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Lobbyists: Register

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 12 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made on the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists.

My Lords, Alison White was appointed as the independent Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists last September. She has consulted, issued guidance and made good progress on practical arrangements for the register. On 26 February, the Government laid the Registration of Consultant Lobbyists Regulations 2015, which completes the statutory framework for the register. The Government are therefore on course to commence the provisions before the general election.

My Lords, I tabled a Written Question asking what meetings the Treasury had had with the drinks industry prior to the forthcoming Budget. I was given no Answer but told to look on the website. The latest meeting recorded there was in March last year. We now hear from the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists that she expects to have only between 50 and 75 people on her register—because, of course, only consultant lobbyists, not in-house lobbyists, are covered—and that even then they will not be on the register by the election because the process is only starting. Does the Minister share my judgment that the register will be a complete failure because it does not include in-house lobbyists and does not provide transparency and will therefore need a radical overhaul?

My Lords, I do not share that view. From the last four years of dealing with how one implements greater transparency in lobbying, I have learnt that it is impossible to satisfy everyone—indeed, it is very difficult to satisfy anyone. The various associations of professional consultants, lobbyists and others have all in some ways campaigned against it. People have said that MPs and Peers should all be on the register; last week we were told that the Australian system is infinitely inferior to the current British system; et cetera. We are taking a step forward. We have resisted the idea that everyone who lobbies should be on the register, because that would produce a vast register. We are starting by trying to make consultant lobbyists much more transparent about on whose behalf they are lobbying. That is the purpose of the measure.

My Lords, this Government are of course the first to record all lobbying meetings with Ministers, but does my noble friend recall that if any organisation—say, Tesco—has meetings with government, it is very difficult to see how many meetings have taken place? Indeed, if one wanted to analyse that over a year, one would have to look at 108 separate spreadsheets. My noble friend will recall that I was given a specific assurance that that problem would be addressed during the passage of the Transparency and Lobbying Act. Do we now have a register of lobbying, so that we can see where those meetings are taking place? Can he confirm that the process will be improved before Dissolution, so that at least the next Government can have a transparent regime?

My Lords, all of us in the Government are well aware that each three months our meetings are pored over and officials ask us to specify who met us, and on whose behalf if that is not entirely clear. I recognise that that has not been pulled together for all members of the Government and we should perhaps look at finding a programme which will enable us to pull all that together more easily. However, we have made progress. Whoever forms the Government after the election will discover how immensely difficult this area is and will, I suspect, decide to let this legislation bed down for a period before they move on to the next step.

Does the Minister not accept that what he says sounds very much like the situation in the old days when there was a campaign to get a register of interests of Members of Parliament and, indeed, of Members of this House? However, it is always too difficult and it always takes a long time. What we really need now is action. Will the Minister give it to us?

My Lords, this is action—we have forced professional consultants to register. The regulations set out the terms and conditions under which they will have to register and list the companies and interests on whose behalf they are lobbying. I think we all recognise how difficult it is to define lobbying. All of us in this Chamber are lobbied every day, often by people who are paid for the messages they give us or the meetings they have with us. When they represent a clear interest, that is registered in our diaries if we are members of the Government. That is clear. It is the consultant lobbyists on whom we are focusing.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm, however, that this register will not include the in-house lobbyists of, say, tobacco companies? He talks about satisfying everyone. How does the measure satisfy his Liberal Democrat colleagues because it is entirely inconsistent with alleged Liberal Democrat policy?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, tobacco companies and drinks companies clearly have very strong vested interests. However, if Diageo or British American Tobacco went to see a Minister, that would be recorded directly in the Minister’s diary.

I will check on that and write to the noble Baroness if I am wrong, but certainly my appointments are published within a matter of months after they take place.

My Lords, does my noble friend think that the register should include instances where Ministers lobby businessmen to obtain funds for political parties?

My Lords, the question I was considering was whether or not certain newspapers whose reporters spend a great deal of their time impersonating lobbyists should also be required to register.

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to what has happened so far in this area as being a step. He also referred to the next step. What is the next step?

I suggest that the next step after two or three years’ operation of this measure will be for the next Government to review how effective this process has been and how many professional lobbyists have registered. There is active resistance to this measure. I have been reading PRNews and various other publications and they all say that the measure is inadequate or unclear. We will see how well the excellent woman who has been appointed to the statutory regulator fulfils her duties. After that, we will consider what we might do to expand our activities in this area. If we were to register every single lobbyist of every single company that lobbies directly for its interests, we would have a vast bureaucracy. That is not something that we should undertake lightly.