[Relevant document: Second Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2012-13, Introducing a statutory register of lobbyists, HC 153.]
I beg to move,
That this House notes the absence of a Bill to provide for a statutory register of lobbyists in the Queen’s Speech; expresses its concern at the damage which may be inflicted on the reputation of the House in the absence of statutory regulation; and calls on the Government to immediately begin cross-party negotiations with a view to introducing a Bill before the summer recess, which would provide for the creation of a register for all professional lobbyists, with a clear code of conduct which is backed by sanctions in the event of egregious breaches of the code.
Let me start by entirely accepting that lobbying is a normal part—in fact, an essential part—of an active democracy, and that includes commercial lobbying. However, it has been clear for some time that the professional sector of the industry needs to be properly regulated. The Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, said that lobbying is
“an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long”
and that it is
“an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”
We agree with him.
I will give way, but not yet.
The subject of today’s debate could not be more important for the reputation of the House of Commons, for every single right hon. and hon. Member knows in their heart of hearts that the perceived integrity of politicians is at an all-time low. The Prime Minister’s prediction that lobbying was the
“next big scandal waiting to happen”
has sadly proved to be all too correct. [Interruption.] It may be one of the few things he did get right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) says. Knowing that this was going to happen, we ought to have moved rigorously and rapidly to ensure that our democracy emerged cleaner and with a higher reputation than it currently has.
If we can, we ought to handle these matters in a non-partisan manner. It is therefore with some regret that we raise lobbying reform on an Opposition day, which is usually a political knockabout. It is particularly disappointing because it appeared that a cross-party consensus had begun to emerge that something needed to be done. In fact, by the time the coalition agreement had been signed, all three main parties had agreed to legislation and to the creation of a statutory register, but that was more than three years ago. Unfortunately, all the Government have done since then is to have a long, slow consultation followed by a White Paper, and then another long, slow consultation.
When the reshuffle took place in September 2012, formal responsibility for lobbying reform had been totally removed from ministerial responsibilities. The Government simply forgot about lobbying reform.
I will give way in a moment.
After the reshuffle, not a single Minister was left with a formal duty to bring forward the reform to which the Government had committed themselves. When we called this Opposition debate, we could therefore have had a sweepstake in the office on which Minister would speak on behalf of the Government, because none of them had formal responsibility for lobbying after the reshuffle. At the top of our guess list was the Deputy Prime Minister, but he was not too keen. In fact, he is nowhere to be seen this afternoon. We then thought that it might be my opposite number, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, because that is where the Bill is supposedly being drafted. He is nowhere to be seen either. We then thought that it would have to be the Minister for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith). She is in the Chamber, but I see that she will not be speaking. None of the above will be responding. Very unusually, the Leader of the House will be speaking on this Opposition day. It seems that he was the last one standing when the music stopped.
The funding of political parties is being discussed—[Interruption.] Let me come to the point. That matter is being discussed in another place on a cross-party basis. Financial relationships between political parties and lobbyists clearly ought to be a matter for regulation. I believe that financial relationships between individual Members of Parliament and lobbyists should be outlawed, but I will come to that point in a minute.
I chair the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which has looked into this matter at length. It must surely be of concern to all parliamentarians and to Members from all parts of the House that the Government have failed to respond to a report that was published almost a year ago. Rather than legislate in haste, should we not look at this matter in a parliamentary way, with pre-legislative scrutiny and a proper response to a Select Committee that was elected by Members from all parts of the House?
I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend and all the members of his Select Committee. They have produced important recommendations. It would be helpful if we had sight of the Bill that it appears will emerge in due course, so that there could be pre-legislative scrutiny. It is time that we saw some progress on this matter.
I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House will speak this afternoon because, although he is not listening to me, he is a decent parliamentarian. His duty as the Leader of the House is to protect all hon. Members, as well as the reputation of the House as a whole. I hope he will drive through the necessary process of lobbying reform.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. With all deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the Public Administration Committee published a report several years ago in the previous Parliament recommending a register of lobbyists. Also in the previous Parliament, I tabled an early-day motion that received more than 120 signatures from all parts of the House. The Government cannot forget these things.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. There has been pressure for something to be done on lobbying for many years.
In the three years since the coalition agreement was signed, we have had nothing but delay, obfuscation and prevarication, and the Government are at it again today. The Government’s amendment does not clearly indicate that they will produce a lobbying Bill, and that is shabby politics.
The hon. Gentleman would have a powerful argument about the previous Administration but for the fact that throughout the whole of that period the Conservative party argued for a voluntary register. Even as late as September 2009, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), who became my opposite number, was arguing in the trade press that there should be a voluntary register. In March 2010, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the deputy leader of our party, said that we had tried a voluntary register but it did not work, so we now needed to move towards legislation. In its manifesto, the Labour party clearly committed itself to a statutory register, but what did the Conservative party manifesto say? It said that the Conservative party wanted to persevere with a voluntary register. For the whole of the 13 years we were in office, it is clear that the Conservatives were pressing us not to legislate, and the fact is that in the past three years they have done nothing whatever to legislate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Of course, what he is telling the House is that the Labour Government did nothing for 13 years. Two months before the general election, when they no longer expecting to be in power, they said that they might do something in the future. He said that the Government’s amendment was not clear about our commitment, but it
“welcomes the Government’s commitment to bring forward legislation before the summer recess”—
I am about to say when: before this summer recess. For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman that is 18 July, not next summer recess:
“before the summer recess to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists”
within three years. That was in the coalition Government’s programme. His Government did not do anything.
The amendment goes on to talk about all kinds of other extraneous matters. The truth is that the Government are seeking to obscure the nature of the debate that we need to have this afternoon. This debate is about lobbying reform. Will there or will there not be a lobbying Bill that will create a serious register with a code of conduct?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He earlier quoted the Prime Minister on the “next big scandal”. Does he agree that it will be a scandal with planning permission, for both Government and Parliament, if we fail to legislate and to legislate robustly—not a light-touch statutory register, but robust legislation?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and does so more succinctly than I have been doing.
The Government’s strategy has been clear: to kick the whole issue into the long grass for as long as possible and then to try to confuse and obscure the true issues. Only last month, we had the Queen’s Speech in which there was no mention of lobbying reform. It is only now, because of recent unfavourable headlines, that my opposite number finally said that he wanted to see some lobbying reform. We shall have a look later at what sort of lobbying reform that might be.
If the hon. Gentleman took the trouble to read Hansard, he would have noticed that a lobbying Bill was introduced yesterday, so there is already a lobbying Bill on the Order Paper from his hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). However, if this issue was so pressing at the time of the Queen’s Speech, why did the Labour party not raise it then or table an amendment to that effect? Or has it just jumped on a bandwagon?
If there are any more interventions of that poor quality, I will not take any more.
I wrote an article in The Guardian in January 2012, using those three words: delay, prevarication and so on. It is simply not good enough to pretend that we have not been demanding some form of legislation for at least three years. The truth is that the Government have delayed and even this afternoon, as we shall see, they are attempting to obfuscate the true issues. A Bill was introduced yesterday but it was in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), a Member on this side of the House.
I hoped—obviously it was a vain hope—that this could be a non-partisan debate. Our reputation as a political class is now at an all-time low. Lobbyists needs to be made to operate in the clear light of day, so that every citizen can see and know how and why decisions are taken. They also need to see how much is being spent behind the scenes by commercial lobbyists to influence decision makers, and they need to see how that money is being spent. Nothing less will do. Let me illustrate the point with a case.
I said that I would not be too partisan so I will not name the individual. Someone may work out who it is; some might be quicker than others. I shall refer to an Australian gentleman. In an Ashes summer, one would have thought that the Government would be on the British side rather than that of the Australians. He shall be nameless, but he is a highly paid adviser to the Prime Minister. Reportedly, he had discussions at Chequers prior to the Queen’s Speech with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. [Hon. Members: “Patricia Hewitt?”] I do not think that she was a gentleman, although she was many things.
When the Queen’s Speech was delivered, it transpired that the Government had dropped all reference not only to lobbying legislation but to plain tobacco packaging and minimum alcohol pricing, all of which had been promised. The problem arises when the public find out that this very same Australian is also and at the same time the chairman and managing director of an active lobbying company with an office here in London. The company has actively lobbied in Australia against plain tobacco packaging and against minimum alcohol pricing.
I do not wish to accuse this gentleman of having behaved with any impropriety. Arguably—I do not know—he may have excused himself from the discussions with the Prime Minister at Chequers when the matter of a lobbying register came up. He might also have left the room when tobacco packaging was mentioned and done so once more when alcohol pricing was discussed. I do not know. But his company failed to register itself on the voluntary register of lobbyists in Australia and his company is not on the voluntary register in the UK. Therefore, we have no idea who his clients are, what their objectives are or how much money is being paid.
I am quite quick on the uptake and I have an inkling as to who the hon. Gentleman may be talking about, but will he make it clear that this person is a party employee, not a Government employee, and that the arrangements are very similar to those of Charlie Whelan, Deborah Mattinson, Derek Draper and Alastair Campbell and that it would be duplicitous to say that they are in any way different?
I quoted the Prime Minister at the beginning of my speech. He said that this is a problem that affects all parties and has to be resolved by all parties. I take that point entirely.
Referring back to the gentleman I am talking about, if there were a statutory register in place—as there would have been if Labour had won the last election—we would undoubtedly know who was lobbying on behalf of whom, how much was being spent and on behalf of which clients.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that experiences during the banking crisis, with the charity sector and in other areas have taught us that there is a key difference between registration and regulation and that proposals that centre only on registration do not give us what we need?
That brings me to my next point. The Prime Minister said that sunlight is the best disinfectant and I agree, but I do not believe that the proposals mentioned in the amendment match up to the requirements. Let me explain why. There are three reasons. First, it was drawn in such a way as to cover only the narrowest section of third-party lobbyists, which is less than a quarter of the whole industry. What is the point of having a register of professional lobbyists that will not register all professional lobbyists? Secondly, there is no sign of the Government including in the Bill—it is certainly not in the White Paper—a code of conduct that would regulate the register. Even the voluntary code that covers the more ethical part of the industry already has a code of conduct. Why would we want to have a lower statutory threshold than that which the more ethical section of the industry already imposes on itself and its own members?
My third objection to the consultation, as the Government call it, is this: given that the Government are not proposing a code of conduct, there can be no sanctions applied against lobbyists who breach the code. Again, this is a lower standard than the industry’s existing codes. At the moment, any lobbyist working within the current ethical voluntary register is forbidden to engage in any improper financial relationship with any parliamentarian, which brings us to the bones of the issue.
If we have a voluntary register and someone breaches the code by having such a relationship with a parliamentarian, they will be removed from the register and will be unable to practise as a lobbyist. That should be written into legislation, but it is not envisaged in the White Paper.
The White Paper was
“possibly one of the most shoddy documents I have ever seen government produce.”
That is not my view, but that of a practising, professional lobbyist. Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations Consultants Association, said of the White Paper that the Government’s proposals were “unfit for purpose”.
The code of conduct, which my hon. Friend mentions, is habitually broken. For example—he mentioned this sort of contravention—the code says that parliamentarians should not be paid by lobbying companies that are signed up to the code, yet many Members at the other end of the corridor are directors of lobbying firms and so presumably are in receipt of payments. That breaks the code of conduct, but nobody does anything about it.
I will not take any more interventions, because I want to make some progress and other people want to speak.
It is not difficult to define what the House should do to regulate the industry—I agree that the point is to regulate as well as to register, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said—and it need not be burdensome for professional lobbyists. In fact, it takes about 20 minutes to provide the necessary information on the relevant form—I have tried it myself. The Bill should do four things. It should create a clear definition of professional lobbying; a statutory register of all those who lobby professionally; a clear code of conduct that forbids inappropriate financial relations between lobbyists and parliamentarians; and a strong system of sanctions when the code is breached.
All that is detail, however. We are simply asking for a commitment from the Government to agree to cross-party talks—in fact, that is really all our motion asks for—not as an excuse for failing to act, but as a prelude to rapid action to bring this matter into proper order. I hope that the Government’s amendment to the motion is not a signal that they intend to conflate a series of irrelevant issues in order to obfuscate further and therefore once more evade the central question before us this afternoon, which is: how are we going to reform and then regulate the lobbying industry? The noble Lord Wallace, who speaks for the Cabinet Office in another place, said that the Government did not intend to conflate these matters. I hope he is correct, but I fear he is not.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but does he agree that if we are genuinely to restore public trust in politics, the statutory register of lobbyists has to be the very minimum, and that we must do far more to tackle the excessive influence of corporate money and vested interests and to address things such as the invisible secondments of people from industry right into the centre of policy making here in Whitehall?
I will be speaking on other matters, as will other Labour spokespeople in due course, but the hon. Lady is right that we have to take big money out of politics across the board. We have proposals to do that, and have made some difficult recommendations on trade unions, if anyone is interested. It is the Government who are stalling the negotiations on party funding.
