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Meetings with Ministers

Volume 789: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what checks are undertaken on individuals before they meet the Prime Minister or Cabinet ministers.

My Lords, for national security reasons the Government do not comment on the specific security measures in place for the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers, including checks undertaken on individuals meeting them. As part of the Government’s transparency agenda, official ministerial meetings with external organisations are published each quarter. This provides scrutiny on the Government’s business.

I am grateful for the Minister’s reply. At the Conservative black and white party, somebody paid £55,000 to spend a day with the Prime Minister and somebody paid £30,000 to have dinner with the Defence Secretary. What is the difference between the cash-for-questions scandal and cash for access? Is it not time that the Ministerial Code was strengthened to disallow such practices?

My Lords, sadly I was not privileged to attend this important function but the noble Lord will know that fundraising events with party supporters are not new. I happen to have in front of me a copy of PR Week from 18 April 2011, when we were in coalition—doesn’t it seem a long time ago? It reported:

“The Liberal Democrats are offering lobbyists the opportunity to attend ‘exclusive dinners’ with Nick Clegg in return for an annual payment of £25,000 … In confidential documents obtained by PRWeek, Clegg calls for wealthy figures to get involved—regardless of their political persuasion. ‘You don’t have to be a Liberal Democrat to take part,’ he says. ‘In today’s politics, all are welcome’”.

I think it is important that no one is too pious on this subject.

My Lords, that might be the case but it does not change the argument that has just been made. Is it right that people can buy access into the Government?

Again, I am not sure that this dialogue will enhance public confidence in political parties, but Labour auctioned off a tennis match with Tony Blair in 2008. People could also buy at an auction the opportunity to become a character in an Alastair Campbell novel.

The noble Lord raises a serious issue. What is important is that Ministers adhere to the Ministerial Code and the standards set in public life. I have seen no evidence that any of those standards has been broken.

My Lords, is that not the most persuasive argument for sorting out the funding of political parties? Why has the noble Lord’s party always refused to come to a sensible agreement which would clean up politics?

The noble Lord will know that for the past decade there have been genuine attempts to reach all-party consensus on the key issue of party funding. No such consensus was reached, which is why there has been no agreement to take it forward, and the coalition Government did not think it right to take unilateral action on party funding. We remain open to discussions if there is a real possibility of a consensus. In the meantime, there is a Private Member’s Bill before the House, and I hope we might be able to make progress on a number of more minor issues—incremental measures of reform—where there is that consensus.

My Lords, does my noble friend think that we could talk a little about whether the Labour Party should have accepted money from a fascist source recently? They were quite large sums of money, hundreds of thousands of pounds, from Mr Mosley to assist the office of the deputy leader of the Labour Party. We could have a chat about that some time.

I am more than happy to answer questions on behalf of the Government or indeed my party. It is a matter for the Labour Party whether it decides to return the money received from Max Mosley.

Will the Minister enlighten the House about whether, when the lucky winners of the prizes that were available at the black and white ball take up their prizes, there will be civil servants present?

There will be due scrutiny of those who bid for the prizes. These are meetings that do not involve government property or government business but are undertaken by Ministers in their capacity as members of a political party, so my understanding is that they will not be official meetings with civil servants present.

My Lords, in 2013 the now noble Lord, Lord Lansley, introduced the lobbying Bill in the other place. It does not extend to activities such as those that the Minister just mentioned. Is that a satisfactory state of affairs? Should we not amend the lobbying Act to cover more of the activities now being revealed by the press?

The Government are genuinely open to discussions about how we improve accountability and transparency in our political process. I am very happy to look at those proposals. In the past it has not been possible to achieve the sort of consensus one would like on these sensitive matters of political issue.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that where money is obtained by political parties from proven criminal sources perhaps the funds should be returned, as in the case of the very substantial donations made by Mr Michael Brown to the Liberal party, which held on to the money?

My Lords, behind this, there is a serious issue. Democracy in this country depends on political parties. If there is to be a choice at a general election, we need a range of financially viable, credible political parties which train and nurture the people who lead this country and which provide an opportunity for engagement and debate at a national and local level. Given the limited taxpayer appetite to fund those activities and that political parties need to be resourced, we should be cautious about denigrating those who support political parties. We should encourage more people to join and financially support the political party that most closely reflects their values.

My Lords, is there not a fantastic opportunity here for a cross-party competition with listed politicians, to see who would pay most money not to have a meal with those politicians?

In the past, when I put up as a prize a meal with myself, my wife made absolutely certain that she bought it.

My Lords, can I change the subject a bit? If the Prime Minister or any Cabinet Minister has the occasion to meet Mr Alex Salmond, will they express concern that he continues to front a programme on Putin’s propaganda channel?

Again, I am more than happy to answer questions on behalf of the Government or, if pressed, on behalf of my political party. It is not for me to answers questions on behalf of Alex Salmond or members of other political parties.