.
Let me return to the issue of commercial lobbying and the experience from outside the UK. There is a wealth of information about what happens elsewhere. I have looked at the history of how other countries have developed their commercial register and the problems they have encountered. In virtually every case I have come across three or four problems, not only for the implementation of this Bill, but for the broader issue of establishing a register, which is a commitment from the coalition.
I certainly agree that we are better off not having a register than having one on a flawed basis. Just because it is complicated, it does not follow that we should not try; but if we try, yet fail to deal with the complexity, I will certainly support my hon Friend’s view that we should not proceed.
I hope that I do not further agitate my hon. Friends on the Benches behind me by mentioning the European Parliament and the European Commission, which have a transparency register—it is rather like a people’s democratic republic, which will normally do the opposite of what it says on the tin. The transparency register builds on earlier, separate registers from the European Parliament and the Commission, and was launched on 23 June 2011 to register and monitor organisations and self-employed individuals engaged in EU policy making and policy implementation. I am amazed at the number of people of my age who seem to flit backwards and forward from here to Brussels lobbying. These are not people who are interested in politics or specialist EU lawyers; they are people from mainstream organisations and industry specialists who are having to spend more and more time with the European Parliament and the Commission.
I am a little confused. I stand to be corrected, but I think that such a company would need to register while we remained part of the European Union. Interestingly, the register there is free, so the European Union is looking at getting the maximum amount of information and funding that from general taxation—our taxation.
I should point out—I suppose this is an indication of how confusing the issue is—that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) makes a valid point, because the definition of lobbying in clause 4 refers to
“activity carried out in the course of a business or employment which are undertaken for financial gain and are designed to influence the Government of the United Kingdom, Parliament, any local authority in England or any member or employee of any of those bodies in formulating its official policy.”
Surely it is clear from that definition that what my hon. Friend said about the register not applying to people working with the European Parliament is correct.
I now understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) was making. My hon. Friends are absolutely right: under this Bill, there is nothing to compel an organisation from the United Kingdom—or, indeed, anywhere else—that lobbies the European Parliament. I wonder whether, because of the nature of the European Parliament’s rules, there are any EU regulations about that. Logically, I expect that we would be forced by some directive to push it through by the back door; otherwise, if each country did not have to abide by it, such a register would be pretty meaningless.
I think we are all fascinated by the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, but I suspect that we are in danger of losing track of time. Has he had a chance to look at the Order Paper? If so, has he seen that we might, quite inadvertently, accidentally talk out a subsequent Bill for which there is a great deal of public support?
I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I can assure him unequivocally that I will not speak for anywhere near as long as he did. It is quite common in this place to have certain individuals—I shall not name them—shamelessly talking Bills out, but never before have I seen an hon. Member trying to talk out his own Bill. I ask him to intervene on me again if I get anywhere close to the length of his speech.
I will try to be brief, but there are a number of countries with really interesting examples. Just before I leave the subject of European Union, I want to point out that it has gone for a wide scope, yet it leaves out certain organisations, one category of which is described as “social partners”. I was not quite sure what social partners were, particularly in the light of the debate that we will have next Tuesday, but it turns out that they include trade unions and trade associations, both of which I would like to see included in the register. So if four or five companies in, say, the concrete industry had their own lobbying organisations, those organisations would have to be on the register, but if they spent the same money employing a trade association to do the same job, that trade association would not have to be on the register. That is absolutely bonkers, but it illustrates how the European Parliament has done what I fear the Bill might do, and what the Government might be tempted to do. I fear that, in the interest of trying to do the right thing, they might actually cause a lot more confusion and complexity. I could go on about the specific information requirements. An annual information update is required, yet I get the feeling that hon. Members think that a quarterly update is insufficient.
Turning to the regulations in the United States, I am amazed by their detail and complexity. They make the EU look almost lightweight in comparison.
I have nothing more to add on the Communist party at the moment. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the US. Does he agree that its regulations go to ludicrous lengths? I understand, for instance, that people are not allowed to have a sit-down meal with a lobbyist, although they are allowed to eat finger food. They are not, however, allowed to eat that food with a fork, because that would constitute a meal. They also have to wear badges with an L on, to identify them as lobbyists. Does he think that that is going too far?
The hon. Gentleman’s research into this subject is much greater than mine. The arrangements are even more ludicrous than I had thought. Even here in the UK we have some ludicrous examples. One person on the Greater London assembly has told me that, when they are invited out to lunch with someone who might be a friend but who might also be lobbying them, they look down the menu and pick whatever ensures that they stay below the threshold, simply to avoid the administrative hassle, rather than to avoid declaring the relationship. All sorts of odd scenarios come about because of the level of complexity in the regulations.
Gone are the days of companies being in just one jurisdiction. British companies already bear the burdens of EU requirements—I am not quite sure how—and of US regulations. These provisions would be an additional issue for them. They would not be incremental additions; they would create added complexity as all the different requirements were put together.
One area in which the Americans have got it right is setting out details of punishment for people who do not comply with the regulations. The Bill does not touch on that matter, and it has not been discussed today. Turning to neighbouring Canada, its first attempt to regulate lobbying was the Lobbyists Registration Act, which came into force in 1989. It was not the first such attempt in the world; I will come to the Australian example later, if time permits. That 1989 Act provided for the public registration of individuals paid to lobby public office holders. It covered consultant lobbyists, commercial in-house lobbyists and not-for-profit organisations. It is interesting that it included that last category; the Bill does not do so, and I think that that area needs much greater consideration, particularly as not-for-profit organisations sometimes have commercial arms that cross-subsidise their other work. The lines between each type of work are often unclear.
In Australia, the first attempt at regulating the lobbying industry was the lobbyist registration scheme of 1983. The scheme set up two confidential registers: one for lobbyists representing foreign clients and a general one for lobbyists representing domestic clients. It is fascinating to think about how that worked; I cannot really see the need for two registers. The scheme required lobbyists to apply to register each time they took on a client and to give a short description of the task undertaken. Although I like the idea of having ample information, I am concerned that some of it might be commercially sensitive. A lobbying organisation might want to speak to the Government and other people about a new product and how it would fit in within existing legislation, but might not want to give competitors an idea of what exactly is going on.
The Australian example—we should remember that this is the most long-standing example of a commercial register—becomes very interesting when it comes to the definition of a lobbyist. A lobbyist is defined as
“any person, company or organisation who conducts lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client or whose employees conduct lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client”.
The definition goes on, however, to state what is not included. This is something that I have said this Bill should do—exempt certain organisations from its scope. Priests were mentioned earlier, and religious organisations are exempt in this case, as are charitable organisations. However, there is a confusing reference to
“funds that are endorsed as deductible gift recipients”.
To be frank, I am not entirely sure what the implications are. An example that I had not thought of was
“members of trade delegations visiting Australia”.
If Australian Members of Parliament came to the UK to encourage us to invest more in Australia, would they have to register under the Bill? Clearly, there was an issue with delegations coming in to Australia, and I think we should look at the same point.
Before I conclude, I would like to mention some other organisations that have registers and some of the issues they face, as a way of probing some of the complexity and detail that surrounds any register. The General Dental Council, for example, is governed by the Dentists Act 1984, which provides for a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £5,000. This Bill, however, which is not self-regulatory, does not state what the fines will be or, indeed, whether there will be a criminal fine at all. Costs to the GDC are about £24 million, but we have had no indication of the cost of the commercial lobbyist register; nobody has provided any information. One of the weaknesses of private Members’ Bills, alongside their many benefits, is that there is no regulatory assessment and no clear statement of the burdens placed on businesses. It is clear in the case of this Bill that there will be significant costs. There are about 38,000 dentists, but no one has identified how many lobbyists there are, and this is particularly worrying given the lack of clarity over whether chief executives, finance directors or secretaries of public affairs departments need to register. The size of the register has not been considered.
Ofsted is another interesting example. A vast number of cases and concerns—whole processes—are at issue, including failing to comply with a register, but we have not probed or even touched on those points in this debate. If we allow this Bill to pass, I wonder whether we will be in Committee for ever.