We need a lobbying Bill that will begin the process of cleaning up our politics and create a level playing field for all the professional lobbyists who behave ethically but are constantly undermined by a few who do not play by the rules. Nothing less will do. The Leader of the House must say whether he will continue to speak for the closed circle, the tiny elite, that seems to run our country and on whose behalf many professional lobbyists often work, or whether he will speak on behalf of the many by placing the professional lobbying industry on a proper footing.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end and add:
“notes the failure of the previous administration to implement a statutory register of lobbyists for 13 years; welcomes the Coalition Agreement commitment to regulate lobbying through a statutory register; notes the Government’s consultation paper on Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists; welcomes the Government’s commitment to bring forward legislation before the summer recess to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, as part of a broad package of measures to tighten the rules on how third parties can influence the UK’s political system; and looks forward to welcoming reforms that ensure that the activities of outside organisations who seek to influence the political process are transparent, accountable and properly regulated.”
I move the amendment on behalf of the Government both as Leader of the House, in which capacity I seek to protect and promote the reputation of the House, which the motion claims might have been damaged—I am sorry that my being here disappoints the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), who wanted other Ministers to be here, but I am pleased to be here, and am here as a volunteer, not a pressed man—and as a Cabinet Minister who, with ministerial colleagues, has policy responsibilities in this regard. I, along with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who has responsibility for political and constitutional reform, and the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), will take responsibility for the forthcoming Bill, which, as the amendment makes clear, we have committed to introduce before the summer recess. It will be a Bill to implement our coalition programme commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists and to promote transparency and an improved regulatory framework for the influence of third parties in the political system.
It is good to hear that my right hon. Friend is here voluntarily and has not been lobbied, but, further to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), will he clarify whether he thinks it appropriate for hon. Members to give parliamentary passes to lobbyists?
That is an important point. My personal view is that we should not be doing that. I do not wish to engage you directly in this debate, Mr Speaker, other than by way of approbation. I thought it was absolutely right that you made your proposal in the light of recent press allegations. In particular, it was absolutely right that you considered the question of the number of passes made available to sponsors of all-party parliamentary groups and asked the Committee on Standards to consider the matter. I had planned to refer to that in a moment.
I want to underline my support for the idea that no lobbyist should have a parliamentary pass. In particular, nine Labour MPs sponsor parliamentary passes for union lobbyists. Does my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that, and will he say, here and now, that it is wrong?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As Leader of the House, I have made it clear, along with my colleagues, that parliamentary passes should be made available for the purpose of supporting Members of Parliament in their parliamentary responsibilities, not for the benefit of third parties. It is not to conflate unrelated issues for the Government to focus on this issue of third-party influence in the political system. The process must be transparent. If third parties are involved, as inevitably they will be—that includes trade union relationships with the Labour party, which are absolutely fine—it must be transparent and not convert what should be a transparent third-party relationship into the undisclosed control of, or influence over, parliamentarians.
The right hon. Gentleman said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) that the Bill would introduce a register of lobbyists. Will he confirm that it will also include the regulation of lobbyists?
The hon. Gentleman should talk to his own Front-Bench team. [Interruption.] I am just answering his question. The point is that it will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, and in that sense it is a regulatory process. I will explain our approach later.
Did the hon. Member for Hemsworth really think it was sensible to have this debate just weeks before publication of the Bill? What was he thinking?
If I may, I will make a little progress before giving way. I have not yet had an opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Hemsworth, whose speech, I am afraid, sank into the sands of sloppy thinking. I probably should not be surprised about that—people said the motion was nothing but a piece of political opportunism launched off the back of recent reports—but I am a more generous soul. I looked for a purpose in the Labour motion. I hoped that the debate would show evidence of Labour thinking practical thoughts about how to promote a more open and accountable system. That hope was, however, not founded on experience. We know that Labour did not actually do anything about a statutory register of lobbyists for the 13 years it was in government. We are three years into this Parliament, and there have been 86 Opposition day debates, yet this is the first on lobbying.
We know why Labour did nothing about lobbying. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) said in October 2011:
“It was very, very, difficult to get right. We were persuaded by the industry that they would set up their own code”.
But Labour did not put in place the statutory register it now calls for, and it so lacked a view during this Parliament—notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Hemsworth has just said—that it did not even respond to the public consultation on the Government’s proposals that were published last year.
No one could be more aware than the right hon. Gentleman, as a former Health Secretary, that the tobacco industry lobby is one of the most powerful groups around this place, given its direct and covert campaigns to delay legislation to introduce plain packaging for its products, among other things. Will the Government ensure, if and when they get round to registering lobbying organisations, that such organisations will be required to reveal whose payroll they are on, to ensure greater transparency? For example, tobacco companies might finance third-party organisations as a front to promote their causes.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Hemsworth have chosen the wrong person to attack on the question of tobacco control. When I was in opposition, I made it clear as shadow Secretary of State for Health that my party would not engage with the tobacco industry, and we did not do so. In government, I made it clear that we would comply with the international framework convention on tobacco control, which precludes the exercise of influence on our policy by the tobacco industry, and we do so. I was the person who sat down and talked to the Australian Health Minister, way back in the latter part of 2010, in order to understand what she intended to do, and I was the one who launched a consultation on standardised packaging for tobacco. I know that this Government are taking decisions in the best interests of the people of this country, including on health grounds, and that we are not taking them at the behest of any tobacco company.
No, I will not give way. It would be better for me to make my speech and explain what we are planning to do than simply to try to respond to more interventions.
We did not hear from the Opposition about this subject; they did not respond to our consultation last year. It is interesting that the first time we heard from them was when we announced that we would introduce a Bill before the summer, at which point they tabled their motion calling for the Government to introduce a Bill. This is an interesting concept: they are not jumping on someone else’s bandwagon; they are jumping on ours. This is a flagrant example of that.
In the event, the hon. Member for Hemsworth did not offer any practical ideas; instead, he offered assertions and slogans masquerading as policy. He should have had the honesty to admit that the Labour Government put the issue in the “too hot to handle” box. They did not resolve the complex nature of the problem, which has been revealed by the divergent responses to the consultation. The responses showed that we are far from achieving consensus on the nature of regulation that is required.
The Government will set out to promote the culture of openness that best delivers the positive behaviours and public confidence that we all seek.
Let me explain a little more, then I will give way again.
There are two ways in which we can go about regulating conduct in political life. We can create a comprehensive rules-based system backed up by intrusive enforcement, to try to specify what everyone should and should not do pretty much all the time. That would be immensely bureaucratic and costly, and would involve a constant effort to keep up. It would create not a culture of openness but a “see what you can get away with” approach.
The other way forward is to be clear about the standards expected, based on the Nolan principles, and to ensure that all those who exercise responsibilities—and all those who seek to influence them—are subject to the necessary transparency in their actions and contacts, and held accountable for their actions, so that we can see who is doing what, and why. For those who seek to influence the political system without the necessary transparency, there will be clear sanctions available.
I think the right hon. Gentleman heard the valid point that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) made earlier. This is a complex business. Some of the big legal firms are now half lawyers and half lobbyists, and they say that they will refuse to be involved in the proposed register because of client confidentiality. There are some really big problems, but Members on both sides of the House want to get this right. May we have a pre-legislative inquiry to enable us to do that? This is a really difficult one. We used to think that accountancy firms consisted of auditors and accountants, but look at their track record now that the banks are going to hell in a handcart. Many of those firms do not need lobbyists, because they have been here all the time lobbying as companies. I was quite enthused by the right hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks, but may we have a pre-legislative inquiry to enable us to get this right?
The hon. Gentleman will know that I am an advocate of ensuring that the Government legislate after we have consulted and, whenever possible, sought scrutiny of the proposed legislation. I fear, however, that if we were to go further in regard to pre-legislative scrutiny, we would not be able to legislate in the time frame we have set out. We published draft clauses, and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee produced a report on them that was not wholly supportive. I completely understand that. We have reflected—at length, I freely admit—on what the Committee said, and I believe that we will now be able to proceed with the Bill. It might not meet everyone’s objectives, but it will do what is necessary to create the clarity, transparency and openness that form the basis for us to ensure that public confidence is achieved.
The right hon. Gentleman is trying to legislate for and about Parliament and about lobbying in Parliament. It is therefore only fair that Parliament should have due process and be able to understand the Bill so that it can make it better on behalf of all parties. He says that the time frame is very compressed, but he has yet to respond to the Select Committee’s report from nearly a year ago, so there was clearly a little bit of ease in the time frame at that point. Will he please leave the door open so that proper pre-legislative scrutiny can take place before the Bill comes before the House, in order that all Members can understand these complicated issues and legislate better on lobbying than we seem to be doing at the moment?
We will introduce a Bill before the summer recess but, given the nature of things, we might not be able to proceed with its consideration until the September sittings or later. That would afford people an opportunity, in the context of the Second Reading debate and elsewhere, to look at how we have resolved the issues.
I was listening to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the demands that the register would place on lobbyists. Will that include having to provide financial information, such as how much has been spent on lobbying? Many Members on both sides of the House think that that would be an important part of the jigsaw.
I am not planning to do that at the moment. We have made it clear that we are going to introduce a statutory register that makes third-party influence clear, so that people will know on whose behalf lobbyists with third-party clients who are seeking to influence us are working. I listened with care to some of the interventions on the hon. Member for Hemsworth, and I acknowledge that there are important issues about the relationships between lobbying companies—and lobbyists who act on their own behalf rather than on behalf of third parties—and parliamentarians. But, frankly, is it not up to Parliament itself to be very clear about this? Contrary to what has been suggested, I am not planning to legislate within Parliament. For example, the issues that the standards code is rightly looking at in relation to the interests of the Chairs of Select Committees and the interests of all-party parliamentary groups and how they are represented are important ones, but they are matters for the House to determine, as I shall explain.
And to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), whose views I always respect.
As a Government, we believe that we must choose the route of trying to produce a transparent system. The contrary route—a completely rules-based approach, rather than one based on principles—is more likely to fail, as too often rules then create loopholes that people will exploit when they can. In contrast, we are setting out to create an open and transparent culture that transforms behaviour so that people live up to these principles. As a Government, we have pursued such an open approach, so that we can look with justification to promoting some of the most transparent actions ever.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman before.
We have published departmental business plans so that Ministers can be held to account on the development of policy. We have published more than 9,000 datasets from Government Departments, public sector bodies and local authorities. We have published details of Ministers’ and permanent secretaries’ meetings with external individuals, including lobbyists. We have published details of gifts, overseas travel and hospitality received by Ministers and special advisers. We are now planning to go further with a Bill to create a statutory register of lobbyists.
Let me be clear, as the hon. Member for Hemsworth was, that there is nothing wrong with lobbying as such. It is a necessary—indeed an inevitable—part of policy making and the parliamentary process. Politics is about the reconciliation of conflicting interests in society, and the articulation of those interests is necessary to enable the political system to be effective. What is required is that the representation of interests to decision makers is made transparently, fairly, accountably and free of improper influence. The Nolan principles provide a high-level framework, as amplified by the code of conduct for Members here and by the ministerial code. If, in all cases, Members and lobbyists lived with the letter and the spirit of those principles and codes, our system could command greater confidence.
I think that we in this House should be clear that our constituents have a right to lobby us as their constituency Members of Parliament. What is important is that we always behave in a way that is consistent with the code of conduct for Members so that we act as constituency representatives, not on the basis of any other inappropriate or improper relationships.
The Leader of the House will know that in Scotland we are progressing our register of lobbyists through a cross-party private Member’s Bill. Does he recognise the efforts we have made in the Scottish Parliament to try to deal with this problem, and is that a model that he might indeed follow?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are a number of models in a number of jurisdictions across the world, which we have of course looked at and considered carefully. What I am emphasising here is that we are going to proceed on the basis of a belief that the greatest possible clarity and transparency is the key to achieving the confidence we are looking for. In order for that to happen, what is particularly necessary is that the public can see who is lobbying whom.
I will give way in a few moments.
In that respect, there is a lacuna, in that when Ministers meet consultant lobbyists, it is not always clear to the public on whose behalf those consultants or companies are lobbying. The purpose of the measures we will introduce is to rectify that deficiency.
Of course, to make the transparency complete, further steps may be required. In particular, lobbyist meetings with shadow Ministers, the relationships of external interests to parliamentarians through all-party parliamentary groups and Select Committees, including their Chairs, may require further steps. The latter issues relating to all-party groups and Select Committees are, as I mentioned earlier, matters for the House, and the Government welcome the referral of these issues by Mr Speaker to the Committee on Standards—now, of course, reinforced by its lay membership. I hope that the House will be able to consider what steps to take on the basis of that Committee’s advice. As I have made clear, the House should proceed only on the basis of recommendations relating to House matters from its own bodies for this purpose. I know these issues are not as straightforward as some represent them, but we are now proceeding with them.
I am sorry, but I did not hear the hon. Gentleman volunteer any comment in response to my question. To be fair, perhaps it is more the responsibility of the hon. Member for Hemsworth, so perhaps he would like to stand up and say that shadow Ministers believe that in order to secure the necessary transparency, they, as well as Ministers, should publish their diaries.
It is very kind of the Leader of the House to give way—I was starting to think that I had inadvertently offended him in a previous life. How does he think the public will react when they find out that, one in four Conservative peers and 58 Conservative MPs have recent or current financial links with private health care? Will the Bill address that?
I have no idea of the specifics of what the hon. Gentleman talks about or of what precisely he means by what he said, but what I would say is that transparency is important. If Members of this House have financial interests in companies, they should be very clear about them in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and they should be very clear that they do not act in Parliament in a way from which they could personally benefit through their relationship with those external interests.
