The consultation document Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists was published earlier this year to gather evidence from experts in the field and members of the public. It asked a number of specific questions, the multiple answers to which are informing policy developments in this area.
Well, my Lords, it does not sound like much action has been taken. Given that the coalition promised to regulate lobbying through a statutory register—in case the noble Lord needs reminding—can he tell us whether it is going to move on this or is it going to wait for the next big scandal before it does so?
My Lords, we are certainly intending to move on this but as the noble Baroness will appreciate if she has looked through the replies to the consultation document and the companion report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place, there is a quite remarkable dissensus among respondents. The Government’s summary of replies to the consultation document remarks at one point, in effect, that a lot of those consulted regard themselves as a legitimate part of the political process but regard everyone else as lobbyists. That is part of the problem. The paid lobbyists are a small part of those with whom we are talking, and they wish charities, think tanks, trade unionists and others also to be included on any register of lobbyists.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the overriding objective must surely be greater transparency? In that regard, while we must obviously avoid excessive complexity because the information has to be accessible and digestible, does he agree that all we really need to know is who is lobbying who about what? The register only goes so far in that respect.
My Lords, the Government have moved some way towards greater transparency in terms of who members of the Government meet. I am amazed by the detail in which I have to account quarterly for who I have met over the previous three months, so at one end we are already being more transparent. Part of the origin of the proposals for a lobbying register during the previous Government was the question of how much money was being paid to these specialist lobbying companies to influence Government. That was the origin of the inquiry. For the first time in my life, I sympathised enormously with the evidence given by the TaxPayers’ Alliance to the inquiry in which it said a narrower definition would be rather better.
Yes, and we have discussed whether I should put down everyone I meet at a party conference. There comes a point where almost the entire political process becomes lobbying. For example, the secretariats of most all-party groups are supported by outside bodies. Are those lobbyists? Is that proper? Should we do away with them? One gets into very deep water quite early on in this field.
There might be no more cakes and wine, I am afraid. Let us be clear: lobbying is an entirely legitimate part of the political process, which would be poorer if we did not have lobbying. The problem is that we have lobbying from professional companies, advocacy groups—many of which are also charities—the CBI, trade unions and others. It is a very complicated area to try to pin down to a single statutory register.
My Lords, that is the narrowest definition and where the Government started. The replies to the consultation have taken us much wider than many of us originally intended to be taken. Certainly, the concern—and I am very struck by this in the documents that I am looking at—and perception that there is undue lobbying is very much about large sums of money being paid to professional companies, very often by foreign Governments.
My Lords, on the question of all-party groups, does the Minister agree that if professional lobbyists insinuate themselves into all-party groups, that is a breach of the standards that we ought to expect, both as regards this House and the wider public? Although we have had several goes at cleaning this up, there is a lot still to be done.
I agree that we have to be very careful about all-party groups. It is a matter for both Houses as much as anything else. However, one might not want to say that Universities UK for example, which happens to assist the All-Party Group for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, is a lobbying company and should not be allowed to support that group. There is a gradation here; one has to think about what is proper and what is not.
There is a voluntary register of public relations companies, which was established in the wake of an earlier inquiry in 2009. However, one of the three bodies that joined that register has now left it. Even within the public relations industry, they disagree among themselves as to who exactly one should be regulating.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is nothing wrong whatever with people and organisations lobbying Members of Parliament and, indeed, lobbying Members of your Lordships’ House, much as though many Members of this House might prefer it not to happen? The important thing is absolute transparency and clear rules about the use of money.
I agree very strongly. We all need to defend the usefulness of representational groups, advocacy groups, think tanks and others in contributing to our information. We all get lots of e-mails from those groups as we approach legislation and other things. That is a desperately important part of the open, democratic political process—so long as we are sure that we know what is going on and that it is transparent.