I promised not to speak as long as the Bill’s promoter, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, did. I congratulate him on securing the opportunity to debate this Bill today, which has been incredibly useful. I am sure that the Minister and her Department will have listened to the points that the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues have raised. Our debate should be informative and contribute to shaping the Government’s response to the more formal consultation. I urge the hon. Gentleman, now that he has listened to the debate, not to press for a vote, to withdraw his Bill and to seek reassurances from the Minister that the Government are taking the issues forward in a proper and timely way.
It is appropriate for me to follow the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). In his comprehensive speech, he raised some questions about Labour’s position, which I shall be happy to set out. Let me begin, however, by saying that I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) has given the House an opportunity to debate this important issue—an opportunity that the Government seem strangely reluctant to provide, as we shall see.
I am sure all Members agree that lobbying is an essential part of a democratic system. We have all been lobbied, and, as we have heard, we all lobby, on behalf of our constituents and in favour of causes that we care about. At its best, lobbying gives diverse sections of our diverse democracy—groups and individuals—an opportunity to make their voices heard, and therefore makes for better, and better-informed, Government decisions. I am sure the House agrees that that is in all our interests. However, as the Prime Minister has infamously said, lobbying
“is the next…scandal waiting to happen.”
Foresight is not necessarily a quality that we associate with the Prime Minister. For example, he foresaw the end of the Conservative party’s “banging on” about Europe. On this occasion, however, he was correct, although he did not say whether he foresaw himself being at the centre of those lobbying scandals.
During the past two years, there has been a string of disreputable stories. We have had opaque links with special advisers in certain well-known news organisations, we have had the Adam Werrritty affair, and we have had cosy “kitchen suppers” in Downing street. I am told that a “kitchen supper” is a meal without the servants and the silver; I suppose that, to that extent, I have been having kitchen suppers all my life without knowing it. Stories of that kind fuel a public perception that those who can afford it have access and influence at the very highest levels, whereas ordinary people are left on the outside looking in.
Ours is a divided nation: divided by access to power. On this side of the House, our one nation vision is one in which politics is open to all and transparent to all, in which political lobbying companies and corporate interests do not boast of having special influence in Downing street, and in which Government Departments do not summarise the views of more than 1,000 people who have responded to a consultation—ironically, on lobbying—under a single heading, next to a list of separate summaries of the views of individual corporate respondents. I hope that the Minister can explain how that happened.
Only this week, we heard of big alcohol companies pouring money into lobbying agencies in an attempt to influence the debate on minimum pricing, which is an important health issue. Their tactics were described by Alcohol Concern as similar to those of the tobacco industry, designed to
“mislead, bully and spend their way to a policy change.”
At the same time, health charities on the other side of the debate about minimum pricing have seen their funding cut.
Politicians in this country have yet to repair the damage done to public confidence by the expenses scandal. Part of the process of doing so must involve a Parliament that represents the interests, and therefore the influence, of the many, not the few.
Let me now deal specifically with the Bill. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife for introducing it. We believe that some issues, several of which have been raised today, would benefit from further parliamentary scrutiny. It is essential that any legislation does not interfere with, or put undue burdens on, the legitimate activities of businesses, charities, consumer organisations or constituents, and some Members have given examples of how that might happen. Consequences, intended and otherwise, especially in respect of local authorities, must be thoroughly examined in Committee.
We support the aims and much of the substance of the Bill, however. The last Labour Government were the most open and transparent Government ever. The Labour party opened up Government by introducing the Freedom of Information Act, created a code of conduct for special advisers, introduced and strengthened the ministerial code, and published the private interests of Members on a six-monthly basis. When we left office in 2010, we had committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists, requiring people to register as lobbyists and also to register the identities of their clients. That is not a particularly radical idea; many democracies have similar registers of varying depth and breadth.
We know that a London loophole has developed for the financial industry. I understand that some lobbying organisations choose to lobby from London because of the lack of transparency here. I hope the Minister agrees that we do not want London to become a destination for obfuscation.
I do not feel it is appropriate to mention the names that have been presented to me of organisations set up in London to lobby in the United States—I can give that much information. If the hon. Gentleman is particularly interested, I will take advice and will happily write to him later if doing so does not breach the confidence of the person who shared that information with me.
We wholeheartedly agree that lobbyists play an important role in our democracy. Individuals, charities and business must have open access to Government, and that access should not be impeded by legislation. However, that access should also be transparent, and any register should not impede that.
Lobbying is not, and should not be considered to be, a murky or disreputable business that takes place in the shadows. It is in the interests of the lobbying industry to put that reputation behind it, and a Bill such as this one would help it to do so.
I think all Members on both sides of the House agree on the principles and that a register is necessary.
With some honourable exceptions, we agree on the principles and that a register is necessary. That was in the coalition agreement and it was in our manifesto. [Interruption.] There may be some disunity as to what is supported in the coalition agreement, but it sets out the original intentions of the coalition, as cemented in the rose garden those many months ago. [Interruption.] Yes, cemented with roses. I apologise for the mixed metaphor.
As we have heard, it is important that we have the right register and the right regime behind it. The Bill goes much of the way to getting us where we need to be. It is important that there is no cost to the taxpayer. A register should therefore be funded by industry and it should comprise all those who lobby, including agencies and in-house lobbyists. Although meetings with third-party lobbyists make up less than 1% of all meetings with Ministers, they allow vested interests to hide their lobbying activity from the public eye. We therefore support the inclusion of a code of conduct. It is necessary if the register is to be enforceable, as my hon. Friend set out, and it is sensible that it be drawn up by an industry council. A model similar to that of the General Medical Council seems appropriate, but these are details to be discussed in Committee.
I am puzzled as to why we have been waiting so long on an issue on which there is relative agreement on the main principles. We are mid-way through this Parliament and we have yet to see any legislation. I read the Government’s own mid-term review with interest. The commitment to a statutory register is there, repeated on page 39, although with no further details about when or what it might look like—a commitment with no action associated with it. The commitment was in the same box as the boundary review. Those of us on the Opposition Benches are beginning to wonder whether the Government’s plans for the register have gone the same way as those for the boundary review. We sincerely hope that is not the case. Whatever the reason, it is unfortunate that here we are, halfway through this Parliament, yet the Government have not introduced their own Bill and continue to drag their feet on doing so.
The 2010 Labour manifesto pledged to bring forward statutory registration. The Conservative manifesto pledged to do so if the lobbying industry failed to regulate itself. The lobbying industry was already, as it were, drinking in the last chance saloon prior to the last election, so even then the Conservatives were a step behind. Conservative Members seem to think the last chance saloon never closes.
I cannot help but draw parallels between the Government’s inaction on lobbying and their inaction on the Leveson inquiry—two industries that are a vital part of the democratic system, two industries that have repeatedly been the sources of scandals that undermine public confidence, two industries untouched by Government action. As with the media, the Government seem to be ordering the lobbying industry yet another round of cocktails in the last chance saloon, only it is our democracy which is paying the bill.
Shortly after the election Sir Philip Mawer, chairman of the UKPAC implementation group, said that lobbyists are fooling themselves if they expect a respite in politicians’ scrutiny of the industry. I pay tribute to Sir Philip and his efforts, but perhaps he reckoned without this Government’s complacency two and a half years later.
I am conscious of time—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—as are other right hon. and hon. Members. I am also eager to hear what the Minister and other Members have to say, but I have one or two questions before I conclude. I am keen for an update on what the Government have done since the consultation closed. I note that the Cabinet Office business plan commits to publishing a White Paper and legislation on establishing a statutory register for lobbyists by March 2013. A week may be a long time in politics, but that still does not leave the Minister much time to meet her own deadline. Unfortunately for the Government, this is not a leap year; we have just 28 days. On which of those days can we expect to see this draft legislation? Does the Minister have a long-term timetable for introducing the Government’s legislation, or will they use this Bill to meet their commitments? I am also eager to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what a register should look like. Do the Government support a code of conduct? Do they envisage including details of what companies are lobbying on, who their clients are and how much is being spent?