I thought I had made it clear on many occasions that what we are setting out to do in the Bill is to create a statutory register of lobbyists in the context of seeking to make absolutely clear where a third-party influence is being exercised in relation to Ministers. I used to be Secretary of State for Health, as Members will recall. We published our diaries of meetings and when the British Medical Association came to see me, nobody was under any illusions about why it did so. That applies, too, to the Royal College of Nurses, other royal colleges, the Patients Association, the NHS Federation—the list is endless. There was no doubt about the nature of the representations from people associated with many of these organisations. Where a lobbying company is seeking to influence Ministers, the permanent secretary or whomever it might be, the issue is knowing who their clients are. That is where the gap lies, and that is what we are focusing on. [Interruption.] I do not know about Fred Michel in that sense.
I can give a straightforward answer in that I believe our shadow Ministers should publish their diaries; I see nothing wrong with that. The right hon. Gentleman has bounced that issue on us, but I imagine that most serious Labour Members—and most of them are serious—would say yes to that. Let me press the right hon. Gentleman on this point. All the groups he mentioned lobbied him, quite legitimately, when he was Secretary of State for Health, but the key issue is whether this lobbying register will go right across the sort of people that lobbied him, including the lawyers, the accountants and the big companies, so that everybody is included in the register—not just a tiny circle of professional lobbying companies representing only about 25% of the lobbying industry.
With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman has missed the point, which I have already made. The gap lies where Ministers, permanent secretaries and—I hope his hon. Friends will take the matter up—shadow Ministers need to set out whom they meet and for what purpose, and on whose behalf they are being met. When I met members of the BMA and the RCN, we were under no illusions about that. If I were to meet representatives of a lobbying company that had a client in an industry and we did not know who the client was, we would not have the necessary degree of transparency. That is what we are talking about: ensuring that we have the maximum transparency.
Order. The Leader of the House has made it clear that he will not give way. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has a beatific smile on his face, but he has been in the House for 34 years, and he knows that a Member cannot make a point by means of an intervention if the Member who is on his or her feet will not give way.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It will be noted that Opposition Front Benchers, despite having tabled the motion, are not themselves willing to contribute to the transparency that we all require.
As the House knows, the essential component to inspire confidence in the political system is the behaviour of Members of Parliament and those in the political system. We have responsibility and power. We must live according to the highest possible standards and we must live by the letter of the rules, but, as past events have shown, it is even more vital for us to live by the spirit of the principles of public life.
Many of the breaches and scandals that we have seen in recent years arose not because the rules were unclear—although, in the case of the expenses scandal, they too often were—but because people had behaved badly, and I believe that transparency is the key to dealing with that as well. I believe that the great majority of those in our Parliament and our political system set out to behave well and do behave well, but, human nature being what it is, the minority who are tempted to do otherwise need to know that they cannot engage in sustained, concealed efforts to peddle influence. Their activity will be brought into the open, and they must expect to be held to account for their behaviour, for, as the Prime Minister has said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. To secure that transparency was the purpose of the efforts that we have undertaken over the past three years, and it is the purpose of our forthcoming Bill.
My right hon. Friend has said that Ministers must have a register and that it would help him if Opposition Front Benchers operated the same system, but have I a responsibility to make public the identity of people who are consulting me? More important, if they are people in my constituency, there may be a secretary who spends a small amount of money on assisting me. Am I required to publish that as well?
As my hon. Friend will know, the responsibilities that we have as Members relate to the Members code, which does not include a responsibility for us to publish the details of our meetings, the names of those whom we meet, and the purposes for which we meet them. That protection is afforded to Back Benchers and, of course, to shadow Ministers as well. We as Ministers are clear about the fact that we publish our diaries, on the basis that we exercise responsibilities and power. If shadow Ministers take the view that they have no power and are therefore not accountable for whom they meet, for whom those they meet represent, and for the influence that those people are seeking to exert, they will have to argue the case themselves.
The Opposition motion calls for a Bill to be introduced before the summer recess. I am pleased that, in this instance, they agree with the Government. Well before the motion was tabled, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that a Bill would be introduced before the recess. The motion also calls for cross-party talks. That comes as something as a surprise, as the Opposition have not previously demonstrated an interest in this issue. They have not sought constructively to engage the Government in discussion of it during the three years for which the introduction of a register has been under consideration—foreshadowed, of course, in the coalition programme-—and they made no response to the Government’s consultation last year.
Now the Opposition say that they want a register of “professional lobbyists”. I still have no idea what they mean by that, or what is the logic of it. Are they referring to everyone who lobbies Government or Parliament, and who is paid? I do not think that they mean “professional” in the sense of having a relevant professional qualification, so “professional” must mean “paid”, and that would capture an immense number of people.
No. I am about to end my speech.
In contrast, the Government’s proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists focus on cases in which further clarity is required. The introduction of the register is part of a broad package of measures to tighten the rules on how third parties influence our political system, along with reforms to ensure the accountability of outside organisations that seek to influence the political process. Together, those two elements constitute a further, clear demonstration of our commitment to transparency in the political system.
As was demonstrated by the response to the Government’s consultation, the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists is a complex issue, and one that has required careful consideration by the Government. Our proposals will deliver a register that will increase transparency without placing disproportionate burdens on those who legitimately lobby Government and Parliament. We will present those proposals before the summer recess, and we will continue to work with those who have engaged with our plans.
I welcome the Opposition’s new-found interest in our proposals, and hope that they will now seek to engage constructively in making our political system more transparent. Perhaps, on reflection, they will agree to engage positively in the publication of shadow ministerial diaries, in order to ensure that transparency exists from their point of view as well.
On that basis, I ask the House to support the amendment and, if necessary, to reject the motion.
There is no doubt that we need a lobbying Bill—we have needed one for some time, and we now need one relatively soon—but it is important for us to learn the lessons of the past, and not to legislate in haste and repent at leisure.
Now that we are down to 10 minutes, I shall probably rush through my speech rather more quickly than I expected to, but if my hon. Friend will allow me to get past my first sentence, I shall look forward to the bonus minute later.
Nor should we respond to media stories by producing Bills. We should proceed in a measured, careful way, and we should involve the House. Let us not forget that it is the Government who control Parliament, down to the minutest detail. That applies even to the scheduling of today’s debate, and the use of our Opposition time to do so. The Government will continue to exercise that control until we elect our legislature and our Executive separately, as most modern democracies do.
When it suits Governments—not just the present Government, but many Governments in the past—they throw up their hands in mock horror at some transgression that has taken place in the House, or as a result of interaction with lobbyists. In many instances, however, they have been complicit, having either not legislated in a timely fashion, or formed a corrupted relationship with Members of Parliament and others. The most obvious recent example is the failure to tackle Members of Parliament’ salaries, the introduction and promotion of a culture in which the provision of allowances and expenses was substituted for such action, and the failure, over 20 years, to answer the question.
I hope that we will not repeat some of those mistakes. I hope that we will take the lobbying issue seriously, and will not merely use it as a way of buying buy off media speculation about the fact that a Member of Parliament—one of 650—has been found, thanks to the combined resources of Fleet street and the BBC, to be allegedly doing something that he or she should not be doing.
I think there are many ways to skin this particular cat. If the Government are serious about creating an effective lobbying Bill—as many Back-Bench Members and my Select Committee are—then where there is a will, there is a way. We can find a way to do that, but the measure in its current form is a reactive and short-term measure, and it is not part of a serious, well-thought-out reform package, either by the media, who are keen to nail individual Members of Parliament, or, more seriously, by the Government, and, indeed, previous Governments of different political colours.
Parliament must take a lead on the specific issue of lobbying, but I very much hope we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Lobbying is a very important part of our democracy. I imagine most Members of this enfeebled Parliament use lobbying ourselves very directly with Ministers to try to make our points, and many of us create all-party groups. Some of us lobby effectively, although, speaking as someone who is lobbying for the Government to keep their promise on bringing forward proposals for a House business committee, which was in the coalition agreement, some of us are also obviously failing in getting the Government to fulfil their own promises. Government Front-Bench Members will not be surprised to learn that we will continue to press that issue as well, however.
My Select Committee has looked at the lobbying question very seriously. We spent a long time interviewing witnesses. We have eminent Committee members from different parties—some of whom are present in the Chamber—and they might not in the normal shape of things be soul mates or agree on all matters, but they produced a report that the Government have had in their possession for the best part of a year. It is a measure of how seriously the Government take this matter that, first, the Leader of the House is chatting away and not listening to the Chairman of the Select Committee, who is asking him to do something he should have done nine months ago, and, secondly, he does not respond to this House, let alone to me or to my Committee members. That Ministers just do not bother answering is regarded by many as rather cavalier.
However, if a scandal is revealed by Fleet street and Ministers feel they need to show how tough they are by taking action and doing something, suddenly a Bill appears, or the promise of a Bill is made, even before they respond to a Select Committee of this House. I hope the Leader of the House will take these matters a little more seriously, because if he does, and he dares to allow Parliament to be a partner in the process of making the law—rather than finding something off the shelf in the Department—he may be in serious danger of creating a Bill that will command all-party support and the support of this House.
Has my hon. Friend had any communication in his capacity as Chair of the Select Committee from the Government on why such a response has been so long delayed? Have any particular reasons been put to him, or is it his view that they simply have not noticed that there is a report to be responded to?
I would be very happy to give way on that point either to the Leader of the House or the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who very kindly came to our Select Committee last week. They may wish to speak for themselves, but there has certainly been a lot of correspondence in trying to get a response. That is expected—it is standard practice—and I do not know whether I should raise the matter with the Chair. However, I would hope that Select Committees of this House that undertake serious study and scrutiny of Government are usually responded to in a proper way, because that will help us to make better law, instead of having a knee-jerk response because of one person being entrapped by the media—I am not expressing any view on that, as this is still under study—that seems to me to put the cart before the horse. On an issue where there should be support across the House, it seems that there is almost a deliberate attempt to break any potential for consensus on, and longevity for, the legislation that we may bring forward.
As with the Dangerous Dogs Act, we are in danger of introducing a dangerous Members of Parliament Act, and we may well regret that in the longer term. This is not just a news story or just a way of refuting Fleet street in that corrupting partnership between Government and media. This is about an important part of the fabric of our democracy. Lobbying is important, and this is about allowing it to flourish, and getting things right, and making sure the people who put it in such bad odour are exposed.
Lobbying in the UK is currently unregulated. The UK Public Affairs Council operates a voluntary register, but registration rates are low. The Government agree that a voluntary register is not working. A commitment to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists was included in the coalition agreement. My Committee looked at this. We took oral evidence over many sessions and produced our report. I hope the Government listen to what we have said, which was not damning, saying, “This couldn’t happen.” Instead, we suggested how something can be introduced in a way that is sustainable.
The first fatal flaw we asked the Government to look at was the fact that so much of the lobbying industry would not be covered by a statutory register. Just covering third-party lobbyists does not do the job. There are lots of different figures available, but we found 100 organisations that were third-party lobbyists. Spinwatch, at one end of the spectrum in this debate, says there are between 3,500 and 4,000 full-time lobbyists. This proposal does not do the job, therefore, because it is one-eighth of a lobbying Bill, rather than a Bill that covers lobbyists in their entirety.
The second flaw is that we do not have an effective definition of lobbying, so that we all know what we are talking about—and so that lobbyists know what we are talking about, and that Members of Parliament talking to someone in either a private or public meeting, perhaps with a tape recorder or video camera concealed and recording them, know exactly where the lines are. That will enable us to produce something that is sustainable and that people can live with for many years to come. My Committee therefore also asked for a clearer definition.
We came to the conclusion that we were only scratching the surface of the issue. We therefore proposed what we called a medium regulation system as a starting point for a statutory register of lobbyists. A lot of Members have got great ideas, and I hope there will be a process by which they can be fed into our law-making process. There needs to be that starting point—that foundation or bedrock—that we can build on in future years. Let us put this in place. Some may regard it as the lowest common denominator, but that in itself is a good starting point, so that if problems arise, those colleagues who come after us can build on something that commands a consensus of support in this House.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very measured and reasonable speech, particularly in respect of his point about responding to Select Committees. Does he agree that one of the basic principles we should endorse is that both the Opposition and the Government should publish details of meetings, and would he encourage his Front-Bench colleagues to give that undertaking to the House today?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is treating this matter a little more superficially than I would have hoped. There are some important questions, and no doubt he can raise them, but I am not going to get involved in that sort of frippery. I am capable of going in that direction, but I will not do so because there are some serious issues here that concern the hon. Gentleman as well as everybody else.
My Select Committee looked at the possibility of having a hybrid code of conduct to operate alongside the statutory register. We addressed that idea carefully. It is possible to do it, and we believe that, just as we commanded support in our own disparate all-party Select Committee, it is possible for the House to come to a satisfactory conclusion on that. It would mean that organisations and individuals on the register would sign up to their particular industry’s code of conduct.
We must use the time we have available to do some pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill will be introduced very soon. I hope the Leader of the House will give us a month or so in September, so that we can do the job properly for the House.
Yesterday, I took a phone call from a constituent who wanted to lobby me on a particular local issue relevant to him and his neighbours. This morning, I met a person from a public relations firm who wanted to discuss an issue relevant to one of his clients. As I walked through Portcullis House today, I passed a large number of MPs talking with constituents, the media, lobbyists, pressure groups and many other organisations. In many ways, they were doing exactly what an MP should be doing. I then headed to this Chamber, passing through Central Lobby, the Members’ Lobby and the Aye Lobby before arriving here.
