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Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 22 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review and update the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.

My Lords, the Government are already conducting post-legislative scrutiny of Part 1 of the transparency of lobbying Act, which established the register. The post-legislative scrutiny was announced in 2020, and earlier this year Ministers met stakeholders to seek their views.

My Lords, I recall that during the passage of the transparency Bill I quoted Mr Cameron as saying:

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”—[Official Report, 13/1/14; col. 29.]

Will the Government now implement the recommendations from the Public Relations and Communications Association to strengthen the Act? As the Minister will know, I and my colleagues secured a promise to include special advisers when the legislation had settled down and to examine the case for the inclusion of in-house lobbyists. Given the widespread public perception of Tory sleaze, will the Government now take action to ensure that the Act recognises the danger of privileged access for their prominent political supporters?

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a wide range of questions there. In my contention, I believe that we have very high standards of integrity in public life in this country, and indeed in our Civil Service. But wherever there is the possibility of wrongdoing it should be investigated, and where it is uncovered it should be addressed. The Boardman review has been announced, and that work will be taken into account in any relevant post-legislative scrutiny work that is continuing.

I am back. On 13 January 2014, an amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hardie, my noble friend Lady Royall and me would have extended the lobbying Bill to include in-house lobbyists and so cover, for example, David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill. His then Government defeated that amendment by 185 to 218—two Not-Contents, of course, being from the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Tyler. In the light of recent events, will the Minister now support a full register of all professional lobbyists? Will he take it from me that we will judge the forthcoming Queen’s Speech on whether it includes measures to outlaw the invidious, secret, back-channel lobbying that is so undermining of good governance?

My Lords, I make a practice at this Dispatch Box of not throwing stones, and I think everyone in every party should be cautious about throwing stones. In response to what the noble Baroness said—I am sorry that she is in her place, but it is good to see her—on the question of in-house lobbyists, it is true that the Government did not pursue that in 2014. There are issues involved. It obviously will be considered currently. Such an approach would require thousands of businesses, charities, NGOs and trade bodies to pay a registration fee of £1,000 a year to write or speak to Ministers. That could be detrimental to the public interest, but I note what the noble Baroness says.

My Lords, I take my share of responsibility for the last Act. It is now clear that we have to extend further the coverage of lobbying activities. Will the Minister accept that these should include greater transparency for political think tanks, including full declaration of their sources of funding? As he will know, Conservative MPs are concerned about the Runnymede Trust. Others of us are concerned about the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange, for example, which declare on their websites their access to Ministers and their influence over government policy.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a further suggestion. Since 2010, with the help of the party opposite, we have brought in a statutory registration of consultant lobbyists and a new routine of regular government transparency publications on spending, salaries, contracts and tenders. We are implementing the recommendations of the Boardman review on procurement. We have banned the practice under previous Governments of quangos hiring lobbyists to lobby the Government. We have made sure that taxpayer-funded government grants are not used for lobbying purposes and have provided for greater transparency on trade unions. We have done a number of things. That does not mean that more may not need to be done. I accept that work is ongoing to consider these matters.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a much simpler solution to the lobbying problem than that being discussed? What is being discussed would require a written definition of what constitutes lobbying or who is or is not a lobbyist, which can lead only to endless arguments about interpretation. Is not the neatest and most effective solution to require all civil servants, serving Ministers and spads formally to log all and any lobbying approaches, however informal, and prescribe that they must respond by requiring the lobbyist to “put it in writing”? No one will ever stop people trying to lobby, so the onus should be on the recipient of any lobbying to respond in the correct manner.

My Lords, I agree that transparency is important; that has been a standard across the House. Ministers’ and Permanent Secretaries’ appointments are published. Obviously, there is ongoing review of this work, not only by the Government but by a number of parliamentary committees. I am sure what my noble friend said will be noted.

My Lords, while it is right to constrain the power of lobbyists and former Ministers renting themselves out, the real cancer at the heart of our politics is corporate money and power, which fund political parties and legislators to gain unfair advantage in public policy-making. Is the Minister concerned? If so, what legislation will he propose?

The noble Lord is the antithesis to capitalism. The remarkable success of private companies in procuring vaccines for the safety of our people is something for which I am profoundly grateful.

What changes will be made to the code about lobbying for government contracts directly via a Minister’s WhatsApp account and text?

My Lords, all these matters are currently under review. I declare myself guilty occasionally of sending and receiving WhatsApp messages, in common with millions of other people in this country. I wonder which is the way to the guillotine.

My Lords, my question complements that of my noble friend Lord Grade. Given that the 2014 Act did not increase transparency and was focused not on lobbying but on lobbyists—the people, not the activity—will my noble friend commit to looking at ways to ensure that details of all representations made to government on Bills and ministerial policies are released at the same time that those Bills and policies are published?

Again, my Lords, the noble Lord raises a specific point, as have a couple of other noble Lords who have spoken. I repeat that the Government have significantly increased transparency. There is post-legislative scrutiny of the Act and the Government will be going further to review and improve business appointment rules and increase transparency in procurement. We need to maintain high standards in public life—I agree with all noble Lords who have spoken.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that nobody should be a Member of either House of Parliament who is a paid advocate for a particular cause?

My Lords, we have long had a paid-advocacy rule in your Lordships’ House, and it is a good rule.

My Lords, my noble friend will recall that I took charge in the Commons of the passage of the transparency of lobbying et cetera Act. In my view it was wrong then and is wrong now to include in-house lobbyists, because many thousands of people working in companies will have to register simply to speak on behalf of their own company.

My noble friends Lord Grade and Lord Norton of Louth have it right. There has never been a sufficient level of openness about who Ministers receive lobbying from, or indeed receive any communication from. That should be published. It was not sufficient then and it is not sufficient now.

My noble friend puts his finger on a key issue that I alluded to in my reply to the noble Baroness opposite, in terms of the scale of the undertaking that would be required. I agree—government publishes data on meetings between Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and external interests. Regulation must balance the need for transparency on third-party lobbyists while not preventing engagement by the voluntary and private sector. These issues require and will receive very careful consideration. I can assure all noble Lords that the matter of integrity in public life is something that this Government take profoundly seriously.