We need a statutory register of lobbyists. That has cross-party support, and in the absence of any action from this Government, we would welcome the Bill and support its progression.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). She gave the impression that she was impatient for Government action, but made no mention of the fact that the Labour party was in power for 13 years and had plenty of opportunity to legislate if it thought that this matter was so important.
The Labour party in government consulted on a statutory register and, as I said, made it clear that the lobbying industry was drinking in the last chance saloon. It took some time to reach that position. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is not enough time in the current slightly open legislative programme for this Government to build on that, or is he saying that he disagrees with the conclusion that we came to?
I start from the position that we jumped into this debate this morning and overlooked whether we needed a register in the first place. It seemed to be accepted from the moment that the debate started nearly three hours ago that it was all about how one defines a lobbyist and lobbying, whereas I want to start with what is the problem. The Bill’s promoter cited one or two specific instances that he was concerned about, but as always I would argue that one or two cases make bad law. We should not pick on one or two instances, which seemed to border on criminal behaviour, to claim that the solution is to introduce a register for lobbyists. Just as we cannot rid society of theft or burglary by making them criminal offences, if there is a problem with lobbying and lobbyists the answer is not to provide yet more regulation. It is almost as though legislators look around society to find a group that is not legislated for and then come up with a scheme to bring them under the control of the legislature.
On Friday mornings, Back-Bench Government Members will often try to pilot through a Government handout Bill; it is somewhat more surprising to see an Opposition Member promoting a Bill that is broadly in line with the coalition programme for government, although I accept that there are differences.
Has my hon. Friend noted that the Government need help in this regard? At no point today have our coalition partner Members of Parliament been here to offer support; none have wandered through the Chamber, taken interventions or made speeches. Exactly the same thing happened last Friday, when they were also completely absent.
Those Members must answer for their absence, but it would have been interesting to hear the views of our coalition partners on this matter. They have been absent this morning, so we can only guess at their views.
I am not clear what the problem is. My postbag is not overflowing with complaints about lobbying, although it is overflowing with opinions about lots of other matters, some of which are being discussed next Tuesday. I have been involved in politics for more than 30 years, and I can honestly say that in all that time I do not recall a single occasion when anybody brought to my attention a complaint about lobbying or lobbyists. I fail to see why the issue is such a big problem in our society.
There is a problem with the whole principle of the Bill, and its benefits are not clear. It was said earlier that this debate—and this is a good thing, to some extent—had become a general one about lobbying rather than a traditional Second Reading debate. I submit that that is because, although the Bill appears at first sight to contain lots of detail, it is in fact extremely vague. Much of the Bill raises more questions than it answers. All the way along, we are told that the answers will come further down the line and that we will find out in the fullness of time all the details about which I have questions. Even if I agreed with the principle of the Bill, which I do not, I would think that any Bill that left open as much to future legislation and definition, by way of orders and regulations through statutory instruments, as this one does should not proceed into Committee.
Clause 1 defines what is meant by “lobbying” in terms of the public register, and the purpose of the Bill is to establish such a register. It states:
“There shall be a register of organisations and individuals who carry out lobbying of Parliament, the Government and local authorities for financial gain, which shall be made public.”
We have not heard about the influence of all the quangos. In many spheres of life, the Government have effectively palmed off responsibility for regulation and control to third-party organisations—quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations—that govern so many areas of life today. Many of the decisions that they make are just as important as the decisions made by Ministers or Departments.
I agree with my hon. Friend. On a similar theme, he might like to comment on the civil service. We have all seen in “Yes Minister” how the civil service lobbies the Government in a surreptitious manner to try to protect its interests. Perhaps, on that basis, it might need to be placed on the register.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is probably common ground among Members on both sides of the House and from all parties that when one arrives in this place one soon begins to realise that the real power lies with the civil service. In fact, it is often the civil servants the lobbyists want to see, because they know that influencing the thinking of the civil service can be far more effective than, for example, influencing what a Back-Bench Member of this House may think.
I cannot see what would be the benefit to society of having a register of lobbyists. I can see lots of downsides, but I cannot see its purpose. Would it really be the case that every time somebody rang up to make an appointment with a Member, they, or their staff, would bother to consult it? It just would not happen, and even if it did, I cannot see what the purpose would be. Members of the lobbying profession are often, by definition, in the business of promoting themselves. Their websites often contain huge lists of their clients; it is not as though they are trying to hide on whose behalf they are acting. When somebody rings up, one knows straight away, or can quickly find out by asking one or two questions, on whose behalf they are calling. I am not confident that there would be any real use in having such a register.
That brings me on to the question of how the register would be arranged and organised and, more importantly, who would keep it. The Bill suggests that a new organisation, the lobbying registration council—not a new quango but a new industry-funded body—would be responsible for maintaining and supervising the register and keeping it up to date. However, we have no idea of what particulars would be entered on it. It is a blank canvas. Obviously, there would be the name and address of the company or individual and details of their clients, but how long would it be before someone said, “Well, frankly, that’s not much use”? It would be the thin end of the wedge. I suspect that those who thought that it was a good idea to have a register would soon be saying, “What we really want is to know who these lobbyists have met, and we want that recorded on the register. We want to know for how long they met a given individual, where they met, what was the purpose of the meeting, and what was its outcome.” Before long, what started off as a simple register of names, addresses and lists of clients would develop into an enormous database of facts and figures and lists of meetings. It would become a bureaucratic nightmare for those involved in the lobbying industry.
How will my constituents benefit from all that regulation and registration? When I look at things, I always ask, “How will my constituents benefit from this?” I can see that those who may want to engage in the lobbying industry will suffer as a result of the Bill, but I fail to see how my constituents would benefit in any meaningful way from a register of lobbyists.
We do not know what all this will cost. Again, it has been glossed over. We have heard about and debated lots of other things, but we have no idea about that crucial question. One of the first things that a lobbyist would ask is, “How much will this cost?” We have no idea.
That is a useful contribution, but the cost of £200 to £300 is for an entirely different register from that which the Bill proposes, which is statutorily based. The lobbying registration council will be funded by those who will pay to be on the register, so in order to determine the cost of registration we have to look at the LRC itself, which, as I have said, is a blank canvas.
My hon. Friend might want also to consider the potential cost to other parts of the state, such as the police force. According to clause 3, a breach of the proposed code of conduct will be a criminal offence. I presume that the police would have to investigate complaints of any breaches and that the Crown Prosecution Service would have to consider whether to press charges, so the cost to the public purse would be much bigger than the figure of zero that we were led to believe earlier.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If I have the chance later, I will address the fact that, before long, it will be argued that he who pays the piper calls the tune. This is meant to be a self-funded organisation, so it follows that, as soon as the first scandal arises—and, as sure as eggs is eggs, it will—everybody will say, “Ah! That’s happened because the organisation that’s meant to be supervising the register is paid for by the industry itself. It’s not an effective regulator after all. It’s not keeping an effective register. It’s not doing its job.” Before long, there will be calls for the organisation to be removed from “self-regulation” and for it to be paid for by the public purse. As my hon. Friend has said, however, even before we get to that stage there will be increased costs for the public purse, even if complaints are unproven and the police say there is no cause for prosecution. Given that we do not know what will be in the code, we do not know how likely that is to happen—it might be very likely.
I am sure that my constituents would agree with that. They would much rather that the police were on the streets fighting the crime that they are concerned about than wondering whether a lobbyist in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham or Glasgow has breached a provision of some code, the details of which we know not. I am extremely concerned about that.