As hon. Members will realise, I am trying to demonstrate that lobbying is a fact of political life. The reality is that lobbying is an important part of our political environment and process. It is a legitimate activity that is a significant contributor to our political system and political activity. It brings to our system a number of important benefits that we would be the poorer for if they were not available: it allows MPs to hear different sides of an argument and different prospectuses. MPs themselves lobby on a variety of issues when we hold passionate beliefs or on matters that relate to our constituencies. Indeed, we participate in and set up all-party groups, many of which are involved with lobbying. Arguably, lobbying allows us to become better informed and more aware of the issues, and, on occasions, we can even have our minds changed by the evidence put before us by lobbying groups. I therefore fully support the right of businesses, charities and other organisations to lobby.
However, what is important is that lobbying or campaigning groups supporting a particular cause should carry out such activities in an open and transparent way. What we all clearly want to avoid is undue pressure being exerted or inappropriate activities being carried out. It is equally important that an individual’s position is not compromised, such as through payments being made that are incompatible with that person’s office. In a perfect world, there would be no need to change the current arrangements, but introducing a lobbying register can and should help to increase openness and transparency and, importantly, to improve the public’s confidence in our political system.
I have been listening carefully to what my hon. Friend has been saying and he is talking a huge amount of sense about the fact that our entire life involves being lobbied. However, I am slightly at variance with him about whether the proposed register should encompass only those people who are paid as third parties—we do not know on whose behalf they are lobbying—or all the others who lobby, such as his constituent and the other interest groups he mentioned. Does he agree that the important thing is that groups such as Keene Public Affairs, an organisation that undermined one of my all-party groups recently, ought to be named, ought to be on the register and ought to have to declare who their clients are and that the register should not apply to ordinary lobby groups of the kind that he described?
I agree, and I believe the thrust of my argument will be very much in tune with what my hon. Friend suggests.
The crucial issue is public confidence. I accept there will always been the potential for the unscrupulous or the criminal—it was ever thus—but having some level of registration will create greater openness, which I would like to think will help drive standards of behaviour to a much higher level, one that is acceptable to the public. As I have said, it would also improve the public’s confidence in our political system. I will therefore be supporting the underlying principles that the Government’s forthcoming Bill will bring forward, and I look forward to seeing what they have to propose and considering it in the usual way.
The hon. Gentleman is, as usual, making a thoughtful and careful speech. He supports his Government’s proposals, but does he agree that everyone in the House would benefit from this issue being given a proper pre-legislative period? That would allow Members, wherever they are, to make the sort of representations he is making, either to a Select Committee or to a Joint Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) suggested, so that when the Bill comes back for its Second Reading we are all way better informed about what we can achieve and how we can do that.
We hope that today’s debate will help to inform Members of the House and bring the issues to light, and, thus, inform the Second Reading debate.
As I said, I will support the underlying principles of the Government’s forthcoming legislation. I would, however, wish to ensure that it is as simple and as straightforward to administer as possible. It should not and must not over-regulate the industry. Clearly, I accept it must be comprehensive in its approach to ensure that all appropriate organisations are registerable, and ensure a fair and level playing field. Organisations in the commercial sector must be included, as should trade organisations, certain charities and organisations that are campaigning to influence the legislative process and Executive decisions—yes, that should include the trade union movement.
Trade unions are an important part of our industrial relations and our political process. They are undoubtedly one of the most powerful lobbying organisations in the country, receiving substantial sums from the taxpayer; in July 2010, the trade unions received nearly £6 million. I believe that 23 members of the shadow Cabinet have received funding from trade unions and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said, nine Labour MPs are sponsoring parliamentary passes for trade union lobbyists. Powerful bodies that, in effect, bankroll one of the main political parties must be seen to be open and transparent and must be open and transparent. That is in their interests, as well as in those of the public. This is an opportunity to help improve the transparency and accountability of the trade unions. In particular, when they are lobbying, it should be clear what their true membership is and what the implications are for strike ballots and for the payment of the political levy. All should be open to scrutiny and proper confirmation.
For the avoidance of doubt, we do not have a problem with those who work for trade unions and who lobby being covered by a more comprehensive piece of legislation than the Government are considering. We think that all in-house lobbyists should be covered by the legislation. That is the point of difference between us and the Government, and between the hon. Gentleman and the Government, too.
I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Labour party will support the inclusion of trade unions, because it failed to do any of that in its time in office. Labour had 13 years in office and we had absolutely nothing from the Labour party. As with much of the present political agenda, Labour is playing catch-up with Government policies on a range of issues, as well as with the views of the public. This is another example of Labour trying to pretend that it is on the right side of the argument.
I have taken enough interventions. The reality is that Labour is so far behind public opinion and the Government are in tune with it. I commend the coalition Government for going out to consultation on this issue and now bringing forward legislation; a proper register of lobbyists and a fair set of requirements for disclosure is the correct way forward. I would also like to see a set of criteria for the funding of campaigns by third-party groups during elections. I believe that at the last election about £3 million was spent by third-party groups on campaigning, and it is right that that should be regulated in the proper way. Any reasonable person would consider these reforms to be absolutely appropriate. They are all part of rebuilding the public’s confidence in our politics and a way of encouraging all those engaging in the political process to act, and to be seen to act, openly and transparently. It is sad that the Labour party has been so slow to engage with this issue but, as I said, it likes to follow our lead.
I echo earlier comments made about lobbying. I have always supported a lobbying Bill to create a register of lobbyists in a transparent and properly regulated way, but I have no objection to lobbying per se. It is part of everyday life—or it should be if we are doing our jobs properly. We get lobbied on a weekly basis, on all sorts of issues, by church groups, mosques, gurdwaras, temples, community groups and all sorts of individuals. A woman came to see me a couple of weeks ago and said, “You are opposed to the sell-off of the Royal Mail, aren’t you?” When I said that I was, she said, “Well, on that basis you should also be opposed to gay marriage.” I did not quite follow the logic of that argument either, but she had the right to lobby me, and she did so, albeit in a novel way.
What worries me is when large concentrations of unaccountable wealth and power are brought to bear in the lobbying industry. Funnily enough, Jonathan Aitken said something similar when he was an MP and large business consortiums were lobbying for the contract to build the Channel tunnel. At that time lobbying was in full swing, and he—surprisingly in the light of subsequent events—said:
“What worries me most is that usually lobbying is genuine in the sense that it stems from little interest groups and concerned citizens. Here we see the Panzer divisions of big business, their heavy artillery and tanks trampling over all the small people’s interests which I want to see better defended.”
Most of us would probably want to see those interests better defended and certainly the Prime Minister seemed to want to see that three years ago when he said that lobbying would be the “next big scandal” to hit British politics. Lobbying has been the perennial scandal in British politics within living memory and probably before that, too.
The Prime Minister’s reference to lobbying was three years ago and since then we have seen two private Members’ Bills. One was in my name, and I offered it to the Leader of the House as a Government Bill, but he was a bit shy about taking it on. The other was in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). We also saw a Government consultation followed by countless commitments from various Ministers that a Bill would be produced, as we are always told, “in the near future.” Last year, the then Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), promised a Bill before he was moved in the reshuffle. His successor, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), is on the Treasury Bench and has, I believe, promised a Bill twice on the Floor of the House—but there is still no Bill.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly promised a Bill in Prime Minister’s questions over the past three years and after the last lobbying scandal a few weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister promised what he called “head to toe” political reform, including a register of lobbyists. That was on 3 June. I have no idea what he meant by that, but I suspect that he did not have much more of an idea what he meant either—he never normally does.
We still have no Bill, yet the scandals come regularly and frequently. Only last year, the treasurer of the Tory party, Peter Cruddas—we will all remember this—had to resign after promising access to the Prime Minister for a fee of £250,000. Months before that, Tim Collins, a not particularly lamented Member of this House, promised access to just about everybody and anybody in the Government.
We can go back before that. I have mentioned lobbying scandals in living memory, but probably the doyenne of political lobbyists from the 1930s and 1940s up until the 1970s was Commander Christopher Powell. His name is probably not familiar now, but years ago he was very well known and for a number of years he had an office in the House of Commons. It sounds extraordinary today that a political lobbyist who represented all sorts of clients should have an office in this place, but he did for quite a long time.
Members might remember the scandals attached to Ian Greer in the 1980s, which eventually made the front pages of just about the entire national press as well as the broadcast media in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Let us be balanced: there was also the cash for access scandal that involved Derek Draper, another person who is not particularly lamented by Opposition Members—at least, I hope he is not. I can say that with some passion, having dealt with him years ago.
As I said earlier, I by no means condemn the political lobbying industry. In fact, I suspect that most lobbyists do a decent job, do it honestly and are perfectly prepared to be transparent about it, but there is always the temptation to cross certain lines unless accountability and transparency are built into the system.
Speaker after speaker has talked about the importance of openness, transparency and accountability. I absolutely agree with that, but does my hon. Friend agree that we should also allow the little person, not just the well-heeled and well-suited person, to lobby? Lobbying should be open to everyone; the problem is that too often those who can afford to pay a lot of money can lobby more effectively.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, but I think I covered that at the beginning of my speech. Most of us these days hold regular advice surgeries—for me, and, probably, for most right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House such surgeries are a weekly business.
The days when MPs never went near their constituencies and did not regard themselves as constituency Members are long gone. There was once a national MP for Blackpool called Walter de Frece who, despite the fact that he was the Member for Blackpool, never went near the place. In fact, he could not find it on a map. He struggled to find Britain on a map, because he lived in Monte Carlo. He came to Britain twice a year for the Budget debate and for Ascot, yet he was elected for years and years and was regarded as a successful constituency MP. While he was here, he would get a pile of House of Commons notepaper and sign the bottom, and then his secretary would fill in the rest. It sounds extraordinary, but because he managed to reply to a few letters—this shows how things have changed—he was regarded as a particularly brilliant constituency MP. Nowadays, that has changed beyond all recognition—not even in the safest seat could an MP from any party get away with such behaviour.
Let me return to the demands that I think the register should place on lobbyists. The criterion that it should only cover third-party lobbyists is unfair on the third-party lobbying industry. In-house lobbyists—that covers all sorts of organisations and companies—should be forced to provide information, which, as I said when I intervened on the Leader of the House, should include financial information. Big companies, wealthy organisations and even wealthy individuals can spend millions on lobbying, and that sort of information should be available.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech and learning a bit of parliamentary history, too. Does he accept that the work of the Select Committee could be a starting point in defining what a lobbyist is as well as who is in and who is out? The Committee has suggested that anyone who is in a paid, professional role of lobbying should be covered. That would include in-house lobbyists, of course, as well as trade associations, trade unionists—that answers the point made by the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson)—think-tanks, campaign groups, charities and many others who would be required to register. Does he agree that getting the definition right is the starting point of a good Bill?
That is crucial. The definition in my Bill covered anyone who lobbied “for commercial gain”, which is similar. The starting point that my hon. Friend suggests is perfectly reasonable and would, I suspect, cover all the relevant companies, associations, trade associations and trade unions, as well as the big NGOs and people who hire third-party lobbyists or who have in-house lobbyists. Most trade unions and federations have in-house lobbyists, which is fair enough.
The important principle is that we must get transparency into the system. We are talking about a big industry; lobbying in this country is a successful industry worth £2 billion. There is no reason why it cannot continue to flourish and be successful as long as it is open and transparent, so that we know exactly what lobbyists are doing, who they are meeting and what sort of resources are being spent on achieving their aims.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer). Let me pick up on his last point: what we are after is transparency. I think there is agreement across the House on the need for transparency and to ensure that big business, big money and big power are accountable in politics. Today’s debate is very much about how best to try to achieve that or, at least, to find a starting point.
I was grateful that the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) began, as many other Members have, by stressing the importance of good lobbying and the fact that we in Parliament cannot do our jobs without a degree of lobbying. Members have obviously mentioned their constituents and, like the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead, I have regular surgeries across 3,800 square miles. I travelled 207 miles last weekend to do surgeries at diametrically opposite ends of the constituency, celebrating national care homes day by visiting all the registered homes in the constituency.
At my constituency surgery in Alness, a lady came to ask me about the regulations for herbalists. I have written to the Minister on her behalf and I consider that to be absolutely the kind of thing I should be doing as a constituency MP. On another level, as a member of the Treasury Committee and a former member of the now completed Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, I have received a considerable amount of evidence from a wide range of bodies. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish whether they are giving me evidence or lobbying me. I am absolutely certain that in both cases my ability to have a reasoned discussion with the witnesses who have appeared before me has depended on my ability to access different points of view and different thoughts coming from different parts of the financial services industry.
It is right that we should be open to lobbying in the sense that we should hear what different people have to say. Our job is to assess what is said and come to a reasonable decision in our deliberations, whether in Select Committee or when considering legislation. As sometimes happens, the tendency to dismiss lobbyists and lobbying as a wrong process is to misunderstand how Parliament should work.
