My Lords, we probably all agree that this is a difficult matter and that it is gratifying to learn from the Minister that the Government have plans to do something about it. I am sure he will agree that it is a pity that we are having this discussion now in the glare of further unwelcome and, on the whole, ill intentioned media attention, particularly as the coalition agreement, as I understand it, committed in 2010 to,
“regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists”.
Does he further agree, however, that the regulation of lobbying is a separate issue from reforming funding of political parties? Can he confirm that the Government will not conflate these two matters in any legislation they now bring forward?
The Government do not intend to conflate these matters although there is a degree of overlap between the two. The Government intend to look at the question of third-party funding of political activities, including the issue of campaign groups which are not affiliated with political parties spending money during election campaigns. The Electoral Commission has annotated that some £3 million was spent during the last election by a number of organisations with the intention to influence the election.
My Lords, the Minister has indicated that he sees a need, quite rightly so, for the ability to remove from this House people who have been convicted of serious criminal offences. Can we take it that he will now abandon his long-standing opposition to the Steel Bill, which this House has sought to introduce on several occasions and which would have provided for this very measure?
My Lords, discussions are under way on that question and it is likely that a Bill will be introduced in the next Session which will deal with a number of such issues to do with parliamentary behaviour and what is called parliamentary housekeeping.
My Lords, one of the reasons why it has taken much longer than we intended to produce a statutory register of lobbyists is because the definition of who is a lobbyist is extremely difficult. The Labour Government before this Government also struggled with that. As all who have studied this area will know, the issue is whether one simply limits the register to third-party lobbyists—those who are professional lobbyists working on behalf of someone else—extends it to the category of lobbyists for for-profit companies such as the entire public affairs sector of a major company or beyond there to those who lobby for non-profit organisations such as Oxfam, Christian Aid or the RSPCA. That takes one into an extremely wide area which is difficult to define.
Given that it has been over a year since the consultation concluded, we welcome the announcement today that there will be a Bill before the Summer Recess. However, will the Minister now ensure that his department replies to the letter from my honourable friend in the other place, Jon Trickett, asking for immediate cross-party talks on this issue? There is agreement about the need for a register and for a code of conduct. Cross-party talks on those issues in the immediate future would be welcome. Can the Minister confirm that he will do that?
I take the point. Of course, as in all delicate legislation of this kind, the wider the consensus we can get the better. The lobbying area is immensely more complex than I understood before I began to go into it. This is one of the many areas where we need to work together as widely as we can.
On the answer that he has just given, can my noble friend confirm that the Labour Party, which, after all, failed over 13 years to deal with this problem, is prepared to co-operate fully so that we can take the whole issue under consideration? All three parties committed themselves to taking big money out of politics. Can he confirm that the Government’s objective is to have maximum transparency and simplicity so that our fellow citizens can see precisely where influence and access are being bought? In that context, can he also indicate that that should be the objective even if sometimes that big money is being used in a tax-efficient way?
My Lords, every three months I am amazed by the detail in which the Government Whips’ Office on behalf of the Cabinet Office Propriety and Ethics Team goes through my diary and asks me exactly who I met and when. This Government are extremely tight in terms of looking at who has contact with all members of the ministerial team. The problem, of course, is that we meet all sorts of people. I have one or two friends from school or university who are now working in major public affairs organisations. If I meet them as part of that friendship, do we also happen to overlap into other matters? There are many difficult issues around how this can be taken and where to draw the line.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is nothing intrinsically wrong in lobbying provided that it is undertaken within a proper framework that is transparent and that, if done properly, it can serve the interests of Members of all parties in both Chambers? One thinks of disability lobbying, for example. Is it not in the interests of lobbyists themselves, as well as Members of both Chambers, that a new framework is introduced?
My Lords, I could not have put it better on behalf of the Government, and I note the consensus on a cross-party basis to that effect. The noble Lord may have seen the story in the Financial Times yesterday to the effect that public affairs consultants are thinking of taking to the European Court of Human Rights the case that to submit them to a statutory register—but only those who are third-party lobbyists—would be an infringement of their human rights. I think that that will be an interesting case to try to get the European Court of Human Rights to take.
I cannot confirm that, but I imagine that it would. Discussions are still under way, but I take the point. Clearly, there are slightly different rules for referendum campaigns, and as I recall from previous referendums, there have been umbrella bodies which have had to declare their funding. We are thinking much more about the sort of campaign groups which we have seen growing up, be they animal welfare groups, low tax groups and so on, trying to intervene. Again, we want to make sure that everything is as transparent as possible in the political process. I will come back to the noble Lord on the referendum issue.