The cost of the lobbying registration council will be dependent on its size and nature. There will be no obligation on it to scrimp or save, because no matter what the organisation costs, it will be passed on to those who by law—they have no choice in the matter—have to register. That is a licence to print money. The council can employ as many people as it likes. It can have as many expense accounts as it likes. It can have offices as lavish as it likes. It could have a whole office block in the centre of London and it would not matter. It could give all of its employees company cars and it would not matter.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It probably will have to register on its own register, because I am sure that before long it will want greater powers and to extend its reach into new areas. We have already come across a possible new area this morning. As has been pointed out, one of the gaps in the Bill is that it does not provide for the registration of those who want to lobby the European Parliament. The council may well lobby the Government to amend the legislation to cover that area. My hon. Friend is right that, on that basis, it would have to be on its own register.
We do not know how many members will be on the council. Will it be two or three, or thirty or forty? How representative will it be? Will it have to have members from every region of the country? Will it have to have members from different lobbying organisations?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, because I know that he is trying to move towards a conclusion. I remind him that all those matters will rightly be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I am sure that he has even more confidence in his Ministers than I do.
I have every confidence in our Ministers. I hope that, as a result of this debate, the Government will continue to worry about the path that they have sent themselves down with the consultation. It is clear from the consultation that it is easy to say, “Let’s have a register of lobbyists,” but that when one looks at the detail, the problems arise. The devil is in the detail.
As I have said, I fail to see how a register of lobbyists would help anybody. That is what we should be thinking about. How will a register help? How will it solve any of the so-called problems? I fail to see that there are problems. I am not bothered about them, but perhaps other people are. In a healthy democracy, everybody lobbies their MP. I am sure that every MP has the same experience at the weekend. I will be going down the street and somebody will tap me on the shoulder and say, “I know it’s the weekend, but I would like to have a quick word with you about blah-de-blah-de-blah.” They want to explain their point of view and to influence me. That is the nature of representative democracy in this country; it happens every day of the week. Some people do it because they are interested, and others do it for reward. I fail to see, however, how having a register will help to solve those problems in any way, shape or form.
Not only do we not know how many members will be on this lobbying registration council, it is not clear who will appoint them. How will they be appointed? Will they be appointed by the Government? Indeed, will they be appointed at all? Will they be elected? Will all members of the lobbying organisation, who have to pay for it, get to elect its members? Who will be eligible to serve on that august body? Will they need a qualification to be a member of the lobbying registration council?
This is the thin end of the wedge and I have seen no evidence this morning to convince me that a register is a good or sensible idea that will benefit my constituents in any way. A likely consequence of the Bill is that, just as we saw last week with the Offshore Gambling Bill, something that ostensibly starts out as a good idea will rapidly turn into the opposite of that. Given that the Act would apply only to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we may find that lobbying organisations faced with enormous regulation and fees will move offshore. They will say, “I’m not staying here and paying vast fees of thousands and thousands of pounds each year; I will move.” They will move offshore, either to Gibraltar or indeed outside the European Union altogether.
The promoter of the Bill mentioned that the fees might be £200 or £300, but it is not clear whether that will be standardised. Will the fee be the same for an individual as for a huge conglomerate or large multinational company with a huge client base? I suspect that the one-man band will pay one fee, and that the huge multinational will pay another—many thousands of pounds. For that reason, those multinationals might be inclined to think, “If we are faced with these fees and all that bureaucracy, we will move offshore.”
I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman is trying to conclude his remarks. The point he raises is a matter for delegated legislation. The principle is that the fee will be based on the number of people who are signed up, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the clauses that state that it will be a matter for delegated legislation.
I am grateful for that clarification, but the fee is something else that we simply do not know about. We are being asked to take it on trust. We do not know about it; it is a blank canvas and will be dealt with in the future. I am not satisfied by the principle behind the Bill, and even if I were I think it is a Trojan horse. Even if one accepts that it is sensible to have such a register—which I do not—this Bill would be the thin end of the wedge. Before long, what started off as a fairly simple exercise would soon grow like Topsy into expensive, unnecessary bureaucracy that would put British jobs at risk. For that reason, and many others, I oppose the Bill and urge Members of all parties to reject its Second Reading.
May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on bringing before the House this morning not only this Bill, but a list of Bills? He is an expert in parliamentary procedure, and I commend him for that and for his initiative in making sure he got his Bill to the top of this morning’s list.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), I am less impressed with the merits of the Bill. My hon. Friend did us a favour this morning when he introduced into the debate the following issue: what problem are we trying to solve? It is no good examining a Bill’s merits in isolation; that can be done only when we look at what we are trying to deal with. Like him, I have not been persuaded today as to what problem we are so desperately trying to deal with. One is left with the impression that what lies behind all this—to the credit of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, he did not put himself in this camp—is some kind of view that lobbying, particularly commercial lobbying, is a bad, grubby thing that should be discouraged. We appear to be trying to find a way to clamp down on commercial lobbying. The consequence—where we will end up with all of this agenda—is that we will make Members of Parliament lobby shy. We seem to be trying to get to the stage where Members of Parliament avoid, at all costs, coming into contact with lobbyists— particularly “commercial lobbyists”, as they are described—and that would be a very dangerous thing.
I will put my cards on the table: I think that lobbying, including commercial lobbying, is a very good thing, not simply something to be tolerated. I may be unique in my lack of knowledge on a variety of subjects, and I am sure that there are many in this House, and outside, who would want to describe at length my ignorance on a range of issues. I acknowledge that; we cannot be experts in every subject. We know more about certain subjects than others, based on our interests and our experience, but there are many, many issues where our knowledge is limited. I have many such subjects. How on earth are we supposed to learn about them? How are we supposed to learn about the different points of view that people have in a debate?
There are many occasions when constituents contact me about issues on which I have very limited knowledge, inviting me to agree with them about something and take forward a particular point of view. It may be a very popular point of view, at least superficially. I like to say to my constituents, “I understand the point you are making. You appear, at face value, to be making a very good point. But before I commit myself one way or the other I would like to hear the other opinion.” If it is not a popular opinion, with no great groundswell of public support for it, that does not make it any less valid and it does not make it any less important that the voice is heard. Occasionally, the only people prepared to put such a point of view are lobbyists, and in order to do that they are often paid by the organisation concerned. I think that is a perfectly respectable thing for them to do. The view may well be completely unpopular and it may be beyond the pale for many people, but it is entitled to be heard. Before people make decisions in this House about issues that will have a bearing on people’s future livelihood, they are entitled to have heard the opposing point of view, too.
Just because somebody is lobbied vigorously does not mean that they necessarily have to agree with the person doing the lobbying. I make no apology for being available to people. I serve on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and I make no apology for allowing people who have a genuine interest, and organisations that have a financial interest, in the field of culture, media and sport, no matter which side of the argument they are on, to come to see me to let me know their view. That means that when we have evidence sessions before the Committee I can better understand the issues. It can prompt me to put certain points of view to others giving evidence.
Lobbying is therefore an essential part of the democratic process, and if we want to have good laws in this country, we should be making it as easy as possible for people to lobby us on their interests. We should not be doing anything to make it harder—anything that deters them from lobbying us or deters MPs from seeing them. The whole agenda is going off in completely the wrong direction. Parliament is much healthier thanks to the lobbying industry.
To be fair, I think that the promoter of the Bill would concur with many of my comments and would argue that the Bill seeks not to stop lobbying, but to legitimise it, and to make it more acceptable to the public—to clean it up. If I understood, that was also the case that the shadow Minister made: the Bill would legitimise, not stop, lobbying and make it seem more above board. That is a naive view. I do not think it will happen. I see the merit of the view of thinking, “Hold on. This lobbying is a bit murky, a bit behind closed doors. I wonder what’s going on. Let’s try and open it up, and all of a sudden the public will think lobbying a mighty fine thing,” but I am afraid they will not think that.
In fact, I suspect that instead of combating that attitude the Bill would make those points of view even noisier. If every MP had to register every meeting with a commercial or any other lobbyist—how on earth that would work, I do not know, but that is the agenda in the Bill—does anyone really think that certain interest groups and members of the public who take this cynical view would say, “Well, that’s fine, because it’s now all above board”? No, they will pore over every statement we make and every meeting we have had, and say, “Well, they’re only saying that because they had that meeting with that particular group.” This would not legitimise lobbying or make it any better. It would make it even worse, in terms of public opinion. It is naive to think otherwise.