We are really talking about access to power for the purposes of diverting what power might otherwise do. Part of the problem that we will have with the legislation is working out where power is. With Ministers, it is pretty straightforward. If I go and lobby the Secretary of State for Energy about what is happening at Dounreay, it is pretty clear why I have gone to see him. If Babcock does the same, it is also pretty clear what is happening. The problem is when people have access to those in power in a way that is not revealed. An example was given this morning when Sir Mervyn King made his last appearance before the Treasury Select Committee. The Chairman asked him a question about lessons learned. He said that one of the most important things was that the Prudential Regulation Authority, the body that will control the banks, had the support of Ministers and Parliament such that the kind of lobbying that took place in the past—when bankers went to their supervisors to ask for a lighter judgment on supervision and the telephone calls he mentioned to No. 11 and sometimes No. 10—could not happen. That is what we really have to seek to expose.
The hon. Gentleman cited Babcock. That is a prime example that shows why the Bill must cover everyone. Babcock is a multinational company that has a rail division, a nuclear division and a defence division. Simply to say that Babcock has been to see a Minister provides no transparency. So it has to be all lobbyists.
I am going to disagree with the hon. Gentleman in a moment for a simple reason. In relation to visiting a Minister, the key is not in the Bill or in any legislation that we might pass. The key is the ministerial code; the key is the fact that the visits by that company or any other company will be published. I agree with hon. Members who said that there should be more information; wider detail should be published about meetings. At the moment, the quarterly register often just says “general discussion”, and that is not good enough. I urge those who are responsible for the ministerial code to look at toughening it up in some way and perhaps publishing the code a little more often than quarterly. Such things could be done tomorrow; they do not require legislation.
The second point is the difference between in-house and third-party lobbyists. I think we are all going in the same direction, but it seems to me that one has to start somewhere. To me, the third-party lobbyists are a good place to start. As the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) said, it is better to make a start than to go for perfection. If Oxfam turns up to see the Secretary of State for International Development, it is pretty obvious what is going to be talked about. It is far more important that when Messrs Grabit and Nickit turn up to lobby on behalf of an unknown firm, we have a registration of who they are and what they do. That is far more important than making every single company that has someone in house working for them register that fact.
In my party’s 2001 conference motion on regulation of professional parliamentary lobbying, which I am sure was on everyone’s lips at the time, we said:
“No parliamentarian … at Westminster should be a director of, an employee of, receive any reward from or hold a stake in any of the duly registered professional parliamentary lobbying companies. … A statutory register of such professional lobbying firms should be set up and supervised by the Commissioner on Parliamentary Standards.”
In 2006, my colleague David Howarth, the then Member for Cambridge, sought to insert an amendment into the Companies Bill to cap the amount spent on lobbying. The then Government declined to accept it. So my party has a long history of seeking to do something about lobbying. The important thing now is to be clear who is doing the lobbying. That is why registering the professional lobbyists is so important.
Is not one of the problems of the recent scandal not so much the lobbying but the payment of politicians, who may be part of the operation of that lobbying. It is not the lobbying per se; it is the payment, the money, the feeling of corruption.
I am delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) to his place. That is something I touched on at the beginning of my remarks. He makes an important point. In the recent scandals involving a Member of this House and three Members of the other place, nothing in this Bill or any other Bill on lobbying would have changed anything. What they did is already against the rules. My advice to any Member of this House is that the day someone comes to them and says, “Would you like £24,000?”, they are being offered a sting. None of us is worth that amount.
I was once almost the victim of a sting. A gentleman came to see me and asked me if I would chair his company. I said, “Yes, but first I need to do due diligence and see a set of accounts. Secondly, you have to look at my CV and see whether I have the skills you want. Thirdly, if it is ever anything to do with Parliament, I can have nothing whatever to do with it.” Needless to say, I never heard from him again.
I have taken two interventions so I would like to get to the end of my speech.
I hope that the Bill will deal with third-party, non-party controlled expenditure and measures to regulate non-party actors who seek to influence elections. This touches on the whole question of the trade unions. The best way is simply for the trade unions to be treated in the same way as any other body according to the third-party, non-party controlled expenditure rules. If we had those rules, requirements made of trade unions would be made by way of alterations to the third-party controlled expenditure rules rather than to any trade union rules, which is absolutely the right way forward.
It is right that we look at lobbying and make sure that we have a register. It is too late for cross-party talks. We tried that with the House of Lords and look where it got us. I am scarred by that. We should just get on with it and make sure that it happens.
My inclination is towards pre-legislative scrutiny. I doubt that it is going to happen, but the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee might take a leaf out of the book of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie). He went ahead with it himself on the Treasury Committee and I am sure that his Committee will just go ahead and do it. It will probably be an invaluable report. I look forward to supporting the Government in the Lobby and making sure that matters come to fruition and we see a Bill as soon as possible.
We have heard several interesting speeches, especially from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, that have tried to grapple with how we define and register lobbyists. The fundamental point, as everyone in the House knows, is that one of the biggest political problems of our time is the loss of faith in politics and politicians, and we have only to walk the streets of our constituencies to see that. People feel that they are not listened to and that they have no way of influencing events. They might have some regard for their own Member of Parliament—indeed, polls show that people often do—but they feel that the big decisions are taken elsewhere, in a place where their views are not heard—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) wants to make an intervention, I shall allow him to do so.
The hon. Gentleman will find that the polling in Scotland is no different from that elsewhere. There is a loss of faith in politics and politicians in many developed countries, and it ill behoves him to make cheap political points about that serious issue, with which we all must deal. People think that there is a distinct political class of people who move in and out of lobbyists, think-tanks and Parliament. I know that that is not true and that there are many hon. Members from diverse backgrounds—obviously not those in the Cabinet—but we have to bear responsibility for allowing that perception to exist. That is why dealing with lobbying is important, so that is one of the vital things—not the only one—that we must do to open up Parliament. If we continue to allow people to have the impression that some individuals have privileged access and may buy the right to influence legislation, we are digging our own graves. It is not lobbying itself that is wrong, as many hon. Members have said, but lobbying behind the scenes when people do not know about it.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
In a moment.
There has been promise after promise on lobbying, yet nothing has been done. We have been reminded that it was the Prime Minister who said that lobbying was
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
That was followed by further words, but no action. The Conservatives did not commit to introducing a statutory register in their election manifesto, despite the fact that when the Prime Minister made his famous “Rebuilding trust in politics” speech, he said:
“it’s time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying and forced our politics to come clean”—
it has taken a bit of time to do the washing.
The coalition agreement contained a promise to introduce a statutory register of lobbying and the former Minister for constitutional affairs, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), promised that he would publish proposals in January 2011, but then everything went quiet until recently. It seemed that no one was responsible at all.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
In a moment.
The latest scandal forced the Government into action, but their proposals that we have heard about so far are full of holes. It appears that they will cover only a narrow section of third-party lobbyists, but that is simply not good enough. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, only about 100 organisations would be covered, yet the UK Public Affairs Council defines lobbying as
“in a professional capacity, attempting to influence, or advising those who wish to influence, the UK Government, Parliament”—
and so on.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Third-party lobbyists that operate legitimately and ethically feel threatened by the idea that the Government will leave open an enormous barn door for in-house lobbyists. There will be a devastating impact on third-party companies if their client organisations begin to hide away what they were doing by taking on more lobbyists in house. Will she comment on that point?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about who should be included on the register and the importance of getting the definitions right. Many people have referred to lobbying by constituents, and any constituent has an absolute right of access to their Member of Parliament. My constituents are not slow about making their views heard, as I suspect is true of those of other hon. Members, but that is different from commercial lobbying, so the legislation must make that clear.
We have to deal with those who are directly employed lobbyists, but they would be allowed to carry on as before under the Government’s plans. What would happen to big firms such as Capita, Grant Thornton and PricewaterhouseCoopers that operate across government in many ways, but include lobbying among their functions? Legislation cannot work unless a code of conduct is attached to it. Parts of the industry already have a voluntary code, but without a code of conduct, there is no real point of having a register, because one then cannot deal with breaches of ethics, including by removing people from the register. Without full publication of details and meetings, lobbying will still be shrouded in secrecy because people will not know what is going on.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once, so I hope that he will forgive me if I continue.
The fairly shabby little proposal before us is a reaction to a particular story, rather than an attempt to get things right. It is important that we have proposals that command cross-party support in the House and that, if possible, they are subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. In my time in the House, a lot of bad legislation has been passed in a hurry, but a lot of legislation has been made better as a result of pre-legislative scrutiny, so I do not understand why the Government are shying away from that process. We need to get the proposals right for not just this Parliament, but future Parliaments, and we need a clear definition of “professional lobbying”, a clear code of conduct and strong sanctions for breaches of that code. Why on earth are the Government so reluctant to go down that road?
I am in almost entire agreement with the hon. Lady that we need to move at a steady and sensible pace so that we reach a proper conclusion. Can she explain why Government and Opposition Front Benchers—as expressed in the motion and the amendment —want to get everything done by the summer recess?
I do not think that Labour Members are arguing for that at all. We want a full and comprehensive proposal, not a half-baked one that covers only part of the industry and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) said, could damage part of the industry. If a register is to end bad practices, it has to be backed by proper sanctions. We know that transparency is essential, so why on earth are we not going down that road? After all, the Prime Minister kept saying that sunlight was the “best disinfectant”—I wonder what happened to that phrase.
Even those involved in the industry are unenthusiastic, to say the least. The director general of the Public Relations Consultants Association called the proposals “unfit for purpose”. The chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations said:
“Basically it’s so weak now there’s no point in us joining it”.
Surely that is not good in the long run for the Government —of any colour—for Parliament and for the reputation of politicians as a whole, so I urge the Government to think again. They need to understand what is at stake, which is no less than the reputation of politicians and the political class as a whole.
If we are to get it right, we must try to come to an agreement. It has been said from the Front Bench that we have no problem with regulating trade union lobbying activities. However, the Government should not confuse the regulation of lobbying with the funding of political parties. By all means let us have a debate on that, but it will have to include the role of commercial companies and their donations, organisations such as the Midlands Industrial Council, and so on. To try to push the two together to attack one lot of political funding but not another is not a sign of serious government; it is a sign of a Government wanting to score cheap political points, rather than to sort out the problem, and I hope they will not do that.
I support the amendment tabled by the Prime Minister and his right hon. Friends. From my point of view, lobbying is entirely healthy and integral to our democracy. This is a point that we have heard from a range of speakers this afternoon. I like to point out to my constituents that lobbying is named after Central Lobby. Central Lobby has given its name to this activity because any constituent can come to Central Lobby while Parliament is sitting, fill out a green card and summon their MP to the Lobby so that they can bend their MP’s ear on the issue that matters particularly to them. We should be looking to encourage and support lobbying and try to remove from it the taint that has suddenly emerged, as though it were intrinsically bad and liable to corruption.
One of the things that is so effective in our democracy is that most MPs are available to their constituents, to listen to them lobbying on a wide range of concerns. Every Friday I have an open surgery where people can come to raise issues with me. We should be proud of lobbying in our democracy. It enriches all our activities as parliamentarians.
I am pleased to hear the progress that the Government have made on transparency. I welcome the fact that all Conservative Cabinet Ministers list the details of the meetings they hold with a wide range of organisations, and in particular the fact that they name the private companies which employ public affairs representatives to come and lobby on behalf of their organisations. That is an advance in terms of transparency and I should have thought that the shadow Cabinet would welcome the opportunity to show that level of transparency as well.
Many of the issues being raised today are ones that we as MPs can address ourselves—[Interruption.] I am being heckled from the Opposition Front Bench. Yes, I am a Parliamentary Private Secretary. I have taken it upon myself to publish all the meetings I have with paid public affairs professionals and organisations that lobby me, either in the constituency or here. We as parliamentarians are entirely free to do that, and we can take the opportunity to shed some transparency and show our constituents that lobbying is not only open to them but is very much part of the work of an MP.
In the first month that I did that, I highlighted the fact that I had had meetings with, for example, the National Farmers Union. NFU representatives are extremely effective lobbyists on behalf of farmers in my constituency. They are extremely knowledgeable in a specialised area, and it is very important that an MP in an agricultural constituency such as mine listens to what they have to say on a wide range of agricultural issues. I agree that when I meet a paid public affairs professional, whether for a public affairs firm or employed by an organisation, I can reveal to my constituents that I have had such a meeting. That is not something that we as MPs are not able to do.
That brings me to the main point that I want to make in this argument. There has been much discussion today about what the Government ought to be doing, but as we heard from the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, there is much that we as parliamentarians can do to ensure that the public are aware of what we do, know when we meet with lobbyists and understand that lobbying is an inherent part of our democracy. That transparency could be emphasised in some of the other things that Parliament does. For example, not everybody knows that all-party parliamentary groups must publish who is sponsoring that group. They also have to publish when they work with an MP to take a room—the House of Commons accounts must show who hired the room.
Transparency in relation to early-day motions would also be healthy. I wonder whether colleagues will support me on this. I can honestly say that I have so far resisted signing a single early-day motion. We have seen how they are sometimes used by lobbyists as a way of showing that they have done something in Parliament, when in reality it is not a particularly effective tool. Some colleagues are more enthusiastic about early-day motions than others. That is another area where we as a Parliament and as MPs could do more to show transparency.