To clarify, my view is not that a register would mean that everyone would think lobbying is fantastic—I would not want to answer for the consequences for the industry in that regard—but that opinion would be better informed and that living in a democracy we want better informed debate and a better understanding of the access, means and process of power.
I appreciate the shadow Minister’s view, but I simply do not agree with it. I do not see where the lack of transparency is. I have no problem telling anyone who asks me about which organisations I have met. If my constituents want to know who I have met—what lobbying firms and organisations—I would have no problem telling them, and I would like to think that that would be the attitude of most of my colleagues on both sides of the House. I do not see where the secretiveness is. If anybody is in an organisation relating to culture, media and sport, whichever side of the argument they are on, I am happy, time allowing, to meet them. As far as I can see, that is perfectly transparent. So I do not see the problem the Bill seeks to solve.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, I oppose the Bill in principle. It will be a dog’s dinner, to be honest, and will not deal with any of the perceived problems we have heard about. In fact, the Bill is probably the worst of all dog’s dinners.
Let me turn to clause 1, which deals with the registration of lobbyists, and to the fact that there would be a register and the fees that would be charged. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North had an interesting exchange with the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, about fees. The promoter not only intended to be helpful but actually was helpful in setting out the fees that he thought would be charged. However, I share my hon. Friend’s cynicism about fees, in the sense that we all know where they start off but there is no telling where they will end up, particularly when a bureaucracy has an audience that has no choice over whether to join. People will have to join because it will be the law of the land for them to join, so the bureaucracy can end up charging what it likes.
Let me therefore say to the promoter of the Bill—I hope the Minister will hear this too, because if she and the Government are so misguided as to go down this path, we may as well try to make it as good as we can—that it would be helpful to have a cap in the Bill on the fees that could be charged. Just to make a suggestion, perhaps the fees would be no more than the £200 to £300 that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife seemed to think would be suitable. That would at least remove the issue of people thinking that the fees would go up and up, in a never-ending spiral, to try to satisfy a never-ending bureaucracy that would grow up as a result of this Bill.
We all see how these things work. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North talked about how such bodies start off being self-funded but end up having to be funded by the state. I think he is probably right. It is not an exact comparison, but we are seeing the start of something similar with the Press Complaints Commission. It is a self-funded body, but it is seen as being too close to the industry it is supposed to be looking after, so people are asking whether that is good enough and whether we need to do something else or get the state more involved. We can see how these things develop, and there is no reason why the same would not happen under this Bill.
I am sure that people will correct me, but it seems to me that clause 2 would introduce the offence of non-registration of one’s organisation. Then there is another criminal offence under clause 3 for breaching the code of conduct—the Labour party created lots of new criminal offences when it was in government and it appears to be continuing the same theme in this Bill. The promoter of the Bill said that we should not worry because everything would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and approval, and that that was fine—let me say in passing that he has more confidence in parliamentary scrutiny than I do—but as far as I can see the Bill makes no great provision for parliamentary scrutiny. Parliamentary scrutiny is what we are doing now, by discussing the merits of the Bill. It is the council set up under this Bill that would prepare the code of conduct with which, under clause 3,
“those included on the register shall comply”.
It will not be Parliament that draws up the code of conduct, so there will be no parliamentary control there. Once we had passed this Bill, the council would be free to establish the code of conduct as it saw fit and that would be that.
Clause 3 then says, in subsection (2):
“The Secretary of State shall give statutory effect to the code and any revised code by order.”
There is no great parliamentary scrutiny there either. We are basically giving the Secretary of State huge powers to act on his or her own terms and whatever he or she happens to think is the right thing to do. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, I have a great deal of time for the Minister, but she will know, as we all do, that she will not be the Minister for ever, and we might not get as good a Minister in future. Indeed, we might be left with one who is not as talented and sensible. We might—if we want to be very depressing—end up with the Labour party in government. Who knows what we might end up with at that point? [Interruption.]
As ever, Mr Deputy Speaker, you are quite right. I was getting carried away with myself—the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife did not help when he invited me to consider the prospect of a Lib Dem Government, which does not even bear thinking about. I will move on, for the sake of my own sanity more than anything else.
The idea that there will be a great deal of parliamentary scrutiny of the terms of the register and the code of conduct is not one that I recognise from my reading of the Bill. Also, I asked earlier who would enforce the criminal offences that the Bill creates. There will no doubt be all sorts of vexatious complaints from people who do not like a particular industry, from people who have been lobbying someone about something, and counter-organisations that do not like a particular industry will put in vexatious complaints here and there. People will be contacting their local police and crime commissioner, their local chief superintendent and their chief constable, and putting pressure on them to investigate this or that case. The police’s resources are stretched enough as it is. I have been opposed to the reductions to the police budget that have taken place over the past few years. Surely at a time when the police budget is going down, the last thing they need is more of these kinds of offences to investigate, when there is much more bread-and-butter crime to be dealt with.
Then we have to consider the Crown Prosecution Service. What will be the chances of getting a conviction for such offences? We all know what the CPS is like. It is very reluctant to take a case to court unless there is a cast-iron guaranteed certainty of a conviction. There will be all sorts of complaints relating to whether the code of conduct has been breached, for example, and it is hard to imagine the CPS taking anyone to court, no matter how much time the police have spent investigating a case.
The whole thing is a complete dog’s breakfast, and that is before we even come to the definition of lobbying in clause 4. Clauses 1 to 3 were bad enough, but clause 4 is the worst clause of all. We have had an interesting debate on the definition of lobbying. There is so much to say on that, and so little time in which to say it. I do not intend to speak at length. As you will know better than anyone, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am always anxious to proceed at a pace on a Friday so that we can get on to the next piece of legislation, and I do not intend to do anything different today. I will make a few remarks about the definition of lobbying, but I just want to say to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife that I hope his second Bill, which I trust we will get on to in the not-too-distant future, is better than his first one. The first one has not been a good start.
Clause 4 gives the definition of lobbying as
“any activity carried out in the course of a business or employment which are undertaken for financial gain and are designed to influence the Government of the United Kingdom, Parliament, any local authority in England or any member or employee of any of those bodies in formulating its official policy.”
We could spend hours talking about clause 4, because it contains all sorts of loopholes, flaws and omissions. The whole point of anybody approaching a Member of Parliament, on any basis, is to lobby them. It might be to lobby them because the person believes strongly in something, perhaps in their local community, or to lobby them for financial gain. It tends to be one or the other. Someone might come to see me because they want to reduce the amount that they owe to the Child Support Agency, for example. That is a perfectly legitimate thing to come and see an MP about. I cannot always sort such things out, but I will always do my best for my constituents. They are lobbying me for financial gain, of course they are—it is a perfectly legitimate, respectable thing to do.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife seems to be trying to distinguish between different types of financial gain. From his definition in the Bill, he seems to be saying that some kinds of lobbying for financial gain are fine, while other kinds are not so fine and need to have something done about them.
I am nervous about intervening on the hon. Gentleman and prolonging what has been a genuinely good discussion. Briefly, I am drawing a distinction between someone who is remunerated for carrying out the activity of trying to influence, and someone who receives a financial reward if they are successful. The former is lobbying; the latter is not.
The hon. Gentleman tries to concoct some distinction through his Bill’s definition, but I do not accept the distinction he is trying to draw. For me, lobbying is what people do to Members of Parliament for whatever particular reason they have. It is perfectly legitimate, and I see no point in drawing a distinction between different types of lobbying—as if commercial lobbying is bad and any other kind of lobbying is good. All lobbying is good, and Members of Parliament should be open to all sorts of lobbying. They can take anybody’s self-interest into account when they are listening to the lobbying. I am sure we will all have said at some time, “Well, of course, you would say that, wouldn’t you, given the situation you are in.” We are all capable of doing that.
When I read the Bill, I presumed that it was all about protecting the public and giving them more confidence in the system. I do not think that that would be a consequence, but I can at least see the motivation. From what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said in his opening speech, however, the Bill seemed to be much more about protecting us from commercial lobbyists so that we do not get hijacked at a constituency surgery or something like that. I do not need protecting. I can protect myself and look after myself. If I do not want to listen to somebody’s argument, I will tell them I am not interested in what they are saying. I am perfectly capable of doing that without the help of the hon. Gentleman and his Bill. Frankly, if any Member is not capable of doing that, they should perhaps consider whether they are in the right profession. We certainly do need legislation to protect Members from people coming to see them and trying to force an issue down their throat. I would hope that we are all perfectly capable of dealing with that.
In conclusion, the Bill is unnecessary. I disagree with it in principle; I think it is going completely down the wrong lines. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, even if I thought this was a good thing in principle, I would remain of the view that the Bill was a very bad attempt to act on it.
I join those who have contributed to today’s debate in congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on securing a debate on this Bill, and, as I understand it, he has another five on the Order Paper today and four last Friday, which is no mean feat. I thank the hon. Gentleman for having brought today’s proposals to the House and for allowing us to have what I think has been a very constructive debate.
Albeit from one of my ministerial colleagues, I have certainly learned a new word today—“dissensus”, which is presumably the opposite of “consensus”. I think it is a fine word and that it has a place in today’s debate—perhaps as a description of some hon. Members’ comments—but I am more interested in the opposite idea of consensus. I know we have all acknowledged how complicated the issue is and how important it is to be careful to get such legislation right.
The Government are committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. Following the election of May 2010, the Government said in the coalition’s programme for government:
“We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.”
We said in our consultation document:
“The purpose of the UK register is to increase transparency by making available to the public, to decision-makers and to other interested parties authoritative and easily-accessible information about who is lobbying and for whom. This will help ensure that those seeking to influence decisions do so in a way that is open to scrutiny, improving knowledge about the process and the accountability of those involved in it.”
At this point, I pause to pay tribute to the notion of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that anybody in public office ought to be able to hold a robust conversation with anybody who comes their way. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife would agree with that.
Another important point in our consultation document is that
“the register is not intended to capture or deter a range of activity that is essential to a vibrant democracy. So, for example, the register is not intended to cover the normal interaction between constituents and their MPs. Nor should the essential flow of communication between business leaders and Government, civil figures, community organisations…and so on, be included.”
I think that helps to provide an answer to some of the many and varied points made today about the appropriate bounds of this debate.
Let me say something about transparency. The Government already release a significant amount of information—which Members and anyone else who is observing our debate can find on the website data.gov. uk.—and we have made a clear commitment to increasing the transparency of what we do and making it easier for the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. That has resulted in the quarterly publication of details of ministerial meetings and Government procurement, and a number of other items of public interest.
I acknowledge what was said by, for instance, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) about the importance of transparency and the efforts made by many Governments in that regard. In my view, the present Government publish an unprecedented amount of information about those who are met by Ministers and senior officials, but at present it is not always obvious whom those people represent. The Government therefore want a register that will bring more transparency to the lobbying process.
With that in mind, I accept that some elements of the hon. Gentleman’s proposals have merit. I think he grasps the importance of having a relatively simple register that does not impose disproportionate burdens on those who are required to comply with his Bill. The Government are also determined to avoid unnecessary regulatory burdens that would prove detrimental to the United Kingdom economy. I am very mindful of the costs that may be associated with the statutory register, and I want to explore that issue fully as we develop and introduce our own proposals.
The hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of avoiding ambiguity when defining lobbying activity. That, too, is a view that I heard loud and clear in the responses to last year’s consultation. The Government are making it a priority to consider a wide range of definitions, including international definitions. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), who gave us a tour d’horizon of the systems used elsewhere. The parameters of the chosen definition will be made very clear in the context of the UK lobbying industry: I intend there to be no scope for ambiguity, so that we can ensure the success and effectiveness of the register.
The hon. Gentleman also recognises that there is little appetite for a publicly funded register of lobbyists, and his proposals for a fee-based system are certainly worth considering. A range of responses to the consultation dealt with that point; they can be found in “A Summary of Responses to the Cabinet Office's Consultation Document ‘Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists’”, which has already been brandished by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East.
There are other parts of the Bill which I believe need further exploration. There is, for example, the hon. Gentleman’s proposal for the establishment of a lobbying registration council, for which he was taken to task in some detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). I think that it is an interesting idea, but, like others, I should like to know more about the council’s membership.
The hon. Gentleman proposes that the Secretary of State should be able to decide, through secondary legislation, what level of information disclosure should be required of those who are on the register. I should like to go into the matter in more detail with the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to working with him constructively on that and other issues, including the issue of the code of practice which his Bill empowers the council to draw up. That is clearly a significant role for the council, and I should like to know how the necessary authority and expertise could be channelled in a way that would enable the code to be effective and enforceable.
I think that there is much to applaud in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, but it raises further questions which, as I know he agrees, need to be explored fully. I look forward to working collaboratively with him on those issues.
Has my hon. Friend had a chance to look at “A Summary of Responses to the Cabinet Office's Consultation Document ‘Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists’”? Paragraph 95 states:
“Concerns were also raised by a large number of respondents who said they could not identify the problem that the register was aiming to solve.”
That takes me to exactly the points to which I want to return. As I have said, the Government are committed to the establishment of a statutory register of lobbyists, which we think would be an important step towards making politics more transparent. I certainly think it important to open up politics and make it more accessible to everyone. I agree with my hon. Friend that lobbying has an important function in politics, namely the putting forward of legitimate views when they are held. That helps in the development of better legislation. However, we need to address the question that he raises: what is the gap that needs to be filled in this case?
In our consultation on introducing a statutory register of lobbyists, various parties, organisations, individuals and businesses told us what the register should look like and what the gap is. That information is helping the Government reach conclusions on some very tricky questions, such as how we should define “lobbyist” and “lobbying”, what sort of information should be held on the register, and what penalties should be imposed on those who do not register. The hon. Gentleman has made various suggestions, which I want to take into account alongside those received from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.
Although the Government have made strides in increasing the transparency of what we do, thus making it easier for the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account, there is one important gap. Our consultation document states that
“under the current system, when Ministers meet lobbying firms it is not transparent on whose behalf they are lobbying”,
and that is the gap we should address through this sort of legislation.
The Government consultation received a large response, showing just how important the issue is to the public and why we are working so hard to get our proposals right. Following the consultation, we are currently taking stock. The evidence from the consultation and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report will allow us to develop the statutory register in a way that increases transparency while ensuring equal treatment of all parties, and without placing disproportionate burdens on those affected.
The Government are committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists.
I thank all Members on both sides of the House for contributing to what has been a constructive and useful debate. The hon. Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) raised the issue of meetings. I find myself in full agreement with the Minister. We already have a ministerial quarterly statement—although I tried to check when it was last updated, and she might like to press her civil servants, to ensure that happens as frequently as intended. This Bill would not increase bureaucracy for Members of either House.
Questions were raised about the wider bureaucracy that might be involved. Earlier, I did not dwell on the General Medical Council system. As the hon. Member for Bury North knows, it was established under the Medical Act 1858. The current fee is the princely sum of £390, and the system has all the functions to which we have alluded. I hope that that reassures him and the hon. Member for Shipley as to the sums involved.
This debate has not gone on for as long as the Turks and Caicos election count, for which we are all grateful. As I am not a Liberal Democrat politician, I always believe in sticking to my promises, and I made a promise about withdrawing the Bill if the Minister was sufficiently eloquent. She has been eloquent about her intention to bring forward proposals in the very near future and about her promise to work with me and others on that. I am therefore satisfied that we are making progress on this issue, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Armed Forces (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
“In this age of moral equivalence it must be said that no other occupational group in the United Kingdom matches up to UNMS”—
the unique nature of military service.