What do we say about organisations such as 38 Degrees? That organisation has done a wonderful job in bringing to our democratic attention a wide range of views held across the e-mail communication channel. Given that it plays such an active role in encouraging our constituents to lobby us on a wide range of issues, it would be interesting and informative to know how such an organisation is able to pay public affairs professionals and others to encourage constituents to write to their MPs. That is the level of transparency for which we as parliamentarians could take responsibility, rather than just relying on the Government to pass legislation. Such transparency is a matter for us as MPs to consider. We can do these things as individuals. We do not need to rely on legislation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that lobbyists, particularly in the charitable sector, should show some responsibility? Quite often I receive a fistful of postcards from a particular charity, purportedly from my constituents who have signed these cards, but when I write back to those constituents with a response to the postcard campaign, they often say, “I don’t know anything about this”, and we find out that somebody’s family has put in four or five cards on behalf of other people. A little more responsibility needs to be shown in that respect.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have had the same experience. I then have to dig into my files and discover the original document. I send that back to the constituent, who is often quite surprised to discover that they have been encouraged to lobby me in that way.
What I accept is that the Government are the ones taking the steps to publish meetings with organisations that represent themselves with their public affairs professionals. The Government are doing much more in the way of transparency than the Opposition were able to do in 13 years of power. I would love to see members of the shadow Cabinet publish details of their meetings, and I strongly hope that as a result of my persuasive remarks this afternoon, those are steps that the Opposition will soon take.
The hon. Lady says that the Government have taken great steps on transparency, so will she encourage them to publish the pre-1997 papers relating to devolution legislation, which should be open and transparent for the people of Scotland? I look forward to her support.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a fervent supporter of us all being better off together, so I will support whatever is in the interest of our doing that.
The point I am trying to make is that there is an awful lot that Members of Parliament can do as individuals to help advance the cause of transparency. We should not all sit and wait until legislation is passed. We can take some responsibility in being open and transparent. I look forward to the day when that includes the meetings of the shadow Cabinet.
Like many hon. Members, I am lobbied every day, by my electorate and by people who have an interest in the things that I am interested in as an MP. It is a perfectly honourable process. Provided that it is carried out in an honourable, straightforward and transparent way, lobbying adds to the substance of Parliament and does not detract from it.
However, there is rather more to the issue than simply whether lobbying is carried out in a transparent way. It is a question not just of whether sunlight is the best disinfectant, but whether in addition to sunlight we need Sunlight soap in order to scrub the process clean. That is what the public remain concerned about. As hon. Members have said, it is not just about the transparency of lobbying, but about the way in which it is carried out, the secrecy of substantial elements of it and the influence that is brought to bear as a result of certain arrangements that lobbyists can make regarding resources, access and various other things. Those concerns relate not only to third-party lobbyists but are across the board.
Perhaps we ought to apply a comparative principle in devising what we want to achieve by having a register of lobbyists. If we think about it for a moment, we realise that what we—the parties set up in this House—do in seeking votes is lobby the electorate, and we must do so in a reasonable, bounded and temperate way. A number of sanctions have been laid down in law for a very long time to ensure that lobbying of the electorate is restrained and that we do not go beyond those bounds. They are known as the electoral offences.
There is the offence of bribery. As far as lobbying is concerned, if a Member of this House was asked, “Would you like to be a director of my company? I’ll give you £24,000”, that is a very straightforward approximation of the offence of bribery as it relates to this House. There is also the offence of treating, which means saying to the electorate, “I’ll buy you a slap-up dinner, and drinks at the bar are on us, provided you vote for us.” The parallel, as far as our affairs are concerned, would be offering a week’s holiday or substantial trips around the world in order to exercise some advantage.
That is a really important point, because there is a distinction between what happens in this place and what happens in local government, for example. If I was serving on a planning committee and owned a building firm, it would not be good enough for me simply to say, “I declare an interest”; I would not be able to take any part. All that happens here is that people declare an interest, but they are still taking money from private health care companies and then voting through the Health and Social Care Bill.
My hon. Friend emphasises the power of Sunlight soap in other parts of the body politic, as opposed to our proceedings.
There are two other main electoral offences that relate to our lobbying of the electorate, and the Secretary of State has referred to one in relation to the content of his proposed Bill. He said that we want to know who is lobbying us and that the Government will legislate to fill that gap. That is the offence of personation. We need to know who is exercising the vote. If we were to try to defraud the electorate by having someone vote in place of the person who really had the vote, an electoral offence would be committed.
The final major electoral offence is that of undue influence. That is the parallel offence that is wholly absent from the proposed legislation as it relates to our proceedings. Undue influence is not about whether someone is paid or given a weekend away, or whether someone else stands in their place; it is about someone exercising various means of persuading another person to vote for them that are beyond the cause of reasonable lobbying. That seems to me to be the crux of the issue. The proposals do not provide for an overall register of all lobbyists, with sanctions and the ability to throw people off it, properly to take account of the question of undue influence in the lobbying process.
I am sorry that that appears to be the way the proposed legislation is proceeding, because it could easily be fixed by some fairly brief discussions between the parties. After all, this is a matter that affects not just one particular party or Government. The legislation needs to stand the test of different Governments of different parties. It is an issue that concerns all parties and this House. Therefore, it seems to me that above all the legislation must be proceeded with on the basis of what the parties think is the right way forward.
It is shocking that the Government have taken a year to respond to the all-party Select Committee inquiry on lobbying and what can be done about it. That is way out of line with what is normally expected of Government responses to Select Committee reports. That ought to be rectified immediately. Pre-legislative scrutiny of what is proposed would not derail the legislation unduly. For example, the Energy and Climate Change Committee was recently given six weeks to consider the entire draft Energy Bill before it came to the House. Pre-legislative scrutiny would give a vital opportunity to get something that works across the House.
I am a little disappointed that much of this afternoon’s debate has been something of a knockabout rather than about principle. I have tried to inject into the proceedings a little focus on what we are really about, which is principles for legislation. Between us, we must ensure that the legislation works for the future. If that takes a few weeks of discussions between parties to get it right, and if there is a little give and take with regard to how it will work, that will be a good thing for the House. If it ensures that undue influence is not exercised in the House by lobbyists, if it is clear about who should be included in the rules, and if the public are confident that the right people are included in those rules, that, too, would be a gain for us all.
I hope that the Government will not decide this afternoon that this is about bashing the Opposition’s motion and getting their amendment through; it is about trying to get something through that is good for us all. If that means both sides laying the motion on the Table in order to proceed, perhaps that would be a good thing for the House. I think that above all we need to get the legislation on lobbying right so that everyone benefits in future. It is not about one party scoring a few points from the other in the short term.
Today of all days, I should draw Members’ attention to my register entry on this topic.
At the beginning of the debate, there seemed little chance of consensus, but as it has gone on issues have emerged on which Members on both sides of the House can be pleased that progress has been made. We have, however, either underplayed or glossed over three specific points, the first of which is obviously one of definition. Despite numerous speeches on the topic, we are still pretty unclear about precisely who should or might be caught by the proposals. Secondly, we have, I believe, slightly underplayed the positive contribution made by lobbyists to many of our lives—not only in the House, but in our constituencies. Thirdly, we have made some progress, albeit not much, on how the matter can be properly resolved.
We need to give the greatest care and longest time to the problem of definition. We have touched on the role of pressure groups, which include charities, as well as industry representatives—a phrase that could cover a multitude of sins. Local groups could be well funded or well advised or simply put themselves together on the spur of the moment to lobby us in our constituencies on a particular interest or issue. The words “professional lobbyist” have been used without much qualification during the debate. More clarity on who would come under that description is crucial if we are to get things right.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the need for clarity from the Government about definition. Has he seen the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report, especially its recommendation that the Government should
“clarify whether its definition of lobbying includes lobbying advice, or only direct representation, to avoid confusion regarding who should, and should not register as a lobbyist”?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I have seen the report; as I am still a member of that Committee, from time to time I read our reports. I take his point, but if he will forgive me I will come back to it in my closing remarks. If I forget, no doubt he will intervene.
Does my constituency neighbour agree that we also need to look at the relationship between the Government and big business? Earlier this year, the World Development Movement produced a document stating that a third of Ministers had links to finance or energy companies involved in the exploitation of fossil fuels. We have not seen much movement towards creating a low carbon economy in the UK. Does the hon. Gentleman understand why people are concerned?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I entirely respect his view. I sometimes think we underplay the obstacles that outside interest groups have to go through to get to and influence Ministers. We are talking about creating not only new legislation, but legislation on top of an already stringent set of rules. Again, I am not trying to duck the issue, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s point when I come to how we should resolve all these differences.
I turn to what I call “donor lobbyists”, the strongest part of whose argument appears to be the strength of their bank balances. I am interested that the Labour party has made concessions on that, particularly with regard to the influence of trade unions. For some time, a concern among Members on the Government Benches has been how we could have a register of lobbyists that did not include everybody. Members on both sides of the House have made progress on that during this debate.
I shall make only two further points, the first of which is our strange obsession with what we seem to call these days “professional lobbyists” without any real qualification of what they might be, although the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee went some distance towards that. Plenty of people consider themselves to be professional lobbyists but have many other strings to their bows and do many other things for the organisations they represent. Are they or might they be considered professional lobbyists under the proposals? We have yet to find out.
It strikes me as odd that we seem to gloss over some of the big organisations. Tesco has been mentioned, probably unfairly, as an organisation that might not fall under the proposals because everybody knows what it stands for. Actually, that is not right. Tesco might come into this building to lobby on fuel prices, planning, food labelling or any number of issues that come under its jurisdiction. We have to be careful about drawing some random arbitrary line above which some people go. Rather than re-establish public confidence in what we do, we could end up causing great disappointment to those interested in the proposals and do ourselves considerable harm in the process. Likewise, there are plenty of well financed, organised and documented pressure groups—campaigning against or in favour of major wind farm developments or things such as HS2—that are unquestionably engaged in very sophisticated lobbying.
It will not surprise hon. Members to hear that I want more lobbyists; I think they are a good thing and bring great variety and strength as long as we treat them with sufficient recognition and responsibility. Doing anything that might deter people from being able to lobby us pretty well however they wanted would be a counter-productive road down which we should not go.
We seem to have overlooked some existing legislation—the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Whenever I have wanted to know what has been going on in the darkened corners of ministerial offices, I have simply put in a freedom of information request and have probably acquired most of the information I have wanted about who is meeting whom and on what basis. Let us not reinvent something that already exists and to which every member of the public has perfect access.
Lastly, I want to touch on two things. First, there is the positive contribution of lobbying, which some of us seem to have slightly overlooked. Personally, my life would grind to an absolute halt if lobbyists representing all sorts of different groups did not supply me with lots of useful, expert information on a range of subjects and completely free to the taxpayer. If we had to get our offices to pay for that information, the taxpayer might have something to say about that. Let us not for one minute make it more difficult for responsible organisations —charities, industry pressure groups or anything else—to provide us with a constant stream of high quality information, which makes us more likely to produce decent legislation.
Having read the Government’s amendment to the Opposition proposal, I am confident that we are pointing in the right direction on resolutions. We need to avoid reforms that are simply a partial list of names on a piece of paper. We must not over-regulate a responsible industry; that might unintentionally make the life of the charitable sector, in which I have some interest, all the more difficult. If we end up in a situation where people who donate to charities or contribute to charitable activity think that their donations may become the subject of political debate or some public declaration, that might make them, for all sorts of sensible reasons, much less inclined to make their generous contributions to those charities. If the consequence of our trying to resolve a political issue in this building is that we end up deterring people from supporting valuable charities, we will not have done a good job in the eyes of the public, but a very bad one.
The issue gets to the heart of the complexities of the debate. I hope we can reflect on the views held by Members on both sides of the House, and particularly the view of the Chair of the Select Committee. We should turn a deaf ear to calls for great haste to answer the question of why we have not done something.
We can see from a handful of the contributions this afternoon that we could legislate in great haste and make an absolute horlicks of this. It would be much more sensible for us to work our way steadily through the issues raised, particularly that of definition. If we do not do that, rather than having been able to tick a box and sign off an aspect of the coalition agreement, we will have created a situation in which, when the next lobbying scandal comes along—and it unquestionably will—people will ask what the register was all about and why it did not prevent the scandal from occurring. We will have to look them in the eye and say, “Of course it never stood a chance”.
We must take time. The Opposition proposal, dare I say it, is a little cynical; the Government amendment makes a great deal more sense. The Government are right not to be bullied or rushed into producing something hastily that proves incomplete. I have no difficulty, with all my history, in recommending that those who are interested should vote against the Opposition proposal and in favour of the Government amendment.
There have been some interesting and thoughtful contributions to this debate. We must acknowledge the Prime Minister’s perception when he predicted that lobbying would be
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
However, despite the bluster and sticking out of chests on the Government Benches, the coalition has had three years to bring in legislation, but a register of lobbyists was again noticeably absent from the recent Queen’s Speech. Let us be honest: it was only the most recent scandal exposed in the “Panorama” documentary that led the Government to consider introducing a Bill before the summer.
Let me read out a quote:
“It is vital that we act quickly and decisively to restore the reputation of politics. Too much unacceptable behaviour has gone unchecked for too long, from excessive expenses to sleazy lobbying practices. The people of Britain have looked on in horror as revelations have stripped away the dignity of Parliament, leaving millions of voters detached from the political process, devoid of trust in the political classes, and disillusioned with our system of government.”