“In particular, none belong 24/7 to the Crown, is exempted from normal working practices of the sort governed by the European working-time directive and national minimum wage legislation, has no organised representation, may not easily terminate their service particularly on notice for deployment, will probably sustain some sort of illness or injury if deployed and has liability up to and including death with all that means for dependants cascading through the generations.”
Those are eloquent words, and because they are eloquent words, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure you realised that they were not mine. They are the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who I think, in the genuine cross-party spirit of this subject matter, has eloquently defined the unique challenges facing our military.
I have introduced the Bill after reading, as I know the Minister has done, the report published last year about some of the adversities that our armed forces face, not on the battlefield, not in theatre of operations, but when they are here in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I have had the privilege of serving with him in the House for the past two and a half years. I know he is a passionate supporter and champion of our military personnel and I welcome him to his role. I think this is the first time we have had an opportunity to debate the issue.
I thank The Sun, which has supported our campaign to put in statute particular protection for members of our armed forces. It is fair to say that there is no sensible Member of the House present today—I see that the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) is not here, so I am fairly confident that I can say that—who does not believe that protecting our armed forces is the first duty of the Ministry of Defence.
I have drawn the Bill narrowly. I place on record my thanks to Ms Kate Emms and Mr Simon Patrick for their incredibly sterling work in helping to draft the Bill. Let me clarify what the Bill does not cover. It does not cover the issue of trade and sales, or the outrageous cases in which service personnel are refused entry to pubs. I commend to the Minister of State an excellent book which he can probably get from the Library, although as I know he has deep pockets, he would probably go on to a website and buy his ministerial colleague’s book, “Tommy This an’ Tommy That”, which eloquently sets out some examples. There was the notorious case where Harrods refused service to a serving member of the armed forces who, I think, had come in after a Remembrance day parade.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words earlier and also for his reference to the book, which was written by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is sitting on the Front Bench next to me. I am delighted to reassure the hon. Gentleman that I was present at my hon. Friend’s book launch and purchased a copy of the book from my own perhaps not quite so deep pockets. It is a very good read.
I am grateful for that, and I am reassured that the right hon. Gentleman used his own money to purchase the book and did not borrow the £15 from his ministerial colleague.
As the book sets out, there have been some ridiculous examples, such as the one, when somebody in their uniform who had been at a Remembrance day service was refused service by Harrods. The Under-Secretary subsequently visited the store after a bit of a campaign in which he had been involved, and thankfully Harrods has changed its policy. I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, that in your own constituency and others you are aware of incidents where, regrettably, members of the armed forces have been refused service on rare occasions.
The report contains allegations that banks and building societies have turned down mortgage applications from armed forces personnel, and they have been unable to get mobile phones. I am conscious of hon. Members’ comments on previous occasions about narrowly defining Bills, so on this occasion I have not put such incidents into the Bill, but when the Minister responds I hope he will consider how widespread the problem is. The Ministry of Defence may wish to use a report mechanism to provide greater clarity on it.
I want to focus on the even more abhorrent incidents, which, thankfully, are relatively rare, but do occur, of verbal and physical abuse of members of our armed forces. No one present today and no one watching our proceedings would not condemn unequivocally the actions of a mindless tiny minority who when, for example, the coffins returned from theatre felt the need to hurl abuse and intimidate those who had gathered to pay their respects. I know that the Minister takes that very seriously.
The report also contains accounts of an RAF recruiter who reported that she had regularly faced verbal abuse. People had apparently called her a baby killer, which I am sure the House would find utterly despicable. It is such incidents that the Bill seeks to address, as well as physical assaults. I am clear, as I am sure is the House, that we are not talking about where soldiers, sailors or RAF personnel get into a fight as any other person might, but where they have been subject to an assault because of the fact that they are either in or out of uniform.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for his Bill. In my constituency we are proud of our links with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which has now effectively taken over from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Fortunately, I have not come across any cases like those he describes. Has he had representations resulting from occurrences in his constituency, and if so, will he outline them to the House?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s attendance today and the points he has made. I refer him for the detail to the report, or indeed to the Under-Secretary’s excellent book, which he can purchase for a small sum. Just to give one example from the book, I am sure that the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) will recall, as I am sure you will, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in June 2010, an organisation calling itself Muslims against Crusades attacked members of the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment’s homecoming parade in Barking. That is the kind of despicable act that he asks about, which we all take incredibly seriously.
Another point that the Under-Secretary makes very well in his book is that this works both ways. The Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff have also made that point. The Minister of State will recall that when we had the privilege of serving together on the Armed Forces Public Bill Committee we discussed the difference between our culture and that of the United States, which holds its armed forces in great respect. On the rare occasions that you get away from the House of Commons, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and travel to an airport in the United States, you will often find a VSO office providing refreshments and the opportunity to enjoy some relaxation. Regrettably, we have not yet persuaded our airports to do something similar. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on how we could do that.
The Chief of the Defence Staff makes the valid point that members of the armed forces have not always helped themselves. There is an ill-judged perception that some soldiers have gone looking for trouble. I think that perception is false, but I welcome what Army representatives said to the Defence Committee—that the issue is a cultural thing that they are working on. That is why the Bill is so important. It says that we recognise that the military have to do more, but we have to do more to protect the military.
The Bill is incredibly important. Has the hon. Gentleman received any correspondence or communication from my friends and colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches apologising for not contributing in any way to the debate and not being here at all today—or, indeed, last Friday? Perhaps they have sent a note of apology and said they are all in Eastleigh delivering leaflets.
You are entirely right, Mr Deputy Speaker; we should discuss serious matters, rather than the Liberal Democrats. It is right that the issue we are discussing should be approached by grown-up parties in a grown-up manner, as is happening today.
There is a genuine need for us to recognise that we can do more to protect our armed forces. I pay tribute to our armed forces. As a member of the Defence Committee, I have had the opportunity to spend a little time with them. I shall not open up the debate about service allowances. I know that the Minister never takes any pleasure in the choices that he feels he has been forced to make, but I hope the Bill is a small measure that will symbolise our determination not to tolerate hate crimes against our armed forces, that will move the debate on and that will provide greater protection for men and women who, as Ministers have in the past so eloquently set out, operate under unique and special circumstances. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Bill. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for introducing it, because he is a Scottish Member and the Bill applies to England and Wales. I hope that colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are looking carefully to see how it progresses in this Parliament, so that the whole of the United Kingdom benefits. One of the curious problems of devolution is that some sensible things that should apply to the whole of the United Kingdom do not because of the nature of the devolution settlement.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting so much on to the Order Paper today, most of which appears to be devoted to his Bills. Perhaps he could talk to colleagues on the Procedure Committee to ask whether it is appropriate, despite his many talents, for so many Bills to be taken forward by one person in any one day. Apart from anything else, it is an enormous burden for the hon. Gentleman, who spoke for an hour and a half in the first debate, to make a significant contribution to the second debate as well.
I turn to the Bill’s substance. To be frank, I am unclear about what has changed over time. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was not here in 2008, although given his experience and command of the House, it is easy to think that he was. The former Member for Grantham and Stamford, who is now in another place—I am not sure whether to describe him as a colleague from the Government or Opposition Benches—proposed a similar Bill, which was rejected by the then Labour Government.
I am trying to establish whether this Bill is fundamentally different, whether the circumstances have fundamentally changed and whether the hon. Gentleman is saying, in retrospect, that the last Labour Government were wrong not to take forward the Bill on the national recognition of the armed forces proposed by the former Member. In all candour, I do not know whether the former Member was Conservative or Labour in 2008, although I am not sure that that is relevant.
I applaud the motives behind this Bill, which concerns an incredibly important issue that has been raised outside the House. I should like to go into a bit more detail on Lord Ashcroft’s report of May 2012 on the perceptions of our armed forces in society generally. It said that nearly one in 20 of the 9,000 personnel surveyed had had experience of violence or attempted violence in the previous five years. We should put this into perspective by saying that the level of violence towards other uniformed organisations—our fire service, ambulance service and police service—is equally appalling. I understand that there are differing circumstances. I also recognise that other Members would have criticised the Bill if the hon. Gentleman had drafted it even more widely. I merely raise this as a background issue rather than encouraging him to widen the scope of the Bill. I assume that it covers all our armed forces, including the Territorial Army.