That is a statement from the Conservative party manifesto; it is not very often that I agree with anything I read in there. That was the commitment that the Conservatives made in recognising the problem and that something needed to be done about it. So what has happened? We have had three years of Conservative-led coalition government and we have seen precious little action in relation to that commitment. We saw the former Foreign Secretary resign over the Werritty scandal and the cash-for-access case in which the Conservative party treasurer, Peter Cruddas, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), offered “premier league” access to the Prime Minister for £250,000 a year. It is not a distinguished record. I am not shirking our responsibilities. The documentary that was broadcast quite recently was shocking. It related to one Member from this place and three from the other place, two of whom were members of my party. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Some sanction needs to be applied against such individuals. Clearly, there is the ultimate sanction for a Member of the House of Commons, but for those in the House of Lords there is no really effective sanction.
There are a number of things we have not done. Despite the warm words from Government Front Benchers, we have not curbed the improper influence of lobbyists, changed the ministerial code to bar Ministers and officials from meeting MPs on issues where the MP is paid to lobby, or required companies to report their annual spending on lobbying. I think that a Liberal Democrat Member referred to that; indeed, it was a promise that the Lib Dems made.
There can be no trust in politics when the public believe that politicians are for hire to the highest bidder. After the most recent scandal, all Members of Parliament holding directorships, advisory positions and consultancy roles are viewed with suspicion, whether that is justified or not. I want to put down a marker about second jobs and MPs spending in excess of 20 hours a week working outside Parliament. That raises questions about whose interests they are really serving. I do not have time to work 20 hours outside this place; I put all my efforts into representing my constituents. I do not know how Members can take up directorships and consultancies. That must put a question mark into the minds of their constituents; if not, it should.
All Governments have been tainted by the revolving door of former Ministers and special advisers who, in retirement, find themselves in lucrative jobs with companies they once dealt with as Ministers or advisers. That point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) in his Westminster Hall Adjournment debate on 2 November 2011. In my opinion, this is nothing short of corruption—the same kind of thing that we would condemn in other countries across the world.
The cosy relationship between some politicians and lobbyists was clear to see when the Prime Minister invited professional corporate and private health care lobbyist Nick Seddon into the heart of Government. Whose interests will Nick Seddon serve following his previous roles as a deputy director of Reform, which is listed as a free-market think-tank extensively funded by private health care and insurance companies, and as head of communications at private health care company Circle? Does that name ring any bells with anybody? At the heart of Government, corporate interests are over-represented to the detriment of the public. We do not want to be running a corporate plutocracy in the United Kingdom. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) for his article in today’s Morning Star. It is an excellent piece that makes some terrific points about the excesses of corporate influence in the United States.
I recently witnessed this kind of corporate influence in action during the east coast main line debate. No matter how much public opposition exists against the privatisation of rail services, a Government who have surrounded themselves with advisers and lobbyists with corporate interests and connections remain fundamentally wedded to a policy of open competition in all public services, prioritising profits over people. Where is the voice of the public being represented?
I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will, like me, have received many hundreds of e-mails and representations from constituents regarding the Government’s proposals on plain cigarette packaging. I found it absolutely extraordinary that within weeks of the appointment of professional lobbyist Lynton Crosby, who had apparently lobbied against plain tobacco packaging in Australia, as the Conservatives’ election strategist, there was a change in policy. The links with private health care companies are wide and extensive in this House. As I said in an intervention, the Our NHS campaign reports that one in four Conservative Lords and at least 58 Conservative MPs have recent or current financial links to companies or individuals connected to private health care. Over 30 of the companies who are listed as corporate partners of Reform have recent or current financial links to Lords and MPs.
It is not the miners but corporate lobbyists at the heart of Government who are the enemy within. They undermine our democracy, which is increasingly becoming a plutocracy with access to Government and decision making going to the highest bidder and corporate interests at the expense of the public.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully. I think that he needs to be careful, and the whole House needs to take care, in defining who lobbyists are and what their interests are. Several times he cited Reform, which is an independent think-tank with a cross-party board set up in the same way as many other think-tanks across politics, such as, in the past, the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Smith Institute, which have been aligned with the Labour party. That is very different from talking about someone who is a paid-for corporate lobbyist working for a professional lobbying company or an individual company. We must be careful about this.
I am grateful for that intervention. The point I am trying to make is that nothing is always as it first appears. Quite frequently, all-party groups are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. Often, think-tanks with certain financial backers are coming up with certain policies, and when we look at who is funding them we can see why that is happening. Perhaps I could have selected a better example. If I was wrong, I acknowledge that.
The overwhelming majority of lobbyists understand and even welcome the need for a statutory register. They understand that in a democracy, the Government need to be open to influence from all parts of society. I have always considered myself to be the voice of the unheard. There is nobody else to speak up for the people I represent. It is right that we should speak for the smallest community group as well as listening to the point of view of the largest commercial operator. We should hear from everyone, from individual citizens to multinationals. We want an engaged, interactive citizens’ democracy. Without robust statutory regulation, the perception will continue that big business, the powerful and the few are able to gain private access to the decision makers at the expense of everyone else.
I hope that the motion will receive the support of the whole House, given its emphasis on cross-party negotiations, the implementation of a statutory register and a clear code of conduct that is backed by sanctions in the event of serious breaches of the code. I will leave it at that to give others a chance to speak.
It is a great pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). I learned that the Morning Star still exists. I confess that I was unaware of that. I thought that it had gone with the Berlin wall and all that.
As so often in this Chamber, we are not discussing a new problem. The issue of lobbying and undue influence goes back into the mists of time. Delving back not too far, who can forget Sir John Trevor, a former Speaker of the House who was expelled both from the speakership and from Parliament for accepting a 1,000 guinea bribe from the City of London to promote a Bill on orphanages? Interestingly, the Chairman of the Bill Committee, Mr Hungerford, received only 20 guineas for his service. He, too, was expelled from the House. I reflect that the Speaker was worth almost 40 times as much as the Chairman of a Committee. I wonder whether the relativities have changed in this more modern age.
Sir John Trevor and Mr Hungerford were expelled by this House for being unduly lobbied. Interestingly, they were unduly lobbied by another arm of the state: the corporation of London. It is worth bearing it in mind that, contrary to what the hon. Member for Easington said, it is not only wicked businesses that are involved in lobbying; it is something that happens across society. Everyone has an axe to grind regarding the issues that face this House. They therefore come to us to lobby. In and of itself, that is a perfectly legitimate activity.
As my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) so rightly said, it is an historic right of every one of our constituents to come to Central Lobby, demand our presence and tell us their views on whatever subject is important to them. That is a wonderful historic right. It is a pity that people do not know about it and do not use it more. We ought to encourage our constituents to come and lobby us in that way. There is a nobility in lobbying that must not be lost in the midst of the discussion about what is, in effect, corruption. Let us try to use the terms differently and not allow lobbying to become a polite term for criminality, dishonesty and corruption.
Within British politics, there are essentially two types of lobbying. There is the lobbying of Members of Parliament, which is perhaps the triumph of hope over experience, whereby people come to see somebody such as myself, a junior Back-Bench MP, and say that they want me to do this, that and the next thing and to change legislation, thinking that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House hang on my every word. Sadly, I have to tell such people that that is not quite how it works. MPs have the ability to debate and argue, but not necessarily to change the course of the world. Then there is the lobbying of Ministers, who have a much greater and more direct Executive power—a decision-making power, rather than merely an influencing power. The two types of lobbying need to be regulated differently and separately.
There is a difference between those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Government Front Bench. Opposition Front Benchers have the hope and possibly the expectation of power. Those on the Treasury Bench have the reality of power and lobbying them can have a direct influence on what is happening. They should therefore be subject to a higher standard of openness and transparency than Opposition Front Benchers, who ought to be entitled to their smoke-filled rooms, although as they are socialists, the rooms will have no smoke in them, because they do not approve of that sort of thing. You know what I mean, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Given the difference between Government and Parliament, we need to legislate only for Government. Parliament has all the powers that it needs to regulate its own affairs, if only we had the courage to use them. We have a Committee of Privileges and a Committee on Standards. We are entitled to expel Members who misbehave. We may do so not according to a detailed set of rules, but according to whether we believe, as a House, that they have undermined the reputation of the House and have not behaved like honourable Members. Such a decision is not justiciable in any court in the land because we are the High Court of Parliament. The regulation of our own affairs is not challengeable in the other House, as was established by the Bradlaugh case, when an atheist was refused the right to sit in Parliament.
We have the right as a Chamber to admit and expel Members. When Members abuse the rules, we ought to exercise that power and clear up politics directly ourselves. That does not require legislation to come through before the summer recess; it simply requires us to have the willpower and the backbone to do what we are able to do already.
The House of Lords, when considering what it could do about the expenses scandal, discovered that it had the right to imprison a peer for a Session. It decided that it must therefore also have the power to suspend a peer for a Session. However, it may only do that Session by Session. It cannot expel a peer because a peerage comes from the sovereign, whereas our position in this House comes from the people to whom we can be sent back. To get rid of a peerage requires primary legislation. That was done in 1917 to remove a group of peers who were fighting for the Germans and the Austrians during the first world war. It is open to this House to do that with the other place. We may pass an Act of Parliament to remove a category of peers who have committed offences. The House of Lords itself can suspend peers Session by Session. It can repeat such a suspension if it believes that the offence is egregious enough.
This House also has the power to punish individuals outside the House. If people are in contempt of Parliament, we have the ultimate power to imprison them. I am not proposing that we should use that power extensively, but if lobbyists try to bribe or corrupt Members of Parliament, it is not unreasonable that Parliament herself should impose the punishment on those lobbyists. That would be a matter of us regulating ourselves, using the power given to us by the British people, rather than farming it out, through legislation, to the courts to decide whether parliamentary privilege has been breached.
When the Culture, Media and Sport Committee took evidence during the phone-hacking inquiry, we found that many of Parliament’s powers to summon and even imprison people for misleading Parliament or for being in contempt of Parliament are historical. It is not certain what their legal status is and whether they have been superseded by subsequent legislation.
The power of the House to regulate its own affairs is one of the fundamental building blocks of the constitution. That power cannot be given up, except by this House voluntarily surrendering it, which it has not done. No court in this land can question a decision made by this House to regulate its own affairs. It is arguable that the European courts could, but we can take away their right to do so by a simple piece of legislation. If we are to legislate, therefore, it should be to reinforce our self-regulatory powers and to remove the possibility of challenge. That would clarify what we can do, and we should then go ahead and do it.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. My point about Sir John Trevor is that we should use the power this House has to expel a Member for taking a bribe. That is not the same as a criminal offence. Sir John was entitled, had he wished and had his electorate wanted him back, to stand for Parliament again. As it happened, the King promoted him to become Master of the Rolls, so he did not do too badly out of it in the end.
There is a difference between the penal power of Parliament and statute law and the requirement of an offence for a statutory punishment. There is no need for a specific offence for Parliament to act, which is a benefit because it is easier for us to expel a Member, and it leaves the person expelled with a right of appeal to his constituents. The British people would then be the ones to make the final decision. They would be entitled to decide whether the lobbying the Member had been caught up with was of a kind that they approved or disapproved of. Ultimately, it is right that we should trust the democratic forces of the electorate to judge our behaviour rather than parcelling it out to the judiciary, who I think are in a less strong position to judge whether what has happened is acceptable, right and proper in the political context in which it has taken place.
It is important to remember that we can also punish those who are in contempt of Parliament. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) that we need to use those powers to remind people that they still exist. By allowing them to wither on the vine, we have weakened the ability of Parliament to clean up its own Act. Had we done so over the expenses situation, we would not be in the sorry state we are now in with politicians being held in very low esteem.
I urge the Government, rather than rushing hastily to legislation, to consider whether the powers that already exist can be used to clean up our own act, and can be used in a way that overcomes the difficulties of definition that the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), the shadow spokesman, spoke very clearly of in his speech. That is the centre point of legislating, but it is the hardest point to define.
I will leave hon. Ladies and Gentlemen with this thought: what happens when a constituent comes, accompanied by his accountant, as happened to me last week, to complain that he has been defrauded and wants me to do something to help him? His accountant is paid, is representing his views, and might be the only member of his firm, but he is clearly lobbying me. And then, what do we think of the Whips, who lobby me on an almost daily basis on whether I am to vote Aye or No, and are often successful in their desire to get me going in the right direction? Should we have a register of them to ensure that their behaviour is even more proper, benign and pious than it already is?
It is always a pleasure, although not always easy, to follow the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). He is always informative and entertaining.
I have been a Member of this House since May 2010. When I was considering standing for selection as a candidate, I had to think carefully about whether this was something I wanted to do. I had concerns about the male culture and ethos of this place, and the impact that that would have on me as a woman MP. On that, my worst fears have been more than realised. I also had concerns about leaving a relatively successful career in education where I was relatively well respected to become a Member of Parliament, when the path to Parliament is hardly littered with respect and trust. I think we all know the reasons for that: it is not just the scandal in the previous Parliament but the view, widely felt out there among sections of the public, that we are all in it for ourselves and that election to Parliament is an open door to all kinds of experiences and funding not available to the general public.
I know that the vast majority of Members of this House are here because they genuinely want to make a difference to the lives of the people we represent. We may do that in different ways and we may have different priorities, but that is the reason why we are here. Scandals connected with lobbying, like those highlighted in the press in recent weeks, simply reinforce the negative view of politics and politicians, and the view that the relationship between lobbyists and politicians is far too close and is built upon mutual greed.
It is going to be really difficult to regain the trust of the public, but surely a good start is to put in place a statutory register of professional lobbyists that is backed up by regulation and includes a clear definition of what we mean by lobbying. When I say a clear definition, I mean a definition that will make sense to the people who vote for us. That should not just include third-party lobbyists, but in-house lobbyists and anyone who lobbies for commercial gain. Our constituents understand that the majority of all-party parliamentary groups provide information for parliamentarians, and work to influence MPs on issues of concern. All-party groups that support the work of parliamentarians in education, care leavers, social mobility, multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and autism—all groups that I am happy to say I am involved in—and the charities and even companies that support those groups, are not lobbying Members with anything other than good intentions. It is right that those groups have access to politicians, and that is what our constituents would expect.
However, it is also clear to our constituents that we need regulation for all-party groups funded by private companies and for organisations that are bidding for Government contracts, offering lucrative jobs to former Ministers, MPs and Peers, and whose profits depend on Government policy. At its most basic, this issue is about the rich and powerful gaining access to those in government who make decisions, very often financial decisions, that can affect a company’s bottom line. That access is not available to the rest of the population. Although we may never be able to stop that completely, it is important that we regulate it and make it transparent.
I have to admit that I have received very little of what I would consider to be lobbying for commercial gain, but that is probably because I tend to involve myself in areas of activity that do not attract lucrative contracts. However, as the Government privatise more areas of health and education it will be harder to avoid. It is therefore ever more important that we have a statutory register in place that includes not only a clear definition of professional lobbying, but a code of conduct that is so clear that our constituents will understand it and approve of it, including a headline that forbids inappropriate financial relations between lobbyists and parliamentarians. I know that that is difficult. As the hon. Member for North East Somerset said, this is the crux of the matter. It will be incredibly difficult to define, but we know exactly what we are talking about and so do our constituents.
We need strong sanctions for both parliamentarians and lobbyists where breaches occur. It might just make a difference to lobbyists if they knew that if they breached or even attempted to breach the code, they could be prevented from working in Parliament again, and that in the most serious cases matters could be referred to the police and ultimately result in jail sentences. Despite the Prime Minister’s promises that he would deal with this, all he has done is to kick it into the long grass and he has only retrieved it following yet another scandal. However, I am less concerned about how we got here. Let us be glad that we have got here and let us get it right this time.
My concern is that the Government’s proposals are late, are weak and will not stop the most insidious and lucrative lobbying. The Government, either inadvertently or deliberately, failed to deal with the real problem.
Does the hon. Lady agree that we must proceed with some care in terms of how we put together a register of lobbyists because, in the most recent scandals, it has not been lobbyists seeking to entrap parliamentarians but journalists masquerading as lobbyists? Many people who consider themselves to be lobbyists as part of a voluntary registered scheme already would never engage in such practices.
Absolutely, which is why I said at the beginning that lobbying has a long tradition in this place and should continue. But we need to deal with that lobbying, or as the hon. Member for North East Somerset said, that corruption, which is about gaining commercially.
Finally, I want to say that Labour did put a voluntary code of practice in place in 2009 but, like so many other voluntary codes of practice, it simply did not work. We need a statutory code of practice; something that has teeth and will bite. Our constituents need to see that, this time, we mean business. That will happen only if there is a statutory code of practice in place that works, so that those who breach it—MPs, peers and lobbyists—are dealt with severely. This will not in itself reinstate trust in politics, but it will be a good place to start.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass). I should start with a confession; I am married to a lobbyist. He is a consultant NHS psychiatrist and chair of the Westminster liaison committee for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and provides advice on mental health to all political parties. Having made that confession, I shall confess that I am also a lobbyist; I lobby shamelessly on behalf of my constituents in South Devon.
All of us would agree that lobbying is at the heart of our democracy and the way it works. It is a tragedy that lobbying has acquired a dirty raincoat image. I suggest that we should not throw the raincoat away; we should give the raincoat a wash. I welcome the statement from the Leader of the House that this is all about transparency in representation to decision-makers. But the word “transparency” has become devalued currency. We are talking about the kind of transparency that one sees on an ambulance window, allowing people to see out but not to see in.
We need to look at how transparency applies in our democracy today. At the heart of the matter is the question: who are the decision-makers in our democracy today? As a Back-Bench MP, I find that very many of the decisions made in Parliament take place in rooms to which we are not invited. That is important. Who influences the decisions in those rooms? Very often, in this day and age, it is election strategists. I have no objection to election strategists but if we are to have transparency in representation to decision-makers, we must have transparency in who election strategists, for all political parties, are also representing outside that very important role.
If an election strategist is also working as a paid lobbyist on behalf of big alcohol, big tobacco and other interests around the world, it is very important that people can see what those interests are. It is important that that extends to both Front Benches, and it would be greatly to the credit of Opposition Front Benchers if they accepted that they should also keep a diary of who meets them. This has to apply across the board to all those making decisions on our behalf in Parliament.
I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) has returned to his place because I completely agree with him that there is no legislation in this House that could not be improved with pre-legislative scrutiny. I urge the Leader of the House to look at this important point. What would be the harm in bringing this to a Committee to allow not only Members of this House to make sensible recommendations for change, but people outside? We will have a better Bill if we have pre-legislative scrutiny. Let us not be afraid to allow people outside the House to see what we do in this place and who makes representations to us, and let us have a better democracy.
This has been an extremely interesting debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) set out, we hope that this debate will prompt the Government to recognise the urgent need to introduce a statutory register for all who lobby professionally and a clear code of conduct, including a ban on financial relationships between lobbyists and parliamentarians and clear sanctions where the code is breached. Those sanctions should ultimately include preventing serious offenders from practising by removing them from the register.
In his opening remarks, the Leader of the House did not explain why the Government were against a clear statutory code of conduct for lobbyists, so it would be good to hear more from the Deputy Leader of the House about that and to hear him explain how a register that covers only third-party lobbyists will clarify the Tesco problem—to paraphrase the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who is no longer in his place—and help us to find out what big organisations are lobbying the Government about. It is not often clear or self-apparent what an organisation is lobbying about, given their range of interests.
As our motion makes clear, we are willing to work on a cross-party basis, so that all our collective interests can be served. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) and the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). It is in the long-term interests of both sides of the House, as well as of those we seek to serve, that we toughen up the rules on lobbying and that we get them right. As several hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), made clear, it is important to remember that much of the lobbying we get is critical to helping MPs do their jobs: the letter from constituents demanding improvements in patient care, the quiet word from small businesses about the failure of big banks to lend money. These are all forms of lobbying, and they all benefit our democracy by contributing to political debate.
Nevertheless, the growth in the amount of evidence on the scale of lobbying and its ability to influence Ministers makes it imperative that we make progress. Lobbying reform is now essential if the Government are to retain the benefit of the doubt among our constituents that they serve the common good and that Ministers are not subservient to the private interests of millionaires and big business. As my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) made clear, the public’s concern is that much of the lobbying industry is hidden from public view. A lobbyist is not obliged to identify who they are, what they do, the sources of their finance, who their ultimate client is and how much is being spent. In short, there is no requirement on lobbyists or those who want lobbying done to operate in the open, in the light, where their conversations and the responses of those they lobby can be scrutinised more effectively.
The best lobbyists, it is true, operate according to an ethical code, but comparatively few are signed up to the various codes that exist, so without clear legal force and teeth, such voluntary codes of conduct will clearly not be taken seriously enough by all in the industry. There have been a series of revelations about the scale of big business’s influence on key Government legislation, such as, for example, the Leader of the House’s disastrous Health and Social Care Act 2012. I am not against the lobbying of Government by big business—I welcome it on the same basis as I welcome all lobbying—but it has to be done in the open. It would appear, however, as a result of the Government’s proposals, that lobbyists working directly for big business groups will not be required to register—an extraordinary situation—to abide by any code of conduct or to spell out what they are lobbying about.
Already the concern exists that too often it is the voice of one or two corporate lobbyists that gets heard in Downing street, the Department of Health and throughout Whitehall, not the voice of ordinary people in Britain. There are other international examples of clearer, tougher measures being taken on lobbying, notably in the United States, in Canada and in Australia, all of which have tougher legislation than Ministers are proposing here.
Ministers claim that because records of ministerial meetings are published, in-house lobbyists do not need to be included on any register. It is worth remembering, however, that The Independent carried out an analysis of who Ministers met in the first 18 months of their time in office. Out of 4,000-plus declared ministerial meetings recorded by the Government, only seven were with lobbying firms. Perhaps the Ministers did not have much contact with lobbyists, but that is difficult to believe given last year’s revelations about McKinsey’s influence on the Bill introduced by the then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), and about Fred Michel’s influence on the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. A register that requires only a few lobbying firms to register will not represent a great leap forward for transparency.
After three years in office, this Government ought to be making more progress on lobbying reform. Things should be getting better, yet lobbying scandals keep on coming, and Ministers are failing to turn things round. The Government are standing up for the wrong people—in this case, the secretive in-house lobbyists—instead of for ordinary people. We want change, real transparency, a statutory code of conduct and a requirement for all lobbyists to register. That is not much to ask; it is what the British people want, and it is time the Government delivered it.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on initiating the debate and on giving the coalition Government an opportunity to set out how we are tackling third-party influence. I am happy to congratulate them, but I must gently chastise them too. Their motion is the most egregious attempt to jump on a bandwagon that I have seen in recent years. They call on the Government to introduce a Bill on lobbying before the summer recess, when we had already announced such a Bill two weeks before. At the same time, and in the same breath, for the first time in three years they are calling for cross-party talks when they know that such talks would make the task of delivering a Bill by the summer recess virtually impossible. They will of course have an opportunity to demonstrate their desire for a consensual, cross-party approach as the Bill makes its passage through the House, and we look forward to their wholehearted and constructive support.
I should like to thank the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for the valuable scrutiny role that his Committee plays. I know that he will not be entirely satisfied with the way in which the Government intend to proceed, given the report that the Committee has produced, but I believe that our proposals are well thought out, perfectly formed and tightly focused. We will not adopt the full-blown register that he is seeking, but I hope that our proposals on a third-party register and those on ministerial reporting—which will require any meeting with an in-house lobbyist to be reported, with a description of the discussions—will provide the transparency that he wants.
Speaking on behalf of the Select Committee, which studied the proposals in some detail, I am not proposing that the Government should accept the things that we said in our report. I am saying that the House as a whole should be given, say, three weeks under the auspices of the Select Committee to examine the Bill seriously, preferably before its Second Reading but even during an interregnum after that point, so that any Member, anyone in Government and anyone in the lobbying profession can make their views plain. Whatever shape the Bill is in—I am sure that it is perfectly formed—we might be able to improve it slightly through such an examination.
I want to make some progress now, and to comment on the points raised in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) ably demonstrated in his opening remarks that lobbying is a fact of life for Members of Parliament and that we are clearly not seeking to ban the activity, but to maximise the transparency of it.
My heart goes out to my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) as he travels around the 3,800 square miles of his constituency. He cannot get round his constituency in the way that I can on my bicycle, but my constituency is only 25 square miles. He highlighted the important role of the ministerial code, and referred to section 8.14, which deals with ministerial reporting. His desire—one that I would share with him—is to use that as a mechanism for improving transparency. We as individual Members of Parliament and Ministers can undertake to do that, without the need for legislation.
I will give way later.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) referred to the historical role that central lobbying has to play, and mentioned where the definition of lobbying came from. She set out how she as an individual MP has tackled some of the issues of greater clarity and transparency by publishing on her own website the details of her contacts. People can thus see that all is open and clear.
I think that the Government are in a difficult position: on the one hand we are told that we are not moving ahead swiftly enough, while on the other we are told to make time available for pre-legislative scrutiny. The original proposals were scrutinised heavily, and the Government will come forward with a Bill, many aspects of which will be familiar to the hon. Member for Nottingham North, the Select Committee Chairman, for instance, as they were set out in the original proposals.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to pray in aid the Select Committee when I have been clear, impartial and open with the House about our Select Committee’s scrutiny and the failure of the Government to respond to our report within a year? Is it somehow acceptable for the Minister to pray in aid the Select Committee in pursuit of arguments that he cannot seem to make himself?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I would have given way to the hon. Member for Nottingham North if he had waited his turn.
As I was saying, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire can be reassured that when the Bill is published, there will be clarity and no room for misunderstanding or misconstruing the Government’s intentions when it comes to the definitions of lobbying, who is covered and who is not covered.
I was a little bit alarmed at the beginning of the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) when he seemed to be inviting you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to test the market to see what the going rate for paid representation was. Later, he clarified that that was not what he was suggesting. He raised a serious point about the powers that we have as a House to enforce our own rules. He wanted us to exercise those powers diligently and without hesitation, and I would certainly agree with him on that. We were then given the parliamentary equivalent of a TED talk on parliamentary privilege, which I suggest we put on YouTube for others to view later. Finally, I can give the reassurance that it is not the Government’s intention to include the Whips in the register.
Finally, there was a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who described herself as a lobbyist for her constituents—a role that we all applaud. We should all seek to imitate her in that role. She reinforced the point that both Front-Bench teams should show transparency. We will want to hear more from the Opposition about that.