That is good to know, and I apologise for not having picked it up in my reading of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the service chiefs. As the Bill progresses, I would be interested to find out a bit more about the representations made by service chiefs and other members of the armed forces and the degree to which they see this as a major problem in terms of the number of offences. Clearly, one offence is one too many. This is about sending a message of support to our troops in saying that we want them to be uniformed when off duty or going about their business, because that is a very positive thing, but the question is whether it is also about addressing the problem of a large number of offences.
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is right, and he paraphrases my point. I also accept what he says about the service chiefs. Perhaps that question would be better directed at the Minister, but I suspect that he will find time to mention representations from service chiefs and other members of the armed forces. The armed forces are in a peculiar position compared with an accountant or a banker in making representations to Members of Parliament, and rightly so.
Let me turn to the detail of the Ashcroft report. We should not overplay the scale of the problem. We have said that one is too many, but 80% of our armed forces have not experienced problems or discrimination. In fact, 56% had had strangers come up to them and offer support, 29% had had strangers come up to them and offer to buy them a drink to thank them for the very good work that they are doing, and 26% had had spontaneous offers of discounts in shops and businesses—something that I would fully encourage. There were some problems at the other end of the scale, but there were many more positive than negative responses.
It is important that we send out a message to the armed forces that we support them and that we do take this seriously, but that in all probability they will not experience problems when going out and about in their uniform, which is a very positive thing to do in order to create civic pride and ensure that there is no gap between citizens and servicemen. It allows people to start conversations about what the armed forces do, it encourages recruitment, and it helps to do away with stereotypes in any way, shape or form. Although it is right to have this debate, I would not want members of the armed services to get the message that this is a massive problem that should deter them from wearing their uniform in public. In fact, as the Ashcroft report demonstrates, they are much more likely to be offered thanks, support, drinks and discounts than to experience any problems.
In June 2012 the Defence Secretary wrote to the shadow Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), on concerns about discrimination:
“You suggest the need for anti-discrimination legislation to protect those serving in the Armed Forces, similar, I assume, to legislation we already have to protect other groups in society. My advice is that the Armed Forces do not want to be singled out in this way”.
That is interesting and I hope that the Minister will probe in more detail the feedback he has received from the service chiefs and the armed forces more generally. I am not sure what the logic behind the argument is, but if they are saying that they do not want to be singled out we should take that seriously.
This has been a constructive debate. We need to be clear—I hope the Minister will address this point—that, even though the armed forces would not expect to be singled out to an extent, we would none the less, despite their modesty, want to provide them with support, as this morning’s Sun has done.
I see where the hon. Gentleman is going and think it sends a message. This also relates to the other uniformed services. We could do something collectively—perhaps not by amending this Bill, but more widely—to create respect for people who serve us, whether they be in the ambulance service, the fire and police services or the armed forces. Indeed, in my constituency of Rochford and Southend East there seems to be a worrying number of people who feel that it is right to take a pot shot at national health service staff. There is now a police station in Southend hospital to deter that type of activity. That is of particular concern and perhaps presents the case for a slightly wider Bill than this narrow one.
Absolutely. One wonders whether we should look to raise standards overall. It is unacceptable to shout abuse at anyone, whether it be racist, homophobic or religious. The Ashcroft report states that some of those who responded to its survey had suffered absolute discrimination, such as being refused service in pubs or hotels, and 6% suffered violence or attempted violence. We should not necessarily distinguish between violence against someone in an Army or Navy uniform and violence against someone in an NHS uniform or, indeed, someone in a suit or jeans and T-shirt who is going about their business. There are many ways to tackle the underlying issues.
Having listened carefully to the speech made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife and the interventions that have been made, I think there is a need to send a specific message to the armed forces. Perhaps that is something that the armed forces covenant can look at and perhaps it, rather than this or any other Bill, could send the message to the general public.
I again thank the hon. Gentleman for proposing the Bill. I also want to reiterate and lay on record my gratitude to the armed forces and ask them to continue to wear their uniform in public. We like it and respect it. It helps to initiate conversations about what the armed forces are doing and it allows for pride. It is right that we discuss issues relating to the protection of people in uniform, as the hon. Gentleman has done. I thank him for initiating this debate and look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I rise to support the important Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I congratulate him, not least because it is very unusual to see a Bill that takes up just one side of paper. As a former lawyer, I think that we see that far too rarely. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and for Halton (Derek Twigg) for supporting the Bill.
We have been fortunate recently to have had many opportunities in the House to debate the armed forces and, in particular, the armed forces covenant, which the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) has just mentioned. I am pleased that the Government and Members from all parts of the House—even our absent Liberal Democrat friends—have supported making progress on the covenant, although perhaps not as quickly as some of us would like. That reflects the widespread support for our armed forces, which I think has increased enormously in recent years. Perhaps that is because of their enormously important and professional work in the military action that we have taken in various parts of the world.
A key principle of the covenant is that no one in the service community should face disadvantage because of their service. That needs to be applied right across society. I therefore welcome the Bill because it seeks to strengthen the covenant further by making a simple change to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. It would add service in the forces to the characteristics of a victim that can constitute an aggravating factor when the offender is sentenced. That protection is in place in relation to race, religion, disability and sexual orientation. We think that it is time to consider it for members of our armed forces.
We have heard reference to the valuable report by Lord Ashcroft, “The Armed Forces and Society”, which showed clearly that some members of the armed forces encounter problems in the community in everyday life. It showed that, regrettably, in the last five years, one in five members of the forces has experienced strangers shouting abuse at them while they have been wearing their uniform in public in the UK.
Members of this House must always bear it in mind that, on occasion, we ask the members of our armed forces to go to war. That is a profound decision for us as Members of Parliament and for Governments, and one that this House always takes very seriously. The individuals we put in that position must have our absolute support. We must therefore send out the message that we will not tolerate any individual receiving criticism for wearing the uniform that they wear so bravely at our request. It is quite unacceptable for them to be treated in that way. That is why we support the Bill.
As the Minister and other hon. Members will know, this is not the first time that discrimination against members of the armed forces and their families has been raised in this House in recent months. In June last year, my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence called on the Government to consider measures to tackle discrimination against members of the forces in the light of the publication of Lord Ashcroft’s report. We asked the Secretary of State to set up talks that brought together all parties, the armed forces and the service charities to consider how discrimination could be tackled.
It is clear from Lord Ashcroft’s evidence that there is a significant problem with the attitude of some people towards our forces. We believe that we need to look at that problem seriously. We are disappointed that our suggestions have not been carried forward by the Government and we would like them to respond more positively. If the Government are serious about taking forward the covenant and helping to make a difference to the everyday lives of the service community, they must accept that discrimination needs to be tackled. I therefore urge the Government to back this important Bill.
The Opposition welcome the changes in the Bill that would protect further our armed forces. Reference has been made to less obvious types of discrimination, and we should not overlook those, because applications for credit cards, mobile phone contracts and so on are sometimes difficult for service personnel. We are pleased that the Government have made progress on those issues, particularly in relation to the pairing of British Forces Post Office with standard UK postcodes, and giving greater recognition to addresses. The first annual covenant report was published late last year and I am sure all hon. Members look forward to debating it fully, hopefully in the coming months. There is a commitment to work with financial companies and credit agencies to overcome problems that service personnel might experience in accessing services, and I would welcome any further update that the Minister can provide about progress on that front.
We hope that the Government will support this Bill. If they do not, they will be failing to take a step that adequately reflects the position that we owe to our armed forces.
To be clear, Her Majesty’s official Opposition are urging the Government to do something, but there was an opportunity to introduce such a measure in 2008. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there was a problem in 2008 but that it was not evidenced and that that is why the Government did not act? Has Lord Ashcroft’s report now provided evidence that gives the hon. Gentleman confidence to suggest a change that his Government did not